Talking Movies

November 22, 2020

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XXXVII

As the title suggests, so forth.

The late Spielberg and the late Hitchcock

Having recently, finally, watched The Post, just because it was on prime-time Film4 twice inside a week, I regard my scepticism towards it as having been fully justified. A movie about the wrong newspaper and the wrong heroic actors who were all not breaking a huge story, and featuring an intolerably annoying lead performance even for Meryl Streep, it’s only value was it that it set me to thinking about the late Hitchcock and the late Spielberg. It is no secret that Spielberg found it so hard to get financing for his ponderous Lincoln that it looked like it might end up like Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra – a cable TV movie in America, given a small art-house release in Europe. Such an outcome would have been a shocking fall from grace from a man who made his name being a crowd-pleaser par excellence.  But the truth is that Spielberg has entered a phase of decline in that regard. Since nuking the fridge in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Spielberg has struggled to find an audience. His 2010s output (The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, War Horse, LincolnBridge of Spies, The BFG, The Post, Ready Player One) has been prolific, but desperately uneven when it comes to connecting with an intended blockbuster audience, and the more niche trilogy of Constitutional Amendment films plagued by dull writing. The technical mastery is still there, but, like the late Hitchcock (Marnie, Torn Curtain, Topaz, Frenzy, Family Plot), it is in service of poor to middling scripts – so that outre camera moves stand out more and more than they would have in previous decades where the entire films were good, not just certain sequences or conceits standing out like oases in a desert. The fact that Spielberg’s next film is an unnecessary remake of West Side Story worked over by his Munich and Lincoln writer Tony Kusher does not inspire confidence that Spielberg can pull out of this slump, and that’s before you realise the star is … Ansel Elgort.

Yippee Ki Yay Memoriser!

A Die Hard Christmas jumper having just arrived in the mail I found myself wondering the other day whatever happened to its director John McTiernan. Lawsuits. Indictments. Jail. His Wyoming ranch being liquidated. And not a film made since 2003’s Basic. In fact, it’s kind of remarkable that McTiernan only made 11 films in his 18 active years, (allegedly he is making sci-fi blockbuster Tau Ceti Four with Uma Thurman, but I will believe that when I see it), but those films include both impeccable classics and unwatchable disasters. How can someone capable of Predator, Die Hard, The Hunt for Red October and Die Hard with a Vengeance have ended up battling studio incompetence and his own poor choices to have come away carrying the bag for Last Action Hero, The 13th Warrior, Rollerball and Basic? McTiernan has given some extensive and revealing interviews explaining how things went sideways so often, and he seems to have had a lot of bad luck. But one thing he said leapt out: while studying at the AFI a crazed teacher insisted on him memorising movies – shot for shot. On the grounds that a concert pianist would commit piano concertos to memory, and when asked to improvise a cadenza would have those to draw on, so a film director should have a set of classics in his cerebellum to creatively rework when needed. And so McTiernan said he had memorised every shot in A Clockwork Orange, among others. Which leads to one to think about his films in terms of such classicism. I can easily believe that it is possible to memorise every shot in Die Hard, with especial relish for the many delightful focus-pulls, but Rollerball?… Can the decline of McTiernan’s artistic clout in the editing room be directly seen in the betrayal of the principle of memorable shots rather than hyper-cut gibberish?

September 16, 2015

Grounded

Major Barbara star Clare Dunne dominated the Project’s Space Upstairs in a performance of George Brant’s monologue Grounded as part of Tiger Dublin Fringe Festival.

image

Dunne is an unnamed fighter pilot, one of the USAF’s Top Guns; returning minarets in the Middle East to the state of the sands that surround them. Or at least presuming that she does, she’s always miles past her target by the time her missiles hit home. She’s cocky, one of the boys; an intimidating figure to most civilian men, until one man is attracted by her flight suit star-power. Finding herself pregnant she has to stop flying because her unborn daughter would not survive the G-force of the ejector seat being deployed. Three years later reporting for duty she is horrified to find herself permanently grounded. F-16s aren’t being made anymore, it’s all drones now; and she’s retrained for the US Chair Force. Relocating to Las Vegas she longs for the feeling of soaring lethally thru the blue sky…

Dunne’s accent initially startles; co-ordinates are somewhere around Wyoming by way of Texas; but it fits her swaggering character perfectly – a lover of AC/DC, a hater of hair-tossing girls, high on self-mythology, short on self-analysis. She is some kind of American archetype. Almost as bad as flying a drone and not having her own plane is not being a lone wolf anymore; now she has to fly a drone, not her drone, in shifts with other pilots, a teenager beside her controlling the camera, and a team of analysts in her ear okaying when she can strike – her individual lethal agency is gone. Killing is now pushing a button, represented by Dunne’s click of a pen. But now she’s forced to linger on the scenes of her kills… And soon the grey images on her monitor bleed into her home life.

Director Selina Cartmell stages the action on a long narrow platform with the audience facing each other across it. The only props are chairs which Dunne manically rearranges to create varied settings for the different scenes: a fight with her c/o, family drama, the boredom of reconnaissance, the tension of hovering surveillance, and the guilty thrill of danger-free drone-strikes. Davy Cunningham’s dazzling light design, which at one point loses Dunne in darkness while the audience looms up, is combined with a thunderous and brilliant use of AC/DC and Elvis. This is a topical piece, but the personal angst of adjusting to new modes of war is more dramatically interesting than the predictable crisis of conscience; which her husband urges her to leave at the base like his ‘clapping out’ at the end of a casino blackjack shift to clock out.

Brant loads the dramatic dice in this high-stakes Vegas game towards the inevitable hand-wringing, but the final image of Dunne’s warrior finally successfully clapping out remains devastating. ‘Boom…’ indeed.

5/5

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.