Talking Movies

February 24, 2018

A Bluffer’s Guide to Phantom Thread

Life is too short to watch the films nominated for the Oscars, but how else can one join in on conversations about the films nominated for the Oscars? Fear not, for here is your manual for being in the know.

Not having seen Phantom Thread should not stop you indulging in in-jokes about it, or making obscure references to scenes to cut out from the chatter people who also haven’t seen it, but haven’t read this piece either. There are three obscure things you simply must do. You must say, “Ah Fitzrovia, all shot on location there, as you recognised I’m sure” and then sigh wistfully, leaving your listeners discomfited at their lack of Old London chic. You must praise Brian Gleeson’s upper-crust English accent, and compare it to Day-Lewis’ cut-glass accent in 1985’s A Room with a View. You must impress upon people the extravagance of Paul Thomas Anderson hiring a 1950s red London double-decker bus for an entire day, only to drive it past a window, out of focus in the background of a shot, for two seconds; and then crush them by saying “Ah, yes, but it is indispensable. Phantom Thread isn’t just set in the 1950s, in that scene for those seconds it embodies the 1950s.”

Now then, quotable quotes; some of which are damned hard to work naturally into a conversation unless you find yourself in a kitchen or eating breakfast. If you do find yourself near some food, clatter the cutlery about, and make a noisy show of scraping your knife on toast; and then mutter “Entirely too much activity at breakfast” or “It’s like you rode a horse across the room” with a knowing wink. To completely dispel any doubt that you have no idea what you’re actually referencing then deadpan very seriously, “If his breakfast gets upset he finds it very hard to recover for the rest of the day.” To chide someone, shush them away, and then bark “The tea is going out, but the interruption is staying right here with me”. To exit in high dudgeon, say “There is an air of quiet death about this house, and I do not like how it smells”. If all this is too much to remember you could just offer to cook someone your famous mushroom omelette and then degenerate into helpless laughter.

So far so good, but you can layer your faux familiarity further. You should comment loudly on the omnipresence of Jonny Greenwood’s score and say that it puts one in mind of Shostakovich, but then of course the driving strings of Plainview’s theme in There Will Be Blood owed much to the 2nd movement of Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony, allegedly depicting Stalin’s ruthless energy. And then add in that a new note struck by Greenwood this time was the gorgeous piano cues, reminiscent of Debussy at his most gorgeous and minimal. As a feint you can feign ignorance if you think people are getting suspicious, note that you don’t fully (feign ignorance, never admit to ignorance) understand the purpose of the Clockwork Orange reference when Daniel Day-Lewis drives in the countryside at night. But then trump these sceptics by saying that this move’s ‘milkshake scene’ is surely the ‘asparagus scene’. Compare it to Pinter, compare it to Mamet, compare it to Le Carre as a joke because Day-Lewis raves about spies, and then seem to struggle to remember the words “You know that I like my asparagus cooked in butter and salt, yet you have cooked it in oil. Were the circumstances different I might be able to pretend to like it, but as they are I’m simply admiring my own gallantry for eating it in the way you prepared it.”

Now you are in the know. Go forth and bluster.

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March 21, 2015

JDIFF 2015: Barry Lyndon 40

If there’s a better way to see Barry Lyndon for the first time than on Screen 1 of the Savoy with Ryan O’Neal and Jan Harlan being interviewed afterwards by Lenny Abrahamson then I’d like to hear it.

Kubrick on set of Barry Lyndon

Whatever I knew about Barry Lyndon from reading a biography of Stanley Kubrick over a decade ago had long since fallen out of my head, so it was a treat to be able to approach the 1975 classic not having a clue what to expect. The first thing I didn’t expect was an intermission. The second thing I didn’t expect was that the first part of the movie would be quite so funny; I nearly fell out of my chair when I realised that Leonard Rossiter was playing an important role. Yes, Kubrick directed Dr Strangelove, but thereafter the black comedy in his films always seemed to me to be muted by his increasing desire to showcase an emotional detachment from the material. But Barry Lyndon is a hoot. The duelling in the first part doesn’t get as nonsensical as that in another 1975 period piece, Woody Allen’s Love & Death, but it’s started down that road with Rossiter’s craven attempts to buy his way out of gaining ‘satisfaction’. I also hadn’t expected the film to be quite so picaresque. Little wonder that Bret Easton Ellis repeatedly holds up 1975 as a golden year for Hollywood compared to the current predictable to the page number beat by beat method of screenwriting, as Kubrick faithfully reproduces Thackeray’s approach of depicting a series of misadventures that romp across countries and introduce new characters and throw away old characters, before sometimes bringing them back, whenever Thackeray damn well feels like it. Here is the early ramshackle Pickwickian Dickens’ approach to plotting, rather than the High Victorian rigour and schemae.

I was less enamoured, however, with the second part. Jan Harlan made the observation that Barry Lyndon should not be considered an oddity in Kubrick’s ouevre, but a vital entry in a continuing exploration of the frailty of the individual in the face of the pressures of a corrupt society. In this sense he said all of Kubrick’s films were political message movies. Barry Lyndon, he said, is a good man, a young boy in love, manipulated by his cousins, uncle, friends, and then brutalised by English and Prussian military, until it is inevitable that he becomes a conscienceless rake. But even then he is capable of acts of goodness, which cause him the two most crippling misfortunes in his life. All of which is true, and yet I couldn’t help feel that the second part was Thackeray fulfilling a Victorian desire to punish the wicked, and, especially in the detestable Lord Bullingdon, to assert the privileges of aristocracy over the nouveau riche. Given how Dan Gilroy ended Nightcrawler you feel that if (somehow) Barry Lyndon was made in 2015, the movie would end roughly 10 minutes into its second part. Indeed, given how Kubrick ended A Clockwork Orange in 1971, with the rake triumphant, it’s odd to see him follow a Victorian prescription to moralise…

Lenny Abrahamson handed over questions to the audience at a surprisingly early stage, with regrettably few questions being directed to the erudite Harlan. Harlan interestingly explained that Irish actors were plucked from the theatre because Kubrick, who’s not usually positioned in that world rather than photography and cinema, knew that the Abbey and Gate would provide interesting character actors.O’Neal, meanwhile, got the bulk of the questions, and gave every indication that his recurring role as Brennan’s roguish father Max in Bones is the closest a dramatic persona has got to approximating his own personality. The experience of playing Barry Lyndon changed his life, but he couldn’t say how. Marisa Berenson has very few lines, because women weren’t allowed to talk much back then. The film looks like paintings from the 18th century, because Kubrick would compose shots to resemble paintings; in one case forcing O’Neal to hold a tea-cup in his right hand because it matched the painting – O’Neal being left-handed this was extremely awkward to pull off…

But when he stopped giving comic and/or comically short answers he elaborated with two anecdotes. For six months he trained at fencing, including at nights with the University of Kansas at Lawrence coach while working on Paper Moon. When he arrived to meet Kubrick he was so cocksure of his ability that he refused to wear a mask, “Barry Lyndon wouldn’t wear a fencing mask”, only to be forced to don one by the British Olympic fencer who was to teach him and refused to fence without one. Harrumphing at this nonsense O’Neal donned the mask, struck his stance, and was disarmed within two seconds. So much for impressing Kubrick with his great swordsmanship. O’Neal also responded to a question about how he cried during a death scene by saying he thought of dead puppies, and tried like hell to ignore the noise of chattering monkeys floating in from outside. For they were filming at Longleat with its animal park. Eventually Kubrick had enough of the audio recording being ruined by simian gibbering and asked someone to sort it out. The ingenious solution? Throw the monkeys more bananas than they’d ever seen in their lives, and this would keep them too occupied to interrupt the scene with their cackling. The next day Kubrick and O’Neal got ready to go again. The tears flowed, the raw emotions were captured, and then an “Oh! Ohhhhh. Uggggh. Uuuuhhhh” floated into the air. The monkeys had eaten too many bananas and were now volubly gassy, stuffed, and digesting…

And yet, out of such chaos, Kubrick’s insane repetitious takes with no direction, and lighting and relighting scenes for hours with actors not stand-ins, came a film of some beauty and much wit.

March 11, 2015

JDIFF: Behind the Scenes

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The Behind The Scenes strand at JDIFF 2015 recognises the importance of the Festival to Irish film-makers with a number of masterclasses, public interviews, panel discussions, conferences, and networking events. This year there is a special emphasis on the making of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, as well as events with casting directors Margery Simkin (Top Gun) and Leo Davis (Layer Cake), and actors Robert Sheehan (Love/Hate) and Aidan Turner (Being Human).

Kubrick on set of Barry Lyndon

 

Talking Kubrick

Marking the 40th anniversary of Barry Lyndon, which receives a gala screening in the Savoy with both star Ryan O’Neal and producer Jan Harlan being interviewed by Lenny Abrahamson, there are three events related to Kubrick’s period epic.

 

Scene on the Square

2.00pm, Saturday 14th March, Wolfe Tone Square

A free event in association with LoveMovies.ie sees a fencing duel being filmed live on the Square. In a unique opportunity to see cinematic magic created up close spectators can watch the video footage live-streamed onto a large screen while the MC explains the various roles of the crew members capturing the action sequence.

 

Kubrick’s Cameras and The Cinematography of Barry Lyndon

10.30am, Saturday 21st March, Light House Cinema

The Irish Society of Cinematographers lends its imprimatur to this unmissable event for both aspiring camera operators and mere enthusiasts of Kubrick’s cinema legacy. Larry Smith, Doug Milsome, Laurie Frost, Joe Dunton, and Luke Quigley; members of the crew from Barry Lyndon one and all; will be discussing the making of the film, the challenge of working with director Stanley Kubrick, and the techniques they used to achieve the unforgettable look of the film, famous for its ultra-low-light candlelit scenes.

 

Producing with Jan Harlan

11.00am, Sunday 22nd March, Light House Cinema

Jan Harlan was executive producer on Stanley Kubrick’s final four films Barry Lyndon, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and Eyes Wide Shut, and assisted on the production of A Clockwork Orange, as well as executive producing AI: Artificial Intelligence, and directing Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures. He was also Kubrick’s brother-in-law, which must have made for a complicated dynamics. He will share insights about his career, which has veered towards documentary after Kubrick’s death, and his working relationship with the eccentric self-mythologising director.

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Talking Shop

A series of industry workshops and events features Robert Sheehan, Aidan Turner and Sarah Greene on acting, Reka Lemhenyi on editing, Tomm Moore on animating, Hossein Amini on writing movies, and Leo Davis and Margery Simkin on casting.

 

Broadcasting: A Changing Landscape

12.00pm, Friday 20th March, Wood Quay

The first of the Festival’s Screen Test series, in association with BAI, features guests David Levine (General Manager, Disney Channels UK & Ireland) and Brian Furey (BAI). This event will discuss how new and emerging platforms such as Netflix & VOD are affecting the content being produced for TV & radio. The technological developments of these download services will be explored from the point of view of broadcasters and show-runners.

 

Animators in Conversation

1.30pm, Sunday 22nd March, Light House Cinema

Two-time Oscar nominee writer/director Tomm Moore (The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea), of Cartoon Saloon, and animation producer Didier Brunner (The Secret of Kells) will discuss developments in animation today, in a must-see for anyone interested in a career in one of Ireland’s fastest growing creative sectors, as well as lovers of animation.

 

The Art of Manipulation: Editing with Reka Lemhenyi

3.00pm, Monday 23rd March, Teachers Club

In the second of the Screen Test series award-winning Hungarian editor Reka Lemhenyi (The Door) discusses editing techniques in depth and her illustrious career, including her work on Jerzy Skolimowksi’s Essential Killing, as well as Free Fall, which is screening as part of this year’s festival.

 

Expressing Emotion: Actors in Conversation

3.00pm, Tuesday 24th March, Teachers Club

As part of the Screen Test strand, young acting talents Robert Sheehan (The Road Within, Love/Hate), Aidan Turner (Being Human, The Hobbit), and Sarah Greene (Noble, My Brothers) discuss their evolving careers, their training as actors, and how they got started in the industry.

 

Write to Live, Live to Write: Managing your Writing Career

3.00pm, Wednesday 25th March, Teachers Club

In association with the Irish Writers Centre in Parnell Square, this event is aimed at screenwriters looking for advice about managing and maintaining their career, and the challenges of the creative process, idea management, and overcoming the dreaded writer’s block. The panel is comprised of script consultant Mary Kate O’Flanagan, story development professional Rachel O’Flanagan, Conor McMahon (From the Dark), and Pierce Ryan (Standby).

 

Conquering the Script (Day 1)

Friday 27th March, Hugh Lane Gallery

The day will take participants on a journey from the early generation of ideas into the development of story through the paradigm of conflict and the crisis screen characters need to undergo in order to render a film powerful and engaging. There will be a story debate with film-makers about their completed films, the development process, and the story choices they made. Panellists and guests on the day will include director Lenny Abrahamson (Frank, Room), as well as development specialists Juanita Wilson (Octagon Films) and Eoin O’Faolain (Samson Films).

 

Conquering the Script (Day 2)

Saturday 28th March, Wood Quay Venue

The second day kicks off with a debate on the current state of story-telling in Irish film and television drama. As the day continues another session is devoted to kitting out the development tool box, more story debate with a feature director, and the closing keynote interview with Drive screenwriter Hossein Amini. Panellists on the day will include Michael Kinirons, Will Collins, Eugene O’Brien, Ian Power and Carol Morely.

 

It Begins with the Script: Casting Event

2.00pm, Saturday 28th March, Teachers Club

2015’s iteration of the popular JDIFF casting events sees Emmy-nominated Leo Davis, who has worked on Layer Cake, The Constant Gardener, The King’s Speech and The Queen, discuss her work in conversation with Margery Simkin, whose own credits include the blockbusters Avatar, Top Gun and Erin Brockovich.

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Talking Ideas

Pulling back from the daily practice of film-making are three events that look at the bigger picture of cultural milieu, how cinema appropriates novels and history for its own purposes and how it then helps shape people’s experiences.

 

Perspectives in Pictures

12.00pm, Sunday 22nd March, National Museum of Ireland Collins Barracks

Collins Barracks is the appropriately historic setting for a discussion on the cinematic depiction of history. Film-makers Mary McGuckian (The Price Of Desire), Se Merry Doyle (Talking To My Father), and Jennifer Goff, curator of the Eileen Gray collection at the National Museum of Ireland, will raise questions such as “do film-makers feel a responsibility to represent historical events accurately?” The answers will be interesting to hear following an Oscars dominated by prestige biopics which made a pigswill of history for the sake of deadening screenwriting clichés, while, as Maureen Dowd acidly noted of Selma’s depiction of LBJ, at the same time clutching their ‘historical authenticity’ tightly to their breasts as a talisman to win Oscars. Do film-makers have an ethical responsibility not to rewrite the past?

 

Seeking the Truth: Mark Cousins in Conversation

12.00pm, Thursday 26th March, Irish Times Building

Northern Irish film-maker, critic, lecturer, sometime Moviedrome presenter, and programmer Mark Cousins (The Story of Film, 6 Desires: DH Lawrence and Sardinia) travels south to engage in a public interview about his life and work. Will he mention Brian De Palma’s absolute refusal to assent to Cousins’ reading of his films?

 

First Rule of Book Club….

2.30pm, Friday 27th March, Pearse Street Library

With the current popularity of adaptations on large and small screen (Gone Girl, Game of Thrones, American Sniper) this discussion focuses on book to film adaptations, and what drives audiences towards one medium or another. Bob Johnston of the Gutter Bookshop and Jason Flood of Dublin City Comics will lead the debate on Hollywood’s hunger for stories. Will the latter cite Alan Moore’s contempt for moving a story designed to work perfectly in one medium into another purely to make more money and not for any creative purpose?

October 16, 2013

Castles, Candles and Kubrick

All Stanley Kubrick fans should move the dial to Newstalk this weekend for a documentary about the truncated Irish shoot of period epic Barry Lyndon.

Kubrick on set of Barry Lyndon

As part of the autumn season of documentary radio on Newstalk 106-108 Pavel Barter produces this look at the story behind the making of Stanley Kubrick’s period adaptation Barry Lyndon in Ireland 40 years ago.

In the summer of 1973, director Stanley Kubrick arrived in Ireland to make his latest film Barry Lyndon. Having run massively over-schedule and over-budget with his space epic 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick had followed that sci-fi folly up with a cheap and nasty quickie, A Clockwork Orange, which had proven massively controversial; its ultraviolence and rape coming in the same year as Dirty Harry and Straw Dogs. Now Kubrick was ready to take on Thackeray’s novel with the unlikely personage of Ryan O’Neal as the titular hero. All seemed to be going well as Kubrick shot in the Irish countryside with hundreds of costumed extras. But on an overcast night in January 1974, the director fled Ireland on a ferry from Dun Laoghaire. Within 48 hours the entire production had also abandoned their stations.

Castles, Candles and Kubrick tells, for the first time, the story behind the making of Barry Lyndon in Ireland, featuring interviews with cast and crew from the film. What role did Ireland play in the production of Barry Lyndon? Did Kubrick’s preceding film, Clockwork Orange, affect the production? It was widely rumoured he fled Ireland after a death threat which also caused him to withdraw A Clockwork Orange from circulation in Britain and Ireland until its posthumous re-release in 2000; a move that unjustly fostered its reputation as a great classic lost to censorship. It’s equally rumoured that he misinterpreted the death threat, which was from the IRA; enraged at the sight of hundreds of extras dressed as British soldiers in deepest Tipperary. Hopefully Barter’s documentary will get to the bottom of these urban legends.

Castles, Candles and Kubrick features contributions from Brian W. Cook (The Wicker Man, The Shining), Luke Quigley (Braveheart, In The Name of The Father), Terry Clegg (Gandhi, Out of Africa), Patti Podesta (Memento), and Gay Hamilton (The Duellists). They’ll shed light on working with the notorious perfectionist. Kubrick surpassed Hitchcock in the endless self-promotion stakes because he only directed 13 films, a fraction of Hitchcock’s output. Kubrick did endless takes without explaining what he wanted done differently, and shot every one of his few film with emotionless Ophuls glides, regardless of whether it suited that particular subject matter; yet his very reclusiveness and these eccentricities in shooting made him revered. Why is Barry Lyndon considered the greatest movie ever by fellow directors such as Martin Scorsese and Lars Von Trier? Tune in and find out.

Castles, Candles and Kubrick will air on Newstalk 106-108 on Saturday October 19th at 7:00am, with a repeat airing on Sunday October 20th at 6:00pm.

December 9, 2011

Violence at the Drive-In: Part I

In 2005 I wrote a piece for the University Observer titled ‘Huh Huh, Cool’ criticising the reception of Sin City. I find myself in 2011 writing much the same piece again criticising the reception of Drive. But this time I want to get deeper into the question of cinematic violence by trying to categorise the various types and their meaning.

Sin City’s poster campaign displayed with great pride a quote from a review: “The coolest film of the year”. Sin City probably was the coolest film of the year, in the sense that it was definitely the most violent film of the year. It was also grotesque witless garbage but that wasn’t said as much. I decided to position the piece as a pre-empting of the three strident defences usually offered to smack down anyone like me who had the reactionary audacity to object to something like Sin City. The first defence, endlessly aired especially by Taranteenies, holds that the violence is stylised. Stylised violence, the argument goes, isn’t real violence and therefore can’t be condemned. This argument stems from defences of A Clockwork Orange. The problem with citing that film though is that it actually undermines the whole argument about stylised violence being acceptable violence. The violence in the novel was veiled by Anthony Burgess’s parodic and inventive use of language which brought us inside the mind of Alex to whom this kind of activity is fun: “And then I stomped real hard on his yarblockas and the good vino came running out horrorshow good O my brothers”.  “And then I kicked him in the guts till his blood came gushing out” doesn’t entice us into Alex’s world of ultra-violence quite so much. Sadly this literary effect is impossible to replicate onscreen using “stylised violence” because film is a visual medium. You see the blood. Veil the visuals and you can still hear the screams. Perhaps if you were to depict a silent shadow puppet play you might succeed.

“But Frank Miller wrote graphic novels! It’s just comic book violence, not to be taken seriously at all, just like a cartoon” goes the second defence, perhaps invoked after attempts at inserting shadow puppets have failed. Sadly Frank Miller isn’t exactly typical of what comic books actually were, and are, like. This argument presupposes that The Itchy and Scratchy Show is what cartoons were really like rather than Tom and Jerry. The ‘acceptable’ level of violence has vastly increased in the last few decades. Please remember that The A-Team got in trouble in the mid-1980s for violence. That’s right, all those shootouts where no one ever dies, and all the spectacular cars-spinning-in-the-air crashes that end with everyone crawling out unharmed were considered excessively violent. Jack Bauer would laugh at what The Equaliser considered extreme actions, while blockbusters, which are films largely aimed at children, have become ever more violent. I didn’t envy parents explaining to 6 years olds exactly what Obi-Wan did to Anakin at the end of Star Wars III. But the comic-book defence overlooks a huge contradiction. Supervillains are classic villains because they live on. Superman can’t just kill Lex Luthor after struggling with him for a few issues, and the Fantastic Four were never able to simply take out Dr Doom. Buffy is a paradigm in recent years of the patience that it takes to build a classic villain: the Big Bad confronts fights Buffy multiple times, each encounter raising the stakes until a final confrontation in the season finale sees a duel to the death. But film is an idiot medium. It uses violence as a short cut to neatly resolve implacable conflicts, inserting a finality comic-books proudly abjure. Hollywood still operates under the code of the Wild West. The villain nearly always has to die.

The third defence abandoned ideas of irony or context and settled for raising a hue and cry against censorship. “But violence is part of American life, why shouldn’t it be in films?” I judged Hollywood’s beloved defence for prolonging the ethics of Dodge City a fair point, but noted that lack of health insurance and illiteracy problems were also part of American life and with the exception of John Q there weren’t too many films being made about them. Even John Q resorted to the good old familiar violence of a hostage situation in order to slip a film about healthcare under the radar. If filmmakers were sincere in using this defence then they would make films about all facets of American life. I suggested that readers should hold their breath waiting for Tarantino to make a film where a crucial plot point hinged on an illiterate character not being able to read a note left for him and just trying to stumble along according to what he thinks is written down. Then I instructed them to breathe out. It’s been 6 years and Tarantino’s remarkable propensity for violence has still yet to be leavened with any other facet of American life. Tarantino just likes violence, as does Robert Rodriguez, as does Nicolas Winding Refn, and the utter conformity of what gets to be “cool” is astounding. Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Trainspotting, Scarface, A Clockwork Orange, all of them featuring ultra-violence if not Beethoven, are cool films and have popular posters sold to college students. Wasn’t coolness based on individuality once? If it achieved nothing else, I argued, Sin City would have done some good if it left people asking just why extreme violence, borderline pornography and drug use seemed to be the only denominations in the currency of cool.

Nobody asked those questions, and sure enough Drive’s poster featured a quote from a reviewer dubbing it the coolest movie of the year. Even more disturbing was that critics in Cannes gave an ovation to the infamous elevator scene in which a man’s head is kicked in until bone-dust rises up into the camera. The three defences I trashed in 2005 aren’t the only dams keeping violence at the heart of cinema, but my objections to Drive can’t be articulated merely by dismantling those defences again. I now want to examine cinematic violence – its uses, its varieties, and its meanings.

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