‘Hang on a minute lads … I’ve got a great idea’

THE ITALIAN JOB (1969) MICHAEL CAINE ITJ 037 MOVIESTORE COLLECTION LTD

It’s a moment burnt into the retina of thousands of film fans; Michael Caine as the bank robber Charlie Croker, edging towards the bullion at the tail end of the coach dangling precariously over the edge of a precipice in the final moments of The Italian Job (Peter Collinson 1969). It’s literally the end of the road for Croker’s gang of misfits, but it’s also the moment that has come to represent a cul-de-sac of sorts for the British male moviegoer.

A dead end culturally speaking at least. Don’t get me wrong; I belong to the 70s generation that grew up expecting and looking forward to a screening of The Italian Job on TV at some point over the Christmas holidays. It was as much of a yuletide staple as trays of Matchmakers and ‘Eat Me’ dates, mums smoking Menthol Mores and ‘big present’ Raleigh Choppers being test-ridden on the back streets. It seemed to be an ITV favourite back then, usually screened around tea time, sometimes a bit earlier.

Its mild swearword content gave yesteryear’s school kids a certain frisson of grown-upness. Who didn’t enjoy repeating the helpful assertion ‘you’re only supposed to blow the BLOODY doors off!’ emphasising the B word loudly in the playground once school recommenced in January? Funny how times change by the way; in 1998 the ITC bowed to complaints about an advert produced by M&C Saatchi as part of a Sky subscription campaign which featured a taxi driver mimicking Caine’s famous line from the film. The ITC ordered that the commercial should not be screened before 9pm because ‘parents were entitled to expect that television advertising should not appear to endorse or encourage swearing’. Caine’s ‘bloody’ was clearly allowed to pass under the pre-watershed wire by the schedulers back in the 70s, along with innumerable ‘cobblers’, ‘knockers’ ‘buggers’ and ‘bleeders’. At least that’s how I remember it. Bloody good job I say.

But I digress. The film was, and in many senses still is, the last word on post-war/pre-70s British manliness. It’s a Watney’s Party Seven canful of chirpy rogues, upper class twits, blokeish patriots, effeminate dandies, racial stereotypes, euroscepticism, Mini Coopers in the colours of the Union Jack, requisite mod haircuts and laddish football references. When Croker’s boys are finally assembled on board the Bedford VAL coach for the hairem scarem escape around the winding alpine road in the final reel they could almost pass for Bobby Moore and the rest of the class of ’66 popping corks and juggling the Jules Rimet on the coach out of Wembley.

Caine himself acknowledged in a 1999 interview published in the LA Times to mark the film’s thirtieth anniversary and cinema rerelease that the Croker character has come to serve as a durable icon of British machismo: ‘If you think of The Italian Job, Get Carter and Alfie, then to young English guys now I represent English heterosexual masculinity without any doubts. You don’t look at me and say, I wonder if he’s gay? You look at me and think, he’s a geezer, he’s one of us.’

The Italian Job is tattooed on the minds of a generational subculture of British (for ‘British’ read English) males as permanently as the blue upright lion on the arms of Chelsea Headhunters. It’s the film that taught many boys and men the meaning of the word ‘iconic’. It continues to be revisited; it’s the ultimate World Cup build-up/come-down movie, it’s pre- and post-stag night televisual pap for the alcoholically supine. It has survived political correctness, lived on beyond the 90s new lad movement and has brushed off Lock Stock copyists to remain ‘everybody’s’ favourite film, where ‘everybody’ equals Mr. bloke-next-door with two point four dogs who cried buckets at Diana’s funeral, cracked heads on the terraces back in the day, is psychopathically proud to be normal and absolutely thinks he embodies everybody. i.e. not everybody.

But wait. That ending. What does it actually communicate to its generations of avid audiences as they sit on the edge of their half-paid-for DFS sofa not quite able to reach their next tinny? That vehicular teeter is preceded by the extended anthem come to be known by its chorus repeat ‘We are the Self-Preservation Society!’, which I’d put on a par with ‘No one likes us, we don’t care’, ‘You’re going home in a London ambulance’ and that all-time classic ‘Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough’ in the Nasty Little Englander Theme Tune charts. Of course it turns out to be the conceited prelude to a typically British moment of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Which in a curious way forms that part of the bulldog myth, along with unpunctual public transport, assorted sporting flops and rubbish weather that states with pride ‘we’re British and we’re a bit shit’.

‘Hang on a minute lads … I’ve got a great idea’ says Caine. Perhaps he went on to say ‘Let’s just stay right where we are for the next fifty years. You see that gold there? That represents The British Empire. The fact is it’s had its day and all we can do is maintain this precarious balancing act to stop it sliding into the abyss. Face it fellas, we’re never gonna get it back, but if we abandon ship to save our own skins our dads and kids and every salt-of-the-earth bloke back home would never forgive us for letting it slip away. So we’ll just stay put, that’s what we’ll do. God save the Queen!’

A couple of years ago John Godwin, an IT manager from Surrey won first prize in a Royal Society of Chemistry competition to devise the best way of saving the gang’s lives and the gold. It involved smashing windows to let the tyres down, draining the fuel tank and putting rocks on the bus to counterbalance the removal of the gold bars. Mr Godwin said ‘I have watched The Italian Job many times from when I was a very young boy. To leave them hanging over the edge of the cliff seemed to be a waste.’

Call me old-fashioned, but how bloody unpatriotic is that?

[A version of this post first appeared on the Big Picture website on 9 August 2010]

Contains Scenes of Graphic Carrots: The Uncensoring of On-Screen Vomit

A vomit scene from the film I Love You, Man.

In gentler times characters suffering from ‘biliousness’ in films were seen to dash to an off-screen bathroom, cough politely, flush and then return looking pale. Not any more. Barely does a new film go by without the obligatory projectile vomiting scene. What’s changed? How come the censors are untroubled by it? And, most importantly, what do the effects guys use to make the puke?

A very good friend of mine is quite phobic about scenes involving vomiting in films. Despite his aversion he’s able to recount a long list of instances in movies that he’s seen where characters are shown graphically parting with their breakfast, almost as though, despite his phobia, he’s magnetically drawn to these instances. Maybe he’s compiling a mental catalogue so as to avoid seeing them in the future, or maybe he’s trying out some kind of self-imposed systematic desensitization. Whatever the explanation he really doesn’t like it, and he’d like a trigger warning from the censors please.

I doubt he’s on his own. Those viewers with an aversion to blood and gore are wrapped up in cotton wool by the censors. The recent fashion for qualifying a film’s certificate with a rambling ‘contains strong, bloody violence including gore, blood, entrails, blood, innards, blood and a bit more blood’ leaves one able to avoid such things as might displease the eye or mind. If on the other hand, like my friend, you happen to have a hang-up about chunder, you’re stuffed. There isn’t much to forewarn you of impending scenes of gastric evacuation in movies. It doesn’t help that blowing chunks is now regarded as a sure fire money shot in most modern comedies. My friend seems genuinely shocked that audiences aren’t shocked by such sights. How can they watch somebody bring their ring up on the screen and happily continue stuffing popcorn and pick ‘n’ mix down their own throats? At least one renowned critic is in full agreement.

I guess my friend’s thinking is: if it was coming out the other end people wouldn’t be laughing (well, actually, maybe they would) but the change in audience tolerance for this kind of thing is interesting. Perhaps it reflects wider changes in the behaviour of youth audiences; the cast of binge-drink Britain are arguably much more used to the sight of somebody publicly spewing than previous generations would have been. In the good old days one simply kept it down old chap. Neuroses aside, the depiction of vomiting has undoubtedly become an easily exploded sacred cow for the lazy film maker, a laziness carried over into TV productions seeking an easy shock. Look no further than David Walliams’ emetic racist WI lady in Little BritainWhy bother writing an engaging scene exploring social mores through the medium of dialogue when you can film a guy regurgitating his lunch in order to make your audience sit up and take notice?

Effects technology has helped directors push the puke envelope down the years. The Exorcists pea-souper set the benchmark in the 70s and the emptying of Mr. Creosote’s capacious guts in Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life meant that the olden days of low-tech ‘mouthful of minestrone’ offerings just didn’t cut the mustard any more. Vomit could no longer simply dribble or be spat out as an afterthought, it had to erupt with the force of Old Faithful, practically showering the audience with all manner of matter (have we had a puking scene in a 3D movie yet?) and, once they figured out how to fire gallons of stunt sick out of an actor’s mouth, seemingly nothing less would satisfy.

Sometimes the fun is in trying to spot just how they did it. I’m guessing they used some kind of sleeve-located tube for the ‘Jim’ll Fix‘ It boy scout-inspired rollercoaster scene in The Parole Officer (Ten out of ten for protein spill realism with that one. by the way.) It looks just like the sort of stomach contents that the school caretaker used to get his bucket of sawdust out for. Nice.

Just occasionally (well, maybe once) vomiting scenes have reached the level of art form. To my mind there is a curious poetry to the pie-eating scene in Stand By Me. the torrent of undigested fruit filling unleashed by Lardass and its knock-on effect through the crowd of onlookers is in my opinion rather beautifully choreographed.

It took a Trey Parker offering to hold the new formality of projectilism up to the light and send it up to hilarious effect. The small lake of bile produced by puppet Gary after a heavy drinking session in Team America: World Police deserves to have the last word on the matter. Quality: check. Quantity: triple check.

I think I’d better stop right there. There may be one or two of these examples that my friend hasn’t seen yet and I don’t really want to provide him with more reasons to get up in arms about the lack of protection the censors are providing for his sensibilities. Besides, I’m not feeling too well myself. Somebody pass the bucket…

[A version of this post first appeared on the Spectator Arts Blog on 16 June 2010]

Thus Steak Zarathustra: food in 2001: A Space Odyssey

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It’s arguably the most important turning point in human history ever filmed: the moment when early man discovers the tools of slaughter and develops a taste for meat. But the bone-wielding ape in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is merely the departure point for a film that is seemingly preoccupied with all things foody.

Try to imagine that the Monolith, that alien sentinel that has taken the form of a priapic bar of 99% cocoa Swiss chocolate, is a sort of intergalactic Egon Ronay, roaming from planet to planet on its mission to judge and improve the eating habits of the local population. Before its arrival at the Dawn of Man the inhabiting hominids of Planet Earth, who seem to be making do with a wholly vegetarian diet, are themselves a food source for the existing carnivores of their world. Then one of them wakes up and smells the Bisto, discovers that an animal bone makes an excellent club and before you know it the tapirs are going down like nine pins and Bonzo and co. are chowing down on steak tartar. Job done Egon.

Cut to ‘the future’ – in Kubrick’s imagined Space Age food has ‘evolved’ to a stage where it is purely unappetising synthesised fuel. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) gets to sample an airline meal (a sectioned tray where the food is hidden under covers bearing pictograms of the contents and accessed through feeding tubes), an experience that has him rushing to the Pan Am spaceship’s zero gravity toilet with a touch of ‘moon belly’.

When he embarks on the lunar shuttle for the rendezvous with the Monolith at the Tycho crater the crew breaks out the sandwiches. Cue the time-honoured finger buffet ‘chicken or ham?’ guessing game as to the origins of the sandwich contents. It’s all yet more processed nutrition done up to resemble something edible. Egon the Monolith is very annoyed. He didn’t come all this way and tinker with mankind’s development just so they would end up forcing homogenised protein paste down their throats. So he issues a restaurant review in the form of a deafening high-pitched squeak.
Eighteen months later nothing has been learned. On board the Discovery astronauts Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) sit about scooping assorted troughs of dun-coloured sludge into their mouths as they catch up with the news on BBC12. Lord knows what the celebrity chefs of this future got up to in their kitchens. Bowman and Poole’s TV dinner aggravates Egon the Monolith so much that he sends onboard computer HAL round the twist. They must pay for their uncultured palate with their lives! As we know Bowman survives but when he finally meets Egon floating close to Jupiter like a disgruntled slab of treacle toffee the Monolith propels the hapless human beyond the infinite – one only hopes he managed to keep his food down – to be taught a final lesson about fine dining.

There he is in that eery Louis XVI waiting room at the other end of the Universe, sitting down at long last in the accelerated autumn of his years to a proper square meal, from a real china plate no less, with wine served in a crystal glass. It’s perhaps the first real meal he has ever experienced. It’s certainly his last. ‘You’re not leaving the table until you’ve cleared your plate’, one can almost hear Egon intoning. The flavours are all too much for poor old Dave; when reaching for the condiments he knocks his glass of wine to the floor, smashing it. What a waste of a good drop of Chablis. The meal has obviously been such a shock to the system that he has to have a little postprandial lie down to aid digestion. Egon pops up the end of his bed, like a gigantic after-dinner mint in the hope of comparing notes with the rapidly aging spaceman. Bowman can only manage a weak request for some Rennies before Egon decides he’s had enough and sends Bowman back to Earth as a great big baby, figuring he’ll be right at home now that all human beings have reached the point of exclusively eating baby food.

The preoccupation with food, as with so many aspects of Kubrick’s films, is no accident. In his excellent article ‘My dinner with Stanley: Kubrick, food, and the logic of images’ published aptly in the 2001 volume of the journal Literature/Film Quarterly, Mervyn Nicholson explains the director’s obsession:
Stanley Kubrick was preoccupied with eating and drinking as symbolic acts. The motif is so important in his work that his handling of it gives a kind of access to the logic of his films generally. Kubrick’s use of the food motif is doubly interesting because his movies are so various, so complex, and so carefully constructed… The primal nature of food is what gives it its immense power as a motif. Above all, food is an emblem of dependency. No food = no existence… The fact that food, the source of life, is now a mere technological “fix” marks the symbolic direction of the narrative: the sterility of the culture that 2001 depicts. However different, it replicates the sterile dead-end of our primate ancestors which forms the starting point of the movie.

In 2001 the repeated and prolonged appearances of food are an indicator of this battle to continue to exist. By depicting food as bland and unappetising perhaps Kubrick was remarking upon the modern world’s faltering attempts to stave off extinction through its increasing reliance on dietary homogeneity. 2001 was not only prescient in its prediction of space travel; it’s interesting to discover that the film was released around six months before the first appearance of McDonald’s famous double-arched golden ‘M’ advertising symbol. What I wonder would Egon the Monolith make of a quarter pounder with cheese.

[A version of this post first appeared on the Big Picture website on 1 September 2011]

Go-Motion animation: it was all just a blur

vermithrax

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I can’t help thinking that, for anyone born in the 1980s and subsequently raised exclusively on a diet of post-Jurassic Park creature realisation, the cinematic work of stop-motion maestro Ray Harryhausen must seem as archaic as Victorian magic lantern shows. What then would they make of Go-Motion, the near-forgotten transitional fossil of animation techniques that briefly plugged the gap between the jerkiness of the Kraken in 1981’s Clash Of The Titans and the perfect computer-generated fluidity of ‘Lasseter-mation’?

Its detractors would have you believe that Go-Motion lives in the same technology cul-de-sac as Betamax, the Goblin Teasmade and the LED digital watch, which is possibly true, but when you come to read up on just what the pioneers of this lost craft did to achieve their results you have to give them full marks for effort. The challenge was plain and simple; how do you produce a piece of stop-motion animation that does away with the characteristic staccato effect produced by capturing a static object repositioned after every frame? Harryhausen had taken stop-motion about as far as it would go but a certain Mr. Lucas and his buddies at Industrial Light & Magic were looking to push the realism envelope through their work on a certain successful science fiction movie franchise and that meant smooth character animation fitted as standard.

That said, back in 1977 they were happy to use good old clay-mation for the pieces in the Millennium Falcon chess game sequence in Edisode IV, but by the time they came to tame a tauntaun and attempt an AT-AT for the sequel, ILM effects wizard Phil Tippett was ready to try out an adaptation of the Harryhausen technique that lent a polish to the movements. Go-Motion was achieved by moving the animated model slightly during the exposure of each film frame, producing a realistic motion blur. While the frames in stop-motion are made up by images of stills taken between the small movements of the object, the frames in Go-Motion are images of the object taken in the same instant it moves. Gently bumping or flicking the puppet before taking the frame produced a slight blur, as would shaking the table the model is standing on while the film is being exposed. This crude but effective technique also involved smearing vaseline on the camera lens, then cleaning and reapplying it after each shot to create further blur around the model. We all know how time-consuming ordinary stop-motion is to produce; Go-Motion took even longer to complete. Great care had to be taken to ensure that the puppet did not move too much or that nobody knocked or moved any of the other props or set pieces.

By far the most effective application of Go-Motion can be seen in Dragonslayer (Matthew Robbins 1981). Tippet was again on hand to produce the animated creature and took Go-Motion one step further. The dragon that we see is essentially a rod puppet. The rods were attached to motors which were linked to a computer that recorded the movements as the model was traditionally animated. When enough movements had been made, the model was reset to its original position, the camera rolled and the model moved across the table. Because the model was moving during shots, Tippett achieved believable motion blur. The final results are to this day regarded as possibly the finest realization of a dragon on film. It’s interesting to compare the beast in Dragonslayer, grandly titled Vermithrax Pejorative, with its kid brother, rather more routinely name-checked as Draco, some fifteen years later in Dragonheart (Rob Cohen 1996) which Tippett also worked on, presumably after a lot of evening classes in computer programming. Somehow the newer CGI effort, although laudably realized, lacks a certain je ne sais quoi compared to Vermithrax. Or am I just being a ‘vinyl’s better than CD’ analogue snob? Actually no I’m not. There is definitely something more believable about the Go-Motion creation, it seems very much in and of the world of the film, if anything its still-relative clunkiness compared to Draco adds to the sense of removal from the real world and immersion in the sweaty grime and half-light of the Dragonslayer’s fictional medieval kingdom setting.

However impressive the effects in Dragonslayer were, Go-Motion’s lifespan was limited. Aside from a couple more prominent applications – for the endoskeleton effects in The Terminator (James Cameron 1984) and the ever-malfunctioning ED-209 in Robocop (Paul Verhoeven 1987) – it was soon eclipsed by pixels. At least in the realms of hyper-realization. Nick Park and the plasticine people at Aardman have used something akin to the ‘shaking the table’ technique to create blur during action sequences in The Wrong Trousers (1993), A Close Shave (1995) and Wallace & Gromit: Curse Of The Were-Rabbit (2005). Hurray for them. In the stop-go world of movie animation this is the way to contract really worthwhile RSI. Much more rewarding than the aching wrists and fingers currently being experienced by the keyboarders who worked on, say, the new version of Clash Of The Titans due out in a few weeks. All that pain and it’ll look just the same as all the other creature features of the last ten years. Where’s the fun in that?

[A version of this post first appeared on the Big Picture website on 19 February 2010]

Ace in the hole: your guide to anal fixation in Psycho


unknown5Psycho
. Ah, good old Psycho. That trusty Janet & John book of film analysis subject matter. Dear old Psycho. All those bird references. Phoenix, Arizona. Marion Crane. ‘You eat like a bird‘. And look at all those mirrors. They must mean something. Hooray! Here comes the shower scene and the chocolate sauce and look! It’s Norman in a frock. Whoops, there I go, giving the game away.

But wait. Poor old Psycho. Examined to death. Pored over by critics and film students and men in pubs for nearly fifty years now, often with all the plagiaristic Freudianism of a daytime TV psychologist. It’s about as worn out and dried up as a corpse in a fruit cellar. Is there anything else we can do with Psycho? Well, here’s an idea. How about turning it into a sort of parlour game?

No really. It’ll be fun. Hitch would’ve approved. He saw Psycho as one big practical joke at the expense of the audience anyway. Have you ever seen the original trailer? There’s the director, literally leading you up the garden path. Seemingly telling you the entire plot of the film before you’ve even seen it. Guiding you through the rooms of that big old house. Setting you up for a fall from a great height. Just to make sure that the heroine’s departure at the end of the second reel is as shocking as a carving knife in the ribs.

Here’s something you can try: Spot The Anus. What’s the matter? Don’t look at me like that. Let me explain. There are plenty of explorations of Hitchcock’s work out there that will tell you all you need to know about how his Catholic baggage runs through the films. Sex + money = worthless filth as any good priest will tell you. Psycho was arguably the point of no return, so to speak, for these themes. It was the moment when the Big Man reached the turtle-necking stage.

Just to make the point he scattered any number of anus-like images and references throughout the film, both on screen and in the dialogue. You don’t seem convinced. Well he dropped the odd ‘big O’ into films before Psycho you know. There’s a nice one in North By Northwest. Check out Cary Grant as that moneyed ladies’ man Roger O. Thornhill. What does the O stand for? Nothing. And there it is, sandwiched between the R and the T on his personalised book of matches. What a load of old rOt. What’s that Mr. Hitchcock? Your films don’t mean anything? A big fat round zero? Like the O at the end of Vertigo? And the O at the end of Psycho?

So what I have in mind is a sort of Psycho sphincter spotter’s guide. A bit like those I-Spy books you used to be able to get. We won’t bother with any kind of rarity weighting system. In this game no one anus scores higher than any other. Just keeping a series of five bar gates will suffice. Not sure you can spot any? Let me start you off.

If you think of the whole film as one big alimentary canal you’ll note that at the beginning we enter in through the mouth that is the window of the hotel room to find Sam standing over Marion and at the bitter end we have a ringside seat as the dead girl’s car is dragged from the sewer that is the lagoon. As soon as we’re in that hotel room in Phoenix the digestion references commence: ‘never did eat your lunch did you’, ‘these extended lunch hours give my boss excess acid’.

Once we begin to chew our way through the plot those ‘plot-holes’ start coming thick and fast. There’s an easy one for starters; Marion’s car number plate ‘ANL-709′. Just one letter off ‘ANAL’ and oh look, there’s a nice round zero between the 7 and 9. Later we see Lila picking through Norman’s belongings in his attic room. She discovers his record player and the LP at the top of the pile is Beethoven’s symphony no. 3 in E flat major, otherwise known as Eroica. And there it is, another word one letter short of a naughty word, and one with a nice round O in the middle. Not to mention the hole in the middle of the LP.

Look out, here come some more. Marion’s $40,000 scribbled calculation, all those zeros that she tries to flush down the toilet. Then there’s her gaping screaming mouth in the shower, the shower plug hole, Marion’s iris close-up, then later there’s Mother’s hollow eye sockets. Did you notice any more references in the dialogue? Cassidy’s forty grand, the McGuffin cum turd: ‘Hot creepers! She sat there while I dumped it out‘. Mother thinks Norman is a dirty boy for having those feelings towards the girl: ‘do I have to tell her ’cause you don’t have the guts, boy?’

See how many more you can spot. 10 = good, 15 = excellent, 20 = outstanding. Any more than that and I’m guessing you’re a practising proctologist.

[A version of this post first appeared on the Big Picture website on 27 May 2009]