Tag Archives: Film/s

Hitchcock, Psychological Horror & The Theatre of the Mind

Hitch and Frankenstein
Sir Alfred Hitchcock Meets Mary Shelley’s Creation

In 1964, the great movie director Alfred Hitchcock, The Master of Suspense, was interviewed by Huw Weldon of the BBC. Hitch was asked if he had “ever been tempted to make what is nowadays called a horror film.”

“Are you talking about visual horror like “Frankenstein” and that kind of thing?” Hitch asked, seeking clarification.

Weldon confirmed that was what he meant.

“No, they’re… they’re props. I believe in putting the horror in the mind of the audience and not necessarily on the screen.”

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Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in “Psycho”

Hitch took the example of his own movie”Psycho.” “Now, this film had a horrible scene at the beginning with a girl being murdered in a shower. Well, I deliberately made that pretty rough, but as the film developed, I put less and less physical horror into it because I was leaving that in the mind of the audience and, as the film went on, there was less and less violence but the tension, in the mind of the viewer, was increased considerably. I was transferring it from the film into their minds. So, towards the end, I had no violence at all. But the audience by this time was screaming in agony.”

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Breakdown of the infamous shower scene in Hitchcock’s “Psycho”

“One’s challenged by the audience. They’re saying to me “show us” and “I know what’s coming next”… and I say, “do you?” And therefore, that’s the avoidance of the cliché — automatically. They’re expecting a cliché and I have to say “we cannot have a cliché here”

So there was a clear differntial in Hitchcock’s mind between “visual horror” like “Frankenstein” and psychological horror like “Psycho” (yes, the dessicated corpse of Mrs Bates is clearly a prop too but only revealed in the last scene and not the basis for most of the horror that preceeded it.) Hitchcock meant that real horror is what you DON’T see, the theatre of the mind, if you will.

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Mrs Bates: “Mother’s not feeling herself today.”

Horror works particularly well on radio, the original “theatre of the mind.” The listeners are given prompts by the narrator but have to construct the visuals in their mind. Audiobooks and podcasts would be the modern equivalent. My vampire short story “Nightfall” will be available in audiobook form in August and I’m very much looking forward to hearing the results.

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Let’s take a look at a classic horror movie and its remake – “The Haunting” from 1963 and the Spielberg-backed remake in 1999. The original, directed by Robert Wise, got tremendous scares from the use of sound and suggestion. The remake was an orgy of CGI effects. Most people look on the original as a classic horror movie, few hold the remake in high regard. Why? The remake shows us too much too often. The original keeps its cards close to its chest and the result is the same story told in a much scarier way.

The Haunting

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“The Exorcist” is regarded by many as the most frightening movie of all-time. It is a film where the Demon Pazuzu, the ultimate evil, possesses the body of a young girl, the ultimate symbol of innocence, and speaks and acts through her. You never see the demon itself, there is no easy resolution for the audience of bringing the creature out into the light before it is destroyed as in 1950s monster movies. There isn’t that closure. (My mother was so freaked out seeing “The Exorcist” in the cinema that she claimed she saw a red devil with the horns and the tail and everything. It appears to have been some stress-induced temporary psychosis or something.) There is only the theme of the transference of evil, a constant in the work of its director William Friedkin.

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“Exorcist” director William Friedkin

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Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” benefitted greatly from the malfunctioning prop shark they had. It meant the director couldn’t show the shark early as he had planned to and had to be creative to hint at its presence (the excellent score by John Williams helped.) The result? A freaked-out audience made hyper-aware of the subconscious level of the ocean’s surface and the potential unseen horror lurking beneath it.

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26-year-old Steven Spielberg in Bruce the Shark’s mouth

Fear of the unknown is the key to great horror. We don’t need to know that Dracula is seeking his long-lost love across the centuries. He’s an ancient predator at your window seeking your blood. That’s all that’s necessary to impart to an audience. We don’t need to know that Michael Myers in Halloween had a terrible home life that made him the unstoppable killer we know and fear. He’s an immortal bogeyman and he’s coming after you. Don’t give away your character’s mystique cheaply.

Horror is best when drip-fed in a subtle way and not in a deluge of computer effects dumped on the viewing public.

No matter how convincing CGI is, an audience inherently knows it’s not real and that they’re watching a gimmick. Maybe Hollywood will learn this lesson and we can have a new golden age of psychological horror.

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© Stewart Stafford, 2018. All rights reserved.

If you’re a generous person who believes this writer should be paid for his hard work, you may donate here.

To read more of this author’s work, check out his short story Nightfall and novel The Vorbing.

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The Shape of Water: Beneath the Waves

Guillermo Del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” is a continuation of the monstrous themes Del Toro has pursued in his previous films like Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone, Cronos, Blade II and both Hellboy movies. The story concerns a mute cleaning woman (Sally Hawkins) who works at a secret US government facility where she meets and develops feelings for an aquatic creature that has been captured in South America and brought there for research.

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It’s another Beauty and the Beast tale in the style of The Phantom of the Opera, King Kong and The Hunchback of Notre Dame that Hollywood is so fond of.

If there is one central, recurring theme in American movies, I believe it is this: individual righteousness is more important than the group ethic. “The Shape of Water” is set before America has put a man on the moon. It is mentioned that the structure of the creature’s lungs could be used as a model for a prototype breathing system for an astronaut in space. They try to x-ray the creature, but its density prevents anything being seen. So, it’s proposed to end its life and perform an autopsy to study it properly. Now if she was following the group ethic, she would say that the creature must die for the common good, but she chooses not to do that. Her individual righteousness supersedes the group ethic and she decides to rescue him from certain death. You see this theme in everything from “Serpico” to the Jason Bourne movies and “Dances with Wolves” to “Avatar.” Is it any wonder that whistleblowing is so widespread when the whisteblowers themselves are consciously or subconsciously absorbing this theme from the time they watch their first American movie?

Return of the King

“The Shape of Water” is only the second fantasy film to win the Oscar for Best Picture, the other being “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.” If you’re doing fantasy correctly, you can have all the fantastical surface elements but get in some subtle social commentary underneath and this movie does it beautifully.

The heroes are all minority underdogs; the creature is being tortured and experimented on because of the way he was born, the heroine is has a disability and can’t speak, she’s friends with a black woman and there’s a scene showing the civil rights struggle on an old black and white TV, the heroine is also friends with a gay man and he is going through his own struggles. It even plays into the whole #MeToo thing with a scene of sexual harassment. The film is set in the 1960s, but it is made for an audience of today and cleverly comments on issues of equality and diversity that we’re still struggling with now.

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Guillermo del Toro won the Best Director Oscar at the 2018 Academy Awards, but his victory was clouded in controversy after claims that “The Shape of Water” was plagiarised from another work.

Let Me Hear You Whisper

The backlash first began on social media with some people tweeting about glaring similarities between “The Shape of Water” and a 1969 one-act play titled “Let Me Hear You Whisper” by the late Paul Zindel. Then the comparisons really began and it was alleged that there were 61 similarities between the play and the film. Paul Zindel’s family became aware of the allegations and filed a lawsuit. “We are shocked that a major studio could make a film so obviously derived from my late father’s work without anyone recognizing it and coming to us for the rights,” David Zindel, the author’s son said.

Del Toro has denied all claims of plagiarism directed towards his film, but the film did lose out at the Writer’s Guild Awards and didn’t get the Oscar for Best Screenplay, probably due to the negative publicity.

“I have been at this 25 years and have an unimpeachable reputation,” the director said in his defence.

Dark Universe

Universal Studios own the rights to “Creature from the Black Lagoon” and they’ve recently tried to reboot their horror characters (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy and The Invisible Man) in something called The Dark Universe. Their stated goal was to make their remakes as big as Marvel is, unfortunately there’s no great demand for these old characters at the box office. The first film in the Dark Universe, “The Mummy” with Tom Cruise, flopped badly and it looks like the other planned films have been shelved for now. Del Toro actually pitched “The Shape of Water” to Universal as a remake of “Creature from the Black Lagoon.” They were initially interested until Del Toro said that the girl was mute and Universal thought it was a crazy idea and passed. So Del Toro took his idea to Fox Searchlight, had a huge, Oscar-winning and the rest is history. Universal must have been kicking themselves that they passed on it. The rest is history while the while lawsuits rumble on.

© Stewart Stafford, 2018. All rights reserved.

Film Review: Trainspotting 2

“Oh yeah, life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone…”

– John Cougar Mellencamp, Jack & Diane

“Thou shalt not be middle-aged” could almost be the theme of every review written about the sequel to Trainspotting. The critics moaned that Renton & Co. have gone “mainstream” with “Dad rock anthems” on the soundtrack.

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Like when The Young Ones started singing with Cliff Richard for charity (forgetting that their sitcom started life on the BBC, the very heart of establishment Britain). All the stars of Trainspotting have taken the Hollywood shilling decades ago (Ewan McGregor has done three Star Wars films, Robert Carlyle was a Bond villain, Ewan Bremner will be in the new Wonder Woman movie). There’s nothing wrong with that, most actors are out of work and fair play to any of them that can make a living at it, but these critics are making moot points.

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It’s like a Sex Pistols reunion; same band, same music, same (older) faces but the heart doesn’t pump as angrily as it used to. It can’t really. Johnny Rotten has done butter commercials but we all conform and sell out as we get older as we have more to lose and life’s too damn short. The cold isolation of youth rebellion loses its allure as we crave acceptance and, yes, easy cash (sorry to drop that nugget of reality on ya). Today’s rebel is tomorrow’s leader, that’s the way it always has gone and always will go in the future.

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“I’m 46 and I’m fucked,” Ewan McGregor says at one point in T2. A brave statement, as middle-aged men are meant to be invisible and consigned to life’s scrap heap to await the slow death of retirement. It’s wrong, especially when older men have so much life experience to bring to the table. But nope, ageism is rife in our society, just ask all those talented older guys who can’t get hired because of a number beyond their control. Not only are men of 46 meant to be ignored, movies aren’t meant to be made for them either. You can feel the hostility of the younger critics reviewing the movie towards these older characters and men of that age in general. They almost feel that it would have been better not to have made the movie at all. Films can only be about teens with superpowers for spotty teens with no power at all. That’s your demographic now.

Trainspotting 2 has flaws, sure; director Danny Boyle unwisely uses too many flashbacks of the first movie that begs for comparisons, almost as if he’s desperate to make people like the second one as much. There are snatches of Iggy Pop from the first movie and remixes of other songs from that classic soundtrack, some of it works and some of it doesn’t. There’s even a new riff on McGregor’s classic “choose life” voice-over from the first film. Okay, it doesn’t have the same scathing, anarchic, raging tone and has a mid-life crisis feel about it but it is surreal hearing that same voice addressing things happening now (even if the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have been with us for most of the last decade, so it’s not that new.) The George Best references seem out-of-place (Archie Gemmill’s orgasmic goal seems to have lost its allure) along with that “where did it all go wrong?” story Best told on Parkinson donkey’s years ago (see my ageism creeping in reader? Stop it!) It also lacks that razor-sharp, documentary-style deconstruction of detox and the surreal sequences that peppered the original. However, the characters have grown up and gotten over their addictions, even seemingly Spud (we do get a scene of Renton and Sick Boy suddenly shooting up for no apparent reason, again that should’ve been cut but Boyle loses his nerve a little there, giving the audience what they want).

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The most unbelievable thing is the cameo by Kelly McDonald. She played the underage nymphomaniac who went drinking on a school night and slept with Renton minutes after meeting him. We’re supposed to believe that she’s now a convenient, plot point lawyer instead of the mum-of-three on welfare that she almost certainly would’ve been. Still, fans of the original will skip over that and enjoy her appearance.

This isn’t Trainspotting: The Male Menopause Years, though. On the plus side, it’s very, very funny (the audience I saw it with laughed throughout); Renton’s improvised song in a Loyalist club about no Catholics being left after the Battle of the Boyne is probably the best scene in the movie (that, along with the George Best scenes, make it seem more like a Northern Irish film at times).

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As for the characters having lost their balls, Robert Carlyle’s escaped convict Begbie is, if anything, a beast even more fierce now. With a head like a flaming football, Begbie tears through the film like a Celtic Joe Pesci, annihilating anyone and everything that gets in his way (he’s even made out to be like Jack Nicholson in The Shining when he smashes through to where Renton is hiding, sticks his head through the hole and roars at him.) There was a picture of De Niro in Taxi Driver in the first one and the style of Boyle’s flick was pure Marty  Scorsese with narration, freeze-frames and classic rock on the soundtrack. In T2, we get a parody of Raging Bull called Raging Spud.

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Ewan Bremner’s ne’er-do-well Spud is the vulnerable heart of the film and, while Bremner sometimes overdoes Spud’s child-like glare, his character perhaps shows the most progress going from a lonely, suicidal addict at the start to a blossoming man of letters.

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Jonny Lee Miller’s bleach blond Sick Boy returns and, as he’s a bigger star now than he was in 1996, he’s given a lot more to do. He seems to leech off a bit of Begbie’s violent, bullying energy in shouty, showy scenes, maybe they rewrote some of Begbie’s schtick to satisfy his agent.

Queen’s Radio Ga Ga makes a sudden, loud appearance during a trippy scene and this is probably what annoyed those young critics the most. Freddie and the boys are rock royalty and not the edgy, druggy types like Iggy and Lou Reed, but who cares? It’s a great rousing scene. It’s fun. What’s wrong with that?

The script also takes piquant pops at the EU; Renton is greeted on his return to Edinburgh after 20 years away by a Slovenian girl handing out leaflets, Sick Boy is running a blackmail scam with a Bulgarian hooker and the boys get involved in trying to hook up with a £100k EU grant scam. Brexit is the unmentioned ghost at the feast.

Sequels are delicate balancing acts; you have the give the audience something similar to the first one but in a new way. Rehash everything from the first film and the audience will get bored, but go in a totally new direction and it won’t feel like a real, true follow-up. Trainspotting 2 does move the characters on and tries to do something different with them. It updates them while giving us echoes of their past selves and, in that, screenwriter John Hodge does a solid job. It was always going to be a near-impossible task catching lightning in a bottle twice. Danny Boyle acquits himself admirably. He’s too talented a filmmaker to just phone it in.

There’s talk of a Trainspotting 3, and, as I thoroughly enjoyed Trainspotting 2, I’d love to see it happen. The pressure will be off in the threequel and they can wrap things up by making the Trainspotting franchise into a trilogy. I can almost hear those young, angry critics groaning; but that’s life, kids. Choose life.

© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

Last Tangle With Marlon

A social media storm has blown up in recent days about a simulated rape scene from an old movie from 1972 called Last Tango In Paris.

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It starred a then 48-year-old Marlon Brando as Paul, a middle-aged man having a desperate fling with a 19-year-old-girl after the suicide of his wife. There is a scene where Paul rapes Jeanne (German actress Maria Schneider) and uses butter as a lubricant. Director Bernardo Bertolucci said: “I wanted Maria to feel – not to act – the rage and humiliation. Then she hated me for all of her life.”

Typically in the internet age, people only read the headlines and think Maria Schneider was actually raped for real on camera. She wasn’t. It is alleged that Brando did lubricate her anally with the butter on his finger. That changes things. We will never see it legally challenged in court, but it would be something to see lawyers try to work out what happened. Marlon Brando was a man who did whatever the hell he wanted and left the wreckage behind for others to deal with. He said: “Like a large number of men, I, too, have had homosexual experiences, and I am not ashamed.” He had sixteen children, three marriages and seemingly endless affairs. Today, he would probably be called a sex addict.

Brando died aged 80 in 2004. Maria Schneider died of cancer in 2011. She had a history of drug problems and mental problems after Last Tango In Paris.

The surreptitious plotting of the rape scene itself with Brando is a director going too far. It is deliberate humiliation of an actor on set, which is pretty shabby behaviour already.

Brando also felt he’d been violated by Bertolucci but in a psychological way, when he got him to improvise on camera about his painful childhood. “I don’t have any good memories,” Brando says through the mask of his character Paul. He goes on to say his father was “a whore fucker and a bar fighter…He was tough.” Bertolucci gloated later on that he’d made Brando reveal all his secrets on film. Brando, raging and trying not to admit his humiliation, said: “You think that’s me?” Brando swore he’d never reveal as much of himself in a film again and he didn’t. He said: “I’m not going to lay myself at the feet of the American public and invite them into my soul. My soul is a private place. And I have some resentment of the fact that I live in a system where you have to do that.” He did a lot of movies for massive fees like Superman in 1978. He would never do anything as raw or challenging as Last Tango In Paris.

Some have called for all copies of Last Tango to be burned. I say no. The scene at the start where a grieving Brando raves and rants at his dead wife in her coffin is probably the best acting he ever did. Sure The Godfather won him the Oscar and gets more praise but the foul-mouthed rage, confusion and despair he conjures up out of nothing, is phenomenal.

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A court once ruled that all copies of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu be burned because it had infringed the copyright of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Thankfully some copies survived as it is, for my money, the best Dracula movie ever made and a remarkable example of German expressionist cinema.  Need we go into Nazi book-burning to show how this kind of censorship is wrong?

It isn’t the only occasion of directors using odd, disrespectful means to get performances out of actors. On the set of The Exorcist, director William Friedkin fired guns behind actors to get the right level of fear out of them.

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Director William Friedkin giving direction to actor Jason Miller on the set of The Exorcist

Jason Miller, who player Father Karras in the film, reacted angrily to Friedkin’s weapons and said: “You son of a bitch, don’t you ever do that again!” Friedkin went further at the end of the picture when a real priest, not an actor, had to give his friend the last rites and wasn’t as upset as he should have been. Friedkin belted the priest across the face, called action and the priest’s hands were shaking as he blessed his dying friend on the ground (Tony Scott did the same thing to actress Chelsea Field on the set of Bruce Willis movie The Last Boy Scout in 1991.)

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Director Tony Scott

Perhaps Tony Scott took a leaf out of his brother Ridley’s book. While directing Alien in 1979, it came time to shoot the infamous “chest-burster” scene where the infant alien rips its way out of John Hurt’s writhing body. The cast were not told what was going to happen. They arrived on set to see everything covered in plastic and the writers “giggling like kids” as Sigourney Weaver put it.

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The looks of shock and astonishment on the faces of the actors are real. Nothing like it had ever been seen before in a film and they were watching it as it was happening before their very eyes. Ridley Scott had pulled a mean trick on his actors but got some no-bullshit reactions from them.

Do the ends justify the means? How far do we want the creators of art to go on our behalf? I’ll let you be the judge of that.

© Copyright 2016, Stewart Stafford. All rights reserved.

Wuthering Heights & Its Influence on Vampire and Popular Culture

Wuthering Heights, the only novel by author Emily Bronte before her death at 30, has been highly influential on popular culture. It was published in 1847, the year of the great Famine in Ireland, Bram Stoker’s birth and exactly 50 years before he published Dracula.

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The book begins with the narrator Lockwood coming to stay at Wuthering Heights. He is given the former room of Catherine Earnshaw. During the night, he dreams that the ghost of Catherine or Cathy Earnshaw comes to the window, grabs his arm and begs to be let inside. Lockwood informs Heathcliff, the landlord, who opens the window to let the spirit enter but none appears. This supernatural appearance at the window is similar to how Dracula gains entry to the bedrooms of his victims, except he uses his mental, physical and/or erotic power to get in. In some vampire stories, it is necessary to invite a vampire in for them to gain access. It would appear to have at least partially originated in this standout scene from Wuthering Heights.

The story of Wuthering Heights is then told in flashback (Stoker also uses narrators to tell the story of Dracula but in the form of letters and journal entries). Heathcliff as a child is discovered wandering homeless by Mr Earnshaw on his trip to Liverpool. (Liverpool is a port and, as with Dracula, Heathcliff seems to have arrived in England by ship although that is never stated in the book. Judging by the ethnic description of him though and the location where he was found, it is a strong possibility.) The boy is described as “a dark-skinned gypsy in aspect.” Earnshaw names him Heathcliff and brings him home where his presence stirs up jealousy from Earnshaw’s son Hindley and infatuation from his daughter Cathy.

Heathcliff, like Dracula, is the mysterious, dark foreigner bringing his obsessive, destructive and ultimately lethal love to England’s stuffy upper classes. The theme repeatedly used in Wuthering Heights about eternal love even after death was one Bram Stoker would return to in Dracula five decades later.

Although they appear destined to be together, Cathy and Heathcliff grow up and marry other people and their relationship turns jealously masochistic with fatal consequences. Only after their deaths do they appear to fulfill their destiny and become soulmates at last.

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Sir Henry Irving
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Irish author Bram Stoker

Dracula author Bram Stoker was the manager of actor Sir Henry Irving. Irving was a fearsome figure who dominated Stoker. Many believe him to be the inspiration for Stoker’s vampire count.

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Laurence Olivier’s Heathcliff (1939)

Not only did Irving serve as inspiration for Bram Stoker but, indirectly, for actor Laurence Olivier who played both Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights and Van Helsing in Dracula onscreen.

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Olivier as Van Helsing in Dracula (1979)

When stuck for ideas on how to play Shakespeare’s Richard III in the movie he was directing, Olivier said: ‘I’d always heard imitations of old actors imitating Henry Irving. And so I did, right away, an imitation of these old actors imitating Henry Irving’s voice. That’s why I took that sort of rather narrow vocal address.’

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Olivier as Richard III (1955)
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Ralphie Glick returns as a vampire

Cathy’s ghost appearing at the window echoes the victory over death and return from the grave in vampire lore. Stephen King’s 1975 novel Salem’s Lot was inspired by Dracula. One night over supper, King mused what would happen if Dracula reappeared in the-then 20th century. Again, King makes the connection between Dracula and Wuthering Heights explicit when dead boy Ralphie Glick comes to his brother’s window after being preyed upon by the master vampire in the town. He also wishes to be let in as Cathy does.

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Kate Bush in the video for Wuthering Heights

In 1978, Kate Bush reached number one in the UK charts with her song Wuthering Heights. It was directly inspired by a 1967 BBC adaptation of Emily Bronte’s novel that Kate Bush saw when she was 18 (she even shares the same birthday as Emily Bronte). Bush specifically chose Cathy’s appearance at the window in the book to structure the song around and wrote from her perspective: “Heathcliff! It’s me, your Cathy, I’ve come home. So co-o-o-old, let me in at your window.” She definitely played up the scary, supernatural side of the scene and wasn’t afraid to potentially frighten away record buyers. Her bravery paid off with her first and only number one to date.

Kate Bush’s mother was from Ireland. With her high-pitched wailing and scary eyes in the video, it’s tempting to imagine Kate Bush shifting the setting of Wuthering Heights to Ireland and the ghost of Cathy becoming a Banshee coming in from a misty bog in the Irish countryside. Journalist Clive James famously stated in 1978 that he wasn’t sure ‘whether Kate Bush is a genius or a headcase, but she is definitely something else.’ Her ethereal, otherworldly performance spooked some people just as the original scene in Emily Bronte’s book had.

Here are the two very interesting versions of her Wuthering Heights videos:

It just demonstrates how, when an author hits upon a striking and powerful image, it can permeate down consciously and unconsciously through many forms of artistic expression for decades and even centuries to come.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

If you’re a generous person who believes this writer should be paid for his hard work, you may donate here.

To read more of this author’s work, check out his short story Nightfall and novel The Vorbing.

Negotiating The Godfather

 

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There is an absolutely brilliant piece of writing in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. It’s not the opening scene which perfectly establishes the power and darkness of Marlon Brando’s Godfather Vito Corleone and the tone of the film and the resulting trilogy. It isn’t one of the many classic lines; “I believe in America!” “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse,”, “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes”, “Keep your friends close but your enemies closer,” “Don’t ever take sides with anyone against the family again…ever.” (a line which foreshadows Michael Corleone’s murder of his brother and eventual moral downfall as he destroys his own family). It’s not the big, showy assassination scenes or the unforgettable minor characters that are patiently sketched out. I could go on listing all the many examples of masterpiece writing.

Godfather Negotiates With Sollozo

The scene I’m referring to is the subtle and under-appreciated negotiation scene with thug-on-the-rise Virgil Sollozzo a.k.a. The Turk. Brando’s Godfather is there as is his son Sonny (James Caan) and two of their henchmen with The Turk at the negotiating table. It is a verbal game of cards with everyone keeping their opinions close to their chests and giving nothing away. It is the 1940s just after World War II. The Turk wants money from the Corleone family to set up a drug-dealing operation (after the Prohibition booze boom of the the 30s, drugs would be the next one for organised crime) which is “infamita” and unacceptable to Brando’s Godfather. This frustrates The Turk and also Corleone’s son who can see the huge opportunity to get in early to the drugs market and make vast profits.

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The Turk offers a sweetener that rival mob family The Tattaglias will guarantee the Corleone family’s investment. Hot-headed Sonny foolishly puts all his cards on the table and reveals an eagerness for the deal. “Wait a minute,” Sonny says, “are you telling me that The Tattaglias will guarantee our investment?” There are subtle reaction shots from everyone around the table. It’s a huge mistake and all of them know it immediately. The Godfather tries to reprimand his son and makes apologies for his rashness but it is too late. A division in the family is now revealed and Sollozzo can start to take lethal action to get his deal.

Godfather Tries To Stop Sonny

That one line will change the course of the rest of the movie and the other two films that follow. It will result in the death of Sonny Corelone, the attempted murder of his father Vito, the exile of his brother Michael (Al Pacino) to Sicily for taking revenge on Sollozzo and a crooked cop and Michael’s subsequent merciless rise to power on his return, the near-destruction of The Corleone family and an all-out war between the five Mafia families.

Godfather Assassination Attempt

 

Godfather Sonny Shot

Sonny dies before most of these things happen, so he never sees the full consequences of his actions, but we don’t in life. We see some of them, but never all. Another nice touch in the screenplay. The Corleone family are clearly based on the Kennedy clan and their rise from immigrant obscurity to power and success in America with help from organised crime. There then followed assassinations and an unbelievable litany of tragedies just like the Corleones endure. No wonder Americans lapped up  The Godfather in the early 70s; they were watching their own history writ large with the drama bringing them even closer inside it.

The Sollozzo negotiation scene is rarely commented upon but it is masterful in its execution. Sonny’s unthinking rage is the Achilles heel of the Corleone family, a thread sticking out of a quilt that is gently tugged upon to start the whole thing unravelling. A superb piece of writing that, in a movie that is all about strength and power, reveals a realistic human frailty. The moment is even foreshadowed by Brando who says: “Women and children can be careless but never men.” A great deal of clever planning has gone into the script’s epic construction by Coppola and Mario Puzo based on Puzo’s 1969 novel of the same name. It rightly won the Oscar for Best Screenplay.

Text: © Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved

The Godfather © Paramount Pictures

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To read more of this author’s work, check out his short story Nightfall and novel The Vorbing.

Stewart Stafford Quotes

Hollywood’s Statement of Individuality

George Carlin Quote

[SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie 12 Years A Slave yet, come back and read this when you have.]

The central tenet of all American movies is this: individual righteousness is more important than the group ethic. You’ll see it in everything from the Planet of the Apes series to the Jason Bourne movies to Schindler’s List. If your peers or superiors tell you to do something that you find morally wrong, then, however serious the consequences, you must do what is right by your own code of ethics. A surprising message from the United States.

12-years-a-slave Poster

That message popped up again in the superb 12 Years A Slave that I watched for the first time last night. I had avoided it as I thought it was going to beat me over the head with a message about race (as some slave dramas can do hysterically). With race playing so heavily in any slavery story, it is tempting to simplify everything into black and white with all whites portrayed as evil sadists and all blacks being innocent victims. Slavery, like all human constructs, was complex. Whites and blacks did things we would expect of them but also things we would not. By following Solomon Northup’s eyewitness testimony of the time from his 1853 book of the same name, 12 Years A Slave avoids pouring 21st century clichés and misconceptions into the script. It shows great subtlety and fairness in allowing light and shade in both the slaves and slavers and that is part of the film’s greatness.

The racial element is sometimes overstated in slavery tales, at its heart it was the rich exploiting the poor for monetary gain. That’s an ancient story in a different guise for a new time.

The script by John Ridley is superb. Using the language of the time (“until freedom is opportune!” “melancholia”) also brings realism to proceedings. Steve McQueen brings a lightness of touch to the direction of the piece.

White women come off particularly badly in the movie. They appear as manipulative, bloodthirsty Salome/Lady Macbeth types, demanding punishment of others from their men and getting it. The subtext appears to be, when supposedly caring, maternal females in a society are that cruel and malicious, what hope is there for the men? None, it would seem. Shakespeare got that spot on and the idea works well again here.

Brad Pitt With Solomon

While Solomon is tricked into slavery by unscrupulous white men, it is a white man (hello Mr Self-Conscious Liberal and producer Brad Pitt) who gets his letter out to the North and starts the process of freedom for him. Pitt’s character is a Canadian carpenter working for Fassbender’s slave-driver Epps. Even though it would be financially beneficial to go along with slavery and profit from it, Pitt chooses to sabotage it and go his own individual way despite peer pressure from Epps.

The poster has Solomon running and I assumed he was going to become a runaway slave and kept waiting for the moment when he would make his momentous break for freedom. Surprisingly, once his pre-slavery identity is established, Solomon’s release comes through legal means that the white people abide by. There is no big action scene full of suspense as Solomon flees cross-country to reach the safety of the northern states. It is strangely anticlimactic but it is the twist in the tale as the film reminds us that he was one of the few people legally freed.

Solomon Is Freed

When 12 Years A Slave swept the board at the Oscars, some might have thought that the Academy was being politically-correct but the film and those involved in it deserved every award. Lupita Nyong’o is superb as the young female slave Patsey. Raped, beaten and the victim of a bloody, Christ-like flogging from her vile master Edwin Epps (another excellent performance from Michael Fassbender), the young model-turned-actress gives an astonishing, harrowing performance. There isn’t one false note in it. Lupita is one to watch for the future.

86th Annual Academy Awards - Show
Actress Lupita Nyong’o accepts the Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role award for ’12 Years a Slave’ onstage during the Oscars at the Dolby Theatre on March 2, 2014 in Hollywood, California. Kevin Winter/Getty Images/AFP

12 Years A Slave is one of the best films I’ve seen in years, right up there with Schindler’s List. Great movies stay with you for days after seeing them. In an age of ubiquitous bubblegum superhero movies that lose their flavour as you’re watching them, that is rare. Comic book movies celebrate violence without responsibility, 12 Years A Slave shows the reality of how violence brutalises everyone involved. With school shootings so common, that’s the message we need to get out to today’s kids more than ever.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

Close Encounters of the Terrifying Kind

Many things scare us. When it comes to stories, whether it’s books or movies, we’re being manipulated into being afraid. So it helps to have many levels of sell. There’s the obvious thing we’re scared of like alien creatures or zombies. Then there’s the subliminal things that may not register at first.

Close Encounters Crowd In Light

I saw Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of The Third Kind when I was six years old. I didn’t understand a lot of it like the significance of the missing Bermuda Triangle Flight 19 reappearing in the desert 32 years after vanishing.

Flight 19

Dreyfuss Alone

I also found the Richard Dreyfuss character’s peculiar behaviour confusing. Today, being an adult who has lived through a global recession, I understand exactly the pressures the Dreyfuss character was under.

Burnett Guffey

There were many scenes I found scary. The obvious scare was the little blond boy being abducted from his room by aliens as his screaming mother loses her grip on him (tapping into every child’s nightmare of being taken away from their mother). The scene that really scared me though was when Richard Dreyfuss gets in the shower with his clothes on and slides to the ground crying.

Shocked Dreyfuss Kids

His son sees it and calls him a cry baby. That really made me worry for the protagonist and his family. In a film full of fantastic visuals and scares, it grounded the film beautifully in harsh realism. It was tapping into the other childhood fear that the father, the head of the family, would lose control of himself and the family’s future. So Close Encounters has its visual scares (the aliens) and its psychological kicker (fear of the unknown).

tarman-560

Zombies also have a surface fear and a more profound one playing under the decaying skin on display. The packs of ravenous zombies are frightening (one newspaper branded the zombie the official fantasy creature of the recession!). What is more frightening however is the fear of the unknown they represent. In a zombie apocalypse, everything you know is changing; you don’t know why it’s changing, you don’t know what it’s changing into and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Just like Close Encounters, zombie movies regress us to a state of infantile powerlessness (which is perhaps why monsters in movies are usually huge with big teeth, the same way our parents appeared to us when we were toothless babies.)

Day-of-the-Dead-1985-FilmCap

The best writers know how to layer in subtext to give deeper meaning to what was once B-movie material. It is perhaps one reason why fantasy and science fiction movies are now being nominated for and winning Academy Awards in all the major categories, something that was once unheard of and is a refreshing change.

(To read more of my writing on a similar subject click here)

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All Rights Reserved.

Indie Authors: The New Punks

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We’ve all heard about the self-publishing revolution in books in the last few years with Amazon Kindle and all the other e-readers and websites. I was watching a BBC documentary called ArtsNight last week and the presenter made an interesting point: punk rock bands were the first indie authors. They learned their three chords, set up their own bands and, in some cases, record labels and self-published their own music. They took control of their own destinies in the same way novelists did recently. Even the punk fanzines were do-it-yourself wonders; stapled together, photocopied and distributed through record stores, mailing lists, by hand and by word-of-mouth in those pre-pre-internet days.

It’s a very cogent analogy. As with the self-published books, some of the DIY punk music that was put out was awful, but some of it has reached classic status in hindsight. Self-publishing until recently was called “vanity publishing,” but writers were no longer prepared to sit on their hands waiting months for a form rejection letter. They too seized their own destinies through the technology that was around them and turned the publishing industry on its head.

The Martian Book

Movies are even being made from self-published books for the first time like Ridley Scott’s The Martian starring Matt Damon and a future fantasy film that 20th Century Fox has purchased the rights to called Fall of Gods (even after that movie deal was signed, the book was taken down from Amazon due to formatting issues, the bane of indie authors everywhere. Luckily, it didn’t impact on the movie deal and Fox could see the merit of what was there despite the flaws.)

Fall of Gods

Punks and indie authors are strange bedfellows indeed, but both groups were and are pioneers in their fields. While the punk movement didn’t manage to overthrow the mainstream in the same way hippies in the previous generation hadn’t, they democratised their art form and showed others what was possible with self-belief and a little effort. Just as indie authors did. The shockwaves of the indie author revolution are still spreading out from the epicentre and nobody really knows where it will stop or what comes next. The most important thing is that books that would have gathered dust in drawers and on hard drives and memory sticks are now finding a worldwide audience. That can only be a good thing.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

Remembering Father Ted

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Irish actor Frank Kelly, who played Father Jack in the classic sitcom Father Ted, died today on the 18th anniversary of the death of Father Ted himself, Dermot Morgan. The show ran from 1995 until 1998, Dermot Morgan had only finished shooting the last episode of Ted days before his death. I didn’t watch the show during its initial run as I thought it was some British comedy making fun of Ireland. When I found out that it was written by two Irish writers, I tuned in to the repeats and was amazed at how good it was.

Father Ted really nailed the insanity and hypocrisy of Irish life well. I have this theory that Ted is the only sane person in the show with this maelstrom of insanity swirling around him. He really represents the ordinary man. The two-faced, foul-mouthed married couple who fight like cat and dog on the show but become angels when any priest is around was very familiar to anyone growing up in Catholic Ireland. As was Mrs Doyle, Father Ted’s housekeeper, a pastiche of the overbearing Irish Mammy, forcing cups of tea down people’s throats as if her life depended on it (which in Famine times it did, where this particular Irish female trait originates).

Bilko

Father Ted is kind of like Ireland’s Sergeant Bilko; beautifully written and played, laugh-out-loud funny with each episode a little gem that stands up to repeat viewing. David McSavage’s The Savage Eye is kind of like Ireland’s Monty Python; mercilessly surreal satire (you could argue that Ted inspired Savage Eye as they both skewer Irish life, McSavage’s bigoted Bull character is a similar Gaelic grotesque to Father Jack even down to the bad teeth. Ted is by fat the gentler and more subtle of the two, but The Savage Eye went further and straight for the jugular).

The Bull Wide
David McSavage as “The Bull”

With the passing of Frank Kelly, Father Ted seems to take on an even more mythic status. It was on TV in the 1990s, the decade when Ireland finally came of age. We had an Irish James Bond in Pierce Brosnan. We couldn’t stop winning the Eurovision Song Contest (we haven’t won it again since 1996). The Irish soccer team qualified for two World Cups for the first time. We had classic Irish movies like The Commitments, The Field and The Snapper. Irish music acts like U2, Sinead O’Connor, The Corrs, Westlife and Boyzone ruled the charts. It was a bit of a golden age all round.

Right now is an uncertain time for Ireland; we’re emerging from the biggest economic crash the country has ever seen. On Friday, we had a general election where all our sacred cows got slaughtered, a “political earthquake” as one politician put it. As no one knows where we’re headed, we can only look back into the past. Father Ted sits proudly there. It’s a sad day to lose Frank Kelly and another member of that great Ted cast. Father Ted is also a bit like Ireland’s version of Friends, in that it’s always on repeat on loop on various channels. It never seems to go away or lose its freshness or appeal. It could have been made yesterday. That’s the definition of great comedy. RIP Mr Kelly.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.