9th 09 - 2008 | 9 comments »

Persons of Interest: Dennis Potter

A semi-regular feature on the underappreciated, the promising, and the very cool

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Yesterday and today, as I read the fallout of MSNBC’s decision to demote Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann from their anchor duties for the 2008 General Election, I saw feminists hail it as a welcome kick out the door to two of television’s most popular and voluble misogynists. The United States’ “paper of record,” which I have demoted by not naming it, cites the following: “The McCain campaign has filed letters of complaint to the news division about its coverage and openly tied MSNBC to it. Tension between the network and the campaign hit an apex the day Mr. McCain announced Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate.”

The paper made no mention of the fact that both Matthews and Olbermann tarred presidential candidate Hillary Clinton repeatedly over the course of her campaign with misogynistic language (maybe because the newspaper’s columnists did, too) and that the network refused to rein either of them in by demoting them despite repeated complaints from Senator Clinton’s campaign staff, Media Matters, and the National Organization for Women. Clearly, when Republican presidential candidates talk, major media listens. Don’t look for Sarah Palin to get the same treatment the former First Lady did at this newspaper or other major media outlets.

Upset about the further degradation of civic discourse as I used to know it, I suddenly found myself thinking about the last interview BBC writer Dennis Potter gave before his untimely death in 1994. This deeply intelligent, self-aware man brimming with appetites, ideas, nostalgia, and a clear-eyed understanding of social intercourse and the ways it can be twisted and degraded is best known around the world for his television series The Singing Detective, a brutal, inventive, compassionate look at a tormented soul that puts most television dramas to shame. I find it ironic that the demotion of two real misogynists by a cynical network with a political agenda was the type of act predicted by a man who was wrongly accused of being a misogynist for his sexually charged series Blackeyes, which sought to reveal how men, “the newest ruling class” according to Potter, use and coerce women as things. This comment and many others in these, his last public words, lift me out of the mire of media, politics, and commercial slop by which I feel assaulted on a daily basis.

Fortunately, a wonderful YouTube member from the UK whose moniker is matt7333 has made this entire interview available, along with other interviews of interest to film fans, including several with Orson Welles, Dustin Hoffman, and Alfred Hitchcock. Please patronize his offerings. The star in the crown, to my mind, is Without Walls: An Interview with Dennis Potter. Here it is in eight parts, which run a total of 74 minutes. Watching any part for however long you can is worth the time. Watching them uninterrupted just might change your life.

A reasonably priced Region 2 DVD collection called The Essential Dennis Potter is available at MovieMail. It includes The Singing Detective, Pennies from Heaven, Casanova, Brimstone & Treacle, Vote Vote Vote for Nigel Barton/Stand Up Nigel Barton, Blue Remembered Hills, and The Mayor of Casterbridge.


9th 01 - 2008 | 10 comments »

Persons of Interest: Fred Waller

A semi-regular feature on the underappreciated, the promising, and the very cool

My Dinner with… Fred Waller

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

I know in this “look at me” world in which we’re living, the lot of those who largely remain in the shadows may not seem to be a very happy one. Certainly some resentment at being overlooked can’t be avoided, but as a person who is very attracted to the world behind the scenes, I can say that, in general, standing a bit below eye level is a wonderful place to be. As part of the Lazy Eye Theatre Meme: My Dinner With…, I’ve chosen to break bread with one of the most fascinating movie persons you’ve never heard of: Fred Waller.

fredwaller-r.jpgWaller cut his teeth in the film business as cinematographer for five silents by the estimable director Frank Tuttle. He also did visual effects for D.W. Griffith’s The Sorrows of Satan. He turned his hand to directing in the ’30s. He specialized in making short music films featuring America’s great jazz musicians, beginning with Duke Ellington in A Bundle of Blues in 1933. The man had great musical taste, the foresight to see that these great performers needed to be captured on film for future generations, and an uncommon notion that filming African Americans being themselves was nothing out of the ordinary.

But what really sets Waller apart for me—in the immortal words of Henry Graham, “Every science has its fans.”—is that he was an engineering wizard. You’ll see the link for the American Widescreen Museum site on my blogroll, alphabetically first but also one of my very favorite websites, period. Fred Waller is responsible for that site’s very existence because he invented widescreen movie formats. He debuted the first widescreen process, called Vitarama, at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, where it made a huge sensation. He later extended and refined that process by inventing the most famous widescreen technology of them all—Cinerama. Listen to Waller describe the process.

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That’s Clara Bow on the left hawking Waller’s AKWA SKEES.

Waller’s mind was too active to give it just to Hollywood. For example, if you had a relative who was a WWII pilot who returned safely from the war, you both probably can thank Fred Waller for helping to make that safe return possible. He invented the first virtual-reality technology, based on the Vitarama process, and applied it to flight simulation, allowing pilots to gain valuable flight time. Oh, and if you’ve ever water skied, yes, thank Fred Waller for perfecting and patenting the first water skis. In all, Fred Waller held about 1,000 patents. He’s as close to a modern-day Leonardo da Vinci as they get.

I’m a pretty good cook with a brand-new kitchen and a love of entertaining, so naturally, I’d invite Mr. Waller to my home. I’d set out all the good crystal on the formal dining table and set up lots of jazz from the ’30s and ’40s for the CD player. I imagine Mr. Waller would like fine American food, so I’d serve cider-onion soup, homemade rustic bread, herbed lamb chops over orzo, and candied yams—all served with a medium-aged Beaujolais. For dessert—cherries jubilee and cognac.

I’m not one for a list of questions normally—I like to see where the conversation leads—but Piper asked me to, so I’d ask:

1. Mr. Waller, tell me why you decided to film jazz musicians and what the musicians you worked with were like? Any good stories to tell about them?

2. What were the challenges of transitioning to sound, and particularly, recording musicians? Did you invent anything to improve sound recording quality and reliability to help you and others?

3. What do you see as the purpose of movies?

4. As someone who spent a lifetime trying to improve movie images, are you a believer in the primacy of the picture in motion pictures? Why or why not?

5. Tell me more about your favorite inventions, what they do, how they work, and how long it took you to invent them? What drew you to want to solve these particular problems?

And wait for all the answers—for as long as it takes!

The six bloggers I have invited to participate in the meme are:

Joe Valdez of This Distracted Globe
Pat at Doodad Kind of Town
Peter Nellhaus of Coffee, Coffee, and More Coffee
Ed Howard at Only the Cinema
Campaspe at Self-Styled Siren
Kimberly Lindbergs at Cinebeats


6th 12 - 2007 | 2 comments »

Persons of Interest: Peter Zinner

A semi-regular feature on the underappreciated, the promising, and the very cool

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Zinner as Admiral Yuri Ilyich Padorin in The Hunt for Red October

By Julia Gray

When I heard of Peter Zinner’s death this past November 13, I remembered the one and only time I met him. It seemed like it must have been more recent rather than some 16 years ago.

I was working as an assistant film editor on that craptacular cinematic gem Showdown in Little Tokyo with Peter’s friend and former coeditor, John Burnett. John and Peter edited The Winds of War (1983) and War and Remembrance (1988) TV miniseries, for which both earned Emmys.

When I was introduced to Zinner, the thought that ran through my brain was, “Holy crap! This is the same dude who cocut the first two Godfather movies and won an Oscar for The Deer Hunter. Wow.” At that moment, I remember telling myself to keep my big yap shut because when nervous, it was not unusual for me to say dumb things. I just stood there with a goofy smile on my face and listened to these two editing giants reminisce about the good old days.

During their chat, I could barely feel my legs and was thankful when Zinner offered me a chair. I think I mumbled something that resembled “thank you,” but I don’t remember. He must have understood my uttering because he acknowledged me with a smile and slight nod. Or, perhaps he realized he was dealing with a Class-A nut job and thought it best to assuage me with friendly, nonconfrontational facial expressions.

You know, the kind of expressions those who work with apes use.

Peter Zinner was one of the greats who understood at an almost genetic level the importance of telling a good story. He came of age when film editors had to possess not only mental and emotional resilience, but also physical strength.

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The editing process in days of yore usually involved standing over a loud, vibrating machine called a Moviola and physically running film through it. Back and forth, back and forth the editor would spool the film while watching the images on a small screen until he or she found the perfect place to cut. That’s where the muscle came in. The piece was spliced together with other pieces and watched over and over, for days, months, and sometimes years until it felt “right.”

Zinner got it right. Not many folks would’ve been able to understand the complexities of Michael Corleone (the Godfather movies), Michael Vronsky (The Deer Hunter), and Zack Mayo (An Officer and a Gentleman) the way he did and bring the most out of the performances of the fine actors who played them. Zinner’s sharp eye and understanding of human nature informed by his varied life experience added to his work.

Zinner was an Austrian Jew born in Vienna in 1919. His family fled the Nazis in 1938, first to the Philippines, and eventually to Los Angeles. There, Zinner worked in a movie theater, accompanying silent movies on piano.

Later, he landed a job as an apprentice film editor at 20th Century Fox. He also worked for MGM and eventually opened his own company with two other film editors. He and his daughter Katina, who followed in her father’s footsteps, worked together on the 2006 documentary Running with Arnold about Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Zinner even had a bit part in The Hunt for Red October.

My favorite scenes cut by Zinner are from the Godfather films. The first of the trilogy, The Godfather, my favorite drama of all time, reveals the complexities of the characters feeding off an even more complex story line in an almost effortless tour de force. Each viewing provides me with something I missed during the hundred or so previous viewings.

One of my favorite scenes is when the Corleone family is discussing what to do after father Vito is seriously wounded in an assassination attempt. Michael, recovering from a broken jaw courtesy of a corrupt thug of an NYPD captain and not yet involved in the family business, decides to add his two cents on how to get rid of the men responsible for his father’s condition.

The camera slowly pushes in on Michael’s face, and we see him go from an innocent, a war hero, to one of the most powerful and dangerous men of his time. Everyone in the room, all of them harden criminals, is enthralled by Michael’s suggestions for the killings and subsequent ways to spin them in the local, family-influenced press. The overwhelming confidence in his speech and the calm with which he plans the demise of a rival Mafioso and a crooked police captain are unsettling at first. As we learn later, it’s Michael’s cool demeanor that make him so alluring and powerful.

The cuts are few, but potent. It is obvious that this was a scene where less was definitely more. The supporting characters’ reactions seem to convey to the audience that Michael “gets it” and that their lives are going to change from that moment on.
This sequence stops me in my tracks each time I see it. I can only imagine what went on in the editing room between Zinner, coeditor William Reynolds, and Francis Ford Coppola. It would have been the best film lesson ever.

Today, film editing is largely a hands-off affair. It’s done on computers, with an edit taking place by clicking a mouse rather than scraping off splicing tape. Post-production schedules are half what they used to be because of the speed and seemingly endless capabilities of Avid and Final Cut Pro. Film editors have to worry not only about the edit, but also budget and personnel management. The actual editing of actual film is slowly disappearing. It’s hard to imagine a pure, artistic summit between editors and directors happening today. There isn’t time. There isn’t money.

During production on Showdown, I would see Zinner from time to time, and he would give me that same nod and smile he shared the first time we met. At those moments I would think, “The man who helped shape Michael Corleone once offered me a chair.” l


3rd 11 - 2007 | no comment »

Persons of Interest: Donald Pleasence

A semi-regular feature on the underappreciated, the promising, and the very cool

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By Roderick Heath

Christopher Lee would say that turning down a role in an unknown director’s cheap horror film was the greatest mistake of his life. The part in John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) went to Donald Pleasence instead, giving him the kind of heroic role he’d never managed to land before. Nobody could play a kinky little creep, shifty fella, or cracked genius like Pleasence. Over his 40-year film career, Pleasence was one of those actors who make standard definitions of stardom irrelevant. A short, bald Englishman, he outlasted generations of pretty boys and starlets in carving out a niche in the psyche of committed cinemagoers.

Early in their respective careers, in the 1958 Ealing Studio version of A Tale of Two Cities, both Lee and Pleasence can be seen playing the kinds of characters they would be typecast as. In this less well-produced but more dramatically intriguing adaptation than the 1935 version, Lee plays the Marquis St. Evrémonde, a splendidly nasty, aristocratic monster. Pleasence plays Barsad, his agent in nefarious schemes—a seedy turncoat who fakes his own death to escape the fallout of one such scheme only to turn up again as an official in the revolutionary government. Barsad establishes Pleasence’s ability to play mole-eyed little men of no character and fewer principles. Yet the film’s most splendid moment comes when Barsad, blackmailed by Carton (Dirk Bogarde) to gain access to his imprisoned romantic rival and double Charles Darnay (Stephen Murray), is so moved when he realises Carton plans to die on the guillotine in Darney’s place that with a quiver in his voice and awe in his eye, he offers to shake Carton’s hand. Carton won’t, but he does pat Barsad on the shoulder for reassurance.

Pleasence, born in Worksop, Nottinghamshire, in 1919, was the son of a stationmaster. He made his London debut in 1939 in a production of Twelfth Night. His World War II experiences were dramatic. Beginning as a conscientious objector, he later joined the Royal Air Force. He served as a radio operator in the 166 Squadron of Lancaster bombers, was shot down in September 1944 and held until the end of the war in a German POW camp. He passed the time by staging plays with his fellow prisoners, including a production of The Petrified Forest that saw the diminutive Donald playing romantic lead opposite a 6″1’ Canadian as the heroine. The atmosphere of psychological entrapment, sexual ambiguity, and blackly funny absurdity of this image also underpins so much of Pleasence’s best work. With his rubbery body and hairless head, Pleasence was fearless in evoking emotional retardation, sexual anxiety, and outright perversity.

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Pleasence was therefore the only actor in The Great Escape (1961) to have been an Allied POW. Fittingly, Pleasence’s turn is the most affecting, portraying Flight Lt. Colin Blythe, known as “The Forger,” who covers counterfeiting operations as lectures in bird spotting, communicating the details of their colouring and songs as gimlet-eyed Germans patrol. The film is filled with symbiotic, crypto-romantic male relationships, like that of Danny (Charles Bronson) and Dickes (John Leyton) and Hilts (Steve McQueen) and Ives (Angus Lennie); the strongest is that between the gnomish nerd Blythe and the charming Yankee gopher Hendley (James Garner). In the course of his relentless work, Blythe strains his eyes to the point of going temporarily blind. Desperate to join the escape, his attempts to fool Hendley and his CO Bartlett (Richard Attenborough) into thinking he can still see with a cheery façade is painfully superb acting.

Pleasence made his cinema debut in The Beachcomber (1954), and gained profile playing Prince John in the Robin Hood TV series (1955-1960). Amongst his more noteworthy early roles was the grave robber William Hare in his first horror film, The Flesh and the Fiends (1960); a Labour Party faction leader who manipulates Peter Finch’s soft-headed MP into a back-bench revolt in No Love For Johnny (1961); and the most notorious of mild-mannered English murderers, Dr. Crippen (1962). His stage career was on fire at this point, originating as he did the role of the sinister derelict in The Caretaker (1962), the play that also made the name of its author, Harold Pinter. Pleasence recreated the role in a film version the following year, coinciding with The Great Escape, and making Pleasence a sought-after character actor. He played villains, religious fanatics, and other miscreants, including the ultimate—Satan—in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) taunting Max Von Sydow’s bloodless hippy Jesus.

Fantastic Voyage (1966) he described thus: “…My funniest moment was when I was eaten up by the antibodies at the end of film because, predictably, I turned out to be the Russian agent who was trying to run them down in some attempt in the miniscule microscopic-sized submarine when they were trying to rescue the great scientist by burning out his blood clot with a miniscule laser beam. And, of course, the submarine, I think, began to leak and the antibodies began to creep in, and I was swallowed and eaten up by them and thus they came out by the eyeball, which is as good a way to get out as any, I suppose…we spent two days trying to work out what it would be like, cinematographically, to be eaten up by antibodies, and we tried all kind of things, y’know like porridge and polycell and anything, blancmange, custard, I forget what we finally settled for, haggis or something, anyway every time we tried this and the goo poured over my head, I was in this body-molded rubber suit and sitting there looking mad and Communist and wicked….”

blofeld1.jpg1967 gave him two indelible roles, one of which became a pop-culture icon. He landed the part of Ernst Stavro Blofeld in You Only Live Twice when the actor who provided the voice for the hitherto unseen supervillain, became ill. Pleasence’s incarnation was indelible shorthand for exotic evil—bald, with a scarred eye, alien accent, and taste for sadism explored with a pool of piranhas whilst stroking a snow-white Persian cat—the direct model for Mike Myers’ Dr. Evil. The other role was Major-Gen. Kahlenberg in Anatole Litvak’s The Night of the Generals. Kahlenberg is one of three German generals in Warsaw during WWII suspected of brutally slaying of a prostitute. The casting plays on Pleasence’s evil image, covering the fact that Kahlenberg is a hero, albeit and anxious and alcoholic one. His mysterious absences are caused by his involvement with conspiracies against Hitler that culminate in the ill-fated July Plot. He also gets the best lines, delivered with caustic style, as Kahlenberg assiduously mocks the pomposity and savagery of his Waffen-SS superior, Gen. Tanz (Peter O’Toole): “What constitutes resistance? A rock thrown at his golden head?” He teases phony war hero Cpl. Hartmann (Tom Courtenay) by reading out his press clippings: “I see that you are the reincarnation of Siegfried, a German hero from the Golden Age.” Later, he gives Hartmann the job of being Tanz’s driver, informing the corporal of his duties in catering to the general’s taste: “Let us hope that whatever it is, that it is not you, Corporal. However, if it should be, remember that you are serving the Fatherland.”

At the end of the ’60s, roles in major movies became scarcer for Pleasence, and he joined British horror cinema in its waning years, in films like like Tales that Witness Madness and The Mutations (both 1973). One good part came in an episode of the anthology film From Beyond the Grave (1973), “An Act Of Kindness,” in which he plays a shabby WWII veteran who encounters his superior officer (Ian Bannen), himself maintaining a façade of petty respectability with methods barely above criminality. Pleasence presents a pathetic eagerness to please his former CO, and, to top it off, his own daughter Angela plays Pleasence’s daughter who soon bewitches the CO into marriage. The payoff comes when father and daughter, Satanists both, celebrate with wedding cake over the corpse of the dead officer, sacrificed to the dark gods. Though blunt as a ghoulish yarn, as a satire on the social wake of the war’s official heroism, it’s almost without equal.

columb4.jpgPleasence also gained his first role from one of the up-and-coming Movie Brats, in THX-1138 (1971), George Lucas’ directorial debut, playing a semi-crazed inhabitant of a futuristic, repressive regime’s apparently boundless prison of white. He aided the budding Australian film industry by coming out to appear in Wake in Fright (known internationally as Outback, 1971). Pleasence also made a great contribution to an early episode of Colombo, “Any Old Port in a Storm,” portraying Adrian Carsini, a winemaker who murders his spendthrift brother to maintain control of their vineyard. With Pleasence’s peerless ability, he evokes a figure both fatuous and despicable, but also sympathetic and vaguely tragic.

And at the end of the decade, Pleasence played Dr. Sam Loomis in Halloween, the haunted psychiatrist driven by guilt and fear to track down an escaped patient, the now-grown child murderer whom he realised possessed no soul. Over the hill and faintly unstable, Loomis is both hero and comic relief. This, along with Pleasence’s delivery of his portentous dialogue with the utmost seriousness, gave the balance needed for the cat-and-mouse game of the unstoppable Michael Myers and virginal victim Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis). Halloween became the biggest independent film in history, making $50 million back from a $500,000 budget. The pleasures and ambiguities of Halloween were killed by lousy sequels in which Pleasence appeared gamely, feathering his retirement nest. Asked by producer Moustapha Akkad how long he’d stick with it, Pleasence replied “I stop at 22.”

EscapeFromNY220.jpegCarpenter would use Pleasence again in Escape from New York (1981) and Prince of Darkness (1987). The former film sees Pleasence playing a weak, media-inflated, Texan-accented President of the United States who is forced to crash-land in an alternate-reality Manhattan that is used as a walled prison—typically barbed sociopolitical subtext from Carpenter. The overwhelmed POTUS is held by gang leader The Duke (Isaac Hayes), who ties him to a wall and uses him for target practice, before he is rescued by Kurt Russell’s asocial renegade Snake Plissken. The presidential worm only shows his teeth right at the end when he lets man’s man Snake dangle on a rope helplessly whilst he shoots The Duke, giggling and mocking his enemy with the hysterical bravado of a nerd dropping a water bomb on a jock’s head. On the other side of the ledger, Pleasance also starred around this time in the limp Anglo-Italian superhero flick Puma Man, the film he personally described as the worst he ever made, and although it did make for a cracking Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode, it does seem a career nadir.

Woody Allen gave Pleasence a cameo that serves as a fine, if grisly, career send-off, in the horror satire Shadows and Fog (1992). Pleasence plays a doctor who performs autopsies on the victims of a mysterious pathological killer, in a surgery filled with perverse curios and morbid paraphernalia. As an intellectual and rationalist, the doctor expects evil can be analysed and understood, theorising on the biomedical nature of madness and desiring to get hold of the killer’s brain. But the killer comes instead for the doctor, who tries to meet his face with cool, but ends up being strangled as scared and trapped as anyone else.

Pleasence died at the age of 75 in 1995 following heart surgery. I’d seen him shortly before that interviewed on television, bags under his eyes so thick they could be pillows, a kind of sad, weary, good humour about his life, which had seen him through four marriages, five daughters, and many bottles of booze. He had been set to play Lear on stage with three of those daughters. If Pleasence’s career had been littered with trash, unworthy and facile parts, he had at least once, on screen, risen to the heights of his ability. Cul-de-sac (1966), my favourite of Roman Polanski’s films, was also the summit of Pleasence’s.

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Polanski’s stark, neurotic modern drama cast Pleasence alongside Lionel Stander, the great, exiled American. Pleasence plays George, a retired industrialist who’s obviously previously dedicated himself to ledger books and production quotas and is now playing at arty bohemian. He’s bought the island castle where Walter Scott wrote Rob Roy, and retreated from the world with his young trophy wife, Teresa (Françoise Dorleac). Their marriage is tense and odd, as he submits to her humour in dressing him and making him up as a woman. It’s clear she thinks he’s a joke, and is having an affair with a pretty boy. Stander plays Dickie, a gangster who hides out in the castle, not even really needing violence to browbeat George into submitting to his authority. Dickie alternates between gentlemanly presentation and tough guy authority, between complimenting his “classy” home and labelling him a fairy. George won’t even drink because of his ulcer until Dickie forces him to. The centrepiece of the film is an astonishing 10-minute take in which George confesses his misery and frustration to Dickie, and the pair strike a mutual, if far from equal, amicability.

It’s a part that brings together almost all the aspects of Pleasence’s screen personae, as well as his gifts both as a comic and a tragedian. George is silly, weak, foolish, intelligent, sexually and emotionally confused, friendly, frustrated, intense, determined, weird, curiously upright and honourable, and lost. George grows up a little and empowers himself, telling off friends for helping ruin his last marriage to his long-time companion Agnes. But instead of making him happy, George, with the manipulation of the passively malevolent Teresa, is driven to destroy his friend Dickie, and then shed everything he possesses—wife, castle, and veneer of giving a damn—exiling himself on a rock to moan for his dear, lost Agnes. It’s possibly the cinema’s greatest-ever ode to a man who realises too late what he’s thrown away. l


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