07/10/14

Lawrence in Arabia


Lawrence of Arabia

I recall with some vividness seeing David Lean’s masterpiece film, Lawrence of Arabia, when it was first shown in Canadian theatres. I was 12 and utterly astounded by the movie. Not simply the great, sprawling, adventurous tale that meandered through 220 minutes (plus the intermission), but by the incredible scenery. It was a world totally alien from my cultivated, manicured suburbia: wild, dangerous, exotic. And stunningly beautiful.

So much of an impression did it make on my young mind that today I can still remember sitting in the Golden Mile theatre with my parents as the curtain rose and the lights dimmed.

I went back to see the film again, I think at the Saturday matinée showing. My memory suggests I did this a few more times that summer (Saturday matinées were a ritual for many of my early teen years). Despite its length, I have watched it numerous times since that first viewing (I can still hear the theme song in my memory, when I think of the movie).

(I owned it on VHS when that technology was current, then DVD and this week got the Blu-Ray version to watch again. With almost four hours of viewing, it’s a two-nighter show for me, plus a third to watch all the extras on the making of the film.)

During my first viewing, the minute the desert scenes came onscreen, I was hooked, wide-eyed. The silver screen filled with an immensity of utterly stunning, utterly alien landscape in dazzling colour. My young brain raced. Where was this? What was it really like? Is the sky really that blue and does the horizon really seem to go on forever? What happened there? Why wasn’t this in my history class? Who was this man?

Of course, I really wasn’t aware at that age about how films were made; that locations and sets weren’t necessarily the real place (except, of course, for those B-flick scifi and horror films I delighted in at that age; even then I knew that there were no Martians or werewolves or vampires but I loved them anyway and still do).

Nor was I aware of the actual history being portrayed (and the later criticisms about its authenticity and accuracy). It captivated me, easily, and opened the doors of my mind to a world and a history I had no inkling about. I developed an interest in the Middle East at an early age – it’s geology, history, ecologies, cultures, religions… although it would take another decade before I really started to look deeper into the political-religious-military conflicts of the region. Not that I ever truly understood all of them (does anyone?).

Everything from the earliest days of that region fascinated me. I can’t say now exactly when I first learned about the early civilizations of the Tigris-Euphrates area, but from that movie on, I was hooked on reading about Sumeria, Babylon, the Assyrians, Egyptians and Hittites. I read every book in the local library about the archaeological expeditions to that region.

(It still fascinates me: my blog and my Twitter page both have an Assyrian image in the background – a photo I took at the British Museum where I stared agog at the pieces in their galleries. And I recently re-read Gilgamesh in a new translation.)
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06/21/14

Fifty Years Ago


In mid-August, 1964, a modest-budget, British black-and-white comedy movie hit the theatres. And instantly exploded to being the most popular film of the year. It was the Richard Lester flick, A Hard Day’s Night, starring the young Beatles in their debut on the silver screen. It was a paradigm changer in so many ways.
Hard Day's Night

It was a madcap, faux-autobiographical/mockumentary story – a style of filmmaking not previously seen on the big screen – punctuated by the Beatles’ music, including several new songs not yet released on vinyl. They would soon be, though and the soundtrack album would rise to number four on the charts.

The whole thing cost about $500,000 to make, but netted $12 million. Professor Witney Seibold writes:

The film is most certainly a classic, not only capturing the energy and obsession and youthful humor of the band members themselves, but also displaying a new kind of New Wave filmmaking that was part musical, part comedy, and part documentary. A Hard Day’s Night is a great film… perhaps the best rock film ever made.

But of course the biggest result was to introduce the world to Beatlemania, then still a nascent movement about to become a cultural tsunami. If anyone before the film was unsure what it meant, what all the excitement was about, who these guys were, they didn’t have any uncertainty after watching it. The film not only showed the world what Beatlemania was,, it swept up everyone in its wake and drew us unprotesting into the madcap movement.

People in the audience laughed and wept and screamed along with the audience in the film. Teens in the USA, in Canada and elsewhere were united in a virtual onscreen world with the British teens shown in the movie. It internationalized us.

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06/12/14

The Hollow Crown: Henry V


Battle of AgincourtAs I started to watch the last film in the Hollow Crown series, I wasn’t sure whether Tom Hiddleston was up to playing the iconic role in Shakespeare’s most patriotic (and jingoistic) play.

I thought Hiddleston’s Prince Hal in Henry IV had just a little too much of Loki – and maybe the bully – in it for me to see him as a majestic king. But I was quickly won over. Whether the movie itself was good Shakespeare is another question.

First a note on the lighting and sets: in Richard II, it was all light, bright and colour (until the end, where Richard’s fall is marked by darker sets and shadows). Henry IV P1 and P2 were both shot in muted tones: greys, blacks, dark browns, with shadowy sets and little colour outstanding. Henry V is a mix of the two, more conventionally lit.

The play contains the story of Henry’s challenge to France – claiming he is the true king of France and demanding King Charles hand the crown over. When the French say no, Henry invades with an army of roughly 12,000. He has some initial successes, including the siege of Harfleur. Then the campaign becomes a weary march to safety where soldiers suffered more from illness and dysentery than from the enemy. Henry’s men set out for Calais – at that time an English-held city – with only 9,000 of his original besieging force (some sources say he had fewer men – 7,000). More would be lost on the march.

The campaign culminates in the remarkable victory at Agincourt, where a bedraggled and dispirited English force defeated a much larger French one. It is the highlight of the play. Or should be.

Who can forget Kenneth Branagh making the famous and inspirational  “band of brothers” speech to the army on the eve of the battle? Yet in the Hollow Crown, Henry makes it privately to his captains, not the massed army:

Hiddleston’s quiet speech is, to me, the more emotional and personal compared to Branagh’s loud and histrionic rendering. But how does this rouse the army’s spirits? Well, maybe Henry isn’t concerned about the soldiers: it’s the nobles he’s courting here, the leaders he needs to rally the men when they are hard pressed.

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06/10/14

The Hollow Crown


Wikipedia image

Richard II, the first English king of whom we have a real portrait, not just a stylized one.

I’ve watched three of the four productions in the 2012 TV series, The Hollow Crown, this past week, and am greatly impressed by the productions and the acting. Wonderful, rich stuff.

The series consists of the second Shakespeare tetralogy, the Henriad: Richard II; Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and Henry V, each roughly two hours long.  I expect to see the last remaining one this week. (N.B. A new production of the first tetralogy, The Hollow Crown II, is in the works this year).

There’s a bit of an irony in the tetralogy’s name: Henriad, because Henry doesn’t appear at all in Richard II: he is only mentioned in a offside mention by Henry Bolingbroke, his father and newly-crowned king, at the end of the play. He’s  a major but not the main character in Henry IV P1 and P2 – rather Prince Hal shares the stage with Falstaff, Hotspur,his father, and in Part 2, his brother John of Lancaster. Plus the various rebels have their time on stage. It isn’t until the final play that he comes into his own.

One can never get too much Shakespeare in one’s life, and this series feeds my need for film versions that of late has been sadly lacking.* Of course I read the plays frequently – at least one a year, as well as books about the plays and the Bard – but a good film production can be so much more powerful, more engaging. And who, really, doesn’t love Shakespeare?

Shakespeare one gets acquainted with without knowing how. It is a part of an Englishman’s constitution. No doubt one is familiar with Shakespeare in a degree, from one’s earliest years. His celebrated passages are quoted by every body; they are in half the books we open and we all talk Shakespeare, use his similes, and describe with his descriptions.
Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, 1814

Every production of the Bard is, by necessity, both an interpretation and a compromise. Few of the plays fit comfortably within the time constraints imposed by TV (and dwindling viewer attention spans), so they are often abbreviated to fit the usual two-hour comfort zone for movies. That means some dialogue, some scenes, some subplots must be cut. Visual effects often replace dialogue or at least embellish a scene so less verbiage is needed, especially in action scenes.

And then there are the many ways a director chooses to portray the characters, the scenery, the secondary characters. Is the lead a villain or misunderstood hero? Was the line said in anger or in jest? Is it irony or ignorance? Is the audience expected to be sympathetic or angry at the character? Is the king strong or infirm? Is he bold or indecisive? Often the characters lend themselves to a range of portrayals.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Each production is in itself a work of art that has a unique relationship to Shakespeare. So it is with The Hollow Crown; the story of the beginning of the War of the Roses when the Plantagenets split into the competing houses of York and Lancaster, which vied for power and the throne.

At least that’s Shakespeare’s view and if modern historians disagree, his version at least makes for great drama. The result, however, is incontestably one of the greatest collections of Shakespeare on film.

If there is any flaw, it lies in the audio, which is sometimes less than clear, especially in crowd scenes (and the often thick accents – likely authentic to Shakespeare’s audience, but ahistorical for the era – may obfuscate some dialogue for the non-native viewer). Still, the stories are rich, the characters deep and well-fleshed, and the sets make the audience feel as if they were there, not in some stylized set pieces.

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05/24/14

The Three Stooges


CurlyI bought a DVD set called The Ultimate Three Stooges this weekend.* I was rather surprised that even 20 DVDs could not contain all of the film work the trio (more on that, below) put together in their long career. But it does contain the core – and the very best – of their work, including several rare and forgotten early pieces.

I’m delighted to have it – before this set I only had a scattered collection of pieces, but nothing this comprehensive.

I grew up in the 1950s watching the Three Stooges in B&W on a TV that showed a test pattern early in the morning and late at night. TV channels didn’t run 24/7: they started and ended at specific hours. I developed an affection for them from back then.

Mostly TV showed re-runs of shorts from the 30s and 40s. My parents fretted over my brother and I watching them; they were considered too violent for children. It was the era of growing awareness of how media affected children. I didn’t see the Stooges as much more violent than the other series we watched – Tarzan, Wagon Train, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Dragnet, The Naked City, The Untouchables, the Twilight Zone, Combat, Rawhide, The Outer Limits, Ernie Kovacs, Dragnet…

Of course unlike today, there was no graphic violence. And sex? None at all (TV couples were usually shown having separate beds if not separate bedrooms!)

At the summer drive-in we watched films like The Attack of the Crab Monsters, The Attack of the 50-Foot Woman, Them, Village of the Damned, One Million BC, Dracula and others. The Three Stooges seemed so innocent, so mild to us kids, in comparison to some of these films. Yet they have stuck with me all these years. Continue reading

01/19/14

The 2013 Great Gatsby


Great Gatsby party scene
Watched the 2013 film of The Great Gatsby last night. The first half was spectacular, grandiose and captivating, if somewhat over the top. Like Busby Berkeley meets The Fifth Element. Extravaganza, spectacle and excess.

The film doesn’t feel like it’s set in New York of the Jazz Age. It’s too shiny, too polished, too mechanical, and not gritty enough.

That’s actually okay, and had director Baz Luhrmann chosen to make Gatsby into a scifi film set not the roaring twenties, but rather some futuristic world where the fashion craze is for 20s’ costume, it could have worked better. It would have accounted for the music, for the sets, for the Dark City- or Fifth Element-like vistas we get of New York.

One of the disconnections in the movie is the music. While updating era music with modern technology and sound works well – the Gershwin is great, and the positive influence of Brian Ferry and his orchestra is felt in much of the soundtrack – the hip hop is jarring. It pulls you out of the setting, releases you from your necessary suspension of belief to fall into the gravity of the reality: this is just a movie and we’re here today, not yesteryear.

The second half of the film seems to drift away from the great spectacle into an overblown period piece drama. Downton Abby without the accents, but also without the gangsters or the street life. Big sets surround little people and little problems. The morality tale F. Scott Fitzgerald wove into the novel seems diminished, while his illusionary, glittering world towers above us.

What started out with such promise just slides into predictability. Maybe that’s because I read the book (albeit many decades ago) and I knew the ending. Maybe it’s because Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jay Gatsby and one can never watch him without thinking of the film Titanic. Not to mention he doesn’t have a great range of expression.

Like that movie, this one has an inevitable (though metaphorical) iceberg Gatsby has to crash into, bringing about his ruin. And that ruin symbolizes the fall of the American dream that had built such fantasies. It’s an almost biblical theme that deserves big treatment, but doesn’t live up to its potential.
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