Category Archives: At the Movies

Movies, reviews, articles, actors, actresses, directors, theory, film noir, hair shampoo, small dogs and so forth

The Gaslight Poetry Café, 1961

The Coen Brothers’ movie “Inside Llewyn Davis” (late 2013) takes place mainly in the folk singing venue the Gaslight Poetry Café, Greenwich Village, New York, in 1961. In the movie, the last folkie seen to take the stage bears a suspicious resemblance to the young Bob Dylan, not long after he left his rightful name (Robert Zimmerman of Hibbing Minnesota) behind for good. Yes, Bob played the Gaslight, in 1961. Here’s the album to prove it.

dylan-gaslight-1961

Hitchcock’s MacGuffin

Here’s good ol’ Wikipedia: In fiction, a MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin or maguffin) is a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist (and sometimes the antagonist) is willing to do and sacrifice almost anything to pursue, protect or control, often with little or no narrative explanation as to why it is considered so important. The specific nature of a MacGuffin is typically unimportant to the overall plot. [...] The MacGuffin technique is common in films, especially thrillers. Usually the MacGuffin is the central focus of the film in the first act, and then declines in importance as the struggles and motivations of characters play out. It may come back into play at the climax of the story, but sometimes the MacGuffin is actually forgotten by the end of the story. [...] The specific term “MacGuffin” appears to have originated in 20th-century filmmaking, and was popularized by Alfred Hitchcock in the 1930s, but the concept pre-dates the term in film as well as in literature. [...] Hitchcock popularized both the term “MacGuffin” and the technique, with his 1935 film «The 39 Steps», an early example of the concept. Hitchcock explained the term “MacGuffin” in a 1939 lecture at Columbia University: “[We] have a name in the studio, and we call it the ‘MacGuffin’. It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers”. Interviewed in 1966 by François Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock illustrated the term “MacGuffin” with this story:

lion-trap

It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train. One man says “What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?”, and the other answers, “Oh, that’s a McGuffin”. The first one asks “What’s a McGuffin?” “Well”, the other man says, “It’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands”. The first man says, “But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands”, and the other one answers, “Well, then that’s no McGuffin!” So you see, a McGuffin is nothing at all.

Hitchcock related this anecdote in a television interview for Richard Schickel’s documentary «The Men Who Made the Movies» and for Dick Cavett’s interview. According to author Ken Mogg, screenwriter Angus MacPhail, a friend of Hitchcock, may have originally coined the term.

The Hair Part Theory

Stuart Freeborn, centre.

Stuart Freeborn, centre. Click on the image to see a larger, sharper image; ditto to return here.


The makeup artist Stuart Freeborn died in London on 5 February 2013, at the age of 98. He started out in 1936 and spent a long career in the movies, working on such classic movies as «2001: A Space Odyssey», «Superman», and «The Omen». He created three different identities for Peter Sellers in Stanley Kubrick’s satire «Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb».

Friend and fellow makeup-artist Nick Maley writes “The link between the apes of «A Space Odyssey» and the creatures of «Star Wars» is so close [...] between the two there were other projects such as Sir Richard Attenborough’s «Oh! What a Lovely War», «10 Rillington Place» and «Young Winston» where I first joined Stuart’s team. Quick to follow were «Inside the Third Reich», plus the huge prosthetic endeavor «Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland», more characters for Peter Sellers in «Soft Beds, Hard Battles», a gelaten aging for «Murder on the Orient Express», followed by «The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother» and the spooky thriller «The Omen».”

Freeborn designed Superman and Clark Kent as two quite separate people, parting Clark Kent’s hair on the right and Superman’s on the left. Perhaps he was a disciple of Catherine Walter and her brother John Walter, authors of «The Effects of Hair Parting on Social Appraisal and Personal Development» (see http://www.truemirror.com/hp/hpttmc.asp) where they write:

Surprisingly, a hair part has a crucial impact on interpersonal relationships by affecting immediate character appraisal, perceived personality traits, self-perception and self-development!

The Hair Part Theory was developed by a brother-sister team trained, respectively, in nuclear physics and cultural anthropology. Their revolutionary theory is now being made available to the general public, so that all individuals can have more control over automatic and mostly unconscious assessments made of their personalities by others. John and Catherine Walter also produce the True Mirror®, a mirror that does not reverse the viewer’s image and which therefore allows an accurate self-assessment.

superman-hair-part

A left hair part draws unconscious attention to the activities that are controlled by the left hemisphere of the brain, i.e. activities traditionally attributed to masculinity. A right hair part draws unconscious attention to the activities that are controlled by the right hemisphere of the brain, i.e. activities traditionally attributed to femininity.

Apart from Superman’s hair, Freeborn was noted for his creation of the character Yoda, based partly, he said, on Albert Einstein. Others — clever people! — saw a similarity with Freeborn himself. See photo above.

The Wisdom of a Fortune Cookie

scott-poster
I walked out of the movie of «The Life of Pi» the other day. That’s the third time in sixty-five years and about a million movies that I have wasted a good movie ticket.

I saw my first movie at age five in 1948: «Scott of the Antarctic». To my horror, I was forced to watch John Mills, a decent chap who played the brave hero, die. I had never seen anyone die before, and I knew that forcing a child to go through that experience — apart from being horrible — was in poor taste: very poor taste. But I didn’t walk out. The whole school was there, and you weren’t allowed to walk out. So I sat there and endured watching the nice man die in front of me. I have never quite trusted a film director since.

In 1983 I walked out on a movie for the first time. The movie was «Goodbye Paradise», a film written by Bob Ellis, an Australian writer with an ego much larger than his talent, and starring Ray Barrett. The movie seemed to take hours to bore you to death, slowly and painfully, so I walked, half-way through. I wasn’t annoyed, just saddened, and I had better things to do.

The second time was half way through «The Piano». I know when I am having my emotions manipulated by a gang of bourgeois frauds, and I walked out in a rage.

And «The Life of Pi»?

Let Ryan Gilbey give you his jaundiced opinion (from the «New Statesman», UK):

The late Michael Crichton once told me that he had been downhearted after seeing Terminator 2: Judgment Day, that watershed moment in CGI, because he knew there would no longer be any barriers to what could be conjured up on screen. The dream, I suppose, would be that other aspects of the film-making process would be fortified: screenplays might become more complex, the camerawork innovative, to keep pace with technology. If this is the future, «Life of Pi» is a disastrous advertisement. David Magee’s screenplay is hamstrung by the banality of the points in Martel’s novel about the intersection between storytelling and faith. The film begins with the adult Pi promising he has a tale that will make anyone believe in God. It ends with a twist – well, more of a mild kink – that provides a new definition of anti-climax. The impression you take from «Life of Pi» is that of an extravagantly decorated cake with nothing inside but the wisdom of a fortune cookie.

Between Two Deaths

Stop press: August, 2012:

Alfred Hitchcock’s «Vertigo» has usurped Orson Welles’s «Citizen Kane» as the greatest film of all time in a poll by the BFI’s «Sight and Sound» magazine. (BFI = British Film Institute.)

The magazine polls its experts once a decade – and «Citizen Kane» has been their top pick for the last 50 years.

This time, 846 distributors, critics, academics and writers chose Hitchcock’s 1958 suspense thriller, about a retired police officer with a fear of heights.

Starring James Stewart and Kim Novak, «Vertigo» beat «Citizen Kane» by 34 votes.

In the last poll 10 years ago, it was five votes short of toppling «Kane».

Hitchcock called it his most personal film and it sees the director tackle one of his recurring themes – love as a fetish that degrades women and deranges men.

vertigo-kiss

James Stewart and Kim Novak almost kiss in «Vertigo». Almost!

Fetish? Degraded women? Deranged men? Hmmm… sounds about right. My two most recent poetry collections, «Urban Myths» and «Starlight», contain poems that (presciently!) deal at length with «Vertigo».

Here’s critic Martin Duwell writing about the one in «Starlight», “Boy in Mirror”:

Probably the most complex of these poems is “Boy in Mirror”, about Hitchcock’s «Vertigo» — its companion piece, “Girl in Water”, can be found in the “At the Movies” section of «Urban Myths». It includes an opening section on adolescent responses to the film and is built out of a free flowing commentary on the film which stresses its complex motifs and openness to an allegorising approach. The poem gives a generic-narrative interpretation of «Vertigo» which, like «North by Northwest», contains, the poem says, a woman imprisoned by a monster who must be killed so that the princess can be rescued.

Cherchez la femme, then the action
moves to a strangely threatening rural arena
far from the city: dangerous heights and fatal falls:
the (blonde) is unfaithful to the hero, maybe because
she has been captured and possessed by another monster
and soon the hero is a cuckolder and the woman adulterous
and thus fallen, or falling, or dead and gone…

We also get a lot of impressively detailed critical reading, especially involving connections with Proust that perhaps derive from the original novel on which «Vertigo» is based.* These may be well-known in the land of film-criticism [in fact they're not] but they are new to me. The perspectives in this poem are not only the different ways of reading the narrative itself (ie with a progressively wider lens producing an archetypal reading) and the increasingly fine observation of detail, but they also bring in the adolescent boy’s response to the eroticised body of Kim Novak and his identification with the wounded policeman.

Difficult Rider

easy-riderJohn Tranter comments on David Malouf’s review of the movie «Easy Rider» This Letter to the Editor first appeared in The «Union Recorder»: The weekly newspaper of the University of Sydney Men’s Union: 28 April 1970. I was in my twenties at the time. “…the barbiturate effect of such a comforting juxtaposition is purchased at the cost of a certain failure to appreciate the importance of the intervening variables: Fonda, though essentially a creature of the seventies, could not have existed without the youth revolution of the fifties.”

More on my Home Site here.

Tinker, and so forth (at the movies)

Spy ShotMy daughter The Novelist knows John le Carre’s work better than I do, though Doctor Wilson, the doctor who delivered her at Singapore’s Mount Alvernia Hospital, knew John le Carre himself, which always impressed me. She says that the new movie version of the novel «Tinker, Sailor, Soldier, Spy” has two episodes which were not in the book [or at least not witnessed by any character in the book], and I think she’s right. In each episode, a woman is horribly murdered, by the Enemy (Russian spies in the service of spymaster Karla). In one episode a woman nursing a baby is (accidentally) shot through the head. You can almost see the headline: Spy Slays Toddler’s Mum! How the nursing mother is shot through the head is hard to understand: the spy (disguised as a waiter) who shoots her was aiming at a man who was running away in the other direction, or at least at ninety degrees to where she was sitting, which is a bit like aiming at someone running down the street in front of the car you are driving, and “accidentally” shooting the person in the passenger seat beside you. A: unnecessary, B: cheap, C: sordid.

So what’s new? The director was Tomas Alfredson, a Swede, and his earlier films include «Let the Right One In». Here is a very abbreviated version of Wikipedia’s plot outline of this horror-vampire flick:

The “hero”, Oskar, a meek 12-year-old boy, meets Eli, who appears to be a pale girl of his age. They share various adventures. Shortly after, Oskar figures out that Eli is a vampire and confronts Eli. Eli admits to being a vampire. Oskar is initially upset by this because Eli acknowledges needing to kill people to survive. Eli encourages Oskar to be “more like me…” [Later,] Jimmy (a bully) forces Oskar under the water, threatening to cut his eye out if he does not hold his breath for three minutes. While Oskar is underwater, however, there is commotion above the surface. Soon Jimmy’s severed head drops into the pool, followed shortly by the arm which had held Oskar down. Eli then pulls Oskar out of the water. Three dismembered bodies lie around the pool while Andreas, the reluctant fourth bully, sobs on a bench.

I had to stop reading here: I was laughing too much to go on.

So what if a woman nursing a baby is shot through the head in Tomas Alfredson’s latest movie? I think we were let off lightly. The Russian spies might have turned out to be vampires, and we were spared that much, at least.


Pickled? Moi?

Bond, drinkingJohn Lanchester reviews «From Russia with Love», «Dr No» and «Goldfinger» by Ian Fleming:

‘Follow your fate, and be satisfied with it, and be glad not to be a second-rate motor salesman, or a yellow-press journalist, pickled in alcohol and nicotine,’ James Bond tells himself about halfway through «From Russia with Love», the fifth and perhaps the best of Ian Fleming’s thrillers. This sounds like good advice, but it does raise one large issue: what exactly counts as being ‘pickled’? Continue reading

Just rock and roll

The Last Waltz

Jen Chaney at the Washington Post notes that “The Telegraph has reported that a “small number of refunds” have been issued to moviegoers in the United Kingdom who complained because «The Artist» — a movie that is quite clear about the fact that it is a silent film — doesn’t have any spoken dialogue in it.” She adds “If you’ve seen even five seconds of a commercial for «The Artist», glanced briefly at any moment of the recent Golden Globes telecast or read the briefest possible synopsis of the film, how could you not know it was silent?

Reminds me of the time many decades ago when my wife and I went to a Sydney art cinema to see Martin Scorcese’s 1978 film «The Last Waltz», which documents the final concert by The Band. The concert was held at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco on November 25, 1976, and featured one of the most extensive lineups of prominent guest performers at a single concert, including Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Neil Diamond, Ringo Starr, Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Paul Butterfield, Ronnie Wood and Van Morrison. Wikipedia says that “The Last Waltz is hailed as one of the greatest concert films ever made”.

As we waited in line to buy our tickets, we overheard the ticket-seller patiently explaining to two little old ladies from New York that alas, the film did not contain any waltzing.
“No waltzes? Not even one?” asked one of the ladies, disappointed and bewildered.
“I’m sorry, madam. Just rock and roll, I’m afraid, all in four-four time.”

“Whatever, bro’.”

Aptenodytes saccharini

Aptenodytes saccharini

We took our grandson to see «Happy Feet 2» today. As with any cartoon movie made for 3D it hurled the viewer into mile-deep abysses, gaping gulfs and dizzying dioramas, following animals that swooped and plunged through the sky at terrifying speed for tens of thousands of feet, hallucinatory and fearsome feats designed to make your stomach come out your nose.

The movies began titillating the audience just like that more than a century ago, with the first silent movie proper, «The Great Train Robbery», produced by Thomas Edison in 1903:

To the audience’s fear and then delight, there was a scene in which the leader of the outlaws looks directly at the audience and fires his pistol at them. (This scene appeared either at the beginning or at the end of the film, a decision left up to the operator.) [– From: 1903 - The First Silent Movie: «The Great Train Robbery», by Jennifer Rosenberg, at the About.com Guide at http://history1900s.about.com/od/1900s/qt/trainrobbery.htm]

Continue reading

Yul Brynner: Never Argue with Fools

Yul Brynner, passport photo, 1940s

Yul Brynner, passport photo, 1940s

In a thoughtful interview with David Frost on the David Frost TV show, 28 April 1971, actor Yul Brynner talked briefly about his second PhD degree. He did this at Chicago because he had plenty of time free in between acting in «The King and I» at night. He knew all the lines by heart by then, and he was bored. He also recounted that when he left Europe for the United States in 1941, he traveled to the USA to study with acting teacher Michael Chekhov and toured the country with Chekhov’s theatrical troupe. He said that when he left Paris, a friend who was too poor to buy him a proper going-away present gave him some valuable advice instead: “Never argue with fools. To do so, you have to climb down to their level, and on that level they always win.”

There’s a good biographical précis here: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000989/bio

Can anyone supply me with more details about this interview? I’d be grateful.