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Archive for March 2012

Malcolm McDowell on O Lucky Man!

Malcolm McDowell spoke before a screening of O Lucky Man! on March 18, 2012 at the Aero Theatre

NOTE: Please link to this page rather than the Vimeo page.

Here are some quotes and paraphrases germane to O Lucky Man! from Gavin Lambert’s Mostly About Lindsay Anderson (pages 161-173). Most of this material is not covered by McDowell in the video above.

1. The first twenty pages of Coffee Man (the original title) were based on Malcolm McDowell’s own experiences…. To make these early scenes (and the rest of the film) ‘more epic,’ Anderson recommended writer David Sherwin to think Pilgrim’s Progress, Candide and Kafka’s Amerika, with the protagonist ‘journeying through a lot of adventures and encountering a lot of characters. It’s a form which hasn’t been attempted very much recently–middle-class artists lack the confidence for it.’

2. The protagonist himself, Anderson suggested, should be a naive innocent who never questions the success-worship of the world he was born into.

3. Progress on the script was slow, partly because writer David Sherwin was increasingly disoriented as he continued to shuttle between wife and girlfriend. Later that month, Sherwin’s girlfriend left him for her previous boyfriend in Australia, his wife left him for her previous boyfriend, and he became temporarily blocked. Anderson wrote in his diary: ‘The script is even more of a shambles–a disappointing nothing–than I had expected.’

4. Two weeks later, Sherwin’s girlfriend promised to return as soon as her boyfriend promised not to commit suicide if she did. This unblocked Sherwin, at least temporarily.

5. The idea to use songs by Alan Price to comment on the story at various moments was consciously Brechtian. The role Anderson conceived for Price had its origins in the Street Singer from Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil’s The Threepenny Opera, a connection that Anderson only realized later, despite being familiar with the work.

6. A first-draft script was completed by October 10, 1971. Anderson commented in his diary that the script was ‘full of holes,’ but he, Anderson, needing a happy writer, cabled Sherwin’s ex-girlfriend, still in Australia, that the script was ‘BRILLIANT STOP DAVID LOVES YOU AND NEEDS YOU PLEASE RETURN.’ Ten days after receiving the cable, Sherwin’s ex-girlfriend returned to him, but on Christmas Eve she left him again and Sherwin made a failed suicide attempt with sleeping pills. Diagnosed as a manic-depressive, he was prescribed lithium and remained under psychiatric care for a week through the holidays.

7. Anderson: ‘Anglo-American cinema is essentially organized for the production of pre-planned narrative cinema, and anyone who takes on the risk of personal, poetic, changing and developing film-making, exposes himself to enormous problems. This is true of Kubrick and Schlesinger and even Peckinpah as well as myself.’

8. Anderson: “Warners [O Lucky Man‘s distributor] will not accept the idea of taking my name off the picture in the event of distributors finally making cuts of which I disapprove.’ [The three hour film was cut by distributors. Warners cut 20 minutes from it for the American release.]

9. At the end of January, Anderson began goading Sherwin, reunited (temporarily, at least) with his wife, to plug various holes in the script.

10. On his notion to have actors play more than one role, Anderson said, ‘Each of our characters might have been somebody else, if his luck had been different.’

11. During the casting process, Anderson wondered if his own life might have taken a different turn, and decided it was impossible. When an agent submitted a photograph of a handsome young actor for a small part, he asked his diary: ‘Were I honest and courageous, would I arrange to meet the boy? Would I attempt to seduce him? Such a thing is somehow just not conceivable in terms of what I am, in terms of what I (apparently inevitably) have become.’

12. Anderson, in his diary: ‘Nobody realizes what a mess of loneliness and inadequacy I am inside.’

13: Anderson: ‘The follies you read about every day when you open the paper are so absurd that the only way to comment on them is through laughing at them, because if you try to be serious about them, they dwarf you.’

ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS

In recent interviews David Simon, creator of The Wire, has complained about how some people’s response to his show comes down to “Who is the coolest character?” type questions, rather than the larger questions and themes that the show was dealing with. Here’s a quote from his interview at hitfix:

But to revisit the other thing, let me say this: my apologies to anyone who was saying, or trying to say you’re not cool if you didn’t get to The Wire early, and I only want you to watch the show on my terms. What I was saying is The Wire has been off the air for 4 years now. That it would be celebrated with things like who’s cooler: Omar or Stringer, at this late date, and that the ideas of the show would be given short shrift, those were the target of my comments.

My question for Simon is this: has he heard of Bertolt Brecht? His complaints touch on issues that Brecht dealt with long ago and which were rehashed by film critics in the Sixties and Seventies in response to films such as O Lucky Man! Does Simon know anything about this history? Why don’t his interviewers ever question him about it? Or are they likewise ignorant?

UPDATE: 12/2/12

Here’s a new post about the film by Pablo Kjolseth at MovieMorlocks.

Written by David Kilmer

March 31, 2012 at 1:23 pm

Hollywood’s Really Big Themes: Freedom and Survival

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This is something that requires a book, so it’s going to be a bit rough because I’m not going to waste my time writing a book that no one will read anyway. (You would have thought that someone would have written a book, but as far as I know there is no book on this subject.)

So, here goes:

Am I the only one who sees the themes of freedom and survival everywhere in Hollywood movies? In film after film, we see a hero fighting to free himself or others from some type of enslavement, fighting to stay alive, or both.

But why are these themes so common? Is life really nothing but an attempt to stay alive? That is, is everything we do nothing more than maintaining the status quo of our existence? There’s another type of story which used to be more common. The hero attempts to get ahead, to improve their status in life, only to find out that they were better off staying where they were. This is the plot of films such as The Wizard of Oz and Damn Yankees. Even Citizen Kane can be categorized with these films. However, it seems that this type of story today is much less common than stories in which the hero merely fights to stay alive. There’s no longer any question of improving their lives when their life is under attack. Often, it’s not just the hero’s life, but  the life of the entire planet that is at stake. Perhaps this shift is the result of the decline of our society.

Then we have stories about the fight for freedom. This usually takes the form of an Robin Hood type outlaw fighting a corrupt government. An early example is Douglas Fairbanks as Robin Hood (1922). But these stories about the fighting for freedom never explore the concept of freedom, and more or less assumes that everyone already knows what “freedom” is and that it’s worth fighting for? For example, there’s never any question that “freedom” means something different to a factory owner than it does to a factory worker. By ignoring these differences, the films preserve an illusion that “freedom” is universal. The result is that these stories ultimately reinforce the society that made the films, a society which is based on inequality and therefore lacks of freedom.

ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS

A) In what sense can it be said that watching stories in which characters battle for their freedom, frees the people sitting watching the screens that display these stories? Although the spectators are not chained to their seats, the end the result is the same as it would be if they were. That is, they remain tied to one place, dreaming of a virtual world acted upon by virtual characters, therefore reduced to being non-actors in their own world. At least while they are engaged with the story. But nowadays, films don’t necessarily end when the end credits role. The fan does not leave the fictional world when the film or book ends. Thanks to facebook, twitter, discussion groups, etc the fan can remain in their chosen fictional world practically forever.

 Is this truly the life we dreamed of when we first began to dream?

B) The Hunger Games, released today in the USA, is an especially obvious example of a film about freedom and survival. And of course these themes are present in the earlier films and TV shows that are similar to it.

This is a very brief list of some of those earlier works, limited to TV and films:

1. The Most Dangerous Game (1932). The film was based on a short story (1924) by Richard Connell, and there have been numerous remakes and reworkings including Hard Target, John Woo’s first American film. Shipwreck victims on an island are given the choice of being killed immediately, or entering a game in which they are hunted by the island’s proprietor. If they last till dawn, they win their life and freedom.

2. The Tenth Victim. Based on a short story by Robert Sheckley. This story is different from all the others on this list in one important aspect: the game is to the death and for the benefit of a TV audience, but the players enter the game voluntarily.

3. The Outer Limits: Fun and Games. Adapted from a short story, “Arena” (1944) by Fredric Brown. This story was also used as the source for Star Trek’s “Arena” episode.

3. Star Trek: “Bread and Circuses,” “The Gamesters of Triskelion,” “Arena.” Superior beings force the Star Trek characters to battle to the death.

4. Death Race 2000 (1975). Death sports as mass entertainment.

5. Rollerball (1975). A roller derby type game, but to the death.

6. The Running Man. Based on a short story (1982) by Stephen King.

7. Battle Royale. Not a Hollywood movie, but a Japanese film based on a Japanese book. Teenagers forced to fight to the death to provide entertainment for the masses.

The common element of these stories, man forced to fight man, can, of course, be traced to the gladiator games in the Roman Coliseum which of course has produced films such as Spartacus and Gladiator. (Some might point out that horseracing today, especially in the USA, resembles the world of The Hunger Games because horses are forced to race against each other. Although it’s not a race to the death, quite a few of the horses end up dying due to racing. Of course, any situation in which soldiers are placed and told kill or be killed is also pretty much it.)

C) In my post about Guillermo Del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone, I asked, “Are revenge narratives merely the means to provide the hero with a circumstance in which he or she can kill with impunity and justification?” The Hunger Games suggests a more general question: are stories of any kind merely what Freud called Secondary Revision, that is the work of the Unconscious by which primal desires that are unacceptable to the conscious mind are altered in such a way that they are presented in a disguised, but acceptable, fashion. In the case of The Hunger Games, the primal desire would be murder. So we create a story which allows a good hero to kill others. The story protects us in a number of ways. First, it’s the character, not us, who does the actual murder, meaning we cannot be held accessories to murder. Second, the story provides clear justification for the hero’s killings, ie. a license to kill. Third, the fact that we it’s a mass phenomenon is probably important. We get reassurance from the fact that we are not the only ones attracted to this.

Don’t think this is remotely true? Check out this quote:

Nearly two dozen teens bite the big one in The Hunger Games, sure to be cinema’s most popular source of adolescent bloodshed. There’s no darker vicarious thrill than watching someone perish on screen, as many an action junkie will certainly tell you. (Source.)

Is the secret behind The Hunger Games‘ success a dark view of human nature?

D) As some have pointed out, the world of Hunger Games doesn’t quite make sense. If a government does not want its citizens to rebel, why give them even more reasons by forcing them to sacrifice kids? Instead of forcing tributes, perhaps a more sensible setup would be for the government to offer payment to volunteers. You can be sure that in a world of poverty, there would be no shortage of volunteers. Then create an additional incentive to play the game by providing the winner a huge prize. But the real kicker would be to offer betting on the outcomes. Why? Because instead of rooting for the home team, everyone who bets would be rooting for the one they think will actually win. And make the betting free for everyone. This creates the possibility of a hero whose own district does not support because they think he or she has no chance of winning. But, of course, they are wrong.

E) Like many artists, author Suzanne Collins appears to have constructed The Hunger Games out of bits and pieces from her favorite books:

Are there books you’ve gone back to and read over and over again?

It’s embarrassing to admit how many times I’ve reread the following: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, 1984, Lord of the Flies, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Germinal, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and A Moveable Feast. (Source.)

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: girl’s coming of age story

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter: ditto

1984: Authoritarian government

Lord of the Flies: kids killing kids because at heart, by nature, man is evil. (Which, of course, is an argument that can be used as a justification for an authoritarian, 1984-like government: i.e. such a government is necessary to protect man from himself.)

Germinal: exploited working class miners

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, who, of course, also wrote “The Lottery,” which I would guess is also a Collins fave.

Written by David Kilmer

March 23, 2012 at 4:33 pm

Posted in Films

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The Secret of Failure

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Lately a lot of followers of Hollywood have been writing “Why did it fail?” type articles, mostly about John Carter, but also about other films and TV shows. For example, Patrick Goldstein at The Big Picture brings together John Carter, Hugo, Luck, and Terra Nova, all “failures” in Hollywood terms. Luck, for example, drew “only” 500,000 viewers for its last episode. (Guess those half million people don’t count for much. I certainly wouldn’t want to fight them, even with John Carter-like powers.)

In any case, all of these autopsies are flying in the dark. They have no idea what really happened. They have no idea why these shows flopped. But I do know why John Carter, Hugo, Luck, and Terra Nova failed. It begins with Alan Moore. Remember why Watchmen, the film, flopped? Of course, you do. It’s because Alan Moore put a curse on it. Well, remembering Moore’s success, I thought that if it worked for Moore, maybe it will work for me.  I suppose most people would have dismissed the idea as pure pipedream. After all, Moore is a bona fide magician, while I have not practiced magic since at least ten. Nevertheless, I went ahead with my experiment. I cursed them all. I cursed Carter, Hugo, Luck. And I especially cursed Terra Nova. (Sorry, Tristan.)

The results speak for themselves. Therefore, I heartily recommend cursing to everyone.

Written by David Kilmer

March 22, 2012 at 10:22 am

Raggin’ on Rosebud

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I happen to think the How Green [Was My Valley] is one of the very greatest American films. Probably no Best Picture winner in the history of the Oscars has been a more fitting recipient of that award. Why lump it in with Shakespeare in Love?! (I think you know what’s coming.)…

I’m going to be heretical and say that How Green [Was My Valley] deserved to win over Kane [for 1941’s Best Picture Oscar]….

For years Kane has been sitting atop many lists of the greatest films of all times, including polls of professional film critics. The notion that Kane really is the greatest film of all time has become so engrained that people seem seldom to question it. Back when that idea arose, critics were unaware of the films of Yasujiro Ozu, probably the world’s greatest film director to date. Play Time was for years ignored and only recently has begun to be recognized for the masterpiece it is. With the rise of film restoration in the 1970s and the spread of film festivals and retrospectives, we now know vastly more about world cinema than we did before. Yet Kane has settled into its top slot for many people, including entertainment journalists. I can think of many films I would rank above Kane. (Source.)

That’s not me saying that; it’s film critic Kristin Thompson writing on the blog she shares with her husband, David Bordwell, Observations on film art and FILM ART. For those who are familiar with her and Bordwell’s writings, the opinion expressed above is not unfamiliar. They’ve been dissing Kane while promoting the likes of Ozu and Play Time for as long as I’ve been reading their books. However, is it really true that “the notion that Kane really is the greatest film of all time has become so engrained that people seem seldom to question it?” Of all the people that I know, and all the people that I’ve known, I can think of no one who sincerely thinks or thought that Citizen Kane was “the greatest film of all time.” (It’s currently #39 on the IMDB list.) And I went to film school. If hardly anyone likes Citizen Kane that much, why do we have this notion that nearly everyone thinks it’s the best? The answer, of course, is obvious: it’s topped the once a decade Sight & Sound poll since 1962. But if we look closer at those polls, we might come away with a different notion.

The stats for the last poll, published in 2002, are available online. In fact, the magazine did two polls, one for critics; one for film directors. Of the 145 critics lists posted, 46 of them include Citizen Kane. In other words, just 31% of those polled mentioned Kane. Of the 108 film director lists posted, 42 mention Kane. That’s 39%. Last time I checked, neither 31% nor 39% constituted a majority. A majority of critics, 69%, and a majority of film directors, 61%, disagree that Kane is the best, but unable to agree on a single best film.

So later this year when Sight & Sound most likely will be publishing the results of its 2012 poll and Citizen Kane most likely once again tops the list, we should realize that Thompson, despite presenting herself as some kind of maverick in dissing Kane, will actually be part of the large majority that will disagree with Kane‘s rank. Perhaps we should come up with a phrase describing this phenomenon whereby a minority’s selection is promoted as if it’s the pick of the majority. Why not call it the “Tyranny of the Minority?”

For what it’s worth, I happen to be in the minority.

UPDATE 8/1/12

Sight & Sound‘s 2012 poll results have been published. Vertigo tops the list with an even lower percentage of the total than Kane did in 2002 (31%; 46/145 for Kane in 2002 vs 22.5%; 91/846) for Vertigo in 2012. )Once again, hardly a consensus (most common comment will be: “Vertigo is not the greatest film. Not even close.”), and the trend is towards not greater, but less consensus. If the trend continues, in the near future the difference in votes separating the top and bottom films will be next to nil. But this is lost on most. All they see is a headline saying that film critics have voted for Vertigo as the greatest film of all time. One blogger reacted by writing, “the majority of critics are backing a new horse.” Sorry. 22.5% may be a plurality, but it is far from a majority when more than 75% disagree.

The essay by Ian Christie, on the poll results, begins with “And the loser is – Citizen Kane. After 50 years at the top of the Sight & Sound poll, Orson Welles’s debut film has been convincingly ousted by Alfred Hitchcock’s 45th feature Vertigo – and by a whopping 34 votes, compared with the mere five that separated them a decade ago.”

This ignores something that a lot of people seem to be ignoring: due to a change in definition of who should be polled, the number of participants increased substantially from 2002 to 2012: 145 to 846. This itself makes comparing the new poll with previous polls problematic. In any case, comparing the margin of victory in terms of absolute number of votes would make sense only if the total number of votes was the same. This was not the case. What is true is that Kane beat Vertigo in 2002 by 5 votes, which was 5/145 or 3%. Vertigo‘s 34 vote margin equals 34/846 or 4%, which, of course, is only a slightly wider margin than #3%.

Of course, it’s obvious that some poll participants did not take the task very seriously. For example, does Ken Hollings really think Plan 9 from Outer Space belongs on a list with Metropolis and 2001, two of his other picks? More likely he was being willfully perverse, as were many others. Who knows what the results would have been if such perversity had been left out of the list gathering?

Some have criticized the poll from the opposite POV. When they see films such as Man With a Movie Camera, Passion of Joan of Arc, and Sunrise place in the top 10, they suspect fraud at the polls. That is, they don’t believe the voters voted with their hearts. Rather, they voted the way they felt they should vote. Who could truly love a movie such as these three dusty, out dated silent movies? The proof they cite is the dearth of references to any of these films during their daily journey.

I’m tempted to dismiss this thinking as idiotic. For one, it ignores the fact that only 11% voted for Sunrise, and only 8% for the other two. It sounds like little more than the view of someone who cannot understand that different people like different things. Like my son, who is upset when his parents do not share his enthusiasms, which include Green Lantern and Tron.

But let’s take this view seriously. Should people who like these movies be talking about them all the time? Even some of the time? My ten  favorite films include six of the titles in the top 10. I count both Man With a Movie Camera and Joan of Arc among my favorites. But if I were to talk about them all the time, I would wake up one day to find myself alone with myself. Talking about your favorite anything too much is a sure way to label yourself a bore. The same holds for blog or essay writers. No one wants to hear someone talk about the same things over and over.

However, it’s wrong to think that people don’t talk about these films. There have been whole books written about most of the films people seem to have the most doubts about. For example, here are two about Man With a Movie Camera, Constructivism in Film – A Cinematic Analysis: The Man with the Movie Camera by Vlada Petrić and The Man With the Movie Camera: The Film Companion by Graham Roberts. There’s too much out there for anyone to know everything, but it’s ultimately if the curiosity is there, you will find it. If it isn’t, you won’t.

But there’s an even greater reason why we don’t talk much about our favorites. In fact, there are many people who never even bother to come up with a list of their favorites. Why? Because we’re more concerned with the latest and greatest. What are the new releases? Our society, our economy, is based on the new. Most sales are made on new stuff, not yesterday’s models. Remakes almost always receive more notice than reissues.

I need to reiterate what I started with: the Sight & Sound poll is not based on a consensus. The low percentage of votes received by the top rated films is a guarantee that the majority of responses will be along the lines of, “They must be crazy! Those are not even close to my list of greatest films.” Given this fact, that the list is the result of minority opinion, the responses which question the validity of the list are 100% predictable. I wonder if the list is not a bit subversive, given its emphasis on older movies in a society which is based on the idea of progress, that is, the newest product is always better than the older product. This applies to movies just as much as anything else. It’s also true that most movie lovers do not think of these films when they think of movies. They are too concerned with the newer films than to bother watching old, creaky, often black and white movies from the inferior past. This is why this list is so interesting. It completely undermines the belief that we are always doing things better today than yesterday. It may even be depressing for some, especially those who work in the industry. Do they wake in the middle of the night wondering if their work has any value whatsoever beyond their paychecks?

Additional thoughts:

1. Despite Welles (aka The Kenosha Kid, at least in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow) famously saying “I prefer the old masters; by which I mean: John Ford, John Ford and John Ford,”  which Thompson cites in her post, Welles’ list of top 10 favorite films that he submitted for the first Sight & Sound poll in 1952 only includes Ford’s Stagecoach, which Welles said he watched dozens of times in preparation for Kane:

#1 City Lights (directed by Charles Chaplin)
#2 Greed (directed by Erich von Stroheim)
#3 Intolerance (directed by D. W. Griffith)
#4 Nanook of the North (directed by Robert Flaherty)
#5 Shoe Shine (directed by Vittorio De Sica)
#6 Battleship Potemkin (directed by Sergei Eisenstein)
#7 La Femme du Boulanger (directed by Marcel Pagnol)
#8 Grand Illusion (directed by Jean Renoir)
#9 Stagecoach (directed by John Ford)
#10  Our Daily Bread (directed by King Vidor)

2. Speaking of David Bordwell, here’s are some quotes about his critical approach from Daniel Frampton’s Filmosophy:

But for Bordwell, the ultimate self-conscious narration (sometimes serving up hardly any story) is “parametric” narration: style-centered, permutational, poetic. …These kinds of films are open rich texts, with mutliple layers of signifiers which almost resist interpretation – and for Bordwell the concept of parametric narration allows us to acknowledge the rich nature of these films. That is, by understanding the genre of parametric narration Bordwell believes we can better appreciate these kinds of film – but in analyzing typical art-cinema or parametric narratives Bordwell only seems to want to rationalize them. Radical cinema is reduced to principles, systems, all towards trying to bring articstic cinema into the rational fold of classic cinema. Again Bordwell classifies according to a diversion from the norm. Parametric also means “not just metric,” not classically simple, just more than simple! How low-impact can you get, how…boring …. (my emphasis; Filmosophy pages 104-5)

Cognitivists would say that a filmgoer’s principal pleasure is derived from problem-solving, from the nerdy “interest” they have in working out the film. The filmgoer’s main emotional engagement with narrative film is that of “interest;” we are simply in a state of “action readiness” towards the stimuli of film. Yet reading Bordwell making sense of La Guerre est finie is quite strange, in that he seems set on reducing Resnais’ film to literality; working it out in order to gain relief from its willful strangeness (and perhaps win a prize for solving the film). (p. 108)

[Bordwell’s] resistance to interpretation in Narration in the Fiction Film is not just a holding back in order to theorize more clearly, but indicates a lack to the system he sets out. Working out a genre of parametric narratives does little for our experience and interpretation of film. We may “understand” these kinds of films better — understand their structures and modes — but this is a limited and limiting kind of “understanding.” Bordwell’s clarifying ambitions dull these films. They become puzzles to be set straight, mazes to be spoiled by leading you through them: problems to be solved. (p. 109)

This begs the question: are films redundant once we have “understood” them? Why would we want to go back? Are films really puzzles to be solved? As [Robert] Stam [in Film Theory] observes: “Why do we go to films? Is it to make inferences and test hypotheses?” … It seems obvious that we do not always go to the cinema simply to “work out” what is going on in the film. (p. 109)

Written by David Kilmer

March 6, 2012 at 7:09 pm