Archive for the ‘Film buff’ category

The French Connection: A True Account of Cops, Narcotics, and International Conspiracy by Robin Moore

10 October 2008

coverThe excellent 1971 film of The French Connection, starring Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider, has been running quite frequently on the Fox Movie Channel of late. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s usually on late at night, so my focus is fuzzy, but there’s a major plot point in it that always had me confused.

The brown Lincoln Continental is brought into the country, loaded with concealed heroin, by the French connection. Then Sal Boca, the American connection, takes the car from a hotel parking ramp and parks it overnight on a seedy waterfront street, where it is nearly stripped by a roving chop shop gang. Popeye has the car impounded, the cops (finally, after hours of searching) discover the drug cache, then they close it back up good as new and return it to—the French connection, who later takes it to a desolate island in the East River for the deal to go down with Sal.

So here lies the confusion: why does Sal take possession of the car, full of drugs, before the deal—and then abandon it in a bad area? Why doesn’t he just off-load the drugs right then?

The answer lies in Robin Moore’s terrific non-fiction tale of, as he hyperbolically puts it, “the most crucial single victory to date in the ceaseless, frustrating war against the import of vicious narcotics into our country.” As Moore explains, the car (in reality a tan 1960 Buick Invicta) was left by the American connection on that waterfront street because at that point it was loaded, not with drugs, but with the cash payoff from a previous import. The car soon disappeared from the street, picked up by an unseen accomplice, and returned to Montréal (and ultimately France) to begin the next, even bigger, drug smuggling operation.

The stake-out scene in the movie is tense and dramatic, and it makes sense that it was included virtually unchanged from the book. But because the filmmakers have conflated two separate deals into one big deal, the chain of events ceases to make any sense at all. I find this ironic, considering that The French Connection is one of the films that is lauded for its gritty realism, a hallmark of American cinema in the 1970s. It’s a great movie—if for nothing else than the classic, nay, iconic chase scene between Popeye in a borrowed Pontiac Le Mans and his intended assassin in a commandeered elevated train—yet its five Academy Awards completely overshadow its excellent, worthy source material: Robin Moore’s 1969 book.

A follow-up (The Big Chill)

5 April 2007
Categories: Film buff

In a March 2006 post I pondered a reference to “John Barrister Tipton” in the film The Big Chill, but was unable to find a satisfactory answer online. Thanks to another Google search today, I found that John Beresford Tipton was a character on a 1950s TV show called The Millionaire, in which he “indulges himself [by] giving away one million dollars apiece to persons that he has never met.” Now, that makes sense. Whether the character in The Big Chill misspoke and said “Barrister” rather than “Beresford” remains to be determined.

Trinity and Beyond: The Atomic Bomb Movie by Peter Kuran

11 May 2006

coverPeter Kuran is a visual effects producer who got his Hollywood start as an animator on the original Star Wars trilogy. He has since worked on dozens of big-budget films as diverse as Airplane!, Edward Scissorhands, and Men In Black, through his effects company, Visual Concepts Entertainment (VCE). His credentials gave him the perfect background for restoring the aging footage of Trinity and Beyond.

Yet an able digital effects company can only do so much with battered copies of copies of copies, so Kuran pursued a massive research undertaking. He found listings of film reels depicting many atomic and nuclear events, the reels locked safely away in government archives and unavailable due to their Classified designation. By researching the tests in question, and locating footage of the same tests that had long been available to the public, he was able to get the keepers of the keys to declassify the clean, low-generation footage.

Then VCE spruced up the images, which despite having been kept safe and virtually unviewed for decades had suffered substantial color fading due to the unstable film stock on which they were printed. To remedy the problem, Kuran invented a new color restoration process that “produces a new intermediate film element with restored color, fine grain and excellent retention of shadow detail.” The result far surpasses what is possible using current digital restoration technology, and was judged worthy of a scientific and technical Academy Award in 2002.

Peter Kuran has thus compiled the finest collection of nuclear test footage ever assembled. The imagery is at once awesomely frightful and achingly beautiful. The narration is performed by William Shatner, who gives an excellent reading and never resorts to the sort of Shatneresque delivery one might expect.

The documentary attempts to avoid commenting on the ethical pitfalls of the subject, not always with success. The lead-in to the footage of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings uses a faux-newsreel style to present the American government’s reasoning for the bombings, mocking the jingoistic tone of propaganda films and leading one to infer that Kuran might not agree with the rationale. In general, however, Trinity and Beyond is presented as a straightforward factual history, leaving the viewer to contend with the eerie combination of beauty and horror these shots engender.

The best accompaniment for the powerful images, though, is the equally powerful musical score. Composed and conducted by William Stromberg, and performed by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra and Choir, the music is appropriately haunting and bombastic, alternately explosive and pensive.

Ironically, despite Kuran’s extensive research and groundbreaking restoration work, Stromberg’s score may prove to be the longest-lasting and most pervasive element of Trinity and Beyond, at least in terms of popular culture. The pull-out-all-the-stops pyrotechnics of “Hiroshima/Nagasaki Requiem” have entirely supplanted Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana in the latest generation of action movie trailers, such as that for X-Men 2. This is no surprise, since the rapid tempo and open-throated chanting of the choir lend themselves well to snap-cuts of flying superheroes.

Of course it figures that the remix for trailer use eliminates my personal-favourite element: the bell-rattling trombone line at the end of the movement that, particularly in the reprise “China Gets The Bomb,” runs so rampant that it staggers on wildly for a few notes beyond the orchestra’s final chords. There’s something so gloriously diabolical about it—to me it seems, in just a brief phrase, the perfect musical embodiment of Mutual Assured Destruction, carrying on of its own accord toward our doom.

A fresh look at a familiar friend

9 March 2006
Categories: Film buff

I watched The Big Chill the other night, for the first time in quite a while. This was also the first time I’d ever watched it on a large screen in its proper aspect ratio, even though I’ve probably watched it well over a dozen times on much smaller screens in pan-and-scan mode. The difference in clarity and detail was obvious from the opening scene, where for the first time I noticed the tear streaming down Sarah’s cheek as she stands in the doorway of the bathroom.

Moreover, though, I finally caught on to several nuances and subtexts that I’d never noticed before. In discussing these with my wife, I found that she’d been aware of all of them, meaning of course that she’s much smarter than me and I’d been missing the real story for the laughs. Herewith, however, is a collection of those epiphanies, or profound revelations, I’d had while watching, once again and yet as if for the first time, one of my all-time favourite films.

(Note that all quotes are paraphrases until I can confirm them with a re-viewing.)

The location

The film was shot in the town of Beaufort, South Carolina. Kasdan does an excellent job of making the place seem like a sleepy little rural village. I can’t address how much the place has changed in the 20-plus years since the film was shot, but certain aspects of Beaufort cannot have changed: it includes a satellite campus of the University of South Carolina, is just down the road from a large U.S. Marine Corps base, and is no more than five miles away from the major resort of Hilton Head.

The house is an antebellum summer house known as Tidalholm, built by plantation owner Edgar Fripp in 1853, tucked away at the eastern edge of town. It was restored as a private residence in the 1970s, and was used in the film The Great Santini which was what prompted Kasdan to seek out the same locale. Satellite views show that the house’s dock faces, not a lake as it appears, but a broad estuary with sand bars dividing its reach. Across the way are myriad other docks and numerous other houses tucked under the trees. Much of this was surely in place at the time of filming, yet it does not show. And Kasdan rarely shoots from the house toward the road, thus concealing the other homes and city streets that would surely be in clear view.

The time frame

The story takes place over the course of four days in the fall of what one must presume is 1982. The funeral is on Thursday, and (nearly) everyone goes home on Sunday. This is easily inferred by the fact that each new morning is greeted with a shot of sunrise, and of course the football game occurs on Saturday.

We figure that the date is fall 1982, primarily because that was when the film was shot. When Harold gazes into the distance before the funeral, we can see several trees have begun to turn to their fall colours. The film was released in September 1983, so a filming schedule of the previous fall makes sense. Plus, the football game must be played in the fall.

The game, however, offers an interesting anachronism. The Michigan – Michigan State game is being played in Ann Arbor. Then as now, this means that the game is happening in an even-numbered year. Watching the footage closely and checking against a database of UM players (sadly, the rabidity of Michigan State fans is not as readily apparent online), I am reasonably certain that the game being watched is the 1980 game. It most certainly is not the 1982 game, which is probably a mere logistical fact of not having the latest game’s footage available at the time of shooting. By the way, although both of the plays we see are solidly pro-MSU—a clipping call against Michigan and an interception by Michigan State—UM went on to win that game, 27–23. Of course—there’s no way that Lawrence Kasdan would include in his movie a losing game of his beloved Wolverines.

One last note on this is that Sam speaks of having lost track of Alex about five years earlier, and that the last he’d heard of him was when he quit “that case worker job in 1978.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that the date is not 1980. (For example, I “lost track” of a particular friend some dozen years ago, yet know some of what she was doing in 2003, thanks to published articles. Adding up those two figures does not necessarily mean that it is now 2015, because quite obviously it is not.) But it jibes well with the feel of the movie and the eras involved to assume that the year is 1982.

Meg’s history

Add up the following pieces:

  1. Meg says to Sarah, “I have only known one thing in my life, and that’s that I want to have a child.” Sarah gives her a look that’s somewhere between quizzical, ironic, and scolding, to which Meg replies, “I think—no, I know—that was the right thing to do at the time.”
  2. Michael, while pitching to Meg the notion of him fathering her child, says “remember the march on Washington?” and she says “I remember” in a way that implies far lesser fondness for the memory than Michael has.
  3. Meg, to Sarah: “Michael has offered himself as stud—a repeat performance.” Sarah, horrified, says “He didn’t use those words, did he?”
  4. Finally, Meg says: “I can’t go to Michael—too much history there.”

These oblique remarks, spaced across a couple of days, add up to a simple conclusion. Michael got Meg pregnant during the march on Washington, and Meg had it aborted. Moreover, I think it’s clear that Michael has no idea.

A neat bit of foreshadowing

On Saturday afternoon, while most everyone is watching the game, Karen and Sarah are out on the porch talking about Sarah’s affair with Alex. In the last shot of the scene, a slow zoom-in of Karen as she gazes toward Sarah while thinking about her words, Sarah says “so we finally acted on that long-standing, all-consuming passion, and all it did was put up a wall in our relationship.” After a brief pause, Karen’s eyes shift, apparently toward the house.

Of course, she’s almost certainly thinking about Sam, and the fact that the two of them have been flirting—nay, engaging in foreplay—ever since they first made eye contact at the funeral. So she’s wondering to herself whether their relationship might suffer the same fate if they act on their passions, which needless to say they do later that evening.

The foreshadowing is this: the next morning, it’s clear that the result she fears is exactly what happens. The last time we see Karen and Sam interacting, they’re having a perfunctory, matter-of-fact conversation. Karen: “If we come out to L.A., maybe you could get the boys in to see a studio.” Sam: “Sure.” Karen: “Richard would like that.” What she said on Saturday about leaving Richard will not come to pass. There’s a cold cordiality to the exchange that says “we won’t speak of this again.” They’ll never again have the sort of warm, close conversation that they shared over the weekend.

Richard

While we’re on the subject of Richard, I think that he exemplifies a theme that runs throughout the film.

Saturday night, as they’re clearing the tables after dinner, Sam says, “It took me a long time to realize that people who looked just like us and had the exact same backgrounds could be lying, cheating assholes. I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt because I thought they felt the same as us.” (or some such)

In an inverse way, Sam could be talking about Richard—someone who doesn’t “look like us” and yet, underneath, feels the same. In college, Richard was probably one of the “straights.” I would not be surprised if he was in the ROTC, maybe even went to Vietnam for a tour of duty as a young second lieutenant in a rear echelon position. The whole group considers him stodgy, boring, and a bad fit for Karen—opinions surely shaped by Karen herself (q.v. her sidelong glance in the car when he says “None of those people are like I imagined them to be from your description—I only wonder how you described me to them”).

Yet Richard is quite unperturbed—one might almost say “cool”—when he witnesses Nick retrieving his drug stash from beneath his black Porsche 911T. And his sole monologue, at the kitchen table late Thursday night, reveals that he is quite clearly one of them, at least in the sense that he is (like the rest of them) perplexed by the life that he is leading, disappointed in some of the things he finds himself doing to make his way in the world and to keep his family safe and secure, but otherwise working to be the very best person that he can be.

Harold, alone, seems to understand that. He and Richard are much more alike than any of Harold’s friends would want to admit. Harold is a successful businessman (though the IMDb clued me in on a subtle, ironic joke that his athletic shoe store’s name is based on a quote from Mao: “The people’s revolution will bury the running dogs of capitalism”). He’s a pillar in his community, a father and family man. I think his sense of comity with Richard is revealed in something that I’d always taken as something of an anomaly, if not an outright continuity error: the fact that Harold includes Richard in his running shoe gift. Before this last viewing, I’d always thought, “wait a minute, Harold asks for everyone’s shoe sizes after Richard left, so why does the stack of shoe boxes on the kitchen table include one with Richard’s name on it?” Well, I think that’s the reason: despite Richard’s early departure and the predominant feelings about him from the rest of the group, Harold understands that Richard is definitely “one of us.”

Manipulation

On Friday night, Michael is overtly hitting on Chloe, much to the chagrin of all the other men there—particularly Nick, who has already been likened to Alex by Chloe, lately Alex’s girlfriend, and who despite his denial (“I ain’t him”) may have designs of his own. As Michael rolls a joint, Nick joins him and asks where Chloe is. Michael replies, “She’ll be right back,” in a tone that is anticipatory, verging on predatory. Nick then takes out a Quaalude, ponders taking it, decides against it, and is about to put it away when Michael asks about it, and Nick offers it to him.

I believe that Nick never has any intention of taking the ’lude, he feigns doing so solely for the purpose of drawing Michael’s attention to it. He then gently cajoles Michael into taking the whole thing, when Michael is considering splitting the pill in half. The next thing we know, Michael is passed out on the couch, not even having finished the glass of wine he used to wash down the ’lude, and Nick is free to converse with Chloe for the rest of the evening, which ultimately ends with her asleep with her head on his lap. (As an aside, it has been suggested that the inscrutable look he gives her as she’s lying there is a hint that perhaps her proximity has caused his long-damaged “equipment” to regain a modicum of functionality. I do not necessarily concur.)

What’s ironic about this is that earlier that same day, Michael and Sam are videotaped having a conversation wherein Michael says that being coldly manipulative may be a more honest way of getting what you want than being sincere, or earnest, or flattering. In espousing this view Michael casts himself as a cold manipulator, worldly and street-smart. Yet by the end of the day he has been wholly taken in by an act of cold manipulation.

Lines I still don’t get

There are two bits that still leave me confused.

One is an unintelligible line that is spoken while everyone is watching the J. T. Lancer intro, and comes immediately after the “I want a margarita and I want it now” line. Sam gives someone a scowl for it, but Lord knows what the line is.

The other is a reference, spoken by Karen (?) to Sam (?), asking “who did he think he wanted to be, John Barrister Tipton?” I cannot find any reference to this person; Google only responds with a Danish site that says “John Barrister-Tipton – som er den rigtige Hero-Man!” which seems like it would be appropriate, if only I spoke Danish. (Aha! The Tipton question, answered.)

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

24 February 2004

coverSo, having made my way through to the completion of Peter Jackson’s masterpiece (though unwilling to bide my time until the November release of the extended edition of The Return of the King), I decided to return to the source and give it a re-read.

This was only my second time through the whole thing, the first having been back during my freshman year of college (I started and never finished it in middle school… more on that later). The following will be more of a commentary on the films rather than the book, given that I utterly agree with Amazon.com‘s assessment of Tolkien’s supremacy: “A Christian can almost be forgiven for not reading the Bible, but there’s no salvation for a fantasy fan who hasn’t read the gospel of the genre, J.R.R. Tolkien’s definitive three-book epic, The Lord of the Rings.”

By the way, my copy (seen above) is a three-volume trade paper box set, by Houghton Mifflin, a late-1970s reprint of the 1965 second edition. It has its share of typos, along with the occasional hole in the text where the imprint was under-struck or under-inked. Aside from this, though, it mainly suffers from the printer’s error that, sadly, is all too common today: a two-page map whose centerline is lost within the depths of the binding. Middle Earth geography is an important part of the story, and it helps to refer frequently to Christopher Tolkien’s maps to understand the relation of the places to each other (as well as to keep straight all the place-names that are alternately given in the common tongue, or Elvish, or even Dwarvish).

I realize now why, upon my first reading, I got lost and quit somewhere in the middle of The Two Towers: one of those towers, Orthanc (and for that matter the names of Isengard and Fangorn) is buried in the spine and cannot be seen on the map! The book linked above is a new printing in a single volume, as the author apparently intended, and thankfully has redesigned and redrawn maps that cure the two-page map problem. Even better is the leatherette-bound hardcover, a must for all Tolkien afficionadi, which includes large-format fold-out maps.

But I digress. Within, say, a hundred pages or so into The Fellowship of the Ring, one may already find substantial differences and departures between the book and the film. Even more major discrepancies turn up later. However, we’ll leave a complete list of all the myriad alterations to a more Tolkien-rabid, nitpicky fiend than this writer. For I am not bothered by the changes.

My reasoning is that Tolkien himself treated The Lord of the Rings not so much as a novel, but as a piece of deeply-researched lore. (Or, perhaps he found a copy of Bilbo’s Red Book.) He gives us the sense that he didn’t write the book so much as spend long hours poring over dusty tomes in long-forgotten libraries, piecing together the story from scraps of old tales jotted down by ancient scribes. As if the end of the Third Age actually occurred some time in the distant past, and Tolkien is an historian who followed a trail of clues to a hidden wellspring of timeworn knowledge.

Lore, of course, relies primarily on word-of-mouth transmission, a mode which inherently causes a tale to shift and mutate, to gain embellishments and suffer elisions. And different methods of telling a story have their own strengths and weaknesses, whether they be campfire tales, or minstrels’ songs—or modern-day big-budget theatrical releases.

Thus in my opinion, Peter Jackson’s alterations of The Lord of the Rings in getting the story to the big screen are justified. So what if the subtext of the Sackville-Bagginses, and Frodo’s move to Crickhollow, and the strange interlude of Tom Bombadil, and the barrow-wights, to name several early examples from Fellowship, have all been omitted from the film. Tolkien told the old tale with lots of detailed filigree of genealogy, chronology, and Elvish linguistics. Jackson has taken it and streamlined it for a different medium, taking some dramatic liberties, simplifying many of its complexities and deleting some of its digressions (though at over twelve hours for the extended trilogy, some may question his success at the latter). In much the same way, Bilbo’s thirteen-stanza nonsensical drinking song has been trimmed (according to Tolkien, anyway) to become the nursery rhyme “Hey-diddle-diddle,” with no loss of meaning or entertainment value.

(My wife complains that The Return of the King lacks in proper character exposition, and I can’t disagree, but I suspect that the extended DVD will fill in those spaces. Aragorn’s backstory was told in The Two Towers, but only on the extended DVD, not in the theater. His ascendancy to the throne is significant in ways that the theatrical Return does not show, but perhaps that’s because the theatrical Two Towers did not lay the groundwork. One hopes that Jackson will pull out all the stops in this fall’s DVD.)

Any hey, this latest adaptation could have been a helluva lot worse. Two words: Ralph. Bakshi.