Saturday, December 31, 2005

#46: The Most Dangerous Game

The Most Dangerous Game, 1932, directed by Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack, screenplay by James Ashmore Creelman, from the short story by Richard Connell.

The Most Dangerous Game seems doomed to languish in the shadows of the other film Schoedsack and producer Merian C. Cooper were working on in 1932; an obscure art-house gem called King Kong. But although it's not a groundbreaking special effects masterpiece, The Most Dangerous Game stands up very well on its own. I actually enjoy watching it more than Kong, mostly because it is so quickly paced (it's all of 63 minutes long).

The movie, like the story, is about a famous big game hunter named Rainsford who finds himself washed ashore on an island in the Pacific. There he meets Zaroff, a Cossak aristocrat who has retired to the island in the wake of the Russian revolution. The two men share a passion for the hunt, and Zaroff is delighted to have Rainsford as a guest. Rainsford is more than happy to be there, until he realizes that Zaroff hunts a little differently than he's accustomed to.

I've written about the problems David Lean and his collaborators faced when adapting Dickens; you can't film half of a Dickens novel in a reasonable theatrical runtime. The creators of The Most Dangerous Game faced the opposite problem. The story, beloved of middle school English teachers, clocks in at just over 8.000 words. You could probably film a ten minute version that remained faithful to the original text. That wouldn't endear you to studio heads who'd asked for a feature, however. So to stretch Connell's story to feature length, Creelman had to pad it a bit. What did he add? Well, James Creelman also worked on the screenplay for King Kong. Here's that movie's fictonal impressario Carl Denham talking about his art:

I go out and sweat blood to make a swell picture, and then the exhibitors and critics all say, "if this picture had a love interest, it would gross twice as much." All right, the public wants a girl, and this time I'll give 'em what they want.

So here's what the public wants:

Fay Wray, playing the woman in distress. In the story, Rainsford is Zaroff's only guest; in the movie, Wray's Eve Trowbridge and her brother Martin (played with aplomb by Robert Armstrong, also in Kong) are recipients of Count Zaroff's unique form of hospitality. Zaroff, as portrayed by Leslie Banks, is one of my all-time favorite screen villains. Here's his entrance:

As you can see, he's that most dreaded of American villains: the European Aristocrat. He may look a bit ominous in this shot, but Rainsford meets him after trying and failing to have a conversation with Zaroff's mute servant, Ivan. And compared to Ivan, Zaroff looks warm and welcoming. It's Ivan who answers the door, and listens to Rainsford's pleas for help, with the following expression:

Zaroff, sensing that Ivan has been rude to his new guest, orders him to smile. He does:

And things just get more unpleasant from there. As you can see, this isn't particularly subtle filmmaking, but it's a hell of a lot of fun. Leslie Banks performance is fantastic to watch, start to finish. He was injured in World War I and the left side of his face was paralyzed, which means that in scenes where he is meant to appear civilized and welcoming, he is nearly always shown in profile, as below:

That's the Count talking to Rainsford for the first time. And yes, that's Joel McCrea playing Rainsford. Anyway, in profile, Banks looks normal. But when he's meant to be creepy, he's shot straight on, letting you see his bulging eye and asymmetric features:

You can't do that kind of thing with makeup. The still above is from the end of one of my favorite exchanges: Fay Wray is going to bed, leaving her increasingly drunk and obnoxious brother with Count Zaroff. She urges her brother to get to bed early, and he replies, "Don't worry! The count'll take care of me, all right!" At this, Zaroff looks at her forbiddingly and says, "Indeed I shall..." and the camera does this fantastic dolly towards him staring up the stairs at Fay Wray. It need not be said that the brother is never seen again. If that kind of Grand Guignol dialogue sounds like fun to you, rent this movie immediately; it's one of the best of the sort I've seen.

One of the reasons it's so great is that Zaroff is, for all his campy dialogue, genuinely creepy and threatening. If you haven't read the story, and you haven't figured out what Zaroff is up to on his island, here's a shot of his top-secret trophy room:

But while in the story he's simply a sociopath, in the movie his pathology is more complicated and more frightening. For one thing, the trophy room is a gruesome invention of the filmmakers, and I think it stands up to modern horror standards. For another thing, Zaroff explicitly links hunting with sexual desire; he only wants women immediately after the kill. It's apparent that he plans to rape Eve Trowbridge once he kills Rainsford. It's possible he's brain-damaged; he has a scar from an old head wound that he strokes absentmindedly when in the grip of his madness. And although he has actively sought isolation from the outside world, he desperately wants companionship and understanding. He believes that Rainsford is the one man on earth who can understand him (as Rainsford has written a series of books about hunting which are very Darwinian), and his fury when Rainsford is disgusted by his hobbies is horrible to behold. Of course, the lighting doesn't help:

Don't get me wrong; Zaroff is not a character we're meant to sympathize with or feel sorry for. But his psychology is more complicated than one would expect from the time period, and Banks makes him mesmerizing to watch. The fact that he depends on killing for sexual arousal makes him the precursor of a thousand slasher movie villains. He's not crude in the same sense that, say, Leatherface is, however; I'd put him head-to-head with Hannibal Lecter, that other villainous aristocrat, any day of the week. I think The Silence of the Lambs owes this movie a great debt, and not just for the scene where the heroine finds a pickled head in a jar:

Of course, Eve Trowbridge and Clarise Starling don't have that much in common; Wray is playing a passive character who seems most notable for her ability to open her eyes wider than should be humanly possible when she's horrified:

But while Eve Trowbridge isn't a particularly interesting character, adding her to the story is what makes Zaroff seem so much more awful than he does in Connell's version. This is the rarest of occasions: the addition of a superfluous character vastly improves on the source material. The Most Dangerous Game has other, more sophisticated virtues: the way Rainsford has to embrace Zaroff's philosophy to leave the island, and the fact that there's not too much difference between the way Zaroff "wins" Eve's affections and the way Rainsford does. But if you need more than Leslie Banks and severed heads mounted on walls, we're not coming at films from the same perspective.


  • Ivan, Zaroff's taciturn servant, is played by Noble Johnson, who also appeared in King Kong. If you look closely at the photo above, you can see that he's not so much Cossack as he is black. As well as a long career as an actor, Johnson was one of the co-founders of the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, Hollywood's first black production company.

  • The Most Dangerous Game has more in common with King Kong than a producer, director, writer, and several actors. Both movies used the same jungle sets (on what is now the Sony lot) for their respective islands. If you look closely, you will notice some similarities in the two stills below. The first is from The Most Dangerous Game, the second from King Kong.

  • As you can see from Fay Wray's closeup at the top of the page, Henry Gerrard, the cinematographer, favored extremely soft focus for his female star. It's pretty jarring, given how sharp the rest of the film seems, but every time we cut to a closeup of Wray, someone's been slathering vaseline on the lens. Wray didn't need that treatment to look good, as you can see in King Kong.

  • Zaroff's hunting dogs belonged to Harold Lloyd, who loaned them to the production. They were Great Danes, and didn't look threatening enough, so the filmmakers had their fur dyed. Lloyd was apparently none too pleased.

  • The fight scenes in this movie seem surprisingly energetic and elaborately choreographed for the period. Below, Rainsford flips one of Zaroff's henchmen over his back while Zaroff himself rolls of the chair where he's just been thrown. There are not many films from the 1930s with fistfights that still seem interesting. This is one of them.

  • Cooper hated movies that glorified drunkenness, which is why Eve's brother is so unbearable and comes to such an unpleasant end. Both Cooper and Schoedsack hated hunting for sport, which made this story a natural choice for them.

  • If you look closely at Zaroff's entrance shot above, you can see a gruesome tapestry depicting a centaur carrying off a woman. It's one of those decorating motifs you won't see at Ikea, and it's repeated spectacularly in his front door knocker, which requires the user to grasp the woman in the centaur's arms to knock. It's a really excellent piece of set design, and an immediate warning that all will not be sexually kosher in Zaroff's castle:

  • In the original cut of the movie, the scene in Zaroff's trophy room was a full ten minutes longer, and featured Leslie Banks showing off several fully-stuffed and posed men, describing in detail how they were killed. This proved to be too gross for preview audiences, many of whom walked out during that scene; as a result, the scene was cut back to the head on the wall and head in a jar pictured above. The disc doesn't include the cut footage, which is too bad. To paraphrase Kennedy, some people see human taxidermy and say "Why," but I see human taxidermy and say "Why not ten minutes longer?"

    I am never going to be President.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

#45: Taste of Cherry

Taste of Cherry, 1997, written and directed by Abbas Kiarostami.

Everyone who has written about Taste of Cherry has to find some way to deal with the fact that this is an incredibly slow movie. Some people describe it as "languid," or "deliberately paced." Everyone uses the word "meditation" at some point. One synopsis reads, "When Kiarostami directs, the doors are opened to metaphysical reflection." That's undeniable. But the doors are opened to metaphysical reflection when staring at a blank wall, too.

People seem to enjoy this movie to the extent that they fill in the long, slow shots with thoughts of their own. I suppose that this is a fitting response to Taste of Cherry, a languidly paced meditation on the unbridgeable distances between people. I think Kiarostami takes boredom as a narrative strategy about as far as it can be taken, however, and although I liked the movie, it's an exhausting experience and not one I would recommend to most people.

The phrase "boredom as a narrative strategy" isn't entirely a joke. Here's Kiarostami describing what he likes and doesn't like in movies:

I don't like to engage in telling stories. I don't like to arouse the viewer emotionally or give him advice. I don't like to belittle him or burden him with a sense of guilt. Those are the things I don't like in the movies. I think a good film is one that has a lasting power and you start to reconstruct it right after you leave the theater. There are a lot of films that seem to be boring, but they are decent films. On the other hand, there are films that nail you to the seat and overwhelm you to the point that you forget everything, but you feel cheated later. These are the films that take you hostage. I absolutely don't like the films in which the filmmakers take their viewers hostage and provoke them. I prefer the films that put their audience to sleep in the theater. I think those films are kind enough to allow you a nice nap and not leave you disturbed when you leave the theater. Some films have made me doze off in the theater, but the same films have made me stay up at night, wake up thinking about them in the morning, and keep on thinking about them for weeks. Those are the kind of films I like.

I agree with Kiarostami that there are films that "nail you to the seat and overwhelm you to the point that you forget everything, but you feel cheated later." I think a lot of stylish, visually interesting, narratively dead films are that way (Oldboy, to name a recent example). But I also think that the best films, my favorite films, are the ones that nail you to the seat and overwhelm you, but for a purpose. And even a slowly-paced film (Andrei Rublev) can do that. But Taste of Cherry is more of a Rorschach blot than a movie; what you get from it depends on what you bring to it, more than any other film I've seen.

The film does have a story: Mr. Badii, a middle-class Iranian played by Homayon Ershadi, is driving around the hills to the north of Tehran trying to find someone to help him commit suicide. Most of the movie takes place in Mr. Badii's Range Rover:

And we see Badhii's passengers the same way. Here's Ali Moradi playing a soldier Badii meets:

The vast majority of the movie is one of the two shots above, or a wide shot of the Range Rover winding through the hills, as Badii and his passengers converse about suicide. Kiarostami does have an eye for interestingly framed shots, like this one, of workers converging on Badii's car to push it out of a ditch:

The flattened compostion here is striking, all the more so because it's one of the few moments that something is happening besides Badii's drive through the hills. And if Kiarostami doesn't care much about plot, he has even less interest in character. You know very little about Badii, less still about the other characters. Part of the point is that you can't know the things that really matter about any of these people; this is central to Badii's view, at least. Here's his answer when asked why he wants to die:

It wouldn't help you to know and I can't talk about it. And you wouldn't understand. It's not because you don't understand but you can't feel what I feel. You can sympathize, understand, show compassion. But feel my pain? No.
A lot comes down to whether you agree with him or not. The movie, at least, goes out of its way to make viewers aware of the unbridgeable gulf between this character and our own lives, and not just by severely limiting what he tells us about himself. When Badii's not in his car, there's usually something between us and him, most often glass.

The second still shows Badii either taking his sleeping pills or not, before taking a taxi to the grave he's dug for himself. In a standard film, this would be the moment of revelation; in this one, we see it in a long take from outside his apartment, behind curtains, and never know what he's chosen. The one moment Badii seems to break through his carefully controlled facade, our view of him is obscured by rock dust from some sort of quarry.

Kiarostami keeps this strict distance between viewer and characters, as though he's treating their inner lives with respect or allowing them to keep their dignity from us. But of course, these aren't real people. For me, the most beautiful shot in the movie was of Badii's shadow, cast on a pile of dirt falling through a sifter at the quarry. As long as the dirt continues to fall, there's a surface for him to cast a shadow on; at the end of the shot, the dirt ceases, only the grid remains, and Badii's shadow diffuses onto the equipment below him.

It's a really beautiful reminder that what we're watching is transient and fictional. I'm not sure that Kiarostami wants us to make the next connection, to say that human life is as transient as Badii's shadow, mostly because of the ending of the film. Here's how it ends: we see Badii lie down in his grave, and cut from a point-of-view shot of the sky over Tehran to a close-up of Badii's face, intermittently illuminated by flashes of lightening, as he closes his eyes. It's not clear whether he's dying or going to sleep, and the screen goes black. But lest we ponder the question too long, Kiarostami jarringly cuts to grainy video footage from the making of the movie; we see Homayon Ershadi smoking a cigarette on location as Kiarostami and his crew work on the movie. Whatever imaginative connection viewers have drawn between themselves and Mr. Badii are purely illusory; he doesn't exist. As the instrumental parts of Louis Armstrong's version of "St. James Infirmary" plays over the credits (the only non-diagetic music in the film), we are forcibly reminded that when thought we were watching Badii, we were, in fact, alone with our own thoughts.


  • The sound mix (by Mohammad Reza Delpak), is much more subtle and interesting than the cinematography. Sound is treated more realistically in this film than in most I've seen, from muffled and misheard parts of conversations to the distant sound of a helicopter or children. It's also the first movie I've seen where the mixer got a before-the-title credit.

  • Roger Ebert hates this movie. From his review: "A case can be made for the movie, but it would involve transforming the experience of viewing the film (which is excruciatingly boring) into something more interesting, a fable about life and death." I didn't hate it, but I'm not planning on watching it again.

  • I think that some of the moments that moved me in this film benefited from how boring the scenes around them were. (By the same token, I think Fishing With John is all the funnier for how spread out the funny parts are). I don't think this is a strategy I'm going to be able to use myself, so if it seems like you can do something with it, go nuts.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

#44: The Red Shoes

The Red Shoes, 1948, directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, screenplay by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, additional dialogue by Keith Winter.

Brian Eno famously observed that only 100 people bought the Velvet Underground's first album when it was originally released, but they all started bands. The Red Shoes may well be the cinematic equivalent. Over the years, The Red Shoes has inspired albums, installation art, choreography, and the careers of countless ballerinas. Pretty much all of the great MGM musicals of the fifties owe it more than a little. It's one of Martin Scorcese's all time favorite movies, and he credits it with providing the breakthrough he needed to figure out how to film the fight scenes in Raging Bull. But unfortunately, Powell and Pressburger are also responsible for Snake Eyes, Mission to Mars, and The Bonfire of the Vanities, since The Red Shoes convinced Brian De Palma to become a filmmaker.

It's clear why creative people of all types would turn to The Red Shoes for inspiration; the movie is about the level of personal sacrifice and dedication practicing any art at a high level requires. The movie follows the lives of two young people as they get their start in the world of ballet. Moira Shearer plays Victoria Page, the ballerina:

And Marius Goring plays a young composer named Julian Craster:

Both Victoria Page and Julian Craster join the Ballet Lermontov, a touring Russian company modeled on Diaghelev's Ballet Russes, and fall to different degrees under the sway of Boris Lermontov, the diabolical impressario who runs the ballet. As you can see from the stills, the movie is not what you would call down to earth in terms of its costumes or settings; it's set among the highest of the upper class. Believe it or not, Page and Craster are the closest the movie gets to working class characters; Anton Walbrook's portrayal of Boris Lermontov will go down in history as the definitive European aristocrat. Here he is early in the film and early in the morning, smoking a cigarette and reading his mail:

Yes, that's a tartar robe he's wearing. In a few seconds, he's going to hold out that cigarette until his butler appears from nowhere, takes it from his hand and extinguishes it; walking to the ashtray himself would be too, too exhausting. And here he is taking a stroll with other members of his company on the streets of Monte-Carlo, wearing exquisitely bizarro sunglasses:

Lermontov is a bully, he's arrogant, he's jealous, he's manipulative, and he cares for nothing but his ballet. As a result, he's able to extract brilliant work from everyone who works for him. Craster and Page join the Ballet Lermontov at the same time (in fact, on the same morning), and the early part of the movie follows them as Lermontov carefully cultivates their talents. They both get their big chance at the same time, too: Lermontov asks Victoria Page to dance the lead in a new ballet that Craster is writing. The subject is "The Red Shoes," and here's how Lermontov describes the story to Craster:

"The Ballet of The Red Shoes" is from a fairy tale by Hans Andersen. It is the story of a young girl who is devoured with an ambition to attend a dance in a pair of red shoes. She gets the shoes and goes to the dance. For a time, all goes well and she is very happy. At the end of the evening she is tired and wants to go home, but the red shoes are not tired. In fact, the red shoes are never tired. They dance her out into the street, they dance her over the mountains and valleys, through fields and forests, through night and day. Time rushes by, love rushes by, life rushes by. But the red shoes go on.

Craster asks, "What happens at the end?" and Lermontov carelessly replies, "Oh, in the end she dies." The careful reader will guess that there are some similarities between the story and Victoria Page's. The movie is, in fact, about the way art consumes life. Lermontov, while not an artist himself, understands this better than Page or Craster; it's the source of his power over them. He has no understanding and even less interest in what he calls "the doubtful comforts of human love," so his reaction on hearing that Craster and Page are seeing each other must be seen to be believed. He finds out at the birthday party of his head choreographer; here's his reaction shot, surrounded by people having a good time:

The life of the party.

And later, when he discovers they've just been married:

Note the full ashtray next to him and that unbelievable Russian velvet shirt. When you break out the red velvet, you know it's been a long, dark night of the soul. He's not conventionally jealous, however: he simply thinks Victoria Page can't be a great dancer if she allows herself to spend any time on normal life.

As you can see from the costumes, nothing in this movie is played subtly. Moira Shearer, on first reading the script, thought it was "simply awful. Pure women's magazine," and in its bare outlines she was right. But Powell and Pressburger take so many risks throughout that you're inclined to forgive them their more baroque conceits. The biggest risk by far is the Ballet of the Red Shoes itself, which is the centerpiece of the movie, and an actual ballet, albeit a short one, created for the movie by Brian Easdale and choreographed by Robert Helpmann.

Most movies about artists of any type make one of two mistakes. If the movie is about an actual artist (e.g., Pollock), then the art itself is liable to be good. To counter that, most filmmakers succumb to an irresistable urge to come up with a ridiculous story about how the artist got their ideas. If the artist is fictional, the art itself tends to be, shall we say, not as good as the other characters would have you believe. Powell and Pressburger avoided both of these pitfalls here. The scenes of Craster working on the score have a ring of truth to them that is usually missing from this kind of movie; watch for a scene in which he excitedly explains to Lermontov that the church scene should use a four-part chorale, and then bangs out on the piano how he'd like it orchestrated. And although I'm no balletomane, the ballet itself seemed quite passable to me.

Which is a good thing, because rather than showing excerpts from Victoria Page's big performance, Powell and Pressburger show you the whole ballet, start to finish. This is a fifteen minute sequence right in the middle of a conventional melodrama, and it could have brought the movie to a screeching halt. It works, though, and is actually necessary for the rest of the film to make sense.

First, it's a cinematic ballet, not a theatrical one. The first shots of the ballet are done from the audience's perspective, but the camera quickly moves onto the stage. Within the first minute, Victora Page sees the red shoes on display in the shoemaker's shop and imagines herself dancing in them. We see what she sees, thanks to the miracle of optical printing:

This is an effect that would be difficult to produce on stage, to put it mildly. From that point on, the ballet is completely cinematic. It uses optical shots, jump cuts, variable camera speed and other special effects of all sorts to make the first film ballet (as opposed to filmed ballet). "The Red Shoes Ballet" is bold gesture after bold gesture, and enough of them work that it's difficult to fault the ones that don't. There are parts that didn't work for me; the line of dancers that transform into flowers, birds, and clouds, for example. But it's like watching a standup comic—not all the jokes hit but as long as they keep coming, it's all right. For me, the single best shot in this sequence comes at the end of the fair. All the other dancers are dropping from exhaustion, but Victoria Page keeps dancing. The camera follows her down an alley as cellophane posters drift to the ground. It's a tracking shot, and couldn't happen on stage, but on film it's haunting.

Even more importantly, the Red Shoes Ballet is subjective. Rather than trying to capture the experience of a hypothetical audience member, Powell and Pressburger try to capture on film Victoria Page's experience dancing. Take a look at this still from the pas de deux:

It's one of the only shots we get of the audience, and as you can see, they're not particularly important to Page. She's dancing for two people: Craster (conducting) and Lermontov (in the box). As I said earlier, Scorcese learned how to shoot the fight scenes in Raging Bull from studying this sequence. Like Powell and Pressburger, he stays mostly in the ring, focuses on La Motta's subjective experience (think of the zoom in/dolly out shot during the last Sugar Ray Robinson fight). He treats the audience the same way Powell and Pressburger do, too:

La Motta doesn't give a fuck about them, so they fade into the background. She wouldn't put it that way, but Victoria Page feels the same way. Even when they begin applauding before she's finished dancing, she doesn't process it as applause. In the soundtrack we hear applause but here's what we see:

Filming the ballet subjectively is incredibly important for what follows. For the audience to understand why choosing between life and art is near-impossible for Victoria Page, it has to be clear what she gets from ballet. She says, early in the movie, that asking her why she wants to dance is like asking someone else why they want to live. By the time the ballet sequence is over, you understand what it's like for her to be on stage, and it's very clear that when she is forced to choose between art and "the doubtful comforts of human love," she'll choose art every time.


  • This disc has one of the strangest commentary tracks I've ever heard. In the seventies, Powell and Pressburger co-wrote a novelization of the movie for Avon Books; there's a complete audio track of Jeremy Irons, no less, reading from this novelization. There's a similar track on Lord of the Flies, but it's Golding reading from his own novel on which the film was based, not a book based on the movie published thirty years after the fact. Not surprisingly, the book is not as good as the movie; nobody watches The Red Shoes for the screenplay.

  • And speaking of embarassing collaborations between Powell and Pressburger in the 1970s, the last film they made together is featured in the (excellent) filmography on the DVD. It's The Boy Who Turned Yellow, an educational film about electricity. Besides the novel and this movie, their collaboration ended in 1957.

  • Moira Shearer is interviewed on the disc. At the time the film was made, she was a world class ballerina at the top of her game. The same could not be said, however, for Robert Helpmann or Léonide Massine, the two other featured dancers. Massine had been world-class; in fact, he was the one cast member who danced in Diagilev's Ballet Russes. At the time The Red Shoes was made, however, he was in his early fifties and well past his prime. Helpmann was younger, but was never as good a dancer (I recognized him from Henry V, where he played the Bishop of Ely). Shearer wastes no time in pointing out that neither man is a very good dancer in the film, although she does allow that "Bobby's" choreography is "perfectly adequate." She sounds like she might have not been much fun to work with. Apparently she and Michael Powell grew to hate each other over the course of the film. She does seem to have nothing but respect for Anton Walbrook, however.

  • The locations in the film are great; they really used Covent Garden and the Mercury Theater in Notting Hill. The best, however, is a brief scene inside the Opéra National de Paris. Check out this room:


  • Everyone who writes about this film mentions the color, so: it's lush. According to the founders of Technicolor, this is the best example of three-strip Technicolor there is. As you no doubt know, three-strip takes incredible amounts of light, which means that the shots during the ballet that featured a spotlight (see the stills above) were very difficult to create. Because the non-spotlit areas were already so brightly lit, an unbelievably bright light had to be built to create the circular outline of a spotlight. It was designed specifically for this production and, unlike every other light I've ever heard of, was water-cooled.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

#43: Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies, 1963, directed by Peter Brook, from the novel by William Golding.

On his pseudo-commentary track for Lord of the Flies,1 William Golding tells a story about a student in a creative writing class who goes to his teacher and says, "I've finished the story I was writing. Now should I go back and put the symbols in?" You can't do it that way, of course; symbols are either an organic part of your story or they're a disastrous mistake. The genius of Golding's novel (about a group of English schoolboys stranded on a desert island, if you're one of the two people on the planet who didn't read this in middle school) is that his story is perfectly coherent on a literal level. This makes it ideal for a film adaptation in a way that, say, Beloved is not. In fact, the novel is at its strongest the less it strays from the literal story, and is weaker in the places where Golding hits you over the head with the other meanings he's playing around with. Compare these two death scenes, for example. Here's Piggy's death:

The rock struck Piggy a glancing blow from chin to knee; the conch exploded into a thousand white fragments and ceased to exist. Piggy, saying nothing, with no time for even a grunt, traveled through the air sideways from the rock, turning over as he went. The rock bounded twice and was lost in the forest. Piggy fell forty feet and landed on his back across the square red rock in the sea. His head opened and stuff came out and turned red. Piggy's arms and legs twitched a bit, like a pig's after it has been killed. Then the sea breathed out again in a long, slow sigh, the water boiled white and pink over the rock; and when it went, sucking back again, the body of Piggy was gone.

And here's the death of one of the pigs Jack's hunters kill:

Here, struck down by the heat, the sow fell and the hunters hurled themselves at her. This dreadful eruption from an unknown world made her frantic; she squealed and bucked and the air was full of sweat and noise and blood and terror. Roger ran round the heap, prodding with his spear whenever pigflesh appeared. Jack was on top of the sow, stabbing downward with his knife. Roger found a lodgement for his point and began to push till he was leaning with his whole weight. The spear moved forward inch by inch and the terrified squealing became a high-pitched scream. Then Jack found the throat and the hot blood spouted over his hands. The sow collapsed under them and they were heavy and fulfilled upon her. The butterflies still danced, preoccupied in the center of the clearing.

To me, the second scene, with its Grand Guignol violence and overwritten sexual connotations ("a lodgement for his point," indeed), is mildly embarassing. Piggy's death, in contrast, is terrifying precisely because it is described matter-of-factly. "His head opened and stuff came out and turned red," is much more nightmarish than the pig's death. Peter Brook seems to have understood this difference, and the tone of his film is much closer to the first passage than the second, more cinéma vérité than Hollywood. And the more Lord of the Flies feels observed rather than staged, the more horrific it is.

Brook does a good job, then, of mimicking Golding's style when he's at his best. He also benefits from the immediacy of film in a way Golding can't. Reading the novel, it's easy to forget just how young Golding's characters are (my memory of the novel was that the main characters were early high schoolers). In fact, however, the oldest kids would be in middle school, and the youngest are toddlers. But reading that Golding's characters are young doesn't have quite the visceral edge that, say, this does:

It's impossible to forget, watching the movie, that all of these kids are prepubescent. I also found that some scenes and images that didn't particularly stick with me while reading the novel became iconic when captured on film:

Perhaps I was a lazy reader, but I didn't realize how visually striking the choir's black robes would be against the white sand until I saw it on screen.

What's most impressive about Lord of the Flies, however, is that Brook managed to make it at all. Nearly everyone who worked on it was completely green. Tom Hollyman, the D.P., was a still photographer who had never touched a motion picture camera. Gerald Feil, the editor, had never edited anything. Peter Brook had directed film before, but had mostly worked in theater. The cast featured thirty-two children, only one of whom had ever acted in anything before. And none of the children's parents would allow them to miss a day of school, so the movie had to be completely finished over summer vacation, shooting in the middle of nowhere with infrequent access to dailies. If all that weren't enough of a challenge, Peter Brook shot it in sequence, working from the novel itself, without a formal screenplay.

As you can imagine, the results owe a great deal to luck and improvisation. I think the single best thing about this movie is the casting, done by Terry Fay and Michael McDonald. When you're casting children, you don't necessarily look for someone who's a good actor, but someone who has to do as little acting as possible to become the character you need. There's no way for a kid to do a Charlize Theron or Robert DeNiro-style body transformation, and the psychological insights a six-year-old can have into another person are, shall we say, limited. But the kids they used were perfect, start to finish. Here's the principal cast:

James Aubrey as Ralph. Simon and Piggy are visible behind him.

Aubrey's kept acting; he was in Tony Scott's Spy Game in 2001.

Tom Chapin as Jack.

This is the one questionable casting decision, as Chapin had lived in the United States for some time and his accent wasn't British enough; he was ultimately overdubbed by another actor. But look at that profile; that's Jack for sure.

Hugh Edwards as Piggy.

Tom Gaman as Simon, staring at the pig's head.

Even the minor characters are remarkably cast. Here's Samneric, the twins, played by David and Simon Surtees:

And this is Roger Allen Elwin (see comments for correction) as my favorite minor character, Roger, the only true sadist in the whole group:

Roger drops a boulder on Piggy.

Apparently Roger Elwin got a little too much into character; according to the commentary track he spent a good deal of the summer catching lizards and throwing them into fires.

As you can see from the stills, Fay and McDonald did an amazing job of finding the right kids for the movie. If you had a very different mental picture of any of those characters when you read the novel I'd be pretty surprised.

The movie's certainly not without its weaknesses, though, and I can't really recommend it as something to sit back and watch as pure entertainment. It was, after all, made by a bunch of first-timers with no money, and although it's better than it has any right to be, sometimes the seams show. For one thing, Brooks found it was impossible to record synchronized sound because they were shooting on the beach all the time (the sound of the waves makes recording impossible). However, he had a tight shooting schedule, such rare access to dailies, and a mortal terror that his actors' voices would change. So instead of waiting to do ADR against actual footage, he would shoot until the light faded, and then go inland with the actors and immediately record the sound for the scenes he'd just shot, relying on memory to get the timing right so he could match it with the film he'd shot earlier in the day. Needless to say, this produced mixed results, and was one of the main reasons the movie took a full year to edit. There aren't any synch issues with what you see onscreen, but the timing seems a little behind the beat throughout (timing in the "actors delivering their lines realistically" sense, not the "sound matching moving lips sense").

The sound doesn't improve much from start to finish (and maybe it's just me, but I hated Raymond Leppard's score, which really took a lot away from the movie for me). But everyone else, from the actors to the cameramen, learned how to their job better the longer they'd been doing it. And because Lord of the Flies was shot in sequence, this means that the overall quality of the movie improves the further into the story you go. The opening scenes seemed very stilted to me; it really got moving around the time Simon encounters the pig's head. In the novel, we're privy to Simon's vision, but in the film the head doesn't talk. Instead, Brook cuts back and forth between a slow push in on Simon's face (the shot of Simon above is from this sequence) and the head on its stake:

The jaunty smile on the pig's face and the buzzing flies on the soundtrack provide the same mixture of good cheer and menace that Golding gives the reader when he has the pig say, "We are going to have fun on this island. Understand? We are going to have fun on this island!" This is the first point where I thought the movie was demonstrably better than the novel, but not the last. The night of Simon's death is a particular standout. Brooks just got all the kids wound up and had two cameramen follow them around for hours as they ran amuck; the result seems like documentary footage, not a scene from a movie. Some parts of this sequence are really beautiful:

The log is the main (only?) light source in the shot, so it lights up the ocean as it flies through the air; the result is impossible to capture in a still, but it's stunning.

And some parts are terrifying:

This picture would not be out of place in Diane Arbus's portfolio.

Both of these shots, and the sequence as a whole, feel completely natural, accidental, and observed, and watching these kids completely give in to chaos is the single best part of the movie. Unfortunately it feels stilted again when Simon emerges and the kids once more have to be part of a narrative. Perhaps Brooks should have just kept the cameras rolling and let the kids do whatever they wanted all summer. As Golding understood, prepubescent boys don't need much directing to descend into chaos and cruelty.


  • Lord of the Flies was shot with handheld Arriflex cameras, which are jittery as hell if handheld. Feil and Hollyman came up with a number of great technical solutions for problems they had working with these; the most striking is their dolly. They used model railway track and cars, camera tripods, and a gate to create something they could quickly move around the beach. What's more, the gate could be used to smoothly change from a tracking shot to a push in or out. Here it is on set:

  • The first day of shooting was also the first day of the Bay of Pigs, which was not necessarily the best day to be sharing a Carribean island with a U. S. military base. Nobody knew what was going on, but they could see warships hovering off the coast all day.

  • During the shoot, Brooks and his crew started getting back dailies in which every third frame or so was washed out. The laboratory kept telling them something was seriously wrong with one of their cameras, since it was flashing the negative; the crew said nothing was wrong, and they fought back and forth about this until one of the crew flew to the laboratory in New York City and observed the development process. It turned that one of the developers was smoking cigars in the lab; when he would take a drag, whatever frame was currently being processed was ruined.

  • Part of Golding's commentary track is him reading excerpts from the novel; I was jolted to hear him have Piggy yell "Which is better—to be a pack of painted n-----s like you are, or to be sensible like Ralph is?" My copy of the novel (the Perigree edition, probably the one you had in school) has it as "a pack of painted Indians," and in the movie it's "a pack of painted savages." So I don't know what to believe, but I do know that Golding's original version of the line (which I think might still be around in British editions) is jarring for no good purpose.

  • Golding's novel has two main plot threads: the Boy's Adventure stuff of surviving on the island and the heavier descent into savagery. In the movie, the fun stuff was mostly cut out for lack of time. But the actors got to have a full on adventure of it while shooting the movie. Here's the dorm they stayed in, an abandoned factory (the picture is from a Life magazine article about the production while it was going on).:

    And here's a page from the newsletter the kids wrote while shooting (mimeographed, no less!):

    When it became apparent to Brooks that the kids were bored, he gave them their own camera and let them write and direct their own movie on days they weren't on set. And when they weren't working on their own movie, they were running around on a beach, shirtless and screaming and hitting each other on camera. In short, it sounds like the best summer camp ever.

1"Pseudo" because it's a set of readings from the novel along with statements about it and—although it's been edited to overlay the same scenes in the movie—doesn't seem to have been designed with commentary in mind. Not too surprising, since it was recorded in 1976.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

#42: Fishing With John

Fishing With John, 1992, written and directed by John Lurie.

This is the first title in the collection that's not a feature. Instead, Fishing With John is a six-episode documentary fishing show in which actor/musician John Lurie goes fishing with celebrities. At first glance, Fishing With John has everything one would expect from a fishing show: bad video cinematography, dull conversation, and most importantly, a self-important narrator who solemnly explains what we're seeing. Here, for example, is part of the narration for the first episode, in which Lurie and Jim Jarmusch go shark fishing in Montauk:

Fascinating, our world today. With technology, man now knows more about his fellow man and the world he lives in than ever before. Yet we still know very little. We know very little, for example, about the topic of today's program: the shark. The shark has lived in the same form for millions of years. The word "Shark" came from the German word "shirke," which means "villain." How deep is the ocean? Nobody really knows for sure. Today's program and fishing adventure should prove to be fun. But it could also prove to be very, very dangerous. The shark has made fatal attacks on humans in every ocean in the world. There are 27 man-eating species of sharks. When it comes to the shark, man is on his menu.

You have to imagine that paragraph read by voiceover artist Robb Webb (who you've heard in a million trailers). It's the kind of blather that I usually just tune out, but here's the thing: none of it's true. Not even close. If the idea of a documentary voiceover that's filled with lies (and not jokes, really, just lies) strikes you as funny, you'll enjoy Fishing With John. It's a case study in really stretching the disconnect between visuals and voiceover. This is not for everyone: it requires an exceptionally dry sense of humor and a lot of patience, because the show is exceptionally silly. And I have my doubts whether it qualifies as great cinema, or great television, but it's certainly unique.

A fishing show is actually kind of a brilliant setting to use for this kind of experiment, because viewers are already trained to tune out while watching fishing, particularly to the narrators, who never say much of interest. Lurie does a good job of writing narration that seems plausible just long enough to make you start to tune out; then the narrator will say something like "Both fishermen are covered with sores and boners." Which doesn't make any kind of sense at all. This is not to say that all of the jokes and silliness is in the narration; far from it. Much of the rest of the fun comes from the fact that neither the guests nor the host know anything about fishing. Here, for example, is one of the shark fishing methods Jim Jarmusch and John Lurie try:

You can probably suss out how this is supposed to work. It doesn't.

Tom Waits, on the other hand, doesn't seem like a staggeringly incompetent fisherman, but when they finally catch a red snapper, he insists on putting the fish down his pants, because it helps with his depression:

This fish is going to have a confusing last few seconds on earth.

The show is at its best, however, when Lurie doesn't play around too much with what's actually on screen and instead lets the disconnect between what we're seeing and what the narrator is describing get wider and wider. He gets better at this as the show goes along. The fourth episode, in which Lurie and Willem Dafoe go ice fishing in Maine, is the first one where he really goes crazy with this; the episode opens with both men having a good time, but not catching any fish:

then shows them gradually getting colder and hungrier, until the last shot:

Over the shot above, Robb Webb intones, "On January 19th, John Lurie and Willem Dafoe died of starvation." And that's the end of the episode. As a footnote, when John appears in the next episode, the narrator says, "John's not dead after all. My mistake."

The disconnect between the narrator and what's on screen reaches its lunatic apotheosis during the last two episodes, a two-part story about fishing in Thailand with Dennis Hopper. As you can imagine, footage of Dennis Hopper fishing in Thailand is already pretty interesting, just because of how crazy and animated he is. Even in a silly hat, he looks like he could tear someone's throat out at any time:

And there aren't that many people who can tell you stories about being thrown out of Cole Porter's house for drinking too much, or give their own ideas about a sequel to Easy Rider. So Lurie could have just let those episodes stand. But instead, he has the narrator superimpose his own version of what we're seeing: John and Dennis are going fishing for giant squid. It's apparent from the visuals (no one ever mentions squid at all) that this is the narrator's own idea. A few examples:

On screen: Footage of the captain of John and Dennis's boat ringing a bell.
Narration: "On the radio, the captain has heard a hysterical SOS from a nearby vessel. He believes this can only mean one thing: a giant squid!"

On screen: John and Dennis walking into an archway, or possibly a cave.
Narration: "In these caves, it is believed there are secrets as to the habits of the giant squid!"

On screen: John and Dennis visiting a Buddhist monastary.
Narration: "John and Dennis stumble onto the sanctuary of an order of squid monks. These monks live in seclusion and study the ways of the giant squid. John and Dennis try to coax them into divulging the secrets of the giant squid, but the squid monks only acquiese to show them photographs of their families."

On screen: John and Dennis asleep in their boat.
Narration: (having previously asserted that the giant squid can "hypnotize most mammals"): "John and Dennis... have been hypnotized!"

The calm, precise way in which the narrator keeps bending what's on screen to suit his own mad narrative is like a less tragic version of Pale Fire. Now I'm one of those people who thinks that a lie becomes funny if it's ridiculous enough and told with a straight enough face. So the show appealed to me, but it's definitely not for everyone. If the squid narration above didn't make you laugh, you should probably steer clear. There's not that much to learn about editing, cinematography, or structure from Fishing With John. And as I noted, it's not even a movie. So what's it doing in the Criterion Collection? My theory is this: If I'd seen this show on television, I would work my ass off to see that it was released on DVD, because no one I described it to would believe that it actually existed. So file this one under one of the less obvious goals of a DVD library: preserving the unbelievably odd.


  • The guests are willing to play along with John's craziness to varying degrees. Tom Waits came up with the idea of putting a fish down his pants, but over the course of the episode, seasickness and poor planning put him into a foul mood; after the episode, he and John didn't speak for several years. Matt Dillon, on the other hand, barely spoke while on the show. John hadn't wanted him as a guest, but the producers insisted. The episode revolves around John and Matt being taught a Costa Rican fisherman's dance to increase their luck. Matt, afraid of looking ridiculous, was only willing to dance around with John for a very short time, so this sequence rather obviously features the reuse of the same few seconds of footage again and again. Throughout the rest of the episode, Matt is extremely unwilling to talk, apparently for fear of being made to look foolish. Well, that won't do. So here, preserved for posterity, is Matt Dillon dancing around like a fool in Costa Rica:

  • In the Tom Waits episode, Lurie had problems finding a boat large enough to film on (it has to be large enough to rock gently). There weren't any, so he bought an unseaworthy tugboat and had it fixed at great expense; its anchor, for example, was flown to Jamaica from Miami. I don't even want to think about the costs of shipping an anchor. Lurie describes this as his Werner Herzog moment. Here's the boat, looking spectacularly unseaworthy.

    The boat was unbelievably rusty and cut both John and Tom's shins to ribbons, which no doubt had something to do with Tom's terrible mood.

  • Although the show often gives the impression that John and his guest are fishing alone, the camera crew is always there, and sometimes very poorly concealed. For example, what's wrong with this still?

    If you answered "The camera guy hiding under a blue blanket," you're right. Here he is again:

  • If you do think straight-faced lies are funny, I highly recommend The Haggis-On-Whey World of Unbelievable Brilliance, a series of beautifully designed, lavishly illustrated children's books that contain not a single actual fact. Giraffes? Giraffes! is a personal favorite. Did you know that giraffes arrived on this planet on a conveyor belt from Neptune?

  • The cinematography isn't much when compared to film, and a lot of it is mediocre looking, but in a few places, it's beautiful. Here are two stills, both from the Thailand episodes:

    Looking at these locations, I can only conclude that I should start my own fishing show as soon as possible.