Saturday, 29 September 2012

The Making of 'The Shining'

I consider myself a bit of a film buff, but I don't really collect films like some people. Once I've watched a film I consider it 'watched' and don't need to revisit it for a number of years - even if it's great. There are some exceptions to this rule and I tend to buy films by directors I admire - not because of the films themselves, but rather the bonus features.

I love bonus features!

I suppose I started getting into bonus features around the time of the 'Alien: Quadrilogy' box-set. I still feel a twinge of guilt for buying it as a present for my wife. Aliens was always one of her favourite films and the box set came with about 80 hours of bonus features. I watched them all! I don't think she watched any of them... Whoops!

After watching 'The Making of Alien' I realised what I truly love about a good 'making of'. It's the age-old story of triumph in the face of adversity where collaboration, intelligence and creativity combined with a singular vision win out against time constraints, a limited budget and men in suits.

My favourite scene in 'The Making of Alien' involves director Ridley Scott examining a massive model of the spaceship 'Nostromo', which model-makers had been labouring over for days. He decided he didn't like it and ripped the front section off the spaceship in front of horrified onlookers. This is the version of the ship that audiences see in the film!

Those pre-digital bonus features are the most exciting for me because I find it easier to get emotionally involved with a crew that have laboured lovingly over an intricate model to reach an impossible deadline (before seeing it blown-up!), than feeling empathy for a computer programmer who has endlessly typed in hours of code to achieve a less-spectacular effect. I realise both have their places in film, but I prefer modern directors such as Peter Jackson and Christopher Nolan who can tastefully combine both.

A lot of bonus features tend to focus on the technical aspects of making a film, but one making-of that is unique is 'The Making of The Shining' as it focusses on how director Stanley Kubrick managed to get performances out of his cast. The other thing that makes it unique is it was directed by Kubrick's daughter Vivian.

Vivian Kubrick was 17 at the time she made the film and it is quite interesting that the one person she doesn't seem to have access to as a subject is her father. This may be because he was busy directing the film, or else trying to maintain his enigmatic facade. Apparently, Vivian and her father were quite close at this point, so it could be seen as a commercial decision rather than a personal one.

Vivian Kubrick was much better at disarming the rest of the cast of the movie and managed to get some frank and personal anecdotes from all major cast members, as well as giving an insight to the atmosphere on the set.

The film starts with Vivian's camera focussed on Jack Nicholson who is kidding around and showing how he prepares for a scene. This includes brushing his teeth and going to the toilet. Vivian's camera follows Nicholson to the set, which is revealed to be a bedroom in The Overlook Hotel. Nicholson works himself into a rabid frenzy, grabs an axe and bashes down the bathroom door. We have just witnessed one of films most iconic moments captured from a different perspective. The contrast between the mundane and the horrific works particularly well.

The overwhelming feeling expressed from all interview subjects was 'gratitude' that they were chosen to work on the project, but they all seemed to have been treated very differently by Stanley Kubrick. Actor Scatman Crothers who plays Dick Halloran even cries during his interview! I think this is probably because Crothers was happy to be involved in such a major project late in his career, when he came from a vaudevillian background and must have been working sporadically.

Actor Shelley Duvall who plays Wendy Torrance is a different story. She was a physical and emotional wreck on the set and most of it seemed to be due to Stanley Kubrick degrading and chastising her when she would miss her mark or suggest other ways she might tackle a scene. It's true that Duvall seems to be a bit highly strung, but footage of her curled up in a corner or complaining of her hair falling out due to stress was a bit shocking to see on a professional film set.

Duvall is a good sport, though and admits in hindsight that Kubrick did a good job in getting a 'hysterical' performance out of her and even goes so far as to say she learned more on this picture than she did from working on all her other films combined. Seeing the results on screen, I tend to agree - whether Kubrick's debasement of Duvall was calculated or not.

Nicholson is an interesting interview and I think he was trying to be quite diplomatic about his involvement with the film. Certainly both he and Kubrick are both strong alpha-male types and I think Stanley tried to give Nicholson some space and not direct him as much as Duvall. Nicholson would have been hired because he can play 'manic' with his eyes closed and I think he feels a bit weary with this typecasting and celebrity in general. Nicholson states in the interview that he will try to have ideas for a character in a scene but will in the end usually succumb to the director's vision, because it is more challenging as an actor. Whether this means he was getting too much direction or not enough is anyone's guess.

Nicholson also says that a celebrity meets ten times more people in a year than the average person meets in a lifetime. This is followed by a scene of a tedious meet-and-greet where Nicholson shakes hands with an endless barrage of set visitors and hanger-ons.

This scene is contrasted with a great interview with child-actor Danny Lloyd, who is surprised and delighted that he is earning money from the film and he says enjoyed his time on the set. Kubrick took more of a 'teacher' approach when directing Lloyd and seemed to leave the job of keeping Lloyd's spirits up to the assistant director. Lloyd admitted to getting a bit of ribbing from his friends at school who accused him of thinking he was 'smart'. Lloyd considers this statement and confidently declares 'I am smart!' Like the rest of the cast Kubrick assembled - Lloyd was exactly right for the role.

Stanley Kubrick is often criticised for being clinical and his films lacking emotion, but I think 'The Making of The Shining' shows how he had a great focus on performance. Perhaps his razor-like perception in setting up a shot extended to his eye for personality. Kubrick certainly is an auteur and would have overseen all aspects of production which gives his films a unique feel. Personally, I think they do look sparse and clinical, but they do so in a way that results in an oddly emotional response. The closest musical example I can think of is when I hear the Laurie Anderson song 'O Superman'. They both have a unique emotional landscape.

Making any film is difficult and it is amazing the amount of skill and energy that is required to make a bad film - let alone a classic! While watching 'The Making of The Shining' I'm amazed at the amount of self-belief and vision Kubrick must have had to survive in such a nebulous career. His major on-screen contribution to 'The Making of The Shining' seems to be sitting behind a typewriter looking calm whilst endlessly re-writing the script and surrounded by a sea of chaos. It occurs to me that Stanley is something of a caretaker...

but then...

He's always been the caretaker!

Saturday, 22 September 2012

A Message From God

Greetings Earthlings!

Sorry I haven't rapped with you in a while, but I was busy watching the development of some microbial life in The Crab Nebula. Well, time got away from me and before you know it a few millennia  had passed!... You know how it is.

Anyway, when I left, things seemed to be going swimmingly for the human race and you were progressing well without any of my help. You'd managed to bang some rocks together, created fire, art, the wheel and were living relatively peacefully together with only the occasional neighbouring tribesperson getting their head bashed-in (which I don't really approve of, quite frankly.)

Now, I know any society needs rules if they are going to live together, (The Crab Nebula microbes could tell you that), but the amount of laws that you guys have made up in my name (many of them contradicting each other) is exhausting. A lot of them are really self explanatory such as The Bible's 'Though Shalt Not Kill' and it gives me pause to consider why I bothered making you guys sentient and giving you free will, if you can't just be reasonable and work things out for yourselves.

The strange part is, I don't remember imparting any of this perceived wisdom to you at all and you seem to have taken it upon yourselves to make life difficult. I honestly really have left it up to you to figure out how you want to spend your lives and there is no reason to pray in a certain direction, wear any silly little hats, self-flagalate or behead people that make fun of me.

It's true that when I was younger I did feel a little self-conscious and would often over-react when people called me names, but I'm an adult now and can fight my own battles. I'm now quite comfortable with who I am and can rise above any petty name calling because, at the end of the day - I'm God, god-damn it!

It's true that I'm getting-on a bit and the memory isn't as good as it used to be; I'm not even sure if there's only one of me. I might have had some brothers and sisters, which is why some of your religions think there are many gods, or perhaps I've got a split personality disorder. I can't even remember what I look like at this point, as I'm not particularly vain I don't keep mirrors around. Some of you seem to think I'm either a man, a woman, some sort of animal spirit, or even a Flying Spaghetti Monster. It doesn't worry me either way, but I'm pretty sure I'm not a spaghetti monster because I don't really care for pasta.

I know there are some of you who don't think I exist at all! I've considered this as a real possibility, but I would argue I do exist because in the words of your philosopher Rene Descartes, 'I think therefore I am'. If, however, my words are simply the semi-coherent ramblings of an over-priveleged western writer with too much time on his hands, then you should probably consider this theory debunked.

Anyway, if I exist or not is beside the point, because I'm not going to get involved with human affairs. I made this decision early for practical reasons. I found it impossible to grant prayers to one group of people when another group with an equally valid point were praying for exactly the opposite thing. I foolishly though you guys could sort it out between yourselves. I still hope you can.

So my advice to you is this: Don't worry about me or my feelings and instead try and be open-minded and show some empathy for other people and their beliefs and opinions. Don't get involved in things that don't concern you. Try and get a good night's sleep occasionally. For god's sake (my sake, tee hee!), if you're going to be narrow-minded and bigoted about things, then own it yourself and don't blame me.

Enjoy a sunrise occasionally and maybe go for a walk. These are nice things.

Until next time I'll see ya round.

Your pal,

God xo

Friday, 14 September 2012

Thanks for the Advice, Gina!

Last week billionaire mining magnate Gina Reinhart made some controversial statements in regard to the state of the Australian economy and problems associated with doing business in the current economic climate.

She made no friends with the average worker by stating that the minimum wage in Australia is too high and that it's hard to compete with the workforce in Africa when they work for as little as $2 a day.

This may be an unfortunate economic reality for Reinhart, but I don't think anyone in her workforce is putting up their hand for a pay cut. Bizarrely, she then continued to cloud whatever point she was trying to make by broadly generalising about Australian workers and saying that if they wanted to be rich they should stop drinking and socialising and work harder. Maybe she's right, but it's tough advice to take from someone born into privilege who has never had to slog away all week for minimum wage.

It's easy to be cynical, so this week I decided instead to put her advice to the test. After my usual weekend of drunken debauchery I decided to abstain from drinking for the rest of the week. By Monday afternoon I could feel the alcoholic haze that had clouded my judgement for so many years lifting and suddenly it hit me like an epiphany - I didn't need to work harder - I needed to work smarter!

I stormed into my boss's office where I worked as a menial administrative employee and demanded a pay rise. As I'm not part of a union, I was free to negotiate my own salary, so I boldly followed Reinhart's lead and demanded I be paid $598 per-second which is currently what Reinhart personally earns. I must have sounded surpremely confident because my boss gladly agreed to my demands and threw in a potted happy plant and vibrating chair to sweeten the deal.

At the close of business on Tuesday I had earned $17,222,400, which was more than enough money to buy the company. I must admit to feeling slightly guilty as I spent most of the day surfing the internet, chatting to the secretaries and playing Tetris, before having an extended lunch break. I didn't dwell on these feelings for too long, however, because I was already considering how to invest my new-found fortune.

Reinhart made all her money from mining, so once again I followed her lead. I didn't want to step on her toes, so instead of mining coal or iron ore, I purchased a massive uranium mine, with a view to selling the product to North Korea and Iran.

I realised this wouldn't be a popular decision with my fellow Australians, but I refused to fall into the same trap as Reinhart. She made the mistake of investing in media enterprises with a hope of swaying popular opinion towards supporting mining. This frankly has not worked well for her and her popularity has plummeted. The average Australian has become weary of her lecturing and transparent agenda.

If you're an industry leader it's a mistake to try and make people like you. This just takes too long and is a pointless endeavour. It's much easier to get things done beneath a veil of secrecy and deceit. Instead of trying to be liked, I decided a better option would be to strike fear into the hearts of my fellow citizens to keep them in their place. Originally I decided to model myself on Blofeld from the Bond franchise, but after quite enjoying the Tutankhamen exhibition at The Melbourne Museum, I decided instead to become an Egyptian pharaoh, which was more in keeping with the regal air of immense wealth and unregulated power that I now possessed.

By Wednesday afternoon I had constructed a giant pre-fabricated pyramid in the Western Australian desert near the site of my uranium mine. Resplendent in my ceremonial robes and head-dress I surveyed  my newly-created empire from the observation deck of my pyramid and watched as minions whipped my workers into submission as they laboured in the sun to extract the valuable ore. After pondering the mighty pharaohs before me, thoughts turned from my vast earthly empire toward what my legacy would be for future generations.

The Egyptians had built the Sphinx and the pyramids as testament to their greatness, but after only a few millennia they have started to crumble and be eaten away by acid rain. Heck, the sphinx's nose even fell off! It dawned on me that there is no legacy you can be assured of leaving behind - kids these days don't even know who Paul McCartney is let alone any of the great pharaohs. It occurred to me that any search for power is futile and ultimately all you can really do is enjoy your life and try not to bug too many people.

With this new-found perspective I decided to dismantle my mining empire and free my workforce. I kept just enough of my money in an off-shore bank account so that I could live comfortably for the rest of my life without having to work. I used the rest of my fortune to research an age-old mystery: What actually did happen to former PM Harold Holt when he disappeared from a beach in Victoria in 1967? (After spending billions of dollars trying to find an answer to the question, researchers now feel 90 per cent sure that he simply wasn't a very good swimmer and drowned.)

So now I'm a humble man again and just another one of the unwashed masses. As I sit writing these words with a beer in hand on a lovely spring day it occurs to me that it's been a very busy week, but this is the first time I've felt truly content. A line from the poem The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam occurs to me:

A book of verses, underneath the bough,
A jug of wine, a loaf of bread - and thou
Beside me singing in the wilderness
Ah, wilderness were paradise enow! 

From a more modern  and antipodean perspective I would suggest a carton of beer, a barbecue in the back yard and The Beatles' White Album playing is paradise enough.

Perhaps Omar was on to something - It's the simple things in life that make it worth living.


Friday, 7 September 2012

Pete & Dud

The first car I owned was a 1981 Toyota Corona station wagon. It didn't help at all in cementing my now-legendary 'tough guy and ladies' man' status, but the feeling of freedom and possible escape it provided was priceless. The drawback when you're young, obviously, is that the guy with the car ends up being everybody's taxi service. As most of my friends were poor university students at the time and had no money, I had to devise a non-monetary way to make people pay for their rides.

The Toyota only had a cassette-radio player so I made several tapes to make passengers uncomfortable during the journey (depending on the person), which included a cassette of all my favourite novelty songs that I would play to any grunge or heavy metal-leaning passengers and possibly the most offensive album ever recorded Derek and Clive's 'Ad Nauseam', which I would get a great kick out of playing to people I decided had 'delicate sensibilities'.

Derek and Clive are the brain-dead alter-egos of 60s comedians, satirists and television stars Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. They recorded three albums in the mid-to-late 70s with Ad-Nauseam being the last in the series which was recorded in 1978. It is possibly the most racist, misogynistic, blasphemous, hate-filled and vulgar thing ever recorded by two mainstream celebrities... but I like it!

I admire it for being so completely audacious and lacking in any concern for how it would affect their careers and well-respected public personas. I find the record's shock value is useful in getting you out of the loop of self involvement and naval gazing, in the same way as a sudden massively-loud power chord might - or else a punch to the face. The timing was perfect for this record as well, as it is probably the late 70s comedic equivalent of punk rock. Underneath all the smut, however, there is a certain cleverness to the record.

To me Derek and Clive is a great satire of the sort of blow-hard drunkards you could find in almost any pub throughout the world. Full of ridiculous made-up tales and opinions these men might spout to shock and get attention. More than likely you might smile and nod at them instead of taking them to task, because you know they have nothing else going on in their dull little lives. If you take Derek and Clive as social satire, than you can let them get away with saying anything because you're not laughing with them - you're laughing at them.

The three Derek and Clive records are completely ad-libbed and I always love how Peter Cook tries to find the most outrageous and shocking thing to say to make Dudley Moore crack-up. Dudley's laughs are a strange mixture of exasperated, nervous, admiring and giddy and whenever he can get a word in edgewise he can more than hold his own against Cook's constant barrage of offensiveness.

Moore really shines on Ad-Nauseam during the extended rant 'The Horn' in which Derek and Clive list all the things which give them an erection (which is basically everything). Moore takes proceedings in an unexpected direction when he suddenly laments that everything gives him the horn... except his wife Valerie. The sketch ends when Moore suddenly realises that Jesus doesn't give him the horn either so therefore his wife must be Jesus. There you go folks - something to offend everyone!

I like Derek and Clive, but it annoys me that this is almost the only thing the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore partnership is remembered for these days. It's not hard to track down copies of the Derek and Clive albums, but if you want to watch the excellent sketch comedy show from the 1960s 'Not Only... But Also...' then there is only one DVD of material you can buy called 'Not Only... But Also... The Best of... What's Left of...'. The BBC in their infinite wisdom taped over the majority of the episodes even though they were wildly popular and featured historically significant guests such as John Lennon.

Originally the show was to be a vehicle for Dudley Moore's music (he was an accomplished jazz pianist), but Moore decided to call his old friend Peter Cook in to write some sketches. It turned out they were a perfect yin and yang. Cook was aloof, Moore was friendly and charming. Cook was educated at Cambridge, Moore was working class. The show ended up being a blueprint for sketch comedy that has continued to this day and still seems surprisingly fresh.

To my mind, Moore and Cook's careers separately following this show were both a string of missed opportunities. As a duo they could never find the right film project. The most famous was probably Bedazzled which probably led to them going separate ways. Solo they never really had the same cultural impact as they did when working together. Sure, Moore appeared in a few smash-hit Hollywood films with the most famous being his role in 'Arthur', but he spent most of the 80s and 90s featuring in less-than-inspiring or ground-breaking comedies.

Similarly, Cook without Moore was possibly seen as too 'cerebral' resulting in Cook never finding the right outlet in the mass-market to become a cross-over success. Apparently he was also something of an alcoholic and recluse, which certainly didn't help his public persona. Sadly, Cook died from complications of alcoholism in 1995 and Moore died of a degenerative brian disease in 2002.

Besides guest spots on shows like Black Adder, Cook really didn't appear on too many Australian television sets in the 1980s and 90s. I recently downloaded what might have been the final thing he did before he died titled 'Why Bother?'. It features one of Cook's most famous characters Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling pondering his life and being interviewed by another cerebral and talented-yet-overlooked satirist Chris Morris. One particularly memorable sketch is Sir Arthur discussing selling the rights to a recently-resurrected Jesus to the Honda motor company. When I first heard this sketch I remember thinking 'good on ya Pete - blasphemous to the end!' 

Derek and Clive would approve.

* * * * * * * 

Here is my favourite sketch from 'Not Only... But Also...'. It's a perfect example of their chemistry and a great satire of the stuffiness of the English public school system. Buy the DVD!