Talking Movies

May 29, 2020

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XXXIII

As the title suggests, so forth.

If not Lazenby, then who?

Almost anyone. But seriously, folks. There were any number of actors in England in 1968 who could have done a better job of picking up the keys to Sean Connery’s Aston Martin. A typically three-cornered hat discussion with Friedrich Bagel and The Engineer to the music of de Falla produced this shortlist of contenders:

Rod Taylor, Alan Bates, Albert Finney, Oliver Reed, Michael Caine, Roger Moore, Terence Stamp, Anthony Hopkins

Patrick McGoohan, Malcolm McDowell, Christopher Lee, Nicol Williamson, David Warner, Edward Fox

Now, not all of these people would have been asked, and some of them would likely have refused had they been asked, (Alan Bates and Nicol Williamson spring to mind), and some of them would likely have refused contemptuously (*Dear EON, Patrick McGoohan has had quite enough of playing spies at this point, thank you very much). The EON producers would never have seriously asked a bona fide film leading man like Caine, in order to keep the budget down. They would have asked a TV star like Roger Moore, sadly tied up with The Saint, or Timothy Dalton, a supporting player in a major film. As indeed they did. But the actual shortlist of undistinguished Bond contenders from whom Lazenby won based on a screen test is the stuff of madness when you consider that all these alternatives were available. The roguishness of Oliver Reed’s 007, the undercurrent of menace of Malcolm McDowell’s Bond, the unpredictability of David Warner’s agent: these are the roads not taken. There seems to be some sort of retrospective attempt to insist they needed to cast an unknown actor, like they had with Sean Connery. But Sean Connery was not unknown when he was cast. Far from it, he had already appeared in Darby O’Gill and the Little People and his supporting role in The Longest Day would have been appreciated by British TV audiences who, between 1959 and 1961, had seen him as Count Vronsky, Hotspur, Macbeth and Alexander the Great. He was not an unknown, he was quite well known to British audiences as a leading man playing historic roles. Lazenby by contrast was quite well known to British audiences for advertising Fry’s chocolate bars.

The critical rehabilitation narrative

I’ve been thinking recently about what we might dub the critical rehabilitation narrative. Nothing seems to please some critics more than to discover neglected masterpieces, to rescue from the discard bin gems that were unappreciated at the time. The only problem is sometimes the critics are very pleased with themselves, their wider critical narrative powers along, and it’s only a minor detail that the film in question is still rubbish. That’s not to say that it is wrong to revisit films and see if they were misjudged; after all Fight Club suffered hugely from being released so soon after Columbine. But sometimes there is much to be said for reading the original reviews and getting a bracing perspective, like disinterring The Cabinet of Dr Caligari from the reverence of generations of film students and discovering in Peter Gay’s Weimar Culture that its own writers disowned the finished film for changes made to its finale which they regarded as dangerously reversing its political message, and doing so at a time that imperilled the nascent republic. Or realising that Matthew Modine saying recently that Full Metal Jacket has aged better than other Vietnam films because it’s finale of urban insurgency could be in Iraq only proves the point of the objections made by critics on release. Because of the WB indulging Kubrick’s power-tripping laziness he had departed from the novel’s jungle war conclusion to instead depict the (easily manufactured in England) ruined city of Hue, because he couldn’t be bothered leaving England. And it would be hard to easily manufacture in England a jungle war. Just as well Vietnam wasn’t noted for being a JUNGLE WAR. Revolution was reviled on release and exiled Pacino to Broadway. But Revolution is an unfocused film of baffling decisions, like shooting it entirely in England and not having Annie Lennox sing, rather than an outright atrocity. Watching its depiction of the start of the American Revolution, the mob bullying, the expropriation, the self-interested and abrasive self-righteousness is oddly reminiscent of Doctor Zhivago’s portrayal of the Bolsheviks. It’s hard not to think that this enraged American critics at the time, who sublimated that rage into attacks from other angles. And yet the final minutes of Revolution feature a truly astonishing tracking shot, a technical marvel and a triumph of production design, that I have never ever heard anyone praise or even mention. If you can’t do the hard work of salvaging the good from amidst the bad then what is the point of critical rehabilitation?

February 3, 2016

The Great Star Wars Lie

You are being lied to, repeatedly and with purpose, by massive entertainment corporations using a media all too happy to shill for the sake of Hollywood glamour driving traffic numbers.

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I’ve been writing about this truth for almost as long as I’ve been writing this blog. A series of articles in February – April 2010 ruminated on Avatar and its reception, and I posed one very simple question back then which is even more relevant now: why is it that every blockbuster that’s released seems to break a new box-office record?

Summer 2007 was a nadir for sustained mendacity: almost a case of “Shrek 3 has the biggest ever opening weekend, beating the previous record-holder Spider-Man 3, which beat the previous record-holder Pirates of the Caribbean 2”. But now we have a new whopper on our hands: The Force Awakens. Back in 2010 I noted that banner headlines about record-breaking opening weekend box-office grosses become hilarious if you do the unthinkable, and adjust the figures for inflation. Titanic is the only film made after 1982 that makes the all-time Top 10 once you adjust for inflation.

Yet right now we are being repeatedly whacked over the head with the notion that The Force Awakens is the most popular film in the history of popularity and film. And thankfully Andrew O’Hehir of Salon.com has weighed into the fray with a truly irrepressible combo of sarcasm and statistics:

If you squint and fudge in just the right light, The Force Awakens is now sorta-kinda the biggest hit in United States history, and has maybe a 50/50 shot of catching Avatar for the No. 1 global spot.

Actually, a further word on Disney’s loud crowing this week about SW: TFA having reached the status of Biggest Movie Ever. That word would be “oh no, you don’t.” If you adjust for inflation — which is, y’know, how actual economic comparisons are done — it’s not even close. According to Box Office Mojo’s seemingly reasonable calculations, The Force Awakens is now roughly the No. 21 movie of all time, well below such titles as The Lion King, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and The Exorcist. It will certainly climb a fair bit higher, but I’m not convinced it will earn the extra $300 million required to catch Doctor Zhivago at No. 8. And I would bet Donald Trump’s bottom dollar that it won’t get anywhere near the all-time champ, Gone With the Wind, which made almost $200 million in 1939 dollars, in a nation with less than half our current population where the typical movie ticket cost less than a quarter.

The new Star Wars is a big movie, for sure. But it’s not quite as ginormous and culture-dominating and universally beloved as Disney wants us to think it is. The bigness of TFA, or at least the idea of its bigness, is a central element of the Mouse House strategy to spin Star Wars into a marketing, merchandising and entertainment empire.

death_star_trench

 

Since he wrote that piece The Force Awakens has climbed up to reach 11 on the all-time list, but is still nearly 200 million shy of catching Doctor Zhivago. It would need to double its gross to date to topple Gone with the Wind… But what does it all betoken?

O’Hehir sees deep cynicism in The Force Awakens’ marketing style of lying constantly about record-breaking popularity. Back in 2010 I wrote that the obsession with opening weekends was a betrayal of proper cultural criticism, never mind the lasting quality of the film feel the quantity of its inflated takings, and was actually lobotomising cinema. 2007’s summer of the threequel proved enough eye candy and CGI could, combined with a huge PR push, generate a staggering opening weekend; which word of mouth would then collapse precipitously. I hoped Avatar had firmly thrashed the media and studio obsession with opening weekends by starting slow, not breaking any records, being almost dismissed as a failure for that, but then, when its takings didn’t collapse but remained constant week after week, being trumpeted as a phenomenon. But then Shutter Island was hailed as Scorsese’s most successful opening weekend, and Tim Burton’s Alice the most successful 3-D film opening weekend.

Now I think that nothing is ever going to change this hyperbolic approach, because, even more than the cynicism O’Hehir identifies, I believe it betokens desperation. Adjusting for inflation raises the extremely uncomfortable truth for Hollywood that people are historically uninterested in cinema-going, no matter how many sensational headlines about record box-office business are fed out like so much pigswill.

I called for a ruthless insistence that Avatar’s box-office gross be discounted for inflation, because it hadn’t even dented the actual all-time Top 10. But now I think the best approach is mockery. The Force Awakens’ need to scream from the rooftops how popular is it is no less pathetic than Betamax’s plaintive advertisement in the 1980s reminding people it was still in the game. If you were really ginormous, culture-dominating and universally beloved you wouldn’t need to tell people you were quite so much.

Cinema is no longer as important as it once was. The archetypal Saturday night movie memorably recounted by Gus Van Sant on the Bret Easton Ellis Podcast, where the entire high school rocked up to the cinema because that’s what you did on Saturday night before anything else you might get up to, is long vanished. No amount of hype will bring that world back, just like no amount of fraud can hide the fact you can’t buy a house for the same price your parents did because of inflation, and that inflation didn’t magically not affect cinema tickets too.

Every time you hear The Force Awakens being trumpeted as uber-successful, so much winning it would make Donald Trump and Charlie Sheen tired of winning, remember you’re hearing a desperate plea for relevance rooted in insecurity. And think of this.

October 14, 2015

David Lean at the Lighthouse

As the last thoughts of an Indian summer disappear, the leaves fall everywhere, and scarves and hats are disinterred and pressed in to use, the Lighthouse announces a Lean season.

David Lean landscape Low Res

Afternoons with David Lean will take place throughout November, with one of England’s finest film directors working on the largest cinematic canvasses imaginable. And Lean’s precision as a director and the scale of his work have no finer representation than the first film Lawrence of Arabia. Meanwhile the 50th anniversary of Lean’s Russian revolutionary romance Doctor Zhivago is marked at the end of the month with a newly restored re-release.

 

Lawrence of Arabia

1 & 4 Nov, 2pm

Lean may have clashed with cinematographer Freddie Young (“Don’t teach your grandmother how to suck eggs” the older man barked at Lean), but their collaboration betrays no signs of that tension. Shimmering sands are scored by Maurice Jarre’s unforgettable theme, Omar Sharif’s arrival is legendarily menacing and mysterious, and Peter O’Toole makes an unforgettable leading man debut as TE Lawrence. Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins and Anthony Quinn co-star as the Machiavellian players surrounding the enigmatic Lawrence’s attempts to inspire an Arab uprising against the Ottoman Empire in WWI.

 

Tickets available here: http://lighthouse.admit-one.eu/index.php?s=LHSMITHF&p=details&eventCode=330

 

The Bridge on the River Kwai

8 & 11 November, 3pm

This World War II drama marked the beginning of Lean’s epic phase, with a tremendous use of a whistled ‘Colonel Bogey’s March’. POW British soldiers begin construction of a bridge under the leadership of Alec Guinness’ noble commanding officer. But James Donald’s Doctor soon realises that Colonel Nicholson has lost his grip. Jack Hawkins and William Holden are in the jungles on a mission to destroy the bridge. Little do they know that by its completion they might as well propose blowing up Colonel Nicholson…

 

Tickets available here: http://lighthouse.admit-one.eu/index.php?s=LHSMITHF&p=details&eventCode=18344

 

Ryan’s Daughter

15 & 18 November, 2pm

Lean’s third successive collaboration with Freddie Young and screenwriter Robert Bolt proved the moment when the wheels fell off the wagon, leading to a 14 year cinematic silence from Lean. The heroine was played by Bolt’s wife Sarah Miles, a less than convincing young Irishwoman, and her affair with a British soldier was doomed by the casting of troubled Christopher Jones who didn’t act onscreen for thirty years after this outing. Trevor Howard, John Mills and Robert Mitchum all did their best, but a love story with unconvincing lovers…

 

Tickets available here: http://lighthouse.admit-one.eu/index.php?s=LHSMITHF&p=details&eventCode=12884

 

Brief Encounter

22 & 25 November, 4pm

The sole entry in this season from the smaller-scale Lean is a love story scripted by another frequent collaborator Noel Coward from his own play. Housewife Celia Johnson is tempted to have an affair with a doctor she meets by chance at a train station, played by Trevor Howard. Brief Encounter’s use of Rachmaninov’s heart-rending 2nd Piano Concerto was extremely influential, and it remains a key influence on cinematic romance. Repressed, simmering passion of noble, thwarted lovers is quite similarly at play in Wong’s In the Mood for Love.

 

 Tickets available here:  http://lighthouse.admit-one.eu/index.php?s=LHSMITHF&p=details&eventCode=20967

 

Doctor Zhivago

From 27 November…

After the all-male heroics of Lawrence, Lean, Bolt, and Young reunited for a romance on a similar epic scale. Spanning decades of modern Russian history Boris Pasternak’s novel became a totemic cinematic love story, with Maurice Jarre’s balalaika-led ‘Lara’s Theme’ taking on a life of its own. Omar Sharif’s titular medic spends his life torn between two women, Geraldine Chaplin and Lara herself, Julie Christie. Tom Courtenay, Rod Steiger and Ralph Richardson are memorable supporting players fleshing out the fall of Tsarist Russia and the madness of the Russian Civil War.

 

 Tickets available here: http://lighthouse.admit-one.eu/index.php?s=LHSMITHF&p=details&eventCode=355

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