Iceman describes a modulation from Christian Nyby’s The Thing, which had just been remade by John Carpenter, toward Ken Russell’s Altered States.
A Stone Age man is defrosted from the snows and housed in an artificial environment there in the Arctic, rather like a zoo exhibit. He escapes into the lab, mucks about and emerges into frozen daylight. He takes a helicopter for a divinity (Through a Glass Darkly, or a much earlier Hollywood film), clings to one of its skids, and falls happily from a great height in ecstatic space as lab men watch below.
His exit from the sealed cage of rocks and plants and skylight leads to the startling discovery, startlingly filmed, of the modern world. He reaches out to touch a stoppered glass bottle, it falls and breaks, a noxious acid. He sees zoological specimens, including a bear, kept in plain cages. He carries a sharp stick and impales a lab man with it out of panic.
Schepisi’s direction of this sequence is illustrative, using a handheld camera to observe the proto-human in the maze of the lab, then turning 360° to give his field of vision, discovering him in a new position with a sense of dislocation, repeated throughout.
What is most surprising, apart from the general regard for humanity’s beginnings (this is plainly Red Skelton’s caveman in Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines), is Schepisi’s complete command of the discourse by way of bright, even-toned and all-encompassing cinematography. Amid the stylistic pirouettes of the lab sequence, he builds or dissects an ideal man of the twentieth century, rather as Schaffner does toward the end of Planet of the Apes.
Generally, it’s a work of picture-making, with a particularly good instrument for it, and something like The Story of Mankind to tell.
Enough is as good as a feast, or why foreign troops have not occupied France since V-E Day.
A lowly British courier with the SOE may have her complaints in the years after, but by heaven that is sure.
“David Hare has been laying into the British for so long,” says Time Out Film Guide, “one begins to wonder what they ever did to him.”
Film4 deprecates the thing as “stodgy, torpid,” Variety “cold and ultimately unaffecting.”
Her last words are precisely those of Admiral Nelson.
As noted here and there, beautifully filmed.
The Catholic News Service Media Review Office sums up, “cold, tedious, unfocused and intellectually muddled”.
What looked at the time like directorial fuzziness was more a reflection of an Australian director in the Pacific Northwest with a script adapted from a late nineteenth-century French play.
Schepisi’s plush mise en scène makes a lot of the gagwork a good study, and gives scenes like the “nose riposte” a measure of Rostand’s grandeur.
A Cry in the Dark
An Australian test case serves Schepisi as a kind of laboratory in which he isolates yellow dog journalism as a revival of the Roman holiday. His somewhat remote model is The Wrong Man, and he tosses in a quote from The Godfather (John Marley and the horse’s head) as part of the surrealistic transformation of a dingo attack into a lynch mob.
This is all handled very realistically, with a very dry acuity, compensated without underlining by the Australian cinematography. Schepisi controls the mickey of the tale at the outset with a very well-filmed statement of the incident, in which a teetotaling Seventh-Day Adventist minister who likes to feed the dingos finds one of them has filched his infant daughter. Schepisi diffuses the mickey of the subsequent investigation, gossip and trials with myriad setups often less than a hundred frames in length, showing different aspects of the proceedings. The modulation of a tragic occurrence into a Media Circus takes two shots involving the technical arrangements at a television station, filmed with simple authority, and lasting less than a minute.
A relationship can be seen with certain elements of L’Argent and Zulu. The lesson is Don’t Feed The Dingos, or as the main character says, “People can turn on you like a pack of hungry animals, can’t they?”
The Russia House
Conditions of publication revert upon the publisher, necessarily, and so create the equable system of patronage whereby widows and orphans are cared for after an author’s death and everybody knows what’s what.
The special circumstances pertain to the Soviet Union vs. the West, but that is all as it may be.
“Filmed on location in Leningrad, Moscow, London, Lisbon and Vancouver”, with reference to Terence Young’s From Russia with Love.
Schepisi’s fine analytical rendering of The Bridge on the River Kwai.
You may take the East meets West poesy of this film at face value, and there’s a lot of value here. The Japanese angle is very well played, and most particularly by Ken Takakura as a baseball manager. He really gets to parade in this part, which carries far more of the essential action than certain script points mentioned in reviews like the one wisely left unsigned in the Washington Post.
Tom Selleck’s performance as the New York Yankee who’s traded overseas accomplishes all the various gags and sleight of hand required in fine style.
Fine style is what you get when you put a 35mm camera in Schepisi’s hands and send him out to satisfy his thirst for novelty. Besuboru!
Six Degrees of Separation
According to Shaw, Sir Henry Irving used to do this to Shakespeare. Shaw himself has Rita Kempley’s failing, that of judging a work by its performance. The BBC thought Will Smith’s worthy of praise.
“John Guare,” says Schepisi in an interview, “the guy who wrote Six Degrees of Separation, kept saying, ‘The dialogue is the wallpaper.’ And he’s right—great wallpaper, sure, but what’s happening around that dialogue? Who’s doing what? What are the other people thinking? What they’re thinking lets you know that, wait a minute—what this guy’s saying is not exactly what he means or feels, or something. That’s the fun of it.”
The passages from Shaw are amusing and instructive. “In a true republic of art Sir Henry Irving would ere this have expiated his acting versions on the scaffold... This curious want of connoisseurship in literature would disable Sir Henry Irving seriously if he were an interpretative actor. But it is, happily, the fault of a great quality—the creative quality. A prodigious deal of nonsense has been written about Sir Henry Irving’s conception of this, that, and the other Shakespearean character. The truth is that he has never in his life conceived or interpreted the characters of any author except himself. He is really as incapable of acting another man’s play as Wagner was of setting another man’s libretto; and he should, like Wagner, have written his plays for himself. But as he did not find himself out until it was too late for him to learn that supplementary trade, he was compelled to use other men’s plays as the framework for his own creations. His first great success in this sort of adaptation was with the Merchant of Venice. There was no question then of a bad Shylock or a good Shylock: he was simply not Shylock at all; and when his own creation came into conflict with Shakespear’s, as it did quite openly in the Trial scene, he simply played in flat contradiction of the lines, and positively acted Shakespear off the stage. This was an original policy, and an intensely interesting one from the critical point of view; but it was obvious that its difficulty must increase with the vividness and force of the dramatist’s creation. Shakespear at his highest pitch cannot be set aside by any mortal actor, however gifted; and when Sir Henry Irving tried to interpolate a most singular and fantastic notion of an old man between the lines of a fearfully mutilated acting version of King Lear, he was smashed. On the other hand, in plays by persons of no importance, where the dramatist’s part of the business is the merest trash, his creative activity is unhampered and uncontradicted; and the author’s futility is the opportunity for the actor’s masterpiece.
“Punch, whether as Jingle, Macaire, Mephistopheles, or Richard, has always been a favorite part with Sir Henry Irving. The craftily mischievous, the sardonically impudent, tickle him immensely, besides providing him with a welcome relief from the gravity of his serious impersonations. As Richard he drops Punch after the coronation scene, which, in deference to stage tradition, he makes a turning-point at which the virtuoso in mischief, having achieved his ambition, becomes a savage at bay. I do not see why this should be. In the tent scene, Richard says:
There is no
creature loves me;
“Macbeth repeats this patch of pathos, and immediately proceeds to pity himself unstintedly over it; but Richard no sooner catches the sentimental cadence of his own voice than the mocker in him is awakened at once, and he adds, quite in Punch’s vein,
wherefore should they? since that I myself
“Sir Henry Irving omits these lines, because he plays, as he always does, for a pathetically sublime ending. But we have seen the sublime ending before pretty often; and this time it robs us of such strokes as Richard’s aristocratically cynical private encouragement to his entourage of peers:
arms be our conscience, swords our law.
“followed by his amusingly blackguardly public address to the rank and file, quite in the vein of the famous and more successful appeal to the British troops in the Peninsula. ‘Will you that are Englishmen fed on beef let yourselves be licked by a lot of ——— Spaniards fed on oranges?’ Despair, one feels, could bring to Punch-Richard nothing but the exultation of one who loved destruction better than even victory; and the exclamation
A thousand hearts are great within my bosom
“is not the expression of a hero’s courage, but the evil ecstasy of the destroyer as he finds himself, after a weak, piping time of peace, back at last in his native element.”
Schepisi shows what a genius can do with a complete misreading of the play. John Guare kissed the check, I would have imagined, but no, he chose Schepisi.
It Runs in the Family
Long Day’s Journey into Night is about the cult of Shakespeare, and The Iceman Cometh presents the consequences for American drama. Lugubrious productions of O’Neill have damaged his reputation and foisted a lot of family melodrama on the public, but still given us Time to Say Goodbye?, a television film about Alzheimer’s disease set forth in terms of King Lear.
The cruelties of most such productions are mainly inflicted on the actors. Sophie’s Choice has another cruelty, one answered by Karl Kraus: “I choose if there be doubt / of two ways just the pair.”
It Runs in the Family sides with Kraus, and also takes the view of Ordinary People in a masterful scene with the grandfather (Kirk Douglas) taking the father (Michael Douglas) to a park where the former first laid eyes on the late grandmother (Diana Douglas). There is a brief heartrending speech about the loss, and then the two men enact a scene of unexpressed love made manifest that roundly contradicts the meaning of the place. That is to say, Schepisi’s film acknowledges Redford’s as a point of departure.
The prismatic story concerns a step out of bounds distributed among the two sons and the father. The younger boy kisses a Goth girl at the school dance, the college student flunks his senior year and is arrested for growing and selling marijuana, the father has coitus interruptus with a fellow volunteer at a soup kitchen and also goes against his law firm in a pro bono case. There is enough material to extend these reflections throughout the screenplay, and the structure is coyly framed to have elements in juxtaposition. The younger son follows his grandfather’s advice and efficiently defends the girl from a gang of skateboarders while the older boy’s apartment is being raided and the grandfather is giving his late brother a Viking funeral on the lake, helped by the father. The two boys share a room after bail is posted, and compare notes.
This is all very funny, looked at in this way, and that is the whole point, to make humorous sense out of a mishmash or snafu. The game is played by all the rules, even the costive pianist straining for emotional effect is on the soundtrack, but the actors are not tortured by the screenplay, on the contrary. Bernadette Peters deals up the Jewish wife to perfection, Michael Douglas has a good time with the father, the juveniles do very well, Diana Douglas is a real pro, and Kirk Douglas is mighty.
Schepisi does not exceed the boundaries of the form, because that is the game being played. What he does is to express the truth of the representation in beautiful cinematography that has nothing of the gratuitous about it, and he works his scenes (notably the Seder around the dining room table) exactly as required individually, always relaxing into a camera view when the work is done.
This is a stylistic constraint, in a way, as you can see at the dance where the camera might have left the shot/reverse shot of boy and Goth to follow that girl in the background stepping innocently from heel to heel and swinging her hips, and filmed Milos Forman’s The Fireman’s Ball instead. Consciously the artifice is maintained even against a New York street at night for the fight scene, the point being revealed in the last scene. Father in the doghouse and grandfather spending the night after the jail scene are on two sofas set at an angle, ready to sleep. As they converse, city traffic streams by in the distance, seen through a window in the background.