Thursday, July 17, 2008

Anecdote of the Week: Four Times as Big, and Paint It Pink

This week's anecdote was inspired by Glenn Kenny, whose blogging has been on a tear of late. He posted recently about a Blu-Ray edition of Black Narcissus, available in the UK. Now the Siren's attitude toward technical advances in home viewing, born of bitter experience, is that it's bad news for classic films. We all know the drill. The studios won't want to invest money in releasing niche items on the new format, much less rarities, and instead there will be a gazillion different superhero movies to choose from. (Because we were running out of those, you know.) There are far fewer titles available on DVD than were on VHS, and I see Blu-Ray making that worse. I'll believe it's an unqualified good for classic movie fans when I hear about the Blu-Ray edition of Desire.

But even the Siren has to admit that the news isn't all bad for those of us who don't want the latest Pirates of the Carribbean on high-def. Glenn has some excellent news about this new version of Black Narcissus. Click over and see what he has to say, and the very revealing screen captures he's posted. It prompted a mini-discussion of Technicolor, and Jack Cardiff, and the Siren's signed edition of Michael Powell's marvelous autobiography, A Life in Movies. And that, in turn, prompted this anecdote of the week.

It's from the section in Powell's book about filming The Thief of Baghdad. Together with cameramen like Cardiff, Georges Périnal and Christopher Challis, Powell made the most beautiful Technicolor films anyone will ever see. (And one thing the Siren likes about Powell's books is that he always gives due credit to the DP.) This, however, did not mean Powell worked free from interference by Natalie Kalmus, the "color advisor" moviemakers were saddled with if they wanted to film in Technicolor. She was universally regarded as a pain in the ass, having a meddlesome, high-handed personality coupled with dreadful taste. But producer Alexander Korda, while talented, was no picnic either, as we shall see. Powell says that although "my name is on the picture, as one of the directors...the film is really the swan song of the Korda brothers--Alex, Vincent and Zoli [Zoltan]."

I had never directed a colour film, but I found the crossover easy. "Make the colour work for you, don't start working for the colour," I said to myself.

And when Natalie Kalmus was firing off her cliches at a grumbling Vincent Korda as she stalked about the big sets on the lot, I said to myself, "We are not making coloured picture postcards for Technicolor."

Mrs. Kalmus, naturally, went by the book. She was not an artist, and the sight of one of Matisse's canvases of that period would probably have sent her to bed for a week. Alex [Korda] knew even less about painting, although he pretended he did, and Vincent had bought him a Manet to hang on one of his walls. I have been with him and Vincent and Nuisance and Frank Walker, the chief of construction, as they walked around the huge pink set of the marketplace and looked at the elaborate foreground miniatures of the city on the hill which were being put in place. Alex, on principle, was never content with anything his brothers did, and he would grumble: "Vincent! What do you think this set is supposed to be?"

"It is the palace, Alex."

"It's a piece of shit. Tear it down and rebuild it four times as big and paint it blue."

"Pink, Alex."

"Pink, then!"

For years around the Siren's former Harlem household, which she shared with two gay men she misses a great deal, a major catchphrase was "Four times as big, and paint it pink."


Here are some other pieces the Siren has been catching up on around the blogosphere:

Raymond de Felitta has switched gears to blog the filming of his new movie, City Island, right here in New York with Alan Arkin, Steven Strait and Emily Mortimer. Andy Garcia plays an everyman, a prison guard with yearnings for art--a type of art that is dear to the Siren. Already there is a lot to enjoy, such as this post about Arkin.

Bob Westal has been devoting himself to the fabulous Michael Caine, one of the Siren's favorite actors of any era. Start here and follow to the magazine. Bob's got clips, reviews and career retrospective. But Bob, where is the love for Caine in Mona Lisa?

Over at Goatdogblog Michael Phillips was blogging his European travels, but the Oscar From the Outside In project is still in full swing. Nick's Flick Picks has the one the Siren was looking forward to, Crash vs. All Quiet on the Western Front, and the Siren was delighted that there was not unmitigated hate for Crash. I still haven't seen Crash, mind you, but I love a contrarian viewpoint, even a partial one. And anything nice about Crash is contrarian. And now The Film Experience has Cimarron vs. Million Dollar Baby. Adding--the Siren's new favorite catchphrase, from Michael discussing the thematic complexities of Cimarron: "Did they mean anything except 'look at this huge budget'?"

Speaking of contrarian, here's Peter Nelhaus: "I know there are some who love El Dorado. Too often, I got the feeling that Rio Bravo was a river that should have been best visited once." The Siren feels the same way about El Dorado; definitely lesser Hawks. I have been waiting to hear Peter's opinion of Lee Server's Robert Mitchum biography, and here it is, in tandem with reviews of El Dorado and Man in the Middle.

Dennis Cozzalio, who once met John Belushi, has an open forum on Animal House going.

Kimberly Lindbergs has great news about a CD release of movie music by John Barry.

The Siren tries to read every word of Greenbriar Picture Shows for its impeccable research and intelligence. John McElwee always has something different to add to the discussion. Three posts the Siren has particularly loved recently. There is this two-parter on the wild and woolly experiments with movie theaters in the late 1920s, and how early widescreen was snuffed out in the 1930s, darn near taking the careers of Raoul Walsh and John Wayne with it. And then there is this sympathetic look at not just the tragedy, but also the work of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle.

Noir of the Week tackles the best film poor doomed Barbara Payton ever made, via her biographer John O'Dowd. Talk about a star-crossed dame.

Finally, Ivan at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear is the antidote to the sour sentiments expressed here a few weeks ago about Red Skelton. And Ivan just wrote up Anthony Mann's "historical noir" Reign of Terror (aka The Black Book), which the Siren has waiting for her in a stack of recorded DVDs even as we speak. She recorded it off TCM in hopes of getting a better look at John Alton's cinematography, but no dice. Ivan reports that it's the same crappy print that's everywhere else.

Which brings us right back where we started. I know I'm a curmudgeon, but I have company. Blu-Ray, schmu-ray.


Gerard Jones said...

Siren, Siren, Siren: I believe you've given me a new motto to live by. I've been having a bitch of a time getting my new book rolling and cannot figure out why it's so hard or what do about it. But now I have a way to approach each new challenge. I just haven't been making it big enough. And I've been painting it blue.

Bob Westal said...

Campuspe -- thanks so much for the kind plug.

Re: "Mona Lisa" -- I generally like and occasionally love Michael Jordan's films (even "Interview with a Vampire" had its moments), but was kind of a disappointment to me back in the day -- especially as, on paper, it's a film I should have loved -- and I haven't seen it since.

I remember Caine being very good in it but not in a way that made a giant sized impression on me, when it came time to make a list of slightly off-the-beaten track performances (to a youngish, primarily male audience that is), it just didn't occur either to me or my Bullz-Eye editor. I suppose I could have substituted it for "Sleuth," but the fact that I'd seen that one just recently also played into the choice. The dirty little secrets of the online publishing world...

RE: "Crash" -- Much as I may risk strong derision from less tolerant quarters of the cinephile American community for admitting this, I actually liked -- but didn't love -- the movie. I found it a very watchable and basically thought it was very well done -- but with two big problems. One was that it was awfully schematic and the second -- and I think this is where some of the hate comes from -- is that it didn't seem to have the slightest clue about the actual way people talk about racial matters in my hometown of Los Angeles. (We're not less bigoted than humans elsewhere, but we are a lot more reserved about the matter than you'd imagine from the movie. Angelenos are actually fairly reserved and polite, in a funny way -- ESPECIALLY about race.) His take on it almost felt like it was lifted partially borrowed from Spike Lee and perhaps David Mamet, two writers who have basically nothing to do with L.A. If it had been set in some generic locale, I might have bought into it more. Still, despite seeing these flaws, I find the outrage -- and "outrage" seems to be right word -- that "Crash" engendered out of proportion to its sins. To me, the first job of a movie is to not be boring on, by that measure, "Crash" is a vastly better film than, say, "Babel."

But, here's a question: most print critics actually liked, and some, like Roger Ebert, loved "Crash" (it's got a 75% Rotten Tomatoes score). So, whose more of a contrarian: someone who attacks or someone who defends it? I guess, for not hating it and being an online cinephile blogger, I'm being a contrarian; but if I were a critic for a major paper, I guess I'd be anything but.

Vanwall said...

Eventually all will be revealed on disk, or bunches-o-bits, or some direct to brain method, we just might not be alive by then. But we can always watch the copious comic-book films and porno - say, is that Wall-E over there?

Thanks for the anecdote, it's nice to see someone stood up to the odious Kalmus Effect. You and the boys were the "Think Pink" sloganeers, I betcha.

I haven't been able to find a multi-platform disk reader for schmu-ray, tho - not many films released on it yet, I guess.

Uncle Gustav said...

I'll take the real Crash, Cronenberg's Crash, any day of the week. It's got nothing to do with what's being discussed here, but I'll give props to that perverted minefield any chance I get. If there were ever a film that zeroed-in on my interpretation of sexuality, it's Crash.

Gerard Jones said...

If there were ever a film that zeroed-in on my interpretation of sexuality, it's Crash.

Now I know two things for sure: I'd go to a movie with you any time, Flickhead.

But I'm not going home with you after.

Vanwall said...

M. Flickhead, I'm with ya there about the real "Crash" - though if films define the man, that one has almost too many definitions that are best left unspoken, unless in French - they have a marvelous way of defining the near and far shores of human conjoinment.

Dontcha think there oughta be a law against re-using titles? Maybe I'd've started out in better frame of mind when I saw the pretender, altho that new one does have its few moments. Only a few directors get those ensemble movies right, tho - I think they're a throw-back genre to the old days, and they have to have the right kind of hand at the helm. And a light touch - not apparent in this one.

Campaspe -

Upon further re-reading at Nick's Flicks, I was struck by a comment regarding some of death scenes in "All Quiet...", specifically the extended ones with lots of screaming and running around, which I've read many times is a rarity in the actual events - most poor joes that buy it just fall over dead, like some of the film at Normandy amply illustrates. Hollywood influences have brought these filmic interpretations to the point that now everyone expects it - as beautifully tragic as say, Boris's whirling dying scene in "The Cranes are Flying" may seem, death is evidently too humble and suddenly final for movies to expect us to grasp it without histrionics attached. That may have been the only detracting thing about "All Quiet.." for me, but I can understand the message film has to hit hard and fast in the allotted time - something that film did better than "Crash", by far.

Gloria said...

At the sight of the title, I thought this was going to be a post on "Operation Petticoat" (which is a guilty pleasure of mine).

Let Blu-ray release the "Hancocks" and other exploding helycopter chase films, we'll still have Criterion and other similar dedicated people to care for good films, not unlike the little Gaul village which stubbornly resists the Roman invaders.

This reminded me the frustraring reading that for me was "Charmed lives", the Korda biography by Michael Korda (Vincent's son): according to him, people like Laughton and Welles were a pain in the ass to his poor uncle. But it was by seeing a 40's re-release publicity of "Rembrandt" (1936), retitled "the live and loves and Rembrandt" and showing a painter leering at pin-up Dutch girls, one realises what a pain in the ass Korda must have been for Charles, who aimed at giving a deep, serious portrait of an artist's life.

Another frustrating point MK's biography was that it sees terribly uncorcerned about uncle's film-making: after a TV viewing of "The Thief of Bhagdad", I reached the book to know details about its production, and found instead a tale of how Korda wasn't really concerned about the film at the time, but about playing 007 for his buddy Churchill (which sounded to me like a nephew's fan-fiction).

Thank the gods for Charles Drazin's book on Korda.

onlyanirishboy said...

I don't think that Blu-Ray is, as yet, the threat to film availability you envision. (Of course, this opinion comes from someone who greatly increased his already relationship-threatening collection of laserdiscs when the advent of DVD made them available at what seemed like bargain prices.) Right now, I think Blu-Ray is the home viewing equivalent of Magnascope and other late-20's attempts to enlarge movie theatre screens -- the promised improvement in the viewing experience is not significant enough for the general consumer to warrant the expenditure on the upgrade, especially in hard times.

MinnesotaRay said...

I've heard a rumor that Criterion is going to be going to Blu-Ray soon. Does anybody know whether that's true? And if so, what happens to all the previous releases (on which I've spent a small fortune)?

Uncle Gustav said...

M. Ray, the dream of the corporation is to get you to buy the same thing over and over. Hence, Betamax to VHS to Super-VHS (remember that one?) to laser disc to DVD and now Blu-Ray. This latest trend may not take off as the puppetmasters wish because, a) the economy sucks, and b) we're still too fresh from the VHS-to-DVD turnaround.

Like any corporation out to suck you dry, Criterion is going Blu-Ray. But if you hold off re-purchasing what you've already got, in no time at all we'll be faced with whatever's taking the place of Blu-Ray.

Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.

The Siren said...

With much sadness and frustration, the Siren seconds Flickhead.

surly hack said...

Dear Siren, I haven't seen The Black Book in many years. I was lucky enough to see it on the big screen, but I'm not lucky enough to have TCM to view it again.

I know there is a dark dvd availabl, but you can save me the bother of buying it if you can answer a question for me. I'm dying to know if my memory serves me correctly: does square-jawed Charles McGraw sport a Moe Howard "bowl" cut in the film? A very silly limerick hangs in the balance!

surly hack said...

I meant the Mann/Alton Reign Of Terror, of course, and not the recent Paul Verhoeven Black Book. But you knew that.