Friday, February 16, 2018

"Dunkirk": Britain’s Band of Brothers

“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more!” That’s the beginning of a famous speech in which Shakespeare’s Henry V urges his troops forward. It’s 1415, and the British are invading France, in a series of battles that are part of the Hundred Years’ War. Somewhat later in Shakespeare’s Henry V, the young king – who in the spirit of the times personally leads his men into battle – addresses them, manfully insisting that the odds stacked against them will only make their success more glorious. In what is always called the St. Crispin’s Day speech, Henry waxes philosophical about the long-term fame that awaits his soldiers, then rises to a glorious climax:

And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be rememberèd—
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers . . .

The valor of English soldiers and their leaders, as displayed in Henry V, has of course always had high appeal for English audiences. That’s why Winston Churchill, in the dark days of World War II, turned to actor/director Laurence Olivier for a film version of the play, with which to boost the morale of the English citizenry. It appeared in 1944, dedicated to “the Commandos and Airborne Troops of Great Britain, the spirit of whose ancestors it has humbly attempted to recapture.” The movie was a commercial and artistic success, winning Olivier an honorary Academy Award “for his outstanding achievement as actor, producer and director in bringing Henry V to the screen.”

Given the tensions of those times, it’s no surprise that the war as depicted in Olivier’s Henry V is picturesque and fairly bloodless. Almost 50 years later, in 1989, Kenneth Branagh was gutsy enough to film the play once again. His version (which like Olivier’s features the cream of the British acting community) is powerful and realistic, containing battlefield scenes that strongly convey the horrors of war.

I bring all this up because two films that take us back more than 75 years to another English war are in the running for the 2018 Best Picture Oscar. I confess I haven’t seen Darkest Hour, which I understand is best served by Gary Oldman’s stirring portrayal of Winston Churchill, captured at a moment when he and his strong anti-Nazi views are finally coming to be adopted by Britain’s royals and its citizenry. I did, however, see Dunkirk, which has been called an impressionistic account of the massive British evacuation of a French beach in one of World War II’s most pivotal moments. Dunkirk is a labor of love for British director Christopher Nolan, who’s best known for such science fiction and fantasy fare as The Dark Knight and Interstellar. It’s clear he feels deeply about this moment in history, when thousands of small English seafaring vessels sailed across the English Channel to rescue English soldiers. The film cuts between a pilot in the sky, the crew of a fishing boat on the water, and a representative British “Tommy” trying to leave that corpse-strewn French beach. My problem: I could never figure out quite where I was and who was at the center of the action at any given moment. (At least in my American eyes, young English actors all seem to look pretty much the same.)

Nolan has been praised for making a strikingly different sort of war film. I certainly got a sense of the enormity of the whole undertaking. But having to continuously ask “Wait, what’s going on?” is not a helpful sort of history lesson.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Ice-Dancing Goes to the Movies

As happens every two years, I find the Olympic Games irresistible viewing. Even though --  technophobe that I am -- I consider the many-buttoned remote control gadgets that power my TV extraordinarily daunting, I’m currently spending my evenings glued to the tube, enjoying the scope and the sweep of winter sports. Speaking of sweeping, I can’t say I’m keen on curling, but  watching snowboarding sports sure gets my blood racing. Heck, I even got excited recently during the finals of the single-man luge.

But for me the sport of sports is figure-skating. The blending of music, costumes, and dramatic emoting with first-class athleticism is for me too powerful to ignore. I’m a sucker for up-close-and-personal profiles of the skaters, and the one-two punch of Tara Lipinski and the always memorable Johnny Weir adds invaluable commentary. I learned from Weir, for instance, that in ice-dancing the woman’s role is to be the show-offy flower, while her male partner acts as her stem. Weir then went on to portray one of the teams, admiringly, as containing two flowers. 

I think one of the things that intrigues me about figure-skating competitions is that they meld artful discipline with the spontaneity of live competition. When you watch a movie, you’re enjoying the result of months and years of careful planning by a whole army of participants. Yes, it’s true that the unexpected things that pop up on a movie set can have impact on a completed film, for better or for worse. Serendipity is a very real aspect of the film-making process, and smart filmmakers know how to take advantage of happy accidents. Still, when we watch a film, we’re seeing a finished product, one that has been lovingly polished and perfected before it reaches audiences.  A live theatre performance can change slightly from evening to evening, depending on the mood of the audience, the health of the actors, and a host of other things. But normally theatre productions that are beyond the rehearsal stage try to conform nightly to a set of codified expectations toward which everyone has been aiming during weeks of preparation. 

In figure-skating, too, there is a carefully developed plan of attack for each stage of the competition. Costumes, music, and basic choreography don’t vary from outing to outing. But this is a sport, and so anything can happen. A bobble, a recovery, a fall . . . what develops in the dynamic between pairs skaters from night to night is particularly fraught. One Canadian ice-dancer, I’m told, is super-adept at calculating point totals in her head while she’s on the ice. If one of her and her partner’s elements doesn’t go as planned, she knows how to adjust for maximum impact. 

It doesn’t surprise me to sense that figure-skaters love movies. At least, they frequently turn to famous movie themes to add crowd-pleasing oomph to their programs. In the last few days, I’ve seen skaters glide to music from Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, Memoirs of a Geisha, and “Unchained Melody,” as featured in the schmaltzy lost-love movie, Ghost. The Italian duos seem particularly adept at taking advantage of movie drama through their choice of music. One pair of Italians charmingly captured the antic spirit of Fellini by way of Nino Rota’s film scores. And an Italian ice-dancing team, skating to music from Life is Beautiful, conveyed that Holocaust film’s heartbreaking throughline by moving from romantic love to the horrors of war. All the best skaters, at least in my eyes, tell a story with their faces and bodies. And movies are often the inspiration that moves them forward.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Rocket Man: On David Bowie’s Fall to Earth

Elon Musk, a canny combo of Thomas Edison and P.T. Barnum, has done it again. His SpaceX has just launched from Cape Canaveral the Falcon Heavy, the world’s most powerful operational rocket. The biggest news for science geeks is that two of the three Falcon first-stage rocket boosters were successfully returned to earth, to be reused in future. But the rest of us are probably more keen on the rocket’s payload: Musk’s own cherry-red Tesla, complete with a helmeted dummy in the driver’s seat. And, yes, the car’s audio system was said to be blasting out David Bowie’s “ Space Oddity.”  Ground Control to Major Tom, indeed!

It’s a lovely coincidence that I’ve just finished reading my colleague Susan Compo’s new Earthbound: David Bowie and The Man Who Fell to Earth. Susan’s book gave me the opportunity to explore the 1976 Nicolas Roeg film that some cinéastes remember with affection, some with puzzlement, others with major annoyance. To my surprise, I learned that the film’s source novel is by Walter Tevis, far better known for a much more down-to-earth work, The Hustler. That novel, of course, inspired the award-winning 1961 classic in which Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, and George C. Scott risk their souls in a pool hall. Though The Man Who Fell to Earth contains undeniable science fiction elements, it shares with The Hustler Tevis’s interest in men  (whether earthly or from outer space) who destroy themselves through excess. The otherworldly character played by Bowie -- an alien confined to earth because he can’t find his way back to his home planet -- is in the course of the film irredeemably corrupted by the intoxicating things (and people) he encounters in his new earthly surroundings.  

The British director of The Man Who Fell to Earth, Nicolas Roeg, was not without experience coaxing screen performances out of rock stars. He made his directorial debut with Performance, about a bizarre encounter between an East London gangster on the lam (James Fox) and a fading musical idol (Mick Jagger) bent on returning to his former glory. He also helmed an admired Australian film, Walkabout, and just prior to The Man Who Fell to Earth he made a major splash with the enigmatic 1973 thriller, Don’t Look Now. Starring Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland as bereaved parents mourning their drowned little girl, it is perhaps best remembered for its eerie atmosphere and frank sex scenes. (Sexual frankness, including no-holds-barred nudity, also marks the screen encounters between Bowie and earthling Candy Clark in The Man Who Fell to Earth.

A Roeg film is always visually striking. Roeg started out as a cinematographer, working second unit on Lawrence of Arabia and taking charge of the inspired cinematography for one of Roger Corman’s very best Poe films, The Masque of the Red Death (1964). Author Susan Compo, who seems to have spoken to all the living survivors of The Man Who Fell to Earth, emphasizes the impact made on the filmmakers by the picturesque state of New Mexico, where the film was almost entirely shot. As a “right-to-work” state, New Mexico was able to welcome an almost entirely British film crew without concern about union restrictions. The state’s stark landscapes, picturesque mining towns, and general sense of isolation work brilliantly, especially the use of White Sands National Monument to simulate the arid reaches of the Bowie character’s home planet. 

Still, in narrative terms the film doesn’t always make sense, partly due to Roeg’s insistence on avoiding strict chronology. Bowie, though, makes a perfect alien, with his off-camera excesses doubtlessly contributing to his otherworldly air.