Thursday, April 28, 2005

#28: Blood For Dracula

Blood For Dracula, 1974, written and directed by Paul Morrissey, characters created by Bram Stoker. You may remember Bob Dole extolling the virtues of True Lies during the 1996 presidential campaign, and the press's reaction. If he'd mentioned Blood For Dracula instead, nobody could have criticized him. I think the moral here is clear: if you want to be President, you'd better put in some time with X-rated Andy Warhol productions. Seriously: although I doubt James Dobson has seen it, or would care to, Paul Morrissey's version of the Dracula story is moralistic, harshly conservative, anti-communist, and anti-modern. And I loved every second of it.

Morrisey's main variation on the traditional Dracula story is that his Dracula can only drink the blood of virgins. As the movie opens in the 1920s, Romania has run out of virgins; at his servant's suggestion, they travel to Italy, where they believe that the Catholic church will have insured the purity of unmarried women. They're taken in by a family of down-on-their-luck aristocrats with four marriageable daughters; but as Dracula discovers, aristocratic women sometimes have a weakness for hired hands, especially if their hired hand is a socialist, looks like Joe Dallesandro, and chops wood shirtless.

Morrisey plays the conflict between Dallesandro's servant and Dracula as a conflict between socialism at its most brutish and the courtesies of an older, more refined age: it's the horror movie as dialectic. Although both characters want to exploit the Di Fiore daughters, it's clear that the director's sympathies lie with the dying class structure that Dracula represents. In part, this is due to the inherent attractiveness of evil; it doesn't hurt that Morrisey has Udo Kier as the Count. He has the features of a silent film star (and has been stunt-cast in vampire movies ever since, e.g., The Shadow of the Vampire and Blade). Here's Kier in the opening shot, a beautiful extended take of him applying his own makeup:

Now that's what I call aristocracy!

In the end, Dracula's refinement and, well, class are undone by modern permissiveness; the Di Fiore daughters (at least, two of the four) are no good to him because they've been allowed to indulge themselves. You can't really blame Dallesandro, though; the infinitely corrupt daughters in question are played by Dominique Darel and Stefania Casini, both of whom have much to offer a red-blooded socialist:

Now that's what I call marriageable daughters! Note Dominique Darel's eerie resemblance to Uma Thurman.

So Dallesandro is tempted (though it doesn't take much to tempt him), Dracula's tempted. Dallesandro gets what he wants and more from the daughters; you'd have to call their relationships antagonistic, but he seems satisfied. Dracula doesn't react so well to his encounters with the two middle daughters. He reels around like a drunkard and projectile vomits back their blood. It's campy, and funny, and gross.

Now that's what I call vomiting!

These "sick Dracula" scenes go on far too long to be anything but funny, and that's something I should note: for all its moralistic fervor, the movie is pretty campy. I don't think we're meant to take Morrisey's ironic detachment from vampire stories, or horror movies, as ironic detachment from his distaste for modernity, however; the movie does too good a job of making Dracula a romantic figure, and way too good a job of making Joe Dallesandro's servant an awful guy. Example: talking about the youngest daughter, who is 14, "I'd like to rape the hell out of her." Later, he does, purportedly to save her from Dracula (cause if she's not a virgin, she's no good to him).

Joe Dallesandro and Silvia Dionisio as Mario and Perla

Morrisey also uses the lighting and sound to make Dracula seem more romantic than he otherwise might. As I mentioned earlier, Udo Kier looks like a silent movie star, and Morrisey lights him like one, too: straight on light. He gives everyone the same treatment—his is one of those movies in which everyone looks like a movie star—but he does an especially nice job with Kier. And Claudio Gizzi's excellent score, which is very romantic (as in the period) adds a tragic dimension that keeps the picture from going headlong into camp. I can't say enough good things about the score, actually; the Criterion disc has a stills gallery with a stereo mix of excerpts from it that I listened to again and again. All in all, well worth the time it takes to track this one down and see it.


  • The movie doesn't always stay on the tragic side of camp. Monty Python fans will recognize Dracula's death scene as a major influence on the Black Knight. At least, it looked like a major influence to me.

  • Morrisey shot this immediately after Flesh For Frankenstein (which Netflix just moved in my queue to "Availibility: Unknown," after leaving it at "Available Now!" for months). Anyway, they finished Flesh For Frankenstein in the morning, Udo Kier, who hadn't been cast as Dracula, got himself a bottle of wine with lunch to celebrate finishing the movie. While drinking it, Morrisey came up and told him he wanted him to be Dracula; Kier got a haircut after lunch and they started shooting that afternoon.

  • As the previous antecdote suggests, they didn't have much of a script, Morrisey wrote each day what they'd shoot.

  • The scene where Anton gets tricked out of some money by a peasant was written on the fly so that Udo Kier could go back to Austria for the day and appear in another movie. The peasant is played by Roman Polanski, a friend of Morrisey's, and Gérard Brach is the peasant sitting beside him. Arno Juerging's mother is also in that scene, as is one of the producer's wives; it really was "hey, you want to be in my movie?" day. Oddly, Polanski had another character play the same trick in Bitter Moon; apparently it was his idea in Blood for Dracula, so I'm not sure it counts as ripping Morrisey off or not.

  • And speaking of cameos, the Marchese di Fiore is played by Vittorio De Sica—so we've got a master of Italian neorealism as the fading aristocracy, and Roman Polanski as a street-smart peasant. Given the contrast between Dracula and Mario, that's not exactly a flattering parallel for De Sica.

  • Also, De Sica's weird speech about having Dracula's urine analyzed in London to see if he's a suitable husband for his daughters? He wrote that himself. Morrisey says he didn't know what to make of it but it seemed weird enough that he thought De Sica should say it in the movie.

  • If you like accents that make no sense, you'll love this film: the four daughters have four different accents, Mario talks like a Brooklynite, the Marchese speaks with an Italian accent and the Marchesa speaks upper-class English.

That's all for this one; I leave you with Arno Juering as Anton, Dracula's servant, and possibly the creepiest guy ever:

Arno Juering, looking honest and upstanding. I really wish I could do that thing with my eyebrows.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

#12: This Is Spinal Tap

This Is Spinal Tap, 1984, directed by Rob Reiner, written by Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, and Rob Reiner. I first saw this movie during the summer of 1990, on VHS. This was between middle school and high school, and I was taking a class on satire at Duke University. Nerd camp. Anyway, I guess I was pretty impressionable, because the things on the syllabus for that class have stayed with me (Dr. Strangelove, James Thurber stories, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses," Being There, just off the top of my head). And of course, This Is Spinal Tap. So it's hard to write objectively about the movie; I don't go around spouting quotes (I probably did for a while after seeing it, though), and I've seen it fewer than ten times, so I don't think this would qualify as a real-deal obsession. But This Is Spinal Tap had a lot to do with shaping my sense of humor. It's always floating around in the back of my mind.

I'm not going to talk a lot about the movie itself, because I don't really know how to approach it. For the three or four people on the planet who haven't seen it: Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer are the three lead members of Spinal Tap, an English heavy metal band on tour in the U.S.. The movie is a mockumentary (or "mockurockumentary," if you will), directed by Marty deBergi, played by Rob Reiner. Spinal Tap's lineup:

  • David St. Hubbins — Lead Guitar
  • Nigel Tufnel — Lead Guitar
  • Derek Smalls — Bass
  • Viv Savage — Keyboards
  • Mick Shrimpton — Drums

Or that's their lineup on this tour; as we're informed, they've had 37 members over the years. David and Nigel have always been in the band, though, going back to their origins as a skiffle group called The Originals (they had to change the name to the New Originals when they found out there was already a band called The Originals). Over the course of the tour, the band falls apart; that's about it for a story. It's all shot handheld on 16mm, and is designed to look and feel like Gimme Shelter or The Last Waltz; a mix of concert footage, interviews, and backstage footage. Only it's all fake, and it's all hilarious.

Watching it now, the songs seem much sillier than they did in 1990; with the exception of "Tonight I'm Gonna Rock You Tonight," there's nothing I could see listening to for any length of time. The band is still confused. This time around, I really appreciated Ian Faith, their manager (played by Tony Hendra, who Adam informs me went on to edit Spy magazine). He'd make a great political flack; when Marty asks him if Spinal Tap's popularity is waning, he says, "I wouldn't say that. I'd say their appeal is becoming more selective." And the look on his face when the band sees what he's done to their Stonehenge prop is priceless.

One thing I noticed for the first time on this go-round is how strange the movie is structurally. To the extent there's an inciting incident, it's Jeanine's arrival, and that happens just over halfway through the movie. As a result, the last half is much more plot-heavy than the first. This would make it drag, if you didn't love the guys in the band by the time she shows up. As it is, I think the weird structure makes it feel more like a real documentary, where the crew had been filming for a while when they lucked into catching something dramatic and interesting on camera.

Anyway, as I say it's difficult to judge this movie objectively anymore. Some of the jokes I loved on first viewing, I've heard eight million times since then, and they don't strike me as that funny anymore. But that's not the joke's fault. The beauty of this DVD is the wealth of information about how the film got made, and the extra footage and promotional material that I hadn't seen before, so I'm going to talk more about that. If you haven't seen the main film, jeez, man, go see it now.

How it got made: In the late 70's, Rob Reiner had a sketch comedy show, and Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, and Harry Shearer were guests on a skit that made fun of another television show, some sort of music thing. Reiner played Wolfman Jack and McKean, Guest, and Shearer played a band called Spinal Tap. They didn't have characters, really, they were just playing a song. But during a commercial break, a smoke machine broke, spraying them with hot oil; while the prop guy tried to fix it, they started improvising in character. In 1982, Reiner pitched the idea of a movie about this band to some people at Monarch Films; they gave him between $50,000 and $60,000 (depending on who you listen to) to write a screenplay. He, McKean, Guest, and Shearer dicked around on a script for about a week, and decided that nobody would be able to see what they were trying to do if it were written out. So they took the money, added some money of their own, and made a twenty-minute demo film, called "Spinal Tap: The Last Tour." It's included on the DVD; many jokes that ended up in the movie are already there. One thing that I'm glad they changed: Rob Reiner is wearing a big green cowboy hat, rather than the USS Coral Sea cap he ended up with. Monarch saw the short and said no thank you, so for about six months, they took the short to every studio and everyone passed. Until Karen Murphy at Embassy Pictures decided to give them a shot. They shot the movie in just under a month, all on 16mm, using only a loose outline; at the end, they had about 40 hours of footage; typical for a documentary, but a lot for a feature. Everyone was in the editing room; they put together first a 4 1/2 hour cut, which didn't include any interview footage, just backstage and concert stuff, and then they cut, cut, and cut. After test screenings, they cut further; the final cut is 82 minutes long. It opened to mediocre business, until it got a good review in the New York Times; everyone on the commentary tracks says it was from Vincent Canby but it looks to me like Janet Maslin wrote their review. And from then on: success!

The DVD has about an hour of footage that didn't make the movie; this is mostly different than the hour or so of footage that's on the MGM DVD. It's pretty incredible to see new stuff; it has the timecodes from the 4 1/2 hour cut, so you can see where it used to fit. My personal favorite is Derek Smalls talking about his solo album, "It's A Smalls World," which is all bass:

It's about the bass as the symbol of...the basis of mankind being common humanity, you see. And, uh, there're some songs's, it's kind of political, it gets into, you know, there wouldn't be unemployment in Britain if all the Pakis went back. And things like that. But basically it just takes the idea of all bass as our... bas-is.



  • The movie was entirely filmed in Los Angeles county; no travel at all.

  • One of the last hurdles Karen Murphy had to deal with before getting a greenlight was convincing the executives at Embassy that shooting on 16mm wouldn't be too difficult. She describes a production meeting in which an executive said, "Now, you know, 16mm is very tiny film. It's very small. How on earth are you planning cutting film that small?" She choked back her laughter and told him that, as it happened, she knew a guy in England who had experience editing just that kind of tiny film, and he was willing to work on the picture. A producer who can keep a straight face in that kind of meeting: that's the kind of producer I want to work with.

  • There was apparently a rift between McKean, Guest, and Shearer, and Tony Hendra; Hendra put an ad in the papers for a solo comedy show in which he listed himself as "the creator of Spinal Tap."

  • Most of the film's budget (between 2 and 3 million) went to Reiner, McKean, Shearer, and Guest. Because they were all union members, and had to be paid guild minimums for each of their roles: Reiner was a director, an actor, and a writer, the others were paid as writers, actors, and songwriters; all at the minimums, but with that many roles, the money added up quickly.

  • The four writers went to the WGA to try to get some sort of credit for the other actors, since all of the dialogue was improvised, but the WGA wouldn't let them do it. This is the same reason Rodriguez recently left the DGA; these guys stayed in the unions instead.

  • It took Spinal Tap years to find out who owned the rights to the band name before their 1992 tour; Embassy and Monarch films were long gone and as part of their deal with Embassy, they'd sold away all rights to the characters. It's still not really clear who owned them when--the Criterion DVD has New Line Home Video's logo, but MGM did the most recent DVD. Anyway, as part of some Byzantine licensing scheme, the members of Spinal Tap are allowed to use the characters now, but only if they appear as Spinal Tap at least once every three years. If they don't, the rights revert. So they literally have to play a concert, or make a television appearance, or something, every three years, or they can never be Spinal Tap again.

  • The other actors presumably don't own the rights to their characters. But Rob Reiner made a short called "Tommy Pischedda: A Man And His Music," about the Frank Sinatra-loving limo driver played by Bruno Kirby. (the movie's not on the IMDB! But Reiner talks about it on the commentary track). Pischedda plays a much bigger part in the 4 1/2 hour version of the movie; the band gets him high and he sings "All The Way" in his underwear and black dress socks before passing out on the hotel room floor.

  • Billy Crystal has a much longer scene that didn't make the movie (he's the mime caterer at the opening party). If you like Billy Crystal, that's good news. If you don't, there's still a good joke in it; the name of his company is "Shut Up and Eat," and he explains to DeBergi that his job is to make people eat by making them feel guilty "because this food, it's not too good." Also, note that one of the waiters is a very young Dana Carvey.

  • Another lost scene that shows up here: Derek Smalls showing Marty DeBergi a clip from a movie he appeared in, Marco Zamboni's 1976 sci-fi spectacular Roma '79. Which looks like it owes a lot to Alphaville.

  • It seems to be a rule that if you're recording a commentary track, at some point you say, "I was living at the Chateau Marmont at the time." So does anyone want to sponsor me there?

Thursday, April 21, 2005

#21: Dead Ringers

Dead Ringers, 1988, directed by David Cronenberg, written by David Cronenberg and Norman Snider, from the novel Twins, by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland.

This is a hard one to write about (part of the reason I haven't posted in a while). It doesn't have particularly sympathetic characters, or a knockout plot, but it made me sadder than just about any movie I can think of. It's mostly a question of tone, and Howard Shore's heartbreaker of a score. I can't say enough good things about the music he wrote for this movie; it's not available as an album so you'll have to see the movie to get the effect (which means you'll be presented with the dissonance between what you're hearing and what's on screen); anyway, I highly recommend it; it's much better than his score for the Lord of the Rings movies. But onward:

This is the first image in Dead Ringers:

This is the last:

If either of those makes you queasy, this is going to be a very long movie for you. Jeremy Irons plays Drs. Beverly and Elliot Mantle, twin brothers who run a successful gynecology clinic in Toronto. I can only think of one other gynecologist in a movie: Victor Mott, in The Hand that Rocks the Cradle. If you've seen that movie, you know he doesn't come off very well. Neither do these guys, of course. I don't know much about what makes for a good gynecological bedside manner, but this probably isn't it; this is the first scene with Beverly, right after giving an exam to Clare Niveau:

          Are all the necessary
          parts there, doctor?

          Yes, they are.
          But there are a couple of
          extra ones that shouldn't

          That's funny.

          I wasn't joking.

Beverly then walks out, leaving Clare there in the stirrups to think about his reassuring exit line. And Beverly's the feminine one; Elliot is much less sympathetic.

So from those not-disquieting-at-all beginnings, things get even weirder. Clare Niveau is an aging c-list actress, in town to work on a d-list soap opera (she also has three cervixes (a "trifurcate"—there actually are bifurcates, but nobody's like Clare). She begins an affair with both Beverly and Elliot (not knowing they're twins). When she finds out, Beverly is devastated, and his relationship with her begins threatening things with his brother. And it pretty much goes downhill from there.

With that description, it's hard for me to explain what moved me so much about this movie. For one thing, Dead Ringers doesn't seem to take place in a world that's recognizeably our own, which helps; you're so disassociated that you latch on to the twins. He does this by keeping the movie to a very limited number of locations; there are only a few outdoor shots in the movie. For the most part, you're in the gray and steel blue settings of the Mantle clinic and the twins' appartment. Put it this way: by the time you see Beverly operating, it doesn't seem strange that he's dressed like this:

So it's one of those movies that kind of slowly pulls you along into places you don't really want to go; by the time Beverly has gone crazy enough to be designing his own surgical instruments ("Gynecological Tools for Operating on Mutant Women,") you're unfortunately right there with him. And where are you? Well, here's one of his designs:

His response, when the hospital has objections to him using these "tools": "There's nothing the matter with the instrument. It's the body! The women's bodies are all wrong!" But by the time Beverly and Elliot start making you feel really queasy, it's too late; you've already fallen into their world.

I give Cronenberg a lot of credit for this movie but I'd be remiss to not mention what an amazing dual performance this is for Jeremy Irons. He's playing against himself, and he doesn't have any obvious tells or costume changes to indicate which twin you're looking at, but you always know. He carries himself differently as each one and convinces you from the first shot that you're looking at two different people. Many people have apparently asked Cronenberg who the Irons look-alike was.

The technical aspects of the twin shots are interesting. The filmmakers were careful to just set things up as if they were using by using motion control cameras and moving matte lines, the filmmakers were able to shoot scenes the way they would have if they'd had two actors. Irons would do the scene twice, playing against a body double. The first time, the body double would read the other twin's lines; the second time, audio from Iron's first take would be piped in. Because the motion camera equipment makes a whole lot of noise, all the dialogue was looped again afterwards. Both takes would be reviewed in a video playback with a very rough matte; they had equipment to do this immediately on set. The final images were produced with a much more carefully done matte in an optical printer. They look utterly convincing:

Drs. Beverly and Elliot Mantle. I think the matte is just to the left of Clare. Note that this shot isn't in the movie; it's from a lobby card.


  • Jeremy Irons was nearly the thirtieth choice for the lead in this; nearly every working American actor turned the part down. I guess they thought playing two crazy, drug addict gynecologists wasn't the best career move. It seems to have worked out well for Mr. Irons, though.

  • Cronenberg kept all of Beverly's custom-designed medical tools, except one, which went missing. I think it's probably not the best thing to have those lying around your apartment. I guess if you're hanging out with Cronenberg you kind of expect that, anyway, though. Point is, if you can find the missing one, I'm sure it's worth a bit of money.

  • The novel is based on the true story of twin gynecologists who were found dead in their apartment. In real life, they both died from drug withdrawal; the movie's a little more drastic.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

#26: The Long Good Friday

The Long Good Friday, 1979, directed by John Mackenzie, written by Barrie Keeffe.

This movie is fucking great. Or to put it another way, s'fucking great, innit. Bob Hoskins plays Harold Shand, a London crime boss on the make. Harold has money, friends in high places, money, a high-class girlfriend, and money. He's basically a yob, and so are his friends, but when the movie opens he's about to go legit. With some American mob money, he's going to buy up the decaying Thames waterfront and develop it into the heart of a new London, just in time for them to host the 1988 Olympics (we all know how that turned out). The American mobster comes to London to scope out his investment and, over the course of an Easter weekend, Harold's empire falls apart.

Or, more accurately, is blown apart. His Rolls Royce explodes outside a church, his closest friend is stabbed to death, the pub where he's set up an elaborate dinner for the Americans is bombed; it's not a relaxing weekend. To make things worse, Harold doesn't have any idea who's doing this to him, or why. So he has to play the gracious, responsible, in control host to the American while simultaneously throwing everything he's got against whoever's trying to kill him.

This is Bob Hoskins's movie all the way. He plays Harold as a writhing mess of ambition and desire; it's a really incredible performance. Most of the acting is good, with one exception: the American mobster is played by Eddie Constantine, from Alphaville, and he's no fun to watch. I appreciate stunt casting him, and his ruined face is perfect for the character. But his version of an American accent is painful to listen to. Just one example: he pronounces Vietnam with two syllables.

Everyone else is either good or great, though, and the script is so good that one off note wouldn't matter. I don't think this is as good a gangster movie as Sexy Beast (which for me is the gold standard), but it gives it a run for its money. And it has one scene that's iconic; Harold addressing a group of mobsters who he thinks may know who's out to kill him. What makes him a great leader is his ability to put other people at ease, to let them make themselves at home even in an awkward situation. Like so:

Guy Ritchie, eat your heart out.


  • The movie's full of great lines but here's a favorite: Harold giving his girlfriend (Victoria!) advice on how to impress the American:

          The Yanks love snobbery. They
          really feel they've arrived in
          England if the upper classes
          treat them like shit.

          It gives them a sense of history.

  • Eddie Constantinte was stunt-cast as a reference to film history. Unfortunately, the filmmakers unwittingly referenced the future of film as well. There's a scene where one of Harold's men picks up a younger guy at a swimming pool. They make eyes at each other; Harold's guy follows him into the dressing room, where he's taking a shower. They're about to start making out, when the younger man stabs him to death. A good scene, nice turnaround, and neither character is that essential to the plot of the story; should play fine. But here's the older mobster:

    And here's the young killer:

    That's right: in this movie James Bond nearly makes out in the shower with Belloq, then stabs him to death. I felt like I'd wandered into some sort of terrible fan fiction. The worst thing is, there's nothing a filmmaker can do to prevent this; when you cast a minor role, you just have to hope for the best.

  • At the end of the movie, there's a long, wordless shot of Bob Hoskins. I won't say too much about it except that Hoskins lets you see everything that's going on in his head; it's one of those moments that reminded me how exciting great acting can be. It reminded me most of all of the last shot of Idi Amin Dada, which I'll be watching again at some point during this project.

  • If they ever rerelease this, I have an idea for a marketing campaign. Take us home, Pierce:

Pierce Brosnan IS "First Irishman!"

Friday, April 08, 2005

#25: Alphaville

Alphaville, 1965, written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard.

This sci-fi/noir starts off as one of the silliest movies I’ve ever seen. Eddie Constantine plays a secret agent named Lemmy Caution. "Eddie Constantine" may just be the best name for an actor in a noir movie ever. He's got a pretty great noir face, too.

Eddie Constantine IS Lemmy Caution!

Anyway, Lemmy’s supposed to kill the inventor of Alpha 60, the computer who runs Alphaville. That runs Alphaville? Which runs Alphaville? Grammar is inadequate when you’re in the awesome presence of… Alpha 60!

The movie has all the noir conventions: Caution has voiceovers between scenes, he wears a trenchcoat and fedora and smokes like a chimney (nobody else seems to dress like him, either). Women are betrayers and seductresses. In fact, in Alphaville, it’s their job; whenever Lemmy goes back to his hotel room, he’s accompanied by a “Seductress, Third Class.” It’s all so over the top, though; you’re never sure if it’s intentionally campy or just campy.

The sci-fi aspects of Alphaville are less cartoonish, although they’re definitely a product of their time. Alpha 60, the computer that controls everything in Alphaville, fills an entire building with whirring tape drives and vacuum tubes. He speaks in a weird monotone, and gives rousing speeches to the citizens of Alphaville:


You can see how he got control of the city: such a politician! Anyway, in Alpha 60 you can see the ancestor of HAL 9000, Skynet, and a whole lot of other sci-fi computers. The closest analogue to Alphaville, as dystopias go, is Camazotz, the planet controlled by a giant brain in A Wrinkle In Time. There, as in Alphaville, central planning has gotten a little out of control, and the only defense humans have against conformity is the one thing cold, logical machines (or brains) don’t have: love. You can probably guess how this plays out in Alphaville; Lemmy teaches a beautiful young woman how to be fully human, &c., &c., &c. I’m not sure how often this idea had been played out on screen by 1965, but I don’t think this was the first time.

Some of the later scenes in the movie are very effective, however, even if many of the big concepts fall kind of flat. There’s a really frightening scene where Lemmy and Natasha (the girl who falls for him) attend an execution. It’s held at a swimming pool. Spectators watch from a balcony as the condemned, one at a time, march to the edge of the diving board. They’re shot there, and fall into the water; four women in bathing suits jump in after them to drown them if they have survived, and retrieve the bodies (so the next person can have a nice, empty pool to fall into, presumably). It’s pretty chilling.

One other thing to note: this movie was made for basically no money, and it shows. Some of the handheld camera work is really nice in a threadbare way, though—there’s a great shot where the camera tracks Lemmy across a hotel lobby into an elevator, goes up with him, and follows him out. The shot is repeated in reverse later in the movie; both times it looks great. There’s also a very nice shot of Lemmy and Natasha having breakfast in front of a television; all you see are their hands and the meal reflected in the dead screen.

I think the low budget actually helps Godard when it comes to the sets. He shot around Paris, picking the most depressing architecture he could find; it looks as dystopian now as it did then. The best moment of this type: Lemmy and one of Alpha 60’s technicians walk down an endless hall with closed doors on either side. As they walk, fluorescent lights weakly flicker to life all the way down the hall. “Ah! The day breaks!” says the technician. It’s a perfect moment.


  • Terry Gilliam has clearly seen this movie more than once. There’s a shot of Von Braun, the technician, barking orders at lackeys as they walk down a corridor that shows up in Brazil, and when Lemmy is interrogated by Alpha 60, the microphones that keep moving around his head seem to be the inspiration for the television screens in Twelve Monkeys.

  • You know that thing in science fiction movies where you realize that the writer doesn’t really know much about science? Yeah, this movie’s got that. Somebody says “150 light years ago,” which is nails on a blackboard for me. There’s actually one bad science line that I loved: “We took the tangent to the center districts.” That’s not even bad science; it’s bad geometry.

  • Here’s how you know you’re in a noir: Lemmy has one of these “Seductress, Third Class” women sit on a chair in his hotel room. He has her hold a magazine over her head, open to a centerfold. He takes her picture. Then he lays down on his bed and starts reading a copy of Le Grand Sommeil (Chandler in translation); and suddenly, without looking up from his book, shoots a bullet through each of the pinup’s breasts with a pistol. Note that there’s nothing to motivate him to do this; I guess he just likes shooting up centerfolds.

  • Anna Karina, who plays Natasha, was Godard's wife during the time the movie was made. Here she is:

    She kind of makes me want to give up writing and become a director. Preferably famous, and French, and in the 60s.

  • I think one of Tereza’s nightmares in The Unbearable Lightness of Being (the book—I haven’t seen the movie yet) is pretty similar to the execution scenes in this movie; I wonder if Kundera got the idea from Godard.

One thing I’ve been learning from watching these movies is that a lot of things that I thought were original ideas in movies I’ve liked were in fact done earlier, sometimes better, sometimes worse, but earlier. I thought I was really on the verge of something big, until I read this:

The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.
Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.

Turns out some jerkoff stole my big idea two thousand years ago.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

#24: High and Low

High and Low, 1963, directed by Akira Kurosawa, written by Eijirô Hisaita, Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa, and Hideo Oguni, loosely based on Hayakawa Shobo's translation of Evan Hunter's novel King's Ransom, which Hunter wrote under the pen name Ed McBain. Now those are some complicated writing credits.

A space alien who knew nothing about film history and decided to learn it by watching the Criterion Collection would come to the conclusion that Toshirô Mifune was one of the best known actors in the world. He's been in five of the twenty-one movies I've watched so far: Seven Samurai, Musashi Miyamoto, Duel at Ichijoji Temple, Duel at Ganryu Island, and now High and Low. Don't get me wrong: I love Toshirô Mifune. But Criterion loves him even more.

The other four movies I've seen Mifune in are all period pieces where he plays a samurai. So it's kind of a shock to see him in a three-piece suit. He plays Kingo Gondo (Douglas King in the original novel), a wealthy shoe executive (no, really!). The premise is great; Gondo has a chauffeur whose young son is friends with his son. At the beginning of the movie, Gondo has borrowed against all his assets for a complicated business scheme whereby he will gain majority control of the company he works for. So he has a great deal of cash, all of it earmarked for saving his job and crushing his business rivals. Unfortunately for Mr. K., just as he's dispatching a junior executive with the money to make the stock purchase, he receives a phone call from a man who says he has kidnapped his son. He wants 30 million yen, of the 50 million Kingo has just pulled out. Kingo and his wife decide to pay it, and Kingo says that no amount of money is too much to pay for his son's life (he doesn't say this to the kidnapper, but he does say it in his chauffeur's hearing). Just then, Kingo's son walks into the room. Guess which chauffeur's son the kidnapper has grabbed by mistake? Guess who is suddenly much less willing to put up the ransom?

The first forty minutes or so of this movie are very tightly constructed. Kurosawa keeps everything in the same few rooms of Kingo's house (you could do this part as a play). I'd love to read an English translation of the screenplay because this part of it is a model of narrative compression. Some of the phone conversations between Kingo and the kidnapper are played out on screen (with police officers running everywhere trying to get a trace on the call, &c.). Some of the conversations you only hear as tape recordings when the police are playing them back, discussing them later. There's not a wasted second. And the sequence where Kingo pays the ransom (it takes place on the bullet train) is a wonderful set piece.

Unfortunately, after the Kingo pays the ransom (under protest) and the kid is returned, the movie kind of falls apart for me. The rest of the movie is about the police trying to get Kingo's money back as his world falls apart. It's all right, but without the ticking-clock of the kidnapped kid, it doesn't work as well. And some sequences didn't work for me at all: there's a long police procedural scene that falls flat. Structurally (and here I mean the internal structure of the sequence, not how it fits into the movie), it's a good idea; they have an intelligence briefing covering different investigative routes the police are taking. As each cop describes the lead he's been following, Kurosawa cuts from the briefing room to the cops investigating. It's not quite Law and Order, but it's the same focus on police grunt work that's made Dick Wolf a very rich man. But the sequence is fifteen minutes long and feels like it's an hour. What's more, none of the leads they're following pan out. So you get a good feeling for unrewarding police work, I suppose, but it totally kills the momentum Kurosawa has built up to that point.

The end sequence is interesting; the camera follows the kidnapper through the slums of Yokohama as the police close in (it's actually a little more complicated than that). The killer doesn't get any dialogue here, and he wears mirrored shades. Which kind of reminds me of this other movie I saw the same weekend. Let's compare:

Akira Kurosawa's High and Low

Akira Kurosawa's High and Low

NOT Akira Kurosawa's High and Low.

Of course, Kevin looks that way in the books, so I guess Frank Miller is more the person who did the ripping-off. But it's even the same haircut. The stills don't do the similarity justice, because you can see an actual reflection in the glasses. A lot of the time in High and Low, the kidnapper is lit so the lenses are just as white as Kevin's in Sin City.

Some of the stuff in the "Low" section of the movie is really bizarre; there's a scene where the kidnapper pulls off a big heroin deal while frantically go-go dancing with his dealer (again, no dialogue). And there's a surprisingly scuzzy scene in a house full of heroin users. But there's nothing as tight as the first forty-five minutes in the movie's later scenes.

One more thing. Towards the end, I was expecting one more twist (Kingo set himself up! The police are in on it! It was all a dream!) and it never came. I don't think the movie really needed it, but it occurred to me how much I've been conditioned to want one last, overwhelming twist. I think a lot of scripts sell these days because they've got that, whether it fits the movie or not. Exhibit A is The Upside of Anger, where the twist betrays everything the movie has spent so long getting the audience emotionally involved with. But you can bet that people reading the script didn't ask whether the twist made sense for the movie so much as they said to each other "Twist! Buy! Buy! Buy!"


  • Only one random fact. As you can see from the stills above, High and Low is in 2.35:1. This aspect ratio first appeared in 1953 and was called, in its original incarnation, Cinemascope. In Japan, it was called"Tohoscope." Tohoscope! For other names for widescreen film formats, see here. My favorites: Super Technirama 70, SuperTotalscope, and best of all, Warwickscope. Because nothing says "widescreen grandeur" like "Warwickscope!"

Sunday, April 03, 2005

#23: Robocop

Robocop, 1987, directed by Paul Verhoeven, written by Michael Miner and Edward Neumeier.

Movies set in the future are always in danger of becoming irrelevant, warning the audience against things that will not come to pass. I suspect that Alphaville will be that way (I'll be seeing that a few movies from now). Robocop was written 20 years ago, but it still seems fresh and relevant. In part, this is because the writers got lucky; they picked the right social trends to extrapolate from. They missed some things that they would have had a field day with if they'd been able to predict them: reality television, the internet, SUVs. And the last time I checked, there weren't any cyborgs running around. But they got a lot of things right: privatizing public services, corporate crime, terrible newscasts. And if the 6000 SUX (Detroit's hottest car in the movie) doesn't look anything like what people drive today, it gets about the same gas mileage as a hummer.

Robocop, for those of you who've been living in a cave, is about Alex J. Murphy, a Detroit police officer, who is killed in the line of duty and turned into the organic basis for a robotic police officer (or "robocop," if you will). He's the prototype for a line of cyborgs that are being developed by OCP, Omni Consumer Products, a megacorporation that has contracted with Detroit to run the police department. Robocop laughs, he learns, he kills bad guys.

Part of the secret of Robocop's world seeming so recognizeable is that the filmmakers consciously didn't change much. On the commentary track, Jon Davison (the executive producer) points out "the 7-11 of tomorrow. Which looks a lot like the 7-11 of today." There's only one really futuristic feature in the movie, and that's the robots; everything else is just slightly changed from America in the mid-eighties. This is something my writing partner and I have been talking about recently with regards to spec scripts; you're allowed to change one thing in the world of your movie, but you have to pretty much stick with the world we're living in for the rest of it. Robocop was actually supposed to seem more futuristic than it does. The film's police cars were supposed to be completely different, but when the first prototype of the police car of tomorrow showed up on set, the crew burst out laughing, so Davison just rented a bunch of Ford Tauruses instead. They look great.

Peter Weller plays Robocop, and he does a good job, though it's not what you'd call an actor's dream role. The really fun acting in this movie is done by the bad guys. Kurtwood Smith (the dad from "That 70s Show") is in top form as Clarence Boddicker, the leader of a crime syndicate. He has these glasses that were put on at director Paul Verhoeven's insistance to suggest Heinrich Himmler (Verhoeven grew up in occupied Holland and has some issues with Nazis). The glasses make the character, though; I think if I'm ever costuming a villain I'm going to have to remember that. The rest of the gang is the best cast you could hope for: Paul McCrane and Ray Wise, among others. A bunch of really interesting looking people, rather than just generically bad bad guys. Miguel Ferrer's in it too, as a corporate striver who's behind the Robocop project before his unfortunate demise.

Verhoeven's direction is solid; this is a movie that really gained a lot when going from script to screen. I get the impression Verhoeven had a lot to do with the final look of the movie, and good for him; he did it right.

The real triumph in this movie, though, is the production design, the art design, and the special effects. This is the first effects-heavy movie in the Criterion Collection, and the DVD features a lot of information on how the effects were done, from the life-sized puppet of Peter Weller that gets shot in the head to the rear-projection stop-motion that brings ED-209 to life. ED-209 is one of the best designed props in film history. He's OCP's original design for a robotic police officer:

ED was designed by Phil Tippet (who also designed the AT-AT and AT-ST walkers in The Empire Strikes Back). He's intended as a parody of poor American design choices; check out the quad hydraulic rams on each leg. According to Tippet, a robot like that would need one per leg at the most; he's been built Detroit-style, with big, stupid redundancies. His "mouth" is a gigantic radiator/cooling unit, perfect for people to aim at. He can't go up or down stairs. If you knock him over on his back, he can't get up again. He's very, very expensive. And the United States military has put in an order for hundreds of him. ED also functions as a pretty good metaphor for the sort of overkill the U.S. military employed during Vietnam (ED is introduced by a scientist named MacNamara). In the (really great) boardroom scene where ED first shows up, it becomes immediately apparent that he doesn't have much sense of restraint. And neither does Verhoeven; there's a lot of blood in that scene (and if you haven't seen the pre-MPAA version that's on the Criterion disk, you don't have any idea just how much blood there really is). Anyway, ED-209 is my favorite thing about Robocop.


  • Paul Verhoeven has a doctorate in mathematics. Really!

  • The writers are not big fans of capitalism. Sample dialogue: "Why do we have to make more money by selling coke? Can't we just steal it?" "There's no better way to steal money than free enterprise."

  • The most jarring anachronism for me was a television set in Murphy's house (in a flashback). It had dials on it, one for VHF and one for UHF. Not futuristic.

  • Nancy Allen arrived on set while Paul Verhoeven was shooting scenes from "It's Not My Problem," the sitcom that's on televisons throughout the movie (it's the one with the catch phrase "I'd buy that for a dollar!"). If you haven't seen the movie, the sitcom is deliberately terrible and unfunny. As a result, Allen thought she'd made a terrible mistake in agreeing to appear in the movie; she didn't realize those scenes were supposed to be bad and badly directed.

  • And speaking of agreeing to appear: this movie was sent to all kinds of American directors, then all kinds of European directors. They all passed, including Verhoeven, but after a year or so Verhoeven agreed to do it. Every a-list actor at the time also passed on it before they settled on Weller, so both the director and the star were last-ditch choices.

  • And for what it's worth, I would have passed on it too. Most of the things that make this movie great were added while it was being made, not in the script as written. And that's not just production design, it's plot points, too. That scene where Ronny Cox gets fired so Robocop can kill him? That was Jon Davison's idea.