Dandy on the Bounty

June 18, 2013

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Mutiny on the Bounty was released in 1962:  one of those monumental Hollywood debacles derailed by star-power, as with Heaven’s Gate, Ishtar, and Cleopatra.  In this case, the failure was due to vast cost overruns caused by Marlon Brando’s mutiny on the set, and the coast of location shooting in the South Seas.  Still, who cares if the film made money?  It’s worth seeing for the spectacular set pieces and Brando’s remarkable and unusual performance.

There was a real mutiny on a ship called Bounty, and a film treatment from the 30s with Laughton and Gable, and the makers of this film wanted to set the record straight.  Instead of a simple good guy vs. evil guy plot, they wanted to show Captain Bly as he was, good and bad together.  Some thought that would make for a poor story that wouldn’t sell, and anyway, Marlon Brando, the reigning supernova of cinema acting during the 1950s, hijacked the picture, effectively sacking a director and taking over himself, subjecting the script to endless rewrites, sometimes the night before shooting.

For those who are interested, there are plenty of insider memoir narrations to read, filled with Brando’s pouting, sulking, arrogance, narcissism, arbitrariness, and the reactions of the infuriated cast who had to deal with him.  It wasn’t pretty.  In the end, Bligh comes off as a man tormented by his lowly origins, constantly suffering slights, real and imagined, of his ‘betters’, driven to cruelty by insecurity and a lack of imagination, and sexually uptight to boot.

Brando’s portrayal of Fletcher Christian, Mr. Christian, is remarkable, surprising, and a bit odd.  We must assume that it was wholly a characterization of  his own:  no one else takes credit for it.  It is willful, and a bit perverse, but, in the end, brilliant.  As Stanley Crouch observed in this DVD review:

…Brando’s Fletcher Christian in Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), a character he interprets as a high-toned British fop who is more than mildly reluctant to face the sadistic inclinations of Trevor Howard’s finely drawn Capt. Bligh—a leader who mistakes sadism as a substitute for firm but inspirational command. Brando has a superb understanding of how much it takes for a witty, charming, and insubstantial man to stand up against the very order that guarantees his position in the world.

Indeed, our first view of Fletcher is of him climbing out of an ornate carriage, in the company of two elegant women.  He walks on board in a bright red cloak, and we see him only from the back, surrounded by the bustle of the grungy crew at work preparing to sail.
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He introduces himself to the captain; all manners, grace, smiles, and suave superiority.  He glances around contemptuously at the miserable excuse for the ship he is to sail on, and uses his verbal facility to make clear to Bligh that though he is the captain, and he, Christian, will obey him, their relative worth as men is clearly the reverse of that hierarchy.
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And there is that voice!  He speaks in what sounds at first like a parody of an upper-class-twit of the late 18th century.  Slightly nasal, a whiff of effeminacy.  That, in those days, was attractive to women of court:  it went with the clothes.  He is always decked out in pure white linen, and while in his cabin, he sits propped up by fluffy pillows.  He is a ladies man and a dandy.

Crouch’s remarks point to the political dilemma of Mr. Christian’s position:  he will not rock the boat if he can avoid it, despite his contempt for the vulgarian Bligh, a man who has no sense of how a gentleman should lead the common sort.  But he is a rebel in his soul, as are all the great dandies.  I wonder if Brando was familiar with Beau Brummel, and the critical writings about dandyism by Balzac and others:  if not, he instinctively grasped their essence.  Ultimately, Christian rebels against Bligh because he cannot stomach being commanded by such a brute:  it’s just too vulgar.

In the end, he tries to convince the men to return to England, face court-martial, and tell their story.  He’s convinced that they will be vindicated, but the men are not:  They burn the ship, and Christian dies of burns trying to put it out.  You have to wonder if he felt his exile on Pitcairn Island would be an insupportable burden because he would be cut off from society, forever branded as a criminal, or if he just could not exist without an audience for his preening and witty repartee.

Some views:

Christian the gentleman, refuses to adjudicate between the word of a gardener and a seaman.  What’s the point?
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Fabulous wide-screen shots of the Tahitians welcoming the Bounty, a complete replica of a ship of that day.
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Captain Bligh is compelled to dance with the island princess to avoid offending the local chief.  He is humiliated at having his crew watch him attempt the feat.  Anglo Saxon commanders can’t dance.
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Bligh won’t go ashore, and refers to the local women as sluts.  But he orders Christian to do his duty and make love to the chief’s daughter.  Brando makes the scene into a cruel and funny one:  mocking the captain’s sexual anxiety, mocking patriotism, mocking duty, and feigning resignation at what he must do.
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Fletcher in love, or at least, satisfying his lust, as commanded by the Captian.  (The chief will be offended if the princess is spurned.)
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The last straw with Bligh comes when he rations the water to feed the plants they are ferrying to Jamaica, where it is hoped they will provide a reliable food supply for the slaves toiling in the sugar plantations.
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Bligh kicks the cup from Christians hand, and Christian strikes him, saying, “You’ll not put your foot on me again, you bastard!”

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They say their goodbyes:  Bligh is set adrift in a boat with some supplies and loyal crew.  The film soft pedals the fact that Bligh executed a stunning feat of seamanship, piloting the boat over thousands of miles and losing only one man.  He returned to England quickly to report the mutiny.
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Almost immediately, he starts to mull on what he has done.  Unlike the common sailors, he had a lot to lose, and now it’s gone.

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He’s left with only common sailors and one officer to command, but he looks the part of captain.
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The final scene, with Christian dying of his burns is tremendous.  We see the man, no longer able to face the world with the stance of a dandy, shocked at being told that he is dying.  There is nothing left.  He tries to sum up, but death cuts him off.
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Argo

November 18, 2012


Last night, I caught the recent Iran caper, or Canadian Caper film, Argo, created by Ben Affleck.  It tells the story of a CIA clandestine operation to get six Americans out of Tehran after the U.S. Embassy was stormed, initiating the interminable hostage crisis for the Carter Administration.  The six took secret refuge in the Canadian embassy.  The successful plan involved creating a cover story of a Canadian film crew scouting exotic locations for a tacky sci-fi adventure story with a middle eastern look to it.  A Star Wars rip-off.

The story is basically true, and the film was entertaining and suspenseful.  It was particularly good, I thought, at showing the tension of the six fugitives as they struggled to accept the least bad of a lot of bad choices for getting out of Iran.  It also conveyed the release of the pent-up rage and near hysterical revolutionary fervor (that’s what happens when you keep the lid on people too long) of the Iranians rather well.

Personally, however, although I was entertained, I wasn’t buying it.  The last minute glitches, and their skin-of-the-teeth resolution, the airport getaway finale, the Alan Arkin old-Jewish-guy producer character…it all seemed invented for Hollywood to me.  (Of course, Affleck has to add a deeply personal note at the end, as the main character reconciles with his wife – why, we don’t know…)

As it turns out, a perusal of the Wikipedia article indicates that all those things were invented; dramatic license. There was some undiplomatic bashing of the Brits and other diplomats as well that was resented and refuted by those governments.  And there were some trivial historical manipulations – showing the giant Hollywood sign in ruins (I remember it well) when it was actually repaired in 1978 – I wonder why ‘artists’ do that sort of thing in a film like this, but I’m just a viewer…

I was in Iran for about a week, leaving just a few days before the crisis erupted.  I only spent 45 minutes in Tehran:  as dumb as I was, I knew that was not a city to hang around in then.  We met some soldiers on a train from the north, and they led us by the hand through the streets, filled with enormous packed crowds of men with black beards, all staring at us, until they saw us safely deposited on an express bus to the gorgeous city of Isfahan in the south.  No crowds there.  Just anti-American posters, and a lot of people who told us how much they loved Americans, and hated our government.


Miss Lonelyhearts

July 18, 2012

Nathanael West, born Wallenstein in NYC, died in a car crash in El Centro, CA, buried in Queens.  Two novels make his name:  Miss Lonelyhearts, the story of soul tortured by religion and self-contempt in 1930s Los Angeles, making his living ‘writing’ an advice column; and The Day of the Locust, a harrowing story of degradation and violence in Hollywood.  Both are great, but Locust is far the best of the two, I think. 

Funny, I don’t read West’s name in association with noir, but then, he is way beyond noir into his own vortex of human tragedy.  Noir is too ironic and entertaining for real tragedy, I think…

Story goes that he ran a stop sign and died in a crash, his wife died too, when he heard on the radio that his good friend F. Scott Fitzgerald was dead.  In El Centro of all places, and one that I actually visited.


At 30,000 feet: in 1/100th of a second

July 13, 2011

I find business travel of any sort disorienting.  Why am I here?  Just what am I doing in this place with these people?  Unmoored, my mind floats free of Earth’s gravitational pull and looses itself in philosophical maundering and pessimism.

I am in Carlsbad, CA, for the ESRI International Users Conference.  No clue?  Look here.  Yes, that’s what I do for a living, sort of.  And along with 1o,ooo members of the sometimes cultish fans cum users of ESRI software, I am here to try to learn something useful.  I’m even making a presentation.

On the flight out, I made sure to have a window seat, and my foresight was rewarded with some views of the Missouri River that looked like these below.  Floods, gotta love ‘em, they’re so grand.

I passed over arid hillscapes that were pricked here and there with giant white toothpicks – wind turbines – that seemed puny in comparison to the huge urban energy-suckers I saw.  I arrive in a new city, San Diego, and observe trucks, trains, planes, industrial zones, and crowds of people going to work – the human beehive.  It all seems so utterly pointless.  Why don’t they all just stay in their rooms, read a good book?  Is what they’re doing so great?

I recall a letter by V.I. Lenin in which he deplored the unplanned, chaotic and wasteful nature of capitalism.  Perhaps he and I share a similar visceral disgust with the nature of modern society.  Of course, his solution wasn’t as good as mine.  (Of course, I stole it from Pascal.)

On the flight, I read Freefall, an analysis of the financial debacle of 2007 by Stiglitz.  Perhaps he should read my post on the thieving state.  Well, he won a Nobel, but he is an economist after all…  I also finished reading River of Shadows, by Rebecca Solnit, which is a biography, sort of, of Eadweard Muybridge, the man who is famous for motion studies like these of horses:

and who also did many others of people which are not so widely known, such as this one of a woman simply getting into and out of bed:Obviously, Muybridge was onto something with his instantaneous photos of moving objects, and his work was an important precursor to the development of motion pictures.  Today, you can buy amusing flip-books of some of his studies that work wonderfully well.  In fact, he created an early zoetrope that combined magic lanterns with his motion studies to produce projected animations, and he was involved with Edison in creating the early kinetoscopes.  He was also an accomplished landscape photographer, and a bit of an eccentric.

Solnit’s book, however, indulges in much breathless metaphysical word-spinning at every possible opportunity, and is built on the conceit that Muybridge and Leland Stanford (it was his horse, and he paid for the initial work photographing it in those famous sequences) founded the modern world in the previously Wild West.  After all, the basis of modern civilization is Hollywood (Muybridge’s part) and Silicone Valley ([Leland] Stanford University’s part).  It’s pretty tiresome after a while, but the book rewards judicious skimming.

One of the most interesting parts to me was the connection with Ernest Meissonier, the successful French salon painter known for his large canvasses showing Napoleon in what appeared at the time to be photo-realistic detail.  (He was a favorite painter of Salvador Dali.)

 

Meissonier exerted tremendous effort in studying the movements of horses, trying to get the legs right.  Muybridge’s sequences of Stanford’s racer, Occident, laid to rest the momentous question of whether or not a horse ever had all four feet off the ground at once – they do – but it also showed how complex was the movement of the legs.  Messonier was upset: he’d got them all wrong, but he was a good sport about it.  In his portrait of Stanford, a photo sequence by Muybridge is just barely visible on the table at the right.


Breakfast at Tiffany’s – I

August 6, 2010

In my initial dip into Capote-ville, inspired by my reading of To Kill a Mockingbird, I watched the 1961 film, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, adapted  from Truman Capote’s story of the same name.  I have heard of this movie for so long as the epitome of Hollywood romance and chic that I wanted to finally see for myself.  Well, I am just a crank, I can’t help it, but I thought it was pretty awful.

The film is supposed to be a romantic comedy – I think I laughed once at a bit by a minor character.  The humor seemed dated, dull, sexist, not to mention Mickey Rooney’s racist turn, for which all concerned have since expressed deep regret.  There is a party scene in Holly’s apartment that seems like the fantasy of an uptight dullard who just watched Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.  Audrey Hepburn is lovely, of course, and Peppard is a good looking hunk of a guy, but you haven’t a clue why a jaded – he’s being kept by a rich woman – intelligent fellow like him would go all mushy for a pretty slip of a girl who is obviously suffering from a deep psychological mauling.  It’s all just froth and candy icing, amazing clothes draped across Hepburn’s boney and elegant frame, and dialog so superficial it can make your head ache. 

I read that Capote hated the film and felt double-crossed by the studios.  He wanted Marilyn Monre in the lead, playing it as voluptous, sexy, not too bright, and vulnerable.  That would have made for a  darker, more interesting story.  Soon I’ll read his novella and find out just how much of working over Hollywood gave the original.

The image shows the two protagonists at the high point of their romancing-cute: they just shoplifted two masks from a five and dime store to prove to themselves how carefree and unconventional they are.


Superman at Canterbury?

January 17, 2010

Was Thomas Beckett, murdered archbishop of England, a Nietzschean Superman?

Despite my raging Anglo-philia of boyhood, I never saw Beckett (1964) with Peter O’Toole as HenryII, and Burton as Thomas Beckett, his Chancellor, and then archbishop of Canterbury.  Based on Jean Anouilh’s play, it is the story of an intense friendship between two men who understand power a little differently.  King Henry, a bit of a spoiled child and also a lonely soul, rages at the stuffy imbecility of his courtiers, but he takes his royal job seriously, and he has no intention of ceding royal power to anyone.  Nay, he wishes to increase it.  Beckett, his friend, his servant, then his chancellor, seems to be happy to go along for the ride, the food, the girls, but he knows that he has a tiger by the tail, and he knows how to keep himself safe when he is so close to the live wire of absolute power.

Then Henry makes a mistake – he makes Beckett the head primate of the Church in England, thinking he will then rule heaven and earth, with his friend a pliable and cooperative bishop.  Beckett is transformed by his new position, and finds the higher vocation that has eluded him thus far – he commits himself to the defense of churchly principle against secular power, driving his former companion to his wits’ end.

This was a central conflict played out during the Middle Ages again and again:  sometimes the brute kings won, as when the French king kidnapped the pope and dragged him off to ‘Babylonian’ captivity in Avignon, bringing on the Great Schism; and sometimes the Popes won, as when Henry IV of the Holy Roman Empire was reduced to waiting in the snow at the door of the papal palace in Canossa.  The State lost this round – Henry’s thuggish courtiers murdered Thomas while at services, thinking they were doing the king’s bidding.  Henry did severe penance, Beckett was quickly made a full-blown saint.

Both characters in the play are motivated by the ‘will to power,’ and their different allegiances.  Henry is left to rule the miserable earthly realm, while Thomas, standing tall while he is murdered without resistance, triumphs in true Nietzschean-Jesus fashion, over the pigs who think they can really kill him.  His person becomes venerated, and he casts his spell for centuries over England and its kings.  Good thing too, or we wouldn’t have gotten the Canterbury Tales!  He knows what he’s about:  His last words as he dies are, “Poor Henry…”

Of course, when one thinks of Richard Burton, one cannot help thinking of his on again, off again mate, Elizabeth Taylor.  As a very young boy, I asked my mother who was Elizabeth Taylor, and was told, “She’s the most beautiful woman in the world.”  Well, maybe so…

Finally, back to Chaucer, Beckett, and Canterbury, sort of…  I post here what I think is the most hilarious pastiche from an amazing book, The Holy Tango of Literature.  (Earlier post here and the text online here.)

CARRY HUGE COFFEE
anagram of GEOFFREY CHAUCER

In tholde dayes of the towne Seatel,
Of whos charmes Nirvana fans yet pratel,
Al that reyny land fayn slepen late.
Thus ofte a sutor failled to keepe a date;
And werkers reched offices at noon,
Noddyng of although the sunne shoon;
Husbondes were too tyred by the eve
A staf for plesyng wyves to acheve.

Now to this citie in a languor stukke,
Came a fair knyght cleped Sterrebukke,
Beryng benes from a forein land
Ygrounde to a poudre in his hand,
From which a potent brew could he deryve
That causeth wery peple to revyve.
Whan word aboute his draghte hadde sprede,
To his shoppe the custumers al spedde
Til everich veine felte a rush of blood,
With humours boyed upward by that flood.
Soone men who herd the crowyng cok
Wolde rise withoute cursyng at the clok,
The thoughte of facyng daylight not so bleke
With coffey bryngyng roses to the cheke
And helpyng them to holde their swords alofte
And shethe them before they falle softe.

Sterrebukke so bygan to thynke
Of other ways to selle the same drynke.
With stemed milk and sprenkled cynamone,
’Twas fit, he sayde, for kynges on the throne;
The capuchino joyned thus his wares,
As wel as mocas, sweter than eclares,
And lattes riche in creme, ofte fresen
And beten to a froth in sumer seson,
And tall espressos armured with cappes
To stoppen scaldyng spilles into lappes
As may hap when one is in a hurry
Upon a pilgrymage to Caunterbury.


There’s our man!

September 21, 2009

Paul Muni as Zola - listening at his trial

I am watching The Life of Émile Zola (1936), corny and stirring by turns, starring Paul Muni.  The movie focuses on his trial for libel that resulted from his publication of J’accuse..! his dissection of the sham conviction of Dreyfus for treason.  Virulent hatred of Jews was at the center of the case, so it’s interesting how the film treats the subject of anti-semitism.

There's our man!The words “Jew” and “anti-semitic” are never spoken in the film.  The theme is all very sotto voce.  When the general staff is looking for a fall guy to take the blame for the spying they have detected, they examine a roster of it’s members.  The religion of each is noted.  The head points to Dreyfus’s name and says, “There’s our man.”

3 JC in glory

When Zola is brought before the kangaroo court for libelling the French military, there are several long shots of the assembled dignataries and spectators. A huge painting of The Crucifixtion makes the point that church and state are not separate in France.

 The violent anti-Dreyfus mobs are shown, but there is no indication of their vicious anti-semitic bent.  Nor is the anti-clericalism of the Dreyfusards hinted.   You have to know the history to read the subtext of the film.

French anti-semitic propaganda     Republican anti-clerical poster

Living Green

April 12, 2008

With the recent death of Charleton Heston, I took myself to the local library to check out the DVD of the last of his dystopian trilogy that I had not seen, Soylent Green. The other two are The Planet of the Apes, and The Omega Man. These movies have been commented on so much by so many fans and detractors that I don’t have much to add – I just wanted to see Soylent becuase I’d heard about it for so long…yes, I knew the secret before I watched. (Oh, yes, for those of you not in on it, the stuff that everyone eats, Soylent Green, it’s made out of dead people. If this surprises you, you haven’t seen or read much sci-fi.)

Heston was a remarkable actor – extremely limited and generally totally unconvincing, I think – but one of kind. Who else could teeter on the edge of camp in total seriousness? This film plods along as a police procedural after making a great start during the opening sequence simply by using a rapid montage of still photographs of life from 1900 to the date of the story, 2040. In a series of images, we watch the environment and civilization going to hell through pollution and overpopulation – there’s even mention of the Greenhouse Effect. E.G. Robinson, in his last role, does add some emotional heft to the story, but for the most part, it’s like a TV movie.

Omega Man, if you can take it, is even worse. The opening scene of Heston tooling around a depopulated LA in a 70′s gas guzzler is a good one, but that’s about the last cinematic plus this film has to offer. You might find the film of interest for its wacky, but also daring treatment of race – Heston has a sexual affair with a big-afro black woman. No question, that was pushing it a bit in the early 70s.

Jesus came to complete the Old Law, so after being Moses, it makes sense that Heston would be Christ too. He dies for his role in the apocalyptic sins of humanity (he developed the bacillus that kills everyone) but as he destroys with science, he saves with his science, and his blood. The final scene shows him being embraced in a pose taken from hundreds of Depositions, after dieing in a cruciform position and having his side pierced by a lance from the deformed zombies he is constantly battling. The saving serum for humanity is made from his blood itself.

Then there is Apes, which in itself, with its sequels, has become a cultural touchstone of sorts. How strange, I think, that the movie reverses the logic of the Pierre Boule original book.  (Boule seems virtually unkown in the Anglophone world, despite his large impact on pop culture in the 60s and 70s.)  In that story, Heston’s character escapes from the Ape planet and returns to Earth. When he steps out onto the tarmac, he is greeted by apes. Sledgehammer irony, but pretty good anyway!

Stranger still to think about the other blockbuster adaptation of a Boule novel, the Bridge on the River Kwai. In that novel, a British commander is so proud of and obsessed with the accomplishments of his men who have been forced to build an important bridge for their Japanese captors – the enemy, in case you weren’t around for WWII – that he kills a British commando sent out to destroy the structure. That dark irony was too much for Hollywood, so in the movie, he realizes his ghastly mistake and sets the charges to destroy the bridge himself just in time.


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