Thursday, June 30, 2016

Dr. Orloff's Cold Compulsion

Dean Stockwell, Bradford Dillman and Orson Welles in COMPULSION.
I recently saw Richard Fleischer's COMPULSION (1959) - a fictionalized recap of the Leopold & Loeb murder case - for the first time - or perhaps for the first time in a long time. The scene between Ruth (Diane Varsi) and Judd (Dean Stockwell) - in which Judd tries to "attack" Ruth (seemingly a bargaining chip word to replace the less-acceptable-to-the-censors term "rape," which is uttered once and only once) because Judd's insane mentor Artie (Bradford Dillman) commanded it - rang somewhat familiar.

I was very much surprised by how much the film resembled Richard Brooks' IN COLD BLOOD (1968), from the dynamic of its two killers to its B&W CinemaScope photography, though it was based on a completely different murder case. Almost 50 years since its initial release, IN COLD BLOOD still feels uncomfortably realistic while COMPULSION, despite its best intentions, has the feel of earnest but white-washed, 20th Century Fox bombast.

According to ONE MAN BAND, Simon Callow's latest installment in his Orson Welles biography, after a day of failed attempts, Welles was finally only able to deliver a complete take of his jury summation speech (so popular that it was issued on record!) by asking that everyone on the set in his line of vision close their eyes or look away from him as he spoke. You can see some of this in the scene, and it actually works well in terms of showing how the speech against capital punishment arouses the public's self-loathing. However, as the speech appears in the film, it's a composite of many different takes, making the anecdote a bit unrewarding to investigate.

And one more thing. Because I recently completed an audio commentary for a forthcoming Redemption release of Jess Franco's DR. ORLOFF'S MONSTER, that film was fresh in my mind as I watched COMPULSION. Consequently, I was struck by how very much the Argentinian actor Hugo Blanco, who plays the radio-controlled murder zombie Andros in the ORLOFF film, resembles Stockwell's Judd, who is himself programmed by a dominant personality to kill.

It's the sort of thing no one ever thought to ask Jess Franco about (not that he would have admitted it, anyway), but COMPULSION was widely released in Europe. In fact, according to the IMDb, it was released in Franco's home town of Madrid on October 21, 1963 - and DR. ORLOFF'S MONSTER went into production in February 1964, so COMPULSION's Spanish release would have coincided with Franco's conceiving the idea for the film. No hard evidence, but it's sometimes revealing to look into which films happened to be "in the air" as other films were being conceived. I wish I'd known this as I was preparing my commentary - and since it's not coming out for awhile, perhaps there is still time to sneak it in.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Genius of Mario Bava, Revisited

Yesterday I found this gif over at Giphy and it helped me to focus on the makings of a shot I've long known but always looked past, seeing it as a bridge to action rather than as action itself.

It's a shot from Mario Bava's HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON (Il rosso segno della follia, 1969) and features Stephen Forsyth as the murderous John Harrington and Femi Benussi as his ill-fated wedding gown model. If you haven't seen the film, shame on you, but it's about the owner of a wedding gown salon who leads a double life as a serial killer - but he's a serial killer with a quest. He doesn't kill out of anger, nor even for destructive reasons. Each time this closet narcissist kills, he finds that he is able to recall more of the traumatic childhood incident that caused him to embark on this twisted lifestyle in the first place.

Here is the full scene as it appears in context. Note that the shots in question all take place in the first five seconds of this montage.

Look closely at the mechanics of this shock effect. Viewed in a loop via the gif (I wish Blogger would allow me to present it as a looping accompaniment to my notes), one can only gasp at how simply and effectively Bava was able to illustrate the inner workings of his anti-hero's psychosis. As the cleaver slams down, we see no blood, no cleaving. Instead, it blacks out the violence in metaphor. Bava cuts to a split red-saturated (make that a double metaphor) graphic of Benussi's eyes, which is then pulled apart to uncover more of the trauma buried in John's unconscious - an image from the incident that started it all. So original, so dynamic, so uniquely cinematic!

While it shows the influence of 1960s graphic art storytelling (ie., comics), it's hard to imagine narrative cinema getting at this information any other way. It's just as hard to imagine such a narrative conveying such a moment as effectively in a static art setting. In its own way, it's as revolutionary as it was for Quentin Tarantino to relate backstory in KILL BILL, VOLUME 1 in an anime format. More than 40 years further on, this moment still looks fresh - and because it was never the point of the scene it helps to play out, it hasn't been remade to death.

The idea of going from a hot red image to a cool grey-blue one alone - without cuts - shows such a profound understanding of color and cinema. Today's films are wall-to-wall with rich color so that it rarely has a chance to have meaning or effect.

Every time I look at this gif (which - as you see in the clip - happens so quickly in the film, it doesn't give us the opportunity to deconstruct it), I see something different. At the moment, I find myself deeply impressed by how Bava's zoom lens appears to be zooming in and back in a single reflexive movement, though it unfolds on three separate layers and had to be edited together from at least two separate zooms - one for live action, one for the graphics.

And I keep wondering about that second layer - it doesn't appear to be an optical, so was it printed out on saturated red photo paper and pulled apart by hand? Or was it pre-scored and affixed to some weighted mechanical contraption that, with the pulling of a lever, dropped the two vertical halves to horizontal rest? Notice how the abrupt change in color is produced on the level of the printing of the image and not by lighting. So impressive!

How many people working in film today would even think to involve printed static images to produce a shock effect? The more we agree to continue moving toward a "post-print" society, the fewer the opportunities there will be for movies to become anything other than what we have seen before.

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Story Behind FLIES - My "Lost" FLY Sequel

Geena Davis and Jeff Goldblum in THE FLY (1986).
In response to this article on Geoff Todd's One Perfect Shot blog, I wrote the following reminiscence  for my Facebook page, where it attracted some interest. The article ponders a once-announced, no-show sequel to David Cronenberg's THE FLY, entitled FLIES, that Geena Davis was said to be producing at some point in the 1990s - and what I wrote relates to my own involvement with a proposed sequel that I originated, in late 1986, which was also called FLIES. Knowing that my reminiscence would only scroll away quickly on FB, I thought I should post it here, on the record. Not that it scores me any points in particular, but it does render more accurate a certain chain of events, if anyone cares.

When THE FLY came out to great success in 1986, I approached David Cronenberg to ask if I might submit a storyline for a possible sequel. (I had been writing on-set reports about the making of his films since 1981 and had just spent two weeks on the set of THE FLY for CINEFEX and AMERICAN CINEMATOGRAPHER, so I figured I knew the characters as well as anybody.) David said sure, but that to bear in mind that the inside word was that the studio was looking for a vehicle for Geena Davis - for Jeff Goldblum not so much, though he might consent to a guest appearance to help Geena's career.

I wrote a storyline in which (I'm working from a distant memory here) Geena's character Veronica Quaife, while recovering from the traumatic loss of her lover Seth Brundle, resumed her journalism career and began researching for Stathis Borans a profile of the Bartok Company, who had acquired Brundle's orphaned research and equipment in the wake of his death. She meets with Anton Brink, the head of Bartok (a kind of proto-Apple) and he presents her with items from the company's "new spring line" (VIDEODROME reference) to test drive, including a fancy new computer. Her research continues and, one night, as she hits a wall, lacking certain information, she stares in amazement as the Bartok computer automatically fills in the information she doesn't know. Long story short, the ghost in her machine opens a real-time, intimate dialogue with her and turns out to be Brundle - his "ghost in the machine," as it were. He explains that, when he teleported himself, the telepod received an analog, not his original self, which was destroyed in the first telepod and translated into information stored within the computer - which is what is communicating with her now. Veronica realizes that the system, then, is not just a teleportation unit but a true, instantaneous cloning device and that her beloved COULD live again. Brundle explains that this is true; however, the Bartok Company is holding him hostage in the machine, using his intelligence to direct their future product developments. "Help me, Ronnie..."

That is basically the pitch I made to producer Stuart Cornfeld on a trip to LA. I went in without representation, feeling myself to be among friends. In all fairness, he DID caution me about this - but I didn't know anything about finding an agent. Stuart told me to write up a treatment with my idea and to get it to him ASAP, which I did. The title I gave to my treatment was FLIES, playing off the cloning angle, but also the recent Fox success of ALIENS. I also sent a copy to David, who made me very happy when he told me that he liked my idea better than other proposals run past him, and that he was submitting it, with his personal recommendation, to Fox.

The next thing I heard, from David, was that Stuart didn't consider my treatment "cinematic," but David had argued the point, reminding him that such things were ultimately decided in the filming and editing anyway. He thought I had written the basis of a really SMART movie. (Maybe THAT'S what killed it.) Anyway, the next thing I heard, or read, was that Mick Garris, who had been doing a lot of work with Spielberg, was writing it - and that HIS script had David's approval. Well, that's that, I figured.

I've managed to avoid seeing THE FLY II all these years, but I am aware that the Bartok Company setting and a form of my name for said company's director, Anton Brink (conflating Anton Leader, the director of CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED, with Joseph Losey's original title for THESE ARE THE DAMNED, "The Brink"), somehow ended up in the picture's plasma pool - Anton Brink becoming Anton Bartok - and I am OK with that. Those were just ideas; nobody nicked my story - which I imagine Geena Davis might also have liked. It would have given her a real dramatic performance vehicle, much like the one Jeff Goldblum had, and actresses are always saying that they aren't offered enough of those.

I don't know anyone who was involved in the "gorefest" they made who looks back on it with pleasure. My proposed third act would have also made some commercial concessions to gore. It would have found Brundle infiltrating Bartok's security system to allow Ronnie to get inside the facility to follow his directions and reintegrate him. As she tried to reach the well-protected core of the facility, Brundle literally turned the building's security resources against Bartok's security goons.

Some years later, I read in FANGORIA that Fox (who also produced a movie during this period called GHOST IN THE MACHINE - maybe it was just something in the ether back then) had announced a possible third FLY film, a vehicle just for Geena called FLIES... but since my name has never been mentioned in relation to it, it must have nothing to do with me.

But the above will tell you a bit more about another FLIES that might have been.