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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Patrick McGoohan

Patrick McGoohan died in Los Angeles on January 13, aged 80.
I had the pleasure of working with Mr. McGoohan on TREASURE PLANET. He was the voice of Billy Bones, the dying, pathetic alien character I'd been assigned.
As was usual with Disney recording sessions, the supervising animator was invited to hear the actor record the lines.
I'd last seen Mr. McGoohan as King Edward Longshanks in BRAVEHEART, but also recalled his scary television show THE PRISONER whose simple, yet terrifying, balloonlike Rovers frightened and fascinated me as a child.
I was apprehensive about meeting Mr. McGoohan since I'd heard he could be 'difficult' to work with. Actors are sometimes temperamental, or so I was told.
It turned out that Mr. McGoohan and I were the first people to arrive at the studio. I could think of nothing else to do but show him some of the sketches of Billy Bones-- a twisted, tortoiselike creature in high cocked hat and cloak with glowing eyes that I carefully designed to 'read' even in black and white sketches.
No, it wasn't a caricature of Mr. McGoohan, nor did I use any pictures of him as reference for the design. But it occurred to me that he might think that I had. He definitely had aged quite a bit since his PRISONER days. Would he be insulted by the drawings?
I needn't have worried.
"But these are excellent!" Mr. McGoohan said. "And", he added, scrutinizing me carefully, "I've seen you before."
I explained that other than a few documentaries on Disney DVDs, it was unlikely that Mr. McGoohan could have seen me on film since I was usually behind the camera; there was a slight possibility that he could have seen me visiting my friend who lived in Pacific Palisades, where his home was. He continued to insist that he'd seen me. I didn't contest the point. In Hollywood, actors go everywhere, possibly even where animators go.

We then had a very friendly conversation that I have to paraphrase, though I have never forgotten the main points Mr. McGoohan made.
"I am a journalist," he said. "I wrote for Irish papers...acting was not my main interest. The best thing acting ever did for me was to introduce me to my wife."
"I got tired of the 5 a.m. shoots and decided to concentrate on producing rather than acting." (His performance as Longshanks in BRAVEHEART was done as a favor to filmmaker Mel Gibson.)
"I was also offered the part of James Bond, I was the first actor they asked. I turned it down. It would have destroyed me."

He had no regrets for doing this. How many people would have done the same thing?

We met again for pickup sessions on Bones in early 2000, which was after my auto accident. While Mr. McGoohan had been on a cane for the first session, I was using one for the second, and he was horrified.

I would like to offer my small tribute to this kindhearted and highly intelligent actor.
He was quite the looker as a young man but there was a brain behind the good looks. Apparently Mr. McGoohan wrote and produced many COLUMBO shows for his friend Peter Falk, and he also created THE PRISONER and wrote some of the more disturbing episodes of that series.

Patrick McGoohan was also one of the few successful actors who remained faithful to their first wives for their entire working lives!

Farewell, Mr. McGoohan, and thank you for your kindness and your wonderful acting.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

On Storytelling

Break's over! at least for me. I have a lot of work to do on the next class assignment--which I've done before, though never with so many students.
There was time for a post New Year's party with friends...and we wound up watching, not the latest Hollywood blockbuster, but a few short films and cartoons, some of whic were made over eighty years ago.
The first was Harold Lloyd's NEVER WEAKEN from 1921, a truly terrifying film (although it is nominally a comedy.) The terror comes from seeing Harold Lloyd hanging off girders on an unfinished skyscraper. Even though we modern viewers know he lived to be an old man, and that there is a safety net off-camera, the staging and timing of this film is still riveting today. You can see Harold wearing those 'piano key' gloves in this still; the glove on the right hand had a prosthetic device to camouflage the fact that Harold had had two fingers blown off that hand by a bomb during the previous year. He also nearly lost his vision at the time and had facial scars that might have ruined his career. Bravely, Lloyd vowed he'd be a director instead of an actor. The scars healed and he didn't tell anyone about the injured hand until after his career ended. He was afraid no one would laugh at him if they knew. (Those silent comedians were a hardy lot.)
Speaking of Hardy, we also ran one of my favorite Laurel and Hardy short films, HELPMATES. It was very appropriate on this particular day since it is about Stan "helping" Ollie clean up the house after a very messy party and ruining Ollie's life, including burning down the house at the end! (Just kidding. My party was nice.) The third film in the series was Buster Keaton's wonderfully surreal 1920 film (his first), ONE WEEK, about a newly married couple receiving an unassembled pre-fab house that goes entirely wrong. ONE WEEK was just inducted into the National Film Registry (about time too). And for dessert, there was the charming Disney cartoon, DONALD'S BETTER SELF.
Now, there's one thing that these films have in common besides comedy: they are meticulously constructed from believable premises and they build to inevitable comic climaxes--whether disasters in the the Keaton and Laurel/Hardy films, or triumphs (?) in the Lloyd and Disney ones) while never letting a gag go 'untopped'. This is a skill that is sadly lacking in nearly all the modern live action comedies I've seen. (The last modern film that I saw that really knew how to top gags in the old way was THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY.)
Harold Lloyd was a master of the 'topper'; the longest sustained sequence of this kind was in his amazing film SAFETY LAST, which is the one where he does this.
But the 'clock' scene is only part of the sequence; while climbing up that building Harold runs into every conceivable distraction and danger. incidental to the location. A mouse runs up his trouser leg. Someone throws a net out the window. Pigeons land on his head. The topper comes when Harold DOES get to the top of the building. That rotating device in the picture smacks him in the head and knocks him silly so that he does a drunk walk on the ledge. And Lloyd and his crew even top that gag. But I won't spoil it. Go see for yourself what they do.
Buster Keaton was also brilliant at topping and 'twisting' gags. He rarely telegraphs things, and never gives you what you quite expected to see. The rotating house in ONE WEEK is topped by having it actually melt in the rain--then it has to be moved to another lot....but his best topper in this film is the shot where the house appears to be stuck on the tracks in the path of an oncoming train. There appears to be a problem in the shot--a telegraph pole is prominently featured...but when you watch the clip, it is obvious that Keaton, who also directed the film, and his cameramen staged the shot from the most perfect angle available. It's a brilliant 'topper'.
Laurel and Hardy's HELPMATES is an escalating series of disasters taking place inside a few rooms in Hardy's house. Its timing is precise and things proceed with tragic inevitability. (The line between tragedy and comedy is mainly one of timing: if you play tragedy too fast, it becomes funny.) Or, as it is said: "Comedy is what happens to you. Tragedy is what happens to me."
Laurel and Hardy are unusual in that they normally telegraph their failures so the audience knows what is going to happen to them and laughs anyway. HELPMATES does have some telegraphing, but there are also some brilliant toppers in which insult is added to --insult --to --insult...Ollie first is hit by water, then by coal dust, and finally by flour in the course of one or two minutes in one scene. The water was telegraphed, the other indignities are 'twists' that make his predicament worse--and all because he will insist on taking charge and make Stan do the work. Because of his bossiness and selfishness Hardy loses, in inevitable progression, his best suits, his kitchen, his furniture, his marriage, and finally the entire house.
The Donald Duck cartoon is more conventional in its storytelling (good literally triumphs over evil) but it is so sincere, and charming, and the relationship between Donald and his angel and devil 'selves' is so believable--that it ranks as one of my top favorite cartoons. Donald is younger here than he was 'played' in later years; I prefer the naughty child to the malicious adult he became. Here, too, gags are 'topped'--with a literal kick at the end. The animators learned their comic craft from watching Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, and Laurel and Hardy, and the influence shows.
I won't editorialize since the films can do the 'talking'. None of them are self-aware, smugly calling attention to technique or special effects, or belittling their heroes. (Laurel and Hardy belittle themselves.) They do not, above all else, patronize the audience.
So that's why I love running the old films.

When I was a student at Cal Arts I brought my 16mm prints--one of which was more expensive than an entire set of DVDs of Keaton or Chaplin films--to the campus, and would do action analysis sessions as best I could in the dorm after classes. Some of the guys teased me about this once.

"I'll bet you wish you were around in the '20s!" one of them said laughingly.

Sure, I replied.
"And so do you. You could have gotten in on the ground floor with a guy named Walt Disney!"

I was never teased again.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Happy New Year!

A friend living in Qatar sent me the most beautiful New Year greeting I've received.
He wished me good health, happiness, prosperity--and safety in the new Year. I would like to forward these good thoughts to anyone reading this blog (I think there are at least two of you.)

I spent New Year's Eve at the local club which had excellent food, some nice Danish people who knew my Sheridan colleague Kaj Pindal, and a band that was both good and loud. When the loud upstaged the good (I think it was when they started playing disco) I went home, and spent the midnight hour celebrating with little Gizmo, who is in good health and happy in her new home.

On New Year's Day I had a friend over to visit (not the tall dark man of Scottish 'first foot' superstition, but a tall blond Canadian woman--oh well, nobody's perfect. And anyway, we are not in Scotland.)
I asked her which of the Academy screeners she wanted to see and she chose THE DARK KNIGHT, which I had not seen. (I talked her out of viewing the Bond picture, since I thought that the Batman film was supposed to be better.)

I was appalled by this movie. It is an overly loud, overly long, paranoid fantasy. Maybe it's just me, but I found it nearly unwatchable and if my friend had not been there, I would have turned it off after the requisite half-hour.
Is it just me? How did this film get such stellar reviews? There is a lot of noise, very little plot...It just goes on and on...and the claustrophobic feel it generates is not negated by the widescreen effects. Cameras go round and round until you are dizzy.
I felt that I was being forced to listen to someone raving endlessly about tinfoil hats.

The movie has one thing to recommend it--Heath Ledger's Joker is an outstanding portrayal of madness --but there is no motivation for any of the characters--they just are. Please don't tell me I had to read the comics or see the other movies. I read Batman comics as a kid and don't recognize much here. But let that pass.
I was puzzled to see Robin missing, but liked Michael Caine's Alfred. Maggie Gyllenhall and Aaron Eckhardt were simply colorless; I couldn't believe that this woman would make that man do those things.

And although I like Gary Oldman very much, I thought he was miscast and his hairdo , glasses, and moustache made me think of Ned Flanders from THE SIMPSONS. I kept expecting him to say "Hi-diddly-ho, neighbour!"

THE DARK KNIGHT and THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON (a much better movie, though also too long) have subtexts that seem to represent two versions of the American Zeitgeist. (Spirit of the times, for those of you who don't want to follow the link.)
THE DARK KNIGHT, in my opinion, reflects the paranoia in the American political system that dates not from 9/11 as some think, but from the Red scares in the 1950s. It has not been as bad as in the Fifties (there is no blacklist--yet) but it's definitely not a country that I recognize--fear is the watchword! Franklin Roosevelt was wrong--we have to fear everything, not fear itself! The Enemy Is Out There! Which one? Take your pick. End of political rant.
BENJAMIN BUTTON has nothing in common with the original F. Scott Fitzgerald story than the title and the concept. Fitzgerald's story is: A man is born old in 1860 and lives backward in time and becomes a real nuisance to his descendants. The subtext: their parents' generation has nothing to say to the Lost Generation of the 1920s. (The story was written in 1922.)
BENJAMIN BUTTON the movie begins in 1918 and ends in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina for a reason. The movie version's subtext appears to be the decline and fall of the United States. Death and loss feature in every scene. The entire city is dying at the end of the movie. Things fall apart. The future cannot hold.
I liked the movie, but wonder at the self-pity that is also manifest in its subtext.

I wanted to be a film critic when I was younger, and I could never have held the job. But anyway, there's my two cents for two films. Don't get me started on THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX. I turned that one off after one hour's viewing, when the film still hadn't developed a plot....
May your New Year bring you good films as well as good news!

I'm having a small party on Saturday for those folks who are back in town or recovering from the holidays. No movies will be shown, unless I absolutely have to...

May 2009 be a good year for you all. Yes, both of you.