Archive for Withnail and I

It’s a Gas!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 24, 2021 by dcairns

Chaplin is BOUNCING at Mutual. If THE RINK is just riotous misbehaviour with a fig leaf of farce plot, EASY STREET, with its mostly-parody temperance theme, a “reformation melodrama” as David Robinson calls it, is tightly plotted and the rambunctiousness is sort of ABOUT something.

It’s a very simple plot — simplicity is working well for CC at Mutual, by concentrating on one strong narrative line, or intercutting a couple, he’s been drawing back from the slightly random cutaways he’s apt to use: Character X is asleep. Here he is asleep. Here he is STILL asleep because we needed to trim a bit out and didn’t want to cause a jump cut. Here he is waking up, which is important, but we’re seeing it now because we had another gap to fill, and you won’t actually see him do anything for another five minutes.

This kind of thing was no doubt common in other comedies, but Chaplin does it A LOT. Whichever nouvelle vague fellow (Rivette?) said that Chaplin was the greatest editor only has a case to make once you get further along in the career.

Fade-up on Charlie asleep in an exterior corner of the New Hope Mission. He evidently hasn’t read the sign or got the message. He’s just been billed as “The Derelict” and then an intertitle calls him The Lost Sheep and the first image confirms those words in strong terms. I’d argue that basically only the first and last shot of this brilliant short are serious, the rest is playful and parodic even when it seems melodramatic or sentimental.

A thing I hadn’t realised before is that Chaplin preceded his attempt as sentiment by making fun of sentiment, and this is how he slowly dripped it into his work.

Charlie awakens and hears Edna Purviance singing. She must be singing beautifully because her hair is all backlit. She’s so good, Charlie goes into the church to investigate. Some mild comedy is produced from his uncertainty how to behave. Chaplin has produced some quite caustic commentary about churchmen (the opening of POLICE) and some flat-out contemptuous slapstick (the rotten egg in the hymnbook in THE TRAMP) so this seems at first a big change of viewpoint. But there’s still something lightly satirical — Charlie is only interested in religion because he’s interested in Edna. His feelings for her are quite tender and chivalric, rather than the impish and impudent flirtations of yore, but they’re romantic not religious.

Charlie’s change of character is signalled by him returning the collection box he’d planned to steal, which takes the curse off any preachy quality. Rather than being touched by his reformation, we gasp at the perfidy he’s moving on from.

There’s a comedy drunk in the mission played by John Rand, which means we get to see him without a big black moustache. Later he’ll play a kop and the cookie-duster is back on for that.

Also: the dramatic close-up, expertly used. Closeups in early Chaplin were usually just shots of the girl with a puppy or something. A bit of cuteness for variety, one of those slightly random cutaways. This is strong filmmaking.

There’s some tasteful humour with a baby — Charlie only THINKS its micturated on his leg. The baby, no trouper, stole Charlie’s moustache, perhaps intent on becoming a Pubert Addams avant la letter, an outtake that seems not to have survived.

We cut from this backlit, religiose idyll to the startling contrast of Easy Street itself. The T-junction becomes a Chaplin meme — it looks like a London street, as everyone has by now pointed out (I read it in Robinson first). But the shape is a useful one because it gives the impression you’re seeing a lot more than you are. A surrounding city is implied but unshown and unbuilt. In fact, we’ll see later that if you run off one end of Easy Street you find yourself in an LA location shot, and if you keep running you wind up back on another end of Easy Street.

The scene is of indescribable chaos. A bunch of thugs is beating up a bunch of kops. Eric Campbell, “the bully,” is leading the thugs. Beardless and shaven-headed, he’s discarded his usual air of an overinflated melodramatic villain of the moustache-twirling variety, and is now a figure of terrifying strength and violence, and at the same time a comic exaggeration of that idea.

Now Charlie has to choose to become a kop, something almost unthinkable. In THE CURE, Chaplin would delete a scene where he acts as unofficial traffic cop to a lot of drunken (dis)orderlies and their bathchair-bound clients, and the assumption by Brownlow & Gill, who use the clip in the priceless doc series Unknown Chaplin, and David Robinson agrees, is that Charlie can’t be seen to impose order out of chaos when his whole personality is based on the reverse of that. Well, in this film, he does little BUT impose order out of chaos, but at least he does it by hitting people on the head.

The police station interior seems to have been shot during or after a shower of rain, and indeed bad weather did delay filming on this one. Mostly Chaplin just waited for the weather, but he seems to have decided to compromise on this one shot. Since his studio was open-air, he couldn’t very well have shot the mission interiors with rain pouring down.

The reason the kops are desperate for men is that Big Eric keeps mangling them, sometimes so badly that they are transformed into floppy dummies. We love a good floppy dummy here in the Shadowplayhouse, and this film has some terrific substitutions, performed without the aid of the jump cut. Charlie doesn’t know any of this, however.

The first honest citizen to get a look at Charlie in Kop kostume is convulsed in hysterics. Charlie knocks the guy unconscious with his baton and has him hauled off the the cells. Any worry we may have had that our agent of misrule is going to become boringly civilised is dispelled. He’s going to carry on being a little brute but enjoy his ability have people locked up instead of just thumping them.

As promising as this line may be — or not — the movie has other plans. Charlie is given Easy Street as his beat, which means he’ll rapidly be running into Big Eric. The film has set Eric up as a genuine figure of terror, which is a whole new thing for Chaplin to play with. The hobos in THE TRAMP and the “gypsies” in THE VAGABOND were early attempts at setting the Little Fellow up against vicious characters who don’t know they’re in a slapstick comedy and don’t expect to play by those rules, but this is more intense, because Chaplin has taken the trouble to show Eric being savagely effective against someone other than Edna.

Now we have SUSPENSE — “He’s behind you!” — dramatic irony/poignancy — Eric has been set up as a menace and nothing about Charlie suggests he’ll be able to cope with his hulking opponent. It’s great. Fear is such a useful component in comedy. My mother never liked Chaplin particularly but anything that injects terror into comedy gets her SCREAMING at the TV.

Eric has just played his own game of peekaboo, causing the entire degenerate population of Easy Street to vanish whenever he whirls to face them, so he has been set up as not only a man who can tear the pants off policemen, but one who can terrorise a score of people with a mere look.

This is all impressive because it’s both funny and dramatic, and the dramatic parts — the fear and poignancy — enhance the comic, and vice versa probably.

Chaplin’s slow approach from extreme long shot stresses his tininess compared with Eric. Standing parallel, they’re eye to eye only because of the tall sidewalk, and when Eric steps up onto it, dwarfing Charlie, it’s a little like the big guy emerging, inch by inch, from the sidewalk loading bay in CITY LIGHTS, until Charlie’s bravado vanishes in his shadow.

Also, tracking shots! There are five simple motivations for moving the camera — following characters; showing a moving character’s POV; the psychological reaction intensifier; telling a story by showing things in succession; exploring space. Surprisingly, Charlie’s tentative first moves were of the last-named kind, and they sometimes seemed like distractions. But his pull-back from Edna’s portrait in THE VAGABOND worked as a combination of spacial exploration and storytelling. His push onto the dance floor in THE COUNT is a stab at following characters, but the relationship of dancers and camera was slightly amorphous. Here, tracking along with Charlie and Eric keeps them roughly the same size but also adds importance to them, increases the involvement of our eyes, intensifies our emotional response.

It’s all the more suspenseful because Charlie is simply trying to pretend Eric doesn’t exist — just about the weakest thing he could do.

Charlie wanders around Chaplin’s set, followed by Rollie Totheroh’s camera in a deadpan pan.

As Charlie loiters by the police telephone, trying to get his hand on the mouthpiece without the rest of his body showing any interest — so that Eric will disregard his hand, seeing it as an independent creature for which Charlie is not responsible (this is a good technique if you’re operating a puppet in plain view and you want people to believe it’s alive) — Charlie produces his sickly smile, a Rik Mayall effect not seen on the Chaplin countenance since the cinema scene in TILLIE’S PUNCTURED ROMANCE. And that wasn’t even the Tramp character.

Grabbing the phone but getting caught at it, he transforms it by mime into a snake charmer’s flute, to which surely Bully Eric could have no objection? I mean, everybody likes music, right?

This has an unexpected but gratifying effect — Eric, who is not the sharpest lug hammer in the box, grabs the phone and looks into it, to see if it really does have musical properties. I think. The motivations of large and terrible men may be slightly beyond me. Charlie seizes the moment and clonks his new friend on the bristly occiput with his truncheon. No effect.

This may be the first time anyone thought of doing a basic slapstick wallop and having it not work, and using that for comic terror. A technique copied by everyone, or certainly by Roger Moore and Richard Kiel. I think maybe Sean Connery and Harold Sakata also.

Everything Chaplin’s doing is suspense-based, without Hitchcockian editing but with performance that adjusts the audiences focus from character to character in less than the blink of an eye. And it’s all comedy too.

Eric is apparently taking such pleasure in his work — menacing is fun! — he wants to demonstrate what he’s going to do to his victim on a lamp post — Easy Street is a portal to Victorian London so I’m not saying “streetlight.” It’s like when Withnail attributes imaginary threats to wrestler Jeff Wode:

‘In fact, he’d probably tell you what he was going to do before he did it. [Starts acting out the scene in his head] “I’m going to pull your head off”. “Oh no, please, don’t pull my head off”. “I’m going to pull your head off because I don’t like your head.”‘

Eric can’t tell Charlie because it’s a silent film, so he SHOWS, and Charlie seizes the chance to humanely gas his opponent.

Fiona, like many audiences before, was fairly horrified by this part of the struggle — Campbell, an early progenitor of the mutant chief in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, makes a grisly spectacle of succumbing to asphyxiation. But it’s all done with scientific care and the community’s best interests.

Fiona was twice fooled into thinking Eric was dead. He’s like Michael Myers, only with a face.

Charlie is now a figure of fear like Eric had been, and he reprises the gag where the street’s populace creeps into view behind him then flees in terror when he turns.

When the other kops come scurrying round the corner to see if Eric is really defeated, I unaccountably get an Akira Kurosawa vibe. Certainly Kurosawa saw Chaplin films as a kid, and certainly he became a master of moving actors in groups in wide shots. It’s the way they scatter horizontally upon emerging here…

Charlie lights a ciggie and blows up the gaslight.

Next — the movie just pretends that didn’t happen — he helps a desperate woman who’s stolen some groceries. That is, he helps her steal MORE. He’s an unconventional policeman. Like Special Agent Chester Desmond, he’s got his own M.O.

Modus operandi!

This middle part of the film is somewhat aimless, but Charlie’s good deeds impress Edna favourably. We meet Loyal Underwood, a relatively new member of the stock company, playing a feeble little guy who’s somehow fathered a small army.

Eric regains consciousness at the kop shop, snaps his handcuffs, and initiates a donnybrook. Batons have no effect! He shoves one constable out of shot for an instant, and when he drags him back into view, the fellow has metamorphosed into a floppy dummy, and is used to belabour his fellows. All done with framing rather than the more usual jumpcut.

Meanwhile Charlie is feeding the children as if they were chickens. “I do that because I despise them,” Chaplin told someone or other. Strange, for a man who’d have so many kids himself.

Eric goes home and gets into a Punch and Judy fight with his wife — for a moment she seems like she might subdue him by sheer ferocity, but soon she’s in trouble. Charlie rushes on over to see what’s up, then rushes away when he sees what’s up. Eric follows.

There now occurs a chase sequence as M.C. Escher might have designed it. Charlie runs off the right arm of the T-junction, onto an LA street, turns right onto another L.A. street, then reappears on the left of Easy Street, a journey which looks like this —

It’s a good trick if you can do it. Perhaps a hole in spacetime is involved. Perhaps the same phenomenon that allowed a woman with a cell phone to turn up for the premiere of THE CIRCUS?

Having successfully folded space like a DUNE navigator, defeating Eric should be a doddle, but in fact Charlie struggles quite a bit. He’s chased through Eric’s flat, then winds up back there, then manages to drop the stove on his enemy’s head. I vividly recall my Dad explaining to ten-year-old me exactly how fatal that would be.

Chaplin could presumably have ended the story with Eric’s defeat but surprisingly he keeps going. Edna is abducted by a bearded Henry Bergson and, in a parody of Griffith’s to-the-rescue cross-cutting, he keeps cutting back to The Derelict sitting idly in Eric’s ruined home, relaxing after his busy day.

Edna is imprisoned with a sinister junky who, after shooting up, becomes possessed of rapacious desires. I don’t know what’s in that syringe but when Charlie’s dropped on it, he transforms into a furious Viking berserker. It’s a startling drugs moment, repeated in MODERN TIMES where an accidental noseful of marching powder transforms the Tramp into a fearless and energetic thumper of felons.

Pounding and kicking the junky and Henry is a mere nothing, taking a flying drop-kick at eight men and knocking them all out of frame is slightly more effort. Judo throws follow. Henry’s ample belly serves as a kind of trampoline to propel our hero back to (Easy) street level — you can tell Chaplin has someone waiting to catch his arms and pull him the rest of the way. The clinch with Edna is delayed slightly by a pratfall — Chaplin is anxious not to let excitement completely replace comedy.

The ending, with Easy Street transformed by the judicious use of extreme violence into an urban paradise, is obviously somewhat satiric. Eric, who did not die, is now a smartly dressed model citizen. An employment agency, strategically placed, lends some slight credibility to the reformation of the neighbourhood. A new mission is prominent too, and when Charlie and Edna walk towards it arm in arm, all thought of parody has flown.

Chaplin hasn’t stopped bouncing — his next film accentuates the reformation-parody so it can’t be taken seriously at all, and substitutes increasing anarchy for the enforcement of order. And the Tramp takes a breather…

The Edinburgh Dialogues #3: Jim Hickey

Posted in FILM, Interactive, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 20, 2011 by dcairns

Jim Hickey (left) entertains a tee-total guest (note the cans of 7-Up) at Filmhouse in the ’80s.

Jim Hickey is a hero to me. As director of both Edinburgh Filmhouse and Edinburgh International Film Festival, he presided over both institutions at the time I was discovering world cinema. Apart from BBC2 and then Channel 4, there was really no other way for me to see films from outside of the US and UK mainstream.

As you’ll read below, the EIFF took pride in mixing up all kinds of movies, almost as if it were unnecessary to make distinctions between lowbrow and highbrow, narrative and experimental, documentary and fiction. As if in some way it was all cinema. I think that had a deep effect on me, and I sometimes wish it had eradicated my tendency to put things in boxes altogether. But it certainly helped.

Jim was also very kind to me when I worked in the Cinema Shop in Filmhouse, and on one memorable occasion ushered me and my friend Robert into the presence of Martin Scorsese, who was visiting with THE COLOR OF MONEY (as I recall, Robbie Coltraine was also in the room, somehow). This tongue-tied teen couldn’t manage any coherent response at the time, but — THANKS, JIM!

Since stepping down from his positions at Filmhouse and the Fest, Jim has thrown himself into filmmaking, producing acclaimed short THE HUNGER ARTIST and co-producing FROZEN with Shirley Henderson and Roshan Seth.

I spoke to Jim Hickey over coffee and tea at Café Truva, to get his thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of the Festival, past, present and (with a little reluctance on Jim’s part) future. But even if you have no particular interest in the event, I suspect you may find the conversation of interest as a window into the film culture generally…

Previous installments can be found here and here.

The souvenir booklet from the Fest’s screening of Gance’s restored NAPOLEON.

DC: The first one, that I’m asking everybody, because even though it’s a banal question it will yield nice results, is: Your fondest memories of running the EIFF?

JH: The happiest moments are often to do with films that have gone on from Edinburgh to do really well later, or films that are now looked at as classic films of that period, or great films. And sometimes they’re just buried in the programme, they’re not huge films that are trumpeted like gala films.

I suppose I ought to go back to when I came in, it was a kind of austerity year as well: it was cut back to about nine days, nine or ten. And people were a bit shocked, “Oh, it’s got to be a two-week festival!” It used to be a three week festival. When I started in the box office in ’69 it was three weeks. And the final week was often a whole lot of films from somewhere like The Other Cinema, or Andi Engel’s Polit Kino, a lot of interesting political or third world films that weren’t in the main programme but were showcasing what we had. And then gradually the three weeks stretched and included everything, and those films weren’t in a single package.

So, when I came in it was almost the worst time to be doing a film festival. Cinema attendances in the late seventies were at their lowest. And so no one was going to cinema much, and video was coming in, and so in ’81 when I started it was a job of trying to get people into cinemas. You decide that “We want you to come here and see films in the best way possible, and with as big an audience as possible, rather than sit at home renting them on video or whatever.” And so the idea of big films – or big screenings – is one of the things I wanted to do. As you mentioned before, the NAPOLEON thing was one of those, to actually do something that caught a lot of attention, and also make people amazed with what kind of experience they could have, not with a brand new film, but with something they’d perhaps never heard of, or never heard of a film in that form.

And we weren’t the first to do that, and we were lucky it had already been done, it had started off in London, and Edinburgh was lucky to be able to do it. It took up a lot of time and effort, and we lost a couple of thousand pounds on it, I think. It cost about £28,000 to do that with a full orchestra. But that was an example of it, and we followed that up a few years later with GREED, done similarly.

I thought that those Playhouse screenings – again, we were lucky to have the Playhouse, which had the equipment and was able to show films, still, although it was moving away from it completely – and so all the big films we did, like ET, BLADE RUNNER, BACK TO THE FUTURE, PARSIFAL, ANGEL HEART, all of those were to grab as many people’s attention as possible. But also to try and be a bit courageous, and put on something that most people thought might not reach a big audience. Like MERRY CHRISTMAS, MR LAWRENCE or BETTY BLUE: starting the festival with a foreign language film was really weird in those days.

There are lots of other things I’m really proud to have shown. Things like WITHNAIL AND I. At the time I saw it in London, the distributors didn’t know quite what to do with it. And I thought, “Well it’s kind of quirky and it would suit Edinburgh. Maybe it would go down well there. Let’s see what happens.” And it was an absolutely fantastic response in Edinburgh.

DC: I saw it there and then waited, waited for it to actually come out, and it barely did, but it took over a year before they let it sneak out. But yeah, that was amazing.

JH: I think the things I’m most proud of doing, or have the best memories of — don’t use the word “proud” [laughs] — are things like the retrospectives which were incredibly hard work, even then, because a lot of the time it was a case of chasing prints down. Because people forget, that’s all we had then, was prints. And the reason we couldn’t do some directors was it was really hard to get prints. So it was great that we had people like David Meeker at the BFI, in the archive, who was this amazing fount of knowledge about where everything is and where the rights holders were, and places like the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, the Cinematheque Francais in Paris, the Japan Foundation, Mrs Kawakita in Japan… you would go to them and be able to get things that completed a retrospective, or at least made it viable. And that was really tough to do, in Lynda’s day it was a big problem, and still a big problem in my day.

But Lynda, and Murray also, because Sam Fuller Year was Murray’s, they did fantastic work then, getting all those Raoul Walsh films, it was just incredible seeing that could be done. So nowadays, look at today’s festival directors, their job is so much easier. With digital projection you can get anything you want virtually, within reason. And we’re lucky with people like Park Circus who do all that good work putting stuff back into distribution again. So that job has become a lot easier. Then, it was tough to do retrospectives. I suppose the shift away from auteur cinema, which in the 60s and 70s was the big thing for retrospectives, to trying to do cinemas from different territories… so my Japanese event, which I did in… 86, was it? You’ll have to check. The Oshima retrospective was probably the last big retrospective I attempted. And we would do mini-retrospectives, things like Charles Crichton or Bernard Vorhaus, things we would do in collaboration with the BFI, of films that had rarely been seen or had just disappeared.

DC: I didn’t actually know you did Vorhaus… I’ve only recently discovered him.

JH: It was in ’86.

DC: I missed so many of the retrospectives because I was not mature enough to be seeking that stuff out.

JH: Of course, well, you were young! What age were you in 86?

DC: Uh, well, uh, 19. No excuse.

JH: Well… Vorhaus was an example, at the National Film Archive, we were interested in one of his films they’d found. The story was nobody knew much about him, or if he was still alive, and one of their people, they just looked in the phone book and there was a Mr Vorhaus, and yes, it was him.

DC: Fantastic. So, did he come?

JH: He came, yeah!

DC: Wow.

JH: Yeah, it was amazing. So I’m really pleased about doing those sort of things, even if there was a select number of people who wanted to see them. But I’m sure other festivals taking up those retrospectives would do them elsewhere was great as well. Suzuki, we did in my final year, and Suzuki films you can get on DVD now, and nobody had seen anything of them, really, before we did stuff at Edinburgh. Well, you may have got the odd one at the NFT, you know, but eventually it all changed.

I was looking at a couple or programmes over the weekend, and I was astounded at some of the titles we had. I couldn’t believe some of the films we had, or the number of really good directors’ films we had. Gus Van Sant’s MALA NOCHE, for example, was at Edinburgh. That was one I saw in Berlin, it was in the Forum at Berlin, and it went down really great at a late night screening. I was with Tony Rayns at the time. Tony was someone else who was great for Edinburgh, and did a lot of the work on the Japanese thing we did – he had so many more contacts than I could ever have got. And Tony was really enthusiastic about MALA NOCHE, he said “We’ve got to have this.” I said, “Yeah, it’s great for Edinburgh: a perfect Edinburgh film.” People like Gregg Araki, who now gets films out there – there’s a quarter page ad in The Guardian for his recent film – and you think, “Wow, that’s Wee Gregg who used to come over in those days.”

For me, it’s hard to pick because I was working there all through Lynda’s years, not doing all the work that she did, but supporting her, and we had viewings of films at night, because that’s what you had to do to select them. And the films that she had, I remember big screenings like ALIEN – screened at The Odeon at midnight, at Ridley Scott’s request, and he was there. And I have never seen an audience as scared as the one we had at that. And a lot of smaller films, like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, which people forget was at Edinburgh… it may have been at Cannes before that… and obviously Lynda would find stuff at Cannes in her days, but Edinburgh was one of the first stopping places after Cannes in that summer.

I suppose we had a rock and roll mentality as well, we filled the Festival as much as possible with music films, THE LAST WALTZ, KEEP ON ROCKIN’, THE STONES IN HYDE PARK, the Charlie Watts film CHARLIE IS MY DARLING. Some disappeared but have come back eventually, twenty, thirty years later. I really enjoyed those. All the Andy Warhol films we showed. John Lennon/Yoko Ono shorts, we showed. We opened the Festival one year – we had two, one was called ERECTION and was mostly about a building going up, and the other was… well, essentially the film was a balloon going up into the sky, and it took off, and you saw this landscape, and then it went into white, and for two or three minutes the film was completely white, until it burst out of the clouds into the sunlight, and that was the end of the film. And that was our opening film! It was the support on with the opening film, which was pretty courageous, I suppose.

But you know, Edinburgh ought to do things like that, because we always were a sort of maverick event – that was the term Murray [Grigor] used to use. From those late ‘sixties we decided it would be a maverick festival that didn’t do what the big ones do – simply because it can’t, it doesn’t have the money, it’s not a market because we can’t attract people in that way, and Edinburgh has to find its own level, and so that’s what it did.

DC: What I realised looking back is that my own sensibility – to the extent that my blog has any guiding philosophy it’s to jumble together arthouse and exploitation and whatever I happen to watch, and regard it as all essentially the same.

JH: We came to believe that if we put it in the programme, people would come. Because they trusted us as curators or whatever you like to call it, or presenters, of those films, and for the opportunity to see the filmmakers, because we always believed right from the start that the filmmakers should be at Edinburgh if we could afford it. We very rarely refused anybody if we could get the money together.

But there were some: we wanted to do Budd Boetticher, because we were showing his bullfight film [either ARRUZA or MY KINGDOM FOR…] and I think we were talking about a retrospective maybe, but he wanted to come from Mexico, and we would have to pay his whole flight, first class, and we ended up saying “No” eventually because we couldn’t do it. There was just so little money. You’ll see in some of the older programmes you may have, the grant from the City Council used to be £1.50 or something. And it was listed at the beginning of the programme, if you look at them from the ‘60s, you’ll see those amounts we used to get, and it was just silly. But we were grateful for it! That may have been big money in those days.

So that’s memories…

DC: And personalities?

JH:  Tremendously, the Germans, Wenders and Herzog coming, obviously Scorsese and DePalma, they were here the same year, and that was amazing. Jean-Jacques Beineix, I enjoyed his visit…

DC: I saw the guest book once, which he had signed “the frog”.

JH: [Laughter] Yes. They were all in that guest book. The problem is, quite often they were just here for two or three days, we didn’t have a lot of time with them because Edinburgh couldn’t pay for a lot of accommodation. So quite often you’d get to see them at dinner, then have to rush away to introduce a film before the dinner ended… To me it was fantastic when all these people came, I just enjoyed filmmakers coming. Jim Jarmusch was always a big hit, because he came a few times. People like Amos Poe, the New York filmmakers.

DC: What was the worst aspect of the job?

JH: I think in my time, not having enough money to do more publicity… when I look at what the festival can do in that last decade or so, the amount of posters they get up, banners and advertisements, you just feel they’re able to put the word out much better than we ever could. And that’s without even thinking about the internet and what you can do there. We were lucky to get a fax machine round about 1986! Everything was done in letters. We would write to directors, “Dear Mr Walsh, we are doing a retrospective of all your films and would be delighted if you were able to come.” And he would send a nice letter back saying he was unable to come. But nowadays that would be so much easier.

And your network of contacts – that thing we used to believe, that there was a film community. People you met at festivals who would advise you about films, you’d go to screenings together, talk about them afterwards, that was one of the real pleasures of the job. I don’t think there were really that many things that weren’t pleasant about it. It was hard work but it was doing the thing you loved doing.

DC: Mark [Cousins] said that it was the way the whole year was structured for him was his least favourite thing.

JH: But with Mark, that’s because he’s doing so many other things, I think. He’s making films, he’s writing, he’s got all these deadlines. And he’s young enough to be able to do that. I suppose I was young enough to be able to do Filmhouse and the Festival at the same time. I couldn’t do it now, it’d just be impossible.

Apart from just that lack of funds… more funds would have brought over more filmmakers as well. We always regretted, “Well, we can’t even ask that guy ‘cause he’s from South America and it would just be ridiculous,” and so in the end they couldn’t come. Had we had more money that would have been my ambition: have all the filmmakers, give them three days accommodation, that’s common these days, it’s what they get pretty much.

DC: So, moving forward to the future… what do you think about the change of date?

JH: From talking to lots of people during the Festival, and of course reading everything online, I would say the move to August is becoming inevitable. I can’t see the industry… I mean, I read Hannah’s comments about the reasons for the move, and I was behind the move too, I was always behind going to June. I thought, with that kind of money they’d been given to re-establish it in a different way, that was the best time there would ever be. It’s like saying, at least have a go, for the three years. I thought they could win over the city, and become the only show in town: that’s what we had to be. If you could do that, then it would really work.

And whatever point in the year Edinburgh is, of the few that are available to it, the June month or the August/September months, you’re going to hit these big things like Venice, and Toronto, the Documentary Festival in Sheffield now hits you in June, that’s another problem… I just think if they stay in June it’ll seem as if they’re not listening. Almost a universal cry seems to be “Get it back to August. Give us the Festival we like, the way it has been, successfully.” Because now, in a way, June has been tainted with lack of success.

DC: Is that rational? The first year they moved to June was apparently very successful.

JH: And I thought it worked. I was pleased because I thought “They can now build on this.”

There were certain people I’m friends with in the festival world and they said “Oh no, it’s a bad idea and I’d never countenance a move to June,” but usually they were people from down south, because they love coming up here at that time of year. Now, I know all the disadvantages, travel, and hotels and everything are more expensive, if you can get them at all…

DC: Venues…

JH: Venues could be tough. But, you know, they had an open goal this year to put it in any venue they wanted, really, and look what happened. So this year they have to decide on the venues right up front, let people know which cinemas they’re using – and that may involve going back to Cineworld, I don’t know. It depends on the emphasis the director wants to give it, in terms of how much he or she is going to try to appeal to the public.

A lot of people still think it’s in August. A taxi driver I had a week ago said, “Oh, has the Festival been on yet?” And another one, when it had started, said “Oh, I thought it was in August, did it just move.” So the message didn’t permeate through, that it was in June. So with all the difficulties of going back to August, it makes it a lot more easy for people to understand, and it shows they’ve been listening to what people have said this year.

DC: And it gives an extra couple of months…

JH: It gives whoever gets the job two more months to get it on the road. And I think they need to give a very clear signal as to what Edinburgh’s about. Because that’s got lost, in the mud of misinformation and bad reports and gossip and all the rest.  They need to be able to say next year, “This is Edinburgh, and if you don’t know about Edinburgh, this is what it is, what it’s always stood for, but it’s moving on and it’s doing all sorts of other things that it never used to do in the good or the bad old days…” 

And if that involves a retrospective, which I personally think it should do – and I don’t mean necessarily an auteur retrospective – but a packaging-together of an event around something that the director believes people would really enjoy. …In Shane’s days, Shane [Danielsen] told you, “These films are going to be really enjoyable.” He loved them, that communicated itself, and we need a bit more of that now. The guy knows his films, he can tell you that ten minutes in, this actress is wearing a certain frock, and that’s worth looking out for. It gets people interested and it’s funny and it’s the way people talk about films.

DC: I like auteur retrospectives because there’s no question about why this group of films are together. 

JH: It turns out they’re the things people can latch onto as well, if it’s an individual, people get a grasp of what you’re trying to do more easily. So yes, I would definitely favour a retrospective.

I’d be interested in seeing a retrospective of some cinematographers, because that’s something where it’s evident – what you’re looking at is what they’ve done. Having those people talking… some of the best things I’ve seen in recent years have been the talks with Roger Deakins talking to Seamus McGarvey, Chris Doyle… Those events are fantastic, to listen to experts, people who are pre-eminent, talking about what they do.

Chris Doyle, Seamus McGarvey, Rain Li & Roger Deakins in Edinburgh.

DC: I think the first year I saw a lot of that was possibly during Penny Thompson’s tenure, and it was continued by Mark Cousins. [Penny called them Masterclasses, Mark called them Scene by Scenes, a title and format he later used for his TV interview show.] 

JH: That’s right. Edinburgh would do those as much as possible, and now it should do it, because it can do it. Put money into that. And I know it’s hard to get people because they’re always committed, they’re doing festivals or they’re in the middle of shooting, but you’ve really got to push to get those.

DC: An advantage is that so many British cinematographers have amazing longevity…  Douglas Slocombe’s still alive! I don’t know if he’s fit to travel…

JH: Again, some of those things could be done via video link-up. They stay at home and we do it from there.

DC: The Mark Cousins David Lynch interview was great. And hilarious.

JH: We want more of that!

There’s no point in saying “Documentary’s important,” that’s kind of self-evident these days. Documentary’s a huge part of world cinema now. It depends on how you’re going to serve it up. What context you put it in and which group of films you pursue. And you have to look at what other people are doing and see how you could be different. Look at what Sheffield’s doing, and there’s no point in taking them on. You have to try and do something that is Edinburgh’s way of looking at it. And that’s going to be quite hard: finding documentaries where people aren’t thinking “Oh, they’ll be on TV,” or “That was at Sheffield, I read the reviews so I’m not going to see it.” You know, that’s pretty tough, because it’s another British festival who’s doing it alongside you.

And also I think your web presence… you’ve got to decide what’s important for you to get up there, and find ways so people who aren’t at Edinburgh can enjoy it. Do more live things. I mean they obviously did their Kings of Leon event, which went to lots of cinemas simultaneously, didn’t it? But that kind of thing. Have somebody on stage that everybody sees is happening at Edinburgh. And that, again, is easier to do now. If they could sort that out, they’d feel they were reaching an audience they’d missed, because they think it’s elitist, or inertia, or whatever it is.

And make it more accessible in terms of the pricing. There was a lot of criticism of the pricing this year.

DC: There was an announcement, I think, that the prices would be lower, and the prices were higher.

JH: Yes. Nine quid was outrageous.

DC: And discount deals make money, they don’t cost money. People buy more tickets than they would otherwise, and spend their day at the Festival buying food and drink in the venues…

JH: Discount deals are essential, you have to do that. That’s what people expect. I talked to several friends who come regularly and who I know spend over a hundred pounds on tickets, and they said “This year, I’m not doing it. That gets me into ten.” And so you think, well, they’ve lost those people. They probably won’t even come to ten now, because they’re disgusted at having to do this. So it’s bad PR. For people who are experts in marketing, they made some pretty bad errors this year, and that can’t happen again, they’ve really got to sort that out. Because people have to feel it’s for them, the minute they feel they’ve been priced out, your festival just becomes something for the arty crowd.

DC: And the people who get in free.

JH: Yeah, that’s right, the delegates and… freeloaders, as they used to be called in my day. [laughter] Who get into everything. But it’s sometimes better to have those people in the cinema than none at all. The answer is easy, to that one, isn’t it?

What we want is a Festival that does something that isn’t what Filmhouse does year-round. Because Filmhouse now does an amazing amount of mini-festivals, throughout the year: the African Festival, the Middle East Festival, French, Italian, all of those, fantastic! I’m amazed how many films they have in those slots. Obviously digital makes it easier to do that now. So Edinburgh can’t, at festival time, do that, but it has to do something that’s somehow beyond the reach of Filmhouse, either financially or in terms of the people it could bring. Because it would really wreck the Filmhouse budget to bring several filmmakers from long distances for a particular event. So they could really build on that sense of a Festival you wouldn’t see during the year, something different.

DC: It has to be. There was the man on the bus who said he struggled to see what would be different about seeing a film at the Film Festival as opposed to seeing one normally. Well, we have to answer that question. They talk about the “Edinburgh brand”, but it has to include the answer to that. Why come to a festival?

JH: Uh huh. And I think it’s events, as well. Events are necessary, and we should put a ban on the words “red carpet”. We should just not talk about it. We should talk about great films, great events, that are memorable for people. And a programme that has real nuggets in it that people will always look back on. Looking back through some of Edinburgh’s programmes, I’m just stunned, looking at the quality of some of the films we had. 

And it’s about memories too.

The Mysterious Mr If, Part the Eightth

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , on July 18, 2011 by dcairns

It’s that time again — my unproduced screenplay befouls your screens with its rotten words and crumbling punctuation marks. It was comedy writer Graham Linehan who advised me that grotesque overwriting, of the kind you’ll see below, isn’t necessarily helpful in selling a script. If the thing is funny, the argument goes, the most straightforward text is your best bet for conveying that. I was probably unduly influenced by Bruce Robinson’s published script for WITHNAIL AND I, which opens with a brilliant and entirely unfilmable literary joke (“Dostoevsky once said that Hell might be nothing more than a room with a chair. In this room, there are several chairs.”)

True Crime was a fun character to write, like Mr Netherbow but even more linguistically unhinged. Just as Mr N gets a lot of Shakespeare, TC touches upon William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience with his cry of “Weep weep!”

If’s final appearance in this installment is certainly inspired by Lon Chaney’s colorful cape-swirling on a rooftop in PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, while his entry via the French windows is Christopher Lee related: the impossible redness of Lee’s cape’s lining burned itself into my brain at an impressionable age. Now read on —

INT. BARBER SHOP – EVENING

An electric razor BUZZES menacingly.

Howie gets a haircut for his date. He reads the paper as he’s groomed – a headline cries FISHMONGER DERAILED.

NEWSCASTER (O.S.)

Police are treating the opera as suspicious. In other news, a basilisk was found nailed to a church door in Leith today –

INT. POLICE STATION – NIGHT

NEWSCASTER (O.S.)

– prompting calls for a crackdown on mythical –

Turner marches in. PC. THROWER lowers his Conan Doyle.

THROWER

Message for you, Inspector.

(consults note pad)

“Meet me under Sherlock Holmes if you want to know about… If.”

TURNER

Who’s it from?

THROWER

Didn’t say. Just gave me the message and sort of… swirled off, Sir.

TURNER

Description?

THROWER

He didn’t give one.

Surrounded by assholes. Turner sighs impatiently.

TURNER

YOU give one, then.

THROWER

About six foot, raincoat, smelled of shite.

Turner hurries out and Thrower returns to THE VALLEY OF FEAR.

EXT. TOP OF LEITH WALK – NIGHT

A STATUE of Sherlock Holmes peruses the busy intersection.

Turner strides up to Holmes, walks around him.

Upon returning to his starting point, he finds a raincoated man, TRUE CRIME, fists in pockets, huddled against the gusting wind.

Turner regards the man, uncertain, sniffs, becomes sure.

TURNER

You wanted to see me?

A bleary eye regards him.

TRUE CRIME

Call me True Crime. My real name was… erased. I’d like to tell you my story, but there are… blanks.

TURNER

Tell me what you can.

TRUE CRIME

I was born. Or so I presume. I became a writer the way other people become fat, from greed and laziness. I couldn’t make things up so I set them down. Facts.

INT. TRUE CRIME’S STUDY – NIGHT

Quaint and dusty volumes akimbo before him, True Crime types, cigarette on lip. He’s less grizzled and filthy now.

TRUE CRIME (VO)

The facts of the case. I inhabited the True Crime section of every book shop. I told the stories of the Old Masters of crime; Gaston Mulberry, the cat poisoner of Paris, Lubert Frill, the great shark thief, and Mabeline O’Silver, rapist of the ice rinks.

Crime flicks through a dirty great book of assaults and stops, cigarette springing erect in his maw.

TRUE CRIME (VO)

Then one night I fell upon the skewer of history that was to be my unhaving. If! The very word sends paroxysms through my thigh. Mr. If, the Diabolo of the Senses, the deranged guru of sin and oblivion. The fist of Fate was up me and I didn’t know it from Adam’s.

An engraving of a shadowy phantom adorns the leaf before him. He fingers the page sensuously.

TRUE CRIME (VO)

But of course! It’s never been done! A really true history of the billion wrongs of evil old If! The Tangerine Outrage! The Exploding River! The Strange Affair of the Hissing Nunnery. And the Curious Case of the Sunrise Who Swallowed February. At last – a factual and scholarly study of the infamous loon – and who better to commit it to printing than this myself?

French windows burst open.

A shadowy figure.

A cow moos.

TRUE CRIME (VO)

“Shame on you, sister!” declaimed the spectre rampant. Ooh, he was angry. “You have crimed against my non-existence, rendered realer my phantasmal nothingness, and for that you shall moan!”

True Crime’s typewriter bursts into flames.

Mr. If strides at him, engulfing the frame in

DARKNESS

EXT. TOP OF LEITH WALK – NIGHT

Turner and True Crime face each other.

TRUE CRIME

I’d called him back, all inadvertent, from some imaginary hinterworld, and upset his nothingness like a child with bricks. He told me I’d nevermore inscribe, that my every gesture henceforth would remove facts from the world. Through bravery or stupid, I doubted his mouth. The penalty was big.

INT. TRUE CRIME’S STUDY – niGHT

True Crime stands on a precipitous pile of wobbly hardbacks, a noose round his neck, looped over a beam and clasped in the jaws of a floppy-eared RABBIT on the floor.

True Crime tries hard to keep his balance.

TRUE CRIME (V.O.)

“For a hundred years I was myth and folderol,” he hinted. “And then you have to pin me to the notice board of reality with your research and typing. Tush on you, sir!”

The sound of True Crime’s narration slowly blends into that of Mr If’s own voice.

MR. IF

I romped delightful in the naked meadows of limbo, till this brute world hauled me from ecstatic nothingness and stood me goosepimpling in a line-up with tinned spam and flatirons, the unfeeling objects of mere reality. But I shall wreak my nastiness upon all that is concrete! Death to the actual! All hail the untrue! Hoppla!

From nowhere he CRACKS a ringmaster’s bullwhip at the oblivious bunny.

True Crime sweats and teeters.

If stamps his feet, shrieks, and cajoles.

MR. IF

Here, bunny wunny wunny.

Heaving a sigh, he abandons the rabbit and kicks the books from under True Crime.

The author drops to the floor. The rabbit, still clutching the rope, is yanked into the air. Releasing the rope, it shoots across the study, breaking a window on exit.

Crime looks up, terrified, from a collapsed pile of books as If sweeps up to him.

MR. IF

So…you still defy me?

TRUE CRIME

It’s not true… I don’t –

If produces, from nowhere, a conjuror’s WAND.

MR. IF

Prepare to be dishevelled!

EXT. TOP OF LEITH WALK – NIGHT

True Crime IS rather dishevelled.

TURNER

So he…dishevelled you? Mussed you up a bit, I expect?

TRUE CRIME

THIS, he did… and THIS!

True Crime withdraws his forelimbs from his raincoat.

Instead of hands he has big ERASERS. Turner is appalled.

TRUE CRIME

Pencil erasers for hands. Robbed of limb, gift and ribbon, I rove the world, rubbing at nothing. Unable even to wipe mine own arse. Pity me, most wretched of creatures! Weep weep, weep weep!

He scurries off into the darkness leaving the inspector mopping his brow, vexed, perplexed and perspiring.

Watching from above is Mr. If. He clings to the Holmes statue, his cape billowing. He slaps a dunce’s cap on Sherlock and pounces off like a jungle cat or big nancy.

A great BOOFT of lightening hurts the sky.

And it is TO BE CONTINUED…