Sunday, August 21, 2005

#37: Time Bandits

Time Bandits, 1981, directed by Terry Gilliam, written by Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam.

In 1980, Terry Gilliam was depressed because he couldn't get Brazil out of development. To get his mind off things one weekend, he sketched out an outline for what became Time Bandits. The movie feels kind of slapdash and ramshackle; it's a minor film, but it doesn't take itself too seriously, and it's a lot of fun. Childhood is a pretty weird time, and children need pretty weird stories to help them navigate it. The whole thing feels like the kind of story you made up at nine or ten; old enough to have a lot of strange things floating around in your psyche but still prepubescent.

Craig Warnock plays Kevin, a boy of about ten who spends his time reading books about ancient wars and is largely misunderstood and ignored by his parents. Fortunately for Kevin, his room is the location of a hole in space-time. So he has a way out of the boredom of suburbia that wasn't available to most of us: running away with a gang of dwarves who are travelling through time stealing anything of value they can get their hands on. I had to settle for legos, but Kevin gets the larcenous dwarves. That's my life. Oh, they're also being chased by both the Supreme Being and the Evil Genius, neither of whom are people you want mad at you.

The two smartest moves Gilliam makes in this movie are making his main characters dwarves, and making his main characters jerks. They're incredibly greedy, they don't care for anyone but themselves, they're going down the relatively dumb road of defying gods at both ends of the spectrum, and they keep kidnapping a ten-year-old. But they're dwarves, so their hostility and avarice are kind of endearing. Here's the whole bunch:

Notice the costumes, made from whatever they could scavenge from various time periods. Yes, one of them has a colander for a helmet.

The map they're holding in the picture shows all of the holes in space time that they're using to get from place to place. Once Kevin runs off with these guys, the first half of the movie is a tour of various historical time periods, like a better, stranger version of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. The best sequence is also the first: they visit Napoleon during the battle of Castiglione. Rather than leading his troops, Napoleon (played brilliantly by Ian Holm) is captivated by a Punch & Judy show; when the puppeteer is shot, Napoleon demands more entertainment. The theater owner brings out act after act, but nothing satisfies. Napoleon wants "more of the funny show, the little puppets hitting each other. That's what I like! Little things! Hitting each other!"

Napoleon, looking unhappy. The generals in this shot are standing on boxes to make Ian Holm look even shorter.

Of course you have to imagine Ian Holm's terribly inauthentic French accent to really make the scene complete. Better still is the lengthy, drunken speech he gives about the heights of various world leaders:

Alexander the Great? Five feet exactly. Isn't that incredible? Alexander the Great, whose empire streched from India to inch shorter than me. Oliver Cromwell...the only man with any guts in British History...not a big man at all.

Also notable is John Cleese's Robin Hood, a performance loosely inspired by the appearances of minor British royalty at soccer matches. He doesn't do anything except appear, shake everyone's hand, and make inane small talk. He's only on screen for two minutes or so, but he's great.

The best thing about children's movies, I think, is that you're under no obligation to make the bad guys bad for a reason. They don't have to have anything to gain from their actions, they don't have to have had a bad childhood or any backstory; they're just bad. I'm not really sure what inspired David Warner, who plays the Evil Genius (really, that's his character's name!) but he's great fun to watch. He's very campy, and he's not just a fallen angel, he's also a technocrat. Here's his critique of God:

God isn't interested in technology. He cares nothing for the microchip or the silicon revolution. Look how he spends his time... forty-three species of parrots! Nipples for men!
If I were creating the world I wouldn't mess about with butterflies and daffodils. I would have started with lasers. Eight o'clock, Day One!

Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven, as long as hell has digital watches. As you can see, some of the anti-technology elements that show up in Brazil are already present in Time Bandits. As are the creepy masks; two examples:

Despite their appearance, these are good guys.

These guys, on the other hand? Not so good.

Those horrific cow-head things are the Evil Genius's minions. They shoot fireballs from their heads and are roughly eight feet tall. While David Warner may be campy, these guys are genuinely disturbing and threatening.

Structurally Time Bandits is very episodic and loose, as you would expect in a movie that jumps from historical period to historical period. As a result, the strong points are individual scenes, not the movie as a whole. I hadn't seen it since I was a kid. I could have told you the basic story, and I remembered Ian Holm's Napoleon, but completely forgot Sean Connery was in the movie. Which should tell you whose performance is more memorable, but also how loose the movie is; cutting away an entire section doesn't make the story fall apart. Anyway: if you're a fan of Terry Gilliam, you'll find a lot in this film you'll like, but don't expect brilliance. Time Bandits is just a low-key, enjoyable movie. You know, for kids.


  • It's hard to see it in the stills above because, except for the Robin Hood one, there isn't much reference, but Gilliam puts the camera at about four feet off the ground for virtually every shot, so that things are shot from a kid's eye view. The effect is subtle but noticeable; adults look more grotesque and kids and dwarves less so.

  • The shot of the Titanic sinking is from A Night To Remember, although it has been colorized. This makes Time Bandits the first movie in the Criterion Collection to include stock footage from another movie in the collection.

  • Two of the six actors who played the dwarves are now dead. Jack Purvis was crushed by a car, and David Rappaport shot himself. As you can imagine, this makes for a cheery section of the commentary track.

  • Although the Criterion Collection's website says that Time Bandits is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, you can see from the stills above that it's not; it's actually about 1.80:1. I cropped few pixels on the left and right sides of the frame for those stills as well (I believe they were left black to protect against overscan on CRT monitors). I'm not sure if this was masked incorrectly or what, but what I do know is that on a 16:9 TV you end up losing a little of the image at the top and bottom when you zoom in correctly. (The math on that doesn't work, quite; it would have to be less than 1.78:1 for the image to be cropped. I'm trying to figure out why. It's possible the scaler on my TV is wrong). Anyway, the point is, anyway you look at it, this wasn't transferred at 1.85:1.

  • This may be the only children's movie ever made that alludes to Petronius's Satyricon. This, and The Brave Little Toaster.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

#36: Wages of Fear

Wages of Fear, 1953, directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, screenplay by Henri-Georges Clouzot and Jérôme Géronimi, from the novel by Georges Arnaud.

After trying to avoid ruining Diabolique for anyone, it's nice to write about something without a twist ending. You could make a case that Wages of Fear is an insightful critique of globalization, particularly relevant during our occupation of Iraq. And you'd be right, but you'd be boring. Mostly, it's a thriller, with as simple a setup as Speed: get two trucks loaded with nitroglycerin from point A to point B without blowing it up. It's a bit like those Grand Theft Auto levels where you're transporting explosives, except non-interactive.

All right, it's a little more complicated than that. The movie's set in a dead-end town in South America. Like in Casablanca, the town is filled with Europeans in exile; they all want to leave, but no one has enough money. It's an oil town, and as one character remarks, where there's oil, there's Americans. In this case they're workers for the Southern Oil Company (no relation to the Standard Oil Company expressed or implied, I'm sure). In classic American style, the oil company employees have integrated themselves with the local community, established a trust-based relationship with the natives, and are pumping money into the economy. No, I kid, I kid. They actually ride around the town on motorcycles, talk to no one, protect themselves and their oil pipeline with armed guards, and live in a secure area (let's call it a "Green Zone"). They do hire natives, for the lowest paying and most risky jobs. Shortly after the movie begins, four locals are killed and nine injured in an oil rig fire; in a public relations masterstroke, the Americans don't tell anyone who's been hurt (they don't seem to know any of their names), and so the truck carrying the sick and the dead is stormed by locals desperate to know if their family members have been killed.

Americans get to know the locals. Note the friendly uniform and sunglasses of the Southern Oil Company, and the unfortunate mummy in the back of the truck (he doesn't make it).

All that stuff is background, though, and it makes the movie sound much more political than it is. The point is to get the oil well burning and establish that the Southern Oil Company doesn't much care if its workers live or die (that goes for Americans, too: one American gets killed in the oil fire; he is given "the boss's regards" over the phone and the company hangs up on his mother to keep their phone lines free). So with those facts as givens, here it is as a story problem:

  • As long as the oil well is on fire, it's costing Southern Oil money.

  • To put out an oil well fire in 1953, you need explosives (at least, according to this movie; you put charges all around and they suck the oxygen out of the surrounding air).

  • Southern Oil has 200 gallons of nitroglycerin available.

  • Those 200 gallons are 300 miles away from the fire.

  • Nitroglycerin explodes if shaken, spilled, or heated.

  • Southern Oil doesn't have any trucks with shock absorbers or safety equipment.

  • Southern Oil has plenty of trucks without shock absorbers.

  • A lot of people in town are desperate for work.

You can probably guess the solution Southern Oil comes up with. They offer $2000 (about $14,000 today) to any driver who can get a truck filled with nitroglycerin to the fire. They end up hiring four drivers: two Frenchmen, an Italian, and a German. The people who don't get a chance to drive a truck filled with explosives through the mountains aren't happy about it; that's how desperate these people are to get out of town. One of the rejected drivers kills himself; another, it is strongly suggested, kills the German in order to take his place. They're suited up in brand new Southern Oil Company uniforms, paired up, and sent on their way in the dead of night.

One of the two trucks making its way through town, siren blaring, at three in the morning. Note the subtle and reassuring warning label on the front.

What follows is sort of like the most horrible driver's-ed class imaginable. If either truck hits so much as a pothole, the nitroglycerin will explode. Clouzot sets up a series of increasingly sadistic obstacles for the four men, and the resulting scenes are incredibly tense and exciting. A few examples:

  • There's a 20-mile section of road that's had cement poured on it, and thus is covered with potholes and unstable. It's safe to drive it at less than 6 mph or more than 40 mph, but in between those speeds, the truck will rattle too much and the nitroglycerin will explode. So you've got to choose to go slow or fast and stick with that decision. The first truck starts out fast, has the engine blow out, and miraculously coasts to a stop without exploding. They make repairs and set off slowly, assuming the truck behind them is also going slow. The truck behind them, however, decides to go fast. The road is only wide enough for one truck.

  • A boulder blocks the road completely. It's to heavy to be lifted or moved out of the way, and there's no way around it. Of course, the trucks are filled with explosives, so it should be no problem to just blow it up. But this presents the following problems:

    1. If you spill a drop of nitroglycerin it explodes.

    2. The smallest containers on the trucks are way too big.

    3. If the explosion is large enough to destry the boulder, it's probably large enough to send more boulders down from the surrounding cliffs. If a pebble lands in the truckbeds, they'll explode. This part of it doesn't occur to anyone until after they've sucessfully gotten the right amount of nitroglycerin into the rock and lit a fuse.

  • For sheer tension, however, nothing beats this:

    Note the S turn, too tight for a truck to make.

    But fortunately, there's a wooden ramp to use to turn around.

    Which, as you can see, is sturdily built.

    So the truck has to pull forward, then back onto the ramp to make the turn. But the truck is heavy and the wood is rotten, and backing up a truck isn't easy to begin with. What follows is one of the most harrowing scenes ever filmed. I'll give away a secret; they make it. They knock a big hole in the platform with a tire, end up covering the whole thing with slick mud, and nearly go over the edge while backing up, but they make it. Of course, that's the first truck. The second one has a worse time of it. Doing this sequence essentially twice in a row is a ballsy move, but Clouzot pulls it off; it's more exciting the second time around.

These are set pieces that wouldn't be out of place in a modern action movie (and for the most part, they're handled better here than in modern action movies—the best parts are exciting like Raiders of the Lost Ark is exciting, and I don't make that comparison lightly). On top of that, Clouzot layers a pretty vivid picture of globalization at its worst, and on top of that, there's a sort of pop existentialist portrait of the unknowability of other people (let's just say that "teamwork" is pretty loosely defined by these drivers). It's not Andrei Rublev, but it's more than just entertaining (and it's very entertaining). If you're not yet convinced to see this, I offer one final, irrefutable argument: KABOOM!

Not everyone makes it.


  • The structure of this movie would be weird in a modern film; the trucks don't leave town until an hour in. The first hour of the film is mostly local color and character development; you couldn't do it that way today.

  • This was ripped off in 1958 by a Warner Brothers movie called Violent Road, which was different enough to not require rights to Arnaud's novel. In 1977, William Friedkin remade it (Wages of Fear, not Violent Road) as a Roy Scheider movie called Sorcerer. I'm not at all sure why they called it Sorcerer.

  • Peckinpah stole the opening shot in The Wild Bunch from this movie; he uses a group of children tormenting scorpions. In Wages of Fear, it's just one kid who's tied string around the legs of a bunch of cockroaches and is jerking them around likc puppets. In both films, it quickly establishes the setting as "no place you want to be" and the cruel tone of what's to follow. Incidentally, this movie could just as easily be written about as a character-based study of betrayal, instead of a thriller.

  • Three editors are credited: Madeleine Gug, Etiennette Muse, and Henri Rust. I'm not sure what the division of labor was, but whoever was responsible for the editing of the very last sequence of the movie deserves recognition for it. I won't say too much about it except that it's the other famous scene set to the Blue Danube waltz, it's cut in time with the music (four measures per shot, then faster), it has a listening-to-the-same-song-at-the-same-time synchronicity that Cameron Crowe would love, and the very last part looks to have been done with either two or three cameras, is the kind of thing you only get one shot at, and is cut together so smoothly it feels like a single shot. It's also very cruel.

  • This is out of print right now, but a new version is supposed to be released in the fall, with a new transfer and a lot of extra features (the old Criterion version I rented just has the movie; no extras at all, unless you count chapters, subtitles, and color bars as extras). Criterion's site says that the new transfer is high-definition, but I'm not sure how that's possible, given that the source material is 1.33:1. Unless this will be released in HD-DVD or BluRay. In any event, the cover art on the old version is much better than on the new. But I'll probably buy the new one; I liked this movie enough that I'd love to learn more about it.

  • I have personal reasons for being terrified by a movie about having to drive very very carefully, as anyone who has ridden in my car can attest. I'm the most careless driver I know. And my last experience with a truck ended with me getting stuck in my driveway in such a way (tight turn, steep incline, drive wheels without much traction, manual shift) that I completely baffled three tow-truck guys who had no idea how to get the truck out of there. (In the end, we got five or six people to push it up the hill, all of us waiting to have our legs crushed if the truck lurched forward into the wall again). So do I find the idea of backing a truck up over a cliff particularly horrific? Yes. Yes, I do.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

#35: Diabolique

Diabolique, 1954, directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, screenplay by Henri-Georges Clouzot, Jérôme Géronimi, Frédéric Grendel and René Masson, from the novel Celle qui n'était plus, by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac.

It's extremely rare for a marketing department or critic to hail a film as the best ever made, or the funniest, or the saddest, or anything else, with one exception: movies are routinely marketed as the most frightening. What's more, there seems to be some consensus about what the most frightening movies were at any particular time; Nosferatu had the title for a long time, as did Psycho. These days, I've heard again and again that Audition is the most frightening film ever (I haven't seen it yet). I think people are able to make this distinction for horror films in a way they can't for comedies or dramas because a good horror film can keep you creeped out for days, in an involuntary and not necessarily pleasant way. This provides a relatively objective measure of how frightening the film was. Anyway, from 1954 to 1960, Diabolique was the undisputed champ.

For a modern viewer it's more of a thriller than a horror film; there's nothing particularly terrifying outside of the last ten minutes or so. But by modern standards of thrillers, it's exceptional. The plot is the star, more than the individual performances or direction or cinematography, so the plot is what I'd like to talk about most. However, the movie has a surprise or two in it, and Clouzot ended it with the following admonishment: "Don't be DEVILS! Don't ruin the interest your friends could take in this film. Don't tell them what you saw." So I'm not going to go into great detail about the second half of the film, which means this will be an incomplete review.

Paul Meurisse plays Michel Delasalle, the principal of a French boarding school with a relatively great life. He's got an attractive wife and an attractive mistress, he makes a comfortable living off his wife's fortune, and he keeps himself amused by bullying people around him. And because he works at a school, he's got plenty of targets. However, his wife and mistress are both less than amused and less than trustworthy. Here's the whole happy family:

L to R: Simone Signoret plays Nicole Horner, the mistress. She's wearing sunglasses because Michele gave her a black eye. Vera Clouzot (the director's wife) plays Christina Delasalle. And Michele is on the right, amusing himself at the women's expense.

As you might have anticipated from the still above, Nicole and Christina team up to exact a hilarious revenge on Michel. It's kind of like First Wives Club. Below is Michel after falling victim to one of their little pranks. See if you can spot the difference between the two stills:

That's right: in the second picture, his suit needs ironing. Also, he's been drowned in a bathtub. Not a pleasant end, but then Clouzot goes to extraordinary lengths to show the audience what a bastard this guy is. He beats his wife (who he affectionately calls "my little ruin"). He beats his mistress. He mistreats his employees. He buys rotten fish for schoolchildren (no, really!). If anybody ever had it coming, it's Michele.

So you're sympathetic to his wife and mistress; you want them to get away with this murder. They have a pretty good plan, too: they drug Michele, drown him in a bathtub while he's passed out, sneak him back into the school grounds and dump him in an unused swimming pool, where he disappears beneath the algae-covered surface. By the time he surfaces, everyone will assume he got drunk and drowned himself.

Except he doesn't surface. Days go by and the body doesn't turn up. Finally, they drain the pool, but the body is gone. As the murderesses begin to turn on each other, someone seems to be having a joke at their expense: Michele's suit is returned from the dry cleaners; someone has rented a room in his name. And that's before the supernatural stuff starts happening. I won't go into the plot in more detail here, but suffice it to say you'll find it more accessible and absorbing than most movies made today. I love Psycho, but I'm not sure it should have taken Diabolique's place in the pantheon of horror movies. Psycho will make you afraid of showers. Diabolique will make you afraid of water.


  • The structure is different than it would be today. Michele is killed roughly an hour into the two hour movie, and the bulk of the time before that is spent establishing how truly awful he is. Today you wouldn't have to motivate the murder so well, and you'd want to get to the part of the story that everyone will remember (the missing body) in the first fifteen minutes if possible. I haven't seen the 1996 remake (with Sharon Stone in the Simone Signoret part), but I'd be willing to bet the murder happens much sooner.

  • The last ten minutes of this movie have clearly influenced every horror movie that followed. Or at least every good horror movie that followed. When you're watching it, pay particular attention to the exceptional sound design.

  • Hitchcock tried to buy the rights to this novel, but Clouzot beat him by a few hours. Boileau and Narcejac wrote their next novel specifically for Hitchcock; he filmed it as Vertigo.

  • Robert McKee (author of Story and character in Adaptation) uses Diabolique as his prime example of image systems. An image system, for McKee, is a recurring set of related symbols that increase the viewer's emotional response to the film. In Diabolique, the recurring image is water (as you might imagine in a movie about drowning). The titles are over an extreme closeup of rain falling in a mud puddle, it's constantly raining, and we keep hearing rain, faucets, drains, liquid being poured; it's in every scene.

    N.B.: I don't think image systems are particularly helpful at the screenplay stage of making a movie; they're more of a director thing. And they're something that script readers watch for now, so if you write a script that opens with a shot of a bird and doesn't have birds in lots of later scenes, you'll be accused of "establishing a false image system." Thanks, McKee!

    That said, McKee is right about Diabolique. It's an extraordinarily wet movie. And it successfully associates water with decay and death, which is a reversal of its normal symbolic value. You can see the same value switch being tried in The Ring, down to the wet footprints from the end of this movie.

  • The wife and mistress seem to have an exceptionally close relationship. One of them has short hair and wears a lot of business suits. The other has long hair, often braided in pigtails, and favors dresses of the "Dorothy in Oz" variety. I have no further comment on this. Pervert.