Sunday, 22 April 2012

The Scottish Play by Roman Polanski

Roman Polanski's 1970 film, a nightmarish adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy is impossible to see without viewing the film through the prism of the Manson murders. It was Polanski's first film after the gruesome slaying of his wife Sharon Tate and the violence and oppressively morbid atmosphere of the film was greeted with considerable disdain by US critics who felt that the director was subjecting audiences to gore and images of death for the sake of exorcising his own demons. Polanski vehemently denied the charge claiming his decision to film Shakespeare's play was inspired by his own childhood memories of witnessing the brutal treatment of his family at the hands of the Nazis. It's difficult to say where the truth lies, but what is certain is the film is one of the director's most brilliantly realised works and a key film of the 70's.

If you're unfamiliar with Shakespeare, a brief sketch of the play is as follows - set in 11th century Scotland, Macbeth a brave and loyal general hears a prophecy spoken by three witches, that one day he will be King of Scotland. Macbeth and his wife both ruthlessly ambitious, murder Duncan the ruling King, and Macbeth swiftly ascends to the throne. Macbeth however grows increasingly paranoid and tyrannical and murders all those who threaten his rule, and soon he and Lady Macbeth are consumed by despair, guilt and madness as their enemies move ever closer... Written most likely around 1606 for a special performance before King James I and his brother-in-law Christian IV of Denmark, Shakespeare in a sense tailors the play to his audience - the political intrigue, the treason in the court and assassination plots were highly topical of the day and James I was something of an expert on the subject of witchcraft having written a book on the practice in 1597 entitled Daemonologie, in which he advocated the trial and persecution of witches. Shakespeare's inclusion of the witches might have be viewed as a flattery towards his king, but it's one of the most powerful devices in the play and one could imagine a young Roman Polanski darkly impressed by these secret, black, and midnight hags.

From hero to hell-hound - Jon Finch as Macbeth
In 1969 Polanski was in London working on a screenplay for Day of the Dolphin when he received a phone call from LA about the terrible events of August 9th. In the early hours of the morning his heavily pregnant wife Sharon Tate was savagely murdered by four members of the Manson Family. Polanski wasn't required to return to the US during the investigation and trial of Charles Manson and his followers, and decamped to a Swiss ski village where the idea developed to film one of Shakespeare's plays. Polanski later wrote in his autobiography that he was concerned that his next film would be greeted with huge interest, and immediately ruled out doing a comedy which he felt would be in poor taste. In fact Polanski had been considering making a film of Henri Charrière's novel Papillon but was now set upon the Shakespeare play. The project quickly gathered momentum. Polanski invited friend and English theatre critic and iconoclast Kenneth Tynan to co-write the screenplay with Polanski and reshape the original Shakespeare text for Cinema - streamlining the play into a manageable two hours with some tweaks and adjustments, like the use of internal monologues and showing the actual murder of Duncan, a scene which occurs off stage in the play.

Stars hide Your fires, let not light see my black and deep desires
One of play's central themes is universal chaos, and it seems somewhat appropriate that financing for the film was partly received from Playboy Productions, the first and surely the last time Shakespeare and Hugh Hefner would share a credit. Rather than shoot the film in Scotland, Polanski settled on the highlands of Snowdonia and the beaches of Portmerion in northern Wales. Filming began in late summer of 1971 but unseasonably stormy weather had slowed the pace of the production considerably with Polanski grabbing only a few usable minutes of filming here and there before the cast and crew were forced to take shelter. Playboy's interest in the film was overseen by Film Finances who began leaning on Polanski to quicken the pace. Polanski wrote in his autobiography that Italian Job director Peter Collinson was hired to complete the picture if necessary but Polanski offered to waive his fee and in return Hugh Hefner injected more cash into the production earning the director a reprieve. Polanski completed the film in time for its US release in October and the film was released to lukewarm reviews, the film heavily criticised for it's nudity and gore, and there was controversy about Polanski's motivation for making such a violent film. The film fared better in the UK but this alone was not enough to recoup the film's production cost. Polanski had by then moved on and began working on an erotic comedy with Jack Nicholson in mind for the lead, a germ of an idea that would eventually grow into the absurdist 1973 sex comedy What?

Double, double toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble
From the opening sequence where the three witches gather on a windswept beach and ritualistically bury a dagger, a noose and a severed hand, Polanski's film depicts a world of cruelty and barbarism. Early on in the film, one of the king's subjects is hung for treason, pushed off the gallows with a heavy iron collar around his neck, his body left to hang for all to see. In another scene the exotic prize of a caged grizzly bear is tormented and provoked by members of the court until the poor beast is set upon by dogs and torn apart. There are images of blood and gore throughout the film - enemies of the king are vanquished with swords and spiked balls, while the murder of Duncan, violently stabbed by Macbeth, is starkly realistic (Polanski claimed that to film it any other way would have been an obscenity). There is almost no doubt that Polanski channeled the grief of his wife's death into the film, there are numerous signs throughout if you look for them, but two scenes are particularly resonant - when Macbeth gives instructions to two assassins to murder his general Banquo and his son, and the sequence where Macduff's wife and his child are brutally slaughtered while Macduff is safely ensconced in England - which echoes something Polanski wrote in his autobiography about that dreadful night at Cielo Drive - "To this day I believe that had I been there when the gang of three women and one man climbed over the fence and broke in, Frykowski and myself might have tackled them and between us driven them off"

Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?
Shakespeare's play had been previously filmed by Orson Welles in 1948 and in 1957 by Akira Kurosawa, both visually arresting works and Polanski's film follows in that tradition. Gil Taylor's magnificent 'scope photography expertly draws on the play's theme of light and darkness, the film perpetually bathed in that strange illumination known as magic hour, with the retreating sun an appropriate blood red. Among the visual highlights are the shots of Macbeth's castle looming over the horizon like a sinister spectre, or the blood soaked living dead Banquo haunting Macbeth's feverish imagination, and there's one particularly extraordinary moment where Macbeth's vision extends into a mirror, which extends into another mirror, and another and so on. Jon Finch, who previously appeared in Hammer's Vampire Lovers and Horror of Frankenstein does a fine job as Macbeth and tackles the complexities of Shakespeare's conflicted anti-hero with surprising skill. Francesca Annis equips herself very well in the role of Lady Macbeth. She's not quite the equal of Isuzu Yamada's equivalent in Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, but nevertheless she makes for a fine wolf in sheep's clothing. Incidentally Annis was later cast as a very different Lady in David Lynch's Dune (playing Lady Jessica).

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage
Columbia's 2003 DVD is a fairly modest affair featuring a good serviceable 2.35 transfer. Aside from some spotting on the opening credits, the print is generally clean, sharp and colorful. Audio is fine overall, dialogue is clear and the memorably weird score by The Third Ear Band sounds robust. No significant extras aside from the trailer and who in Columbia's art department decided on the DVD artwork which inexplicably features a still of Martin Shaw's Banquo ? At the time of writing, a Blu-Ray edition has yet to be announced so the mid-priced Columbia DVD comes highly recommended.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

The Camp on Blood Island

You'd be forgiven for imagining Dr. Moreau-type grotesqueries upon discovering the title of this film, but The Camp on Blood Island, Hammer's 1958 film is a story of real-life horror - the plight of British soldiers held captive by the Japanese as prisoners of war in the jungles of Southeast Asia during the Second World War. Made a year after Bridge on the River Kwai, Camp on Blood Island was an altogether grittier affair than David Lean's film and seen today after years of obscurity, it emerges as one of the Hammer's finest films of the '50's.

Set during the final days of the Pacific War, Blood Island POW camp is on the verge of disintegration. When Col. Lambert, leader of the prisoners learns of Japan's defeat by way of a smuggled radio, he puts together a plan to alert allies of the camp's existence before Commandant Yamamitsu's liquidation of the camp and its remaining prisoners. When an American navy pilot successfully escapes from the camp, matters come to a head and Lambert and his men are forced to overthrow their Japanese oppressors by any means necessary... Directed with customary skill by Val Guest, Camp on Blood Island was considerably strong meat for audiences back in 1958 with scenes of British prisoners being routinely humiliated, punished and executed, like the arresting opening sequence showing a British officer machine-gunned into a freshly dug grave. Not surprisingly the film was mired in controversy on its release, but the tough stance taken by Hammer was endorsed by the BBFC who gave Jon Manchip White's screenplay a relatively easy passage from page to screen, eliminating just a few instances of coarse language and grisly violence.

Despite Hammer's considerable success with The Curse of Frankenstein the studio was still some months away from signing a lucrative distribution deal with Columbia and financing for Camp on Blood Island was often perilous. Nevertheless Hammer's art department managed to turn a corner of the Bray back lot into a convincing stand-in for Malaysia with some cleverly placed palm trees, not to mention a well-oiled cast to conjure up a suitably sweaty atmosphere. Val Guest's lively, muscular direction and cameraman Jack Asher's expertly shot black & white 'scope photography lends the film an immediacy and a genuine sense of scale that belies it's humble budget. The film is well acted too, with a perfectly cast André Morell taking the lead as Lambert and joined by a roster of fine English character actors and familiar Hammer faces, including Michael Gwynn (from The Revenge of Frankenstein), Marne Maitland (The Reptile), Richard Wordsworth (The Quatermass Xperiment) and a fresh-faced Barbara Shelley in her first significant appearance for the studio.

Given the era it was made, it would be ungracious to criticize the film for being a simple, routine actioner but seeing it today, the caricaturing of the Japanese as monstrous brutes is regrettable. The Japanese were particularly cruel in their treatment of prisoners of war (considered beneath contempt for allowing themselves to be captured), but the Japanese could be equally brutal disciplining their own soldiers, and of course not all guards were sadistic monsters - as JG Ballard recalled in his semi-fictional memoir Empire of the Sun, Japanese soldiers could also be kind and humane. Worse still, all the principle Japanese characters were played by British actors, including an embarrassing turn by the otherwise marvellous Michael Ripper, japanified with some silly eye makeup and a cringe worthy accent - thankfully his appearance is confined to just two short dialogue scenes. Also, and this is a minor complaint, the cast is far too healthy looking to pass for genuine prisoners except for the perpetually emaciated Richard Wordsworth whose scarecrow frame looks the part.

Sony's 2009 UK DVD of The Camp on Blood Island is a mostly bare bones affair but nonetheless is very welcome, this being the first ever home video release of the film. The 2.35 anamorphic transfer is generally excellent, aside from some haziness in long shots, the b/w image looks very smooth and impressively detailed. The audio track sounds robust too, even if some of the dialogue can be hard to catch (most likely due to the technical limitations of the day), but thankfully Sony have provided English subtitles to fill in the blanks (worth noting, the subtitles do not translate the few instances of Japanese dialogue). The only extra offered is a throwaway stills gallery, but the DVD comes with an excellent scene-setting booklet by Hammer historian Marcus Hearn. The inferior prequel The Secret of Blood Island followed in 1965 and has yet to surface on DVD.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Renaldo and Clara

Bob Dylan's 1978 film Renaldo and Clara is one of the great white whales of Rock 'n' Roll Cinema, a sprawling 4 hour vanity project, part fictionalized drama, part concert film made during the early leg of Dylan's '75/76 Rolling Thunder Revue tour. When the film was released in January 1978, it was savaged by critics for its seemingly incoherent story, and deliberately obscure meaning. The film is undeniably self-indulgent, and despite its rather shaky reputation, Renaldo and Clara remains an oddly compelling and enjoyable film, and besides some terrific music, where else would you see Harry Dean Stanton scoring with Joan Baez and a semi-naked Allen Ginsberg flirting with a scantily dressed whore?

The plot of Renaldo and Clara resists easy interpretation. Dylan himself explained rather tortuously to Playboy: "It's the essence of man being alienated from himself and how in order to free himself, to be reborn, he has to go outside himself" In plainer terms, the film is Dylan's self-examination of his love-life and his troubled relationships with women. At the heart of the film are the characters of rock musician Renaldo and his lover Clara, played by Dylan and his wife Sara. Renaldo and Clara both have complicated pasts - Sara has left her emotionally withdrawn husband (played by Sam Shepard) while a former lover of Renaldo's, known simply as the Woman in White (Joan Baez) is back on the scene and Renaldo has to make a decision...

Renaldo and Clara is best likened with the lyric experimentation of Tangled Up In Blue - this is a film dense with symbolism, obscure references, shifting time lines and unexpected tangents. Dylan cast much of the extended Rolling Thunder band in the film, like Nashville star Ronee Blakely, former Spider from Mars guitarist Mick Ronson, Roger McGuinn and David Mansfield (who would later turn up as a rollerskating violin player in Heaven's Gate). Harry Dean Stanton appears in two or three scenes (as a jail breaker who trades a horse for Renaldo's lover), and Allen Ginsberg, in a significant role (listed on the credits as the Father), gets to read his poetry, sing songs and mantras, and at one point visits the grave of Jack Kerouac accompanied by Dylan. Most extraordinary is that Joan Baez was chosen to play Renaldo's former lover, the Woman In White, considering Baez was Dylan's former lover. Dylan and Baez split some ten years before the Rolling Thunder tour, but the chemistry between both of them in the film is still palpable - at one point Baez playfully asks Dylan "What do you think it would have been like if got married?" Ironically, by the time Renaldo and Clara was released Dylan and Sara's marriage was over apparently due to Dylan's womanizing.

"We never actually wrote a script" remembered playwright Sam Shepard whom Dylan hired to write the film. Shepard is credited with "additional dialogue" but much of the film feels loose and improvised, like a sequence at a Native American reservation (where guitarist Bob Neuwirth antagonizes one of the Indians, before Dylan arrives messiah-like). Elsewhere, there's some footage of boxer Hurricane Ruben Carter at a press conference speaking about his incarceration (followed by Dylan leaning on some record executives to release his Hurricane single), while other sequences suggest that the trio of credited cameraman simply showed up to record events as they happened, like two evangelists preaching a fire n' brimstone sermon outside the New York Stock Exchange. There's some genuinely funny stuff in the film as well, like a scene where Mick Ronson playing a bouncer refuses entry to rockabilly musician Ronnie Hawkins (playing a character called Bob Dylan), a disgruntled Hawkins responding to Ronson's thick Hull accent, "I don't care anything about the Queen, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, or David Boowie (sic) or his lead guitar figure, or anybody else". In another scene Allen Ginsberg reads aloud his famous poem Kaddish (which includes the line "a long black beard around the vagina"), to some unimpressed old aged pensioners.

Dylan shot over 100 hours of footage throughout the filming of the Rolling Thunder Revue and felt Renaldo and Clara's four-hour cut was itself a compromise, as he later explained: "I knew it was not going to be a short movie because we couldn't tell that story in an hour. Originally I couldn't see how we could do it under seven or eight hours." The final draft of the film features live footage of nine original Dylan songs, as well as songs from Joan Baez (singing Diamonds and Rust), Ronee Blakely (Need a New Sun Rising Every Morning), and a strangely androgynous Roger McGuinn singing Knockin' on Heaven's Door, Chestnut Mare (one of the Byrds' best songs), and a lively instrumental jam of Eight Miles High. Dylan himself appears in face paint (and an unnerving transparent mask seen in the opening number) and in contrast to his subdued, aloof turn as Renaldo, on stage he's in terrific form, with excellent renditions of When I Paint My Masterpiece, Isis and a rollicking John Lee Hooker-sounding version of A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall. Dylan's commitment to the film was such that he initially refused to be filmed for The Last Waltz, which was to be released around the same time as Renaldo and Clara, but Dylan relented and allowed the cameras to roll on two of the four songs he performed. Incidentally, the live footage violates an age-old convention of concert films by never cutting away to the audience, the cameras remaining firmly locked on Dylan and his band.

After the disastrous reception of Renaldo and Clara, Dylan tried to rescue the film by reshaping it into a two hour feature but still the film was greeted with jeers, even from the Dylan faithful. Dylan withdrew the film from public and still to this day has never enjoyed a home video release. Luckily, Channel 4 in the UK once screened the four hour cut (believed to be from the mid 80's) and was taped to VHS (with the adverts cut out). This seems to be where all bootlegs of Renaldo and Clara stem from but fortunately, the film looks very decent, if a little grungy. Every now and then, there is an announcement that the film is being prepared for DVD but at the time of writing, the film still remains elusive.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Happy Birthday Andrei Tarkovsky

Andrei Arsenyevich Tarkovsky, the Cinema's greatest poet
April 4, 1932 – December 29, 1986