All posts by Shane Wilson

CAPSULE: JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (1973)

DIRECTED BY: Norman Jewison

FEATURING: Ted Neeley, Carl Anderson, Yvonne Elliman

PLOT: The last days of Jesus Christ, including the Last Supper, his betrayal by Judas, and his crucifixion, sung to a propulsive rock score composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Still from Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Though the very premise – a rock ‘n’ roll passion play – is inherently offbeat, and this particular version is laced with anachronisms and unusual characterizations, this is at heart a straightforward, earnest account of the story.

COMMENTS: When Superstar debuted on the Broadway stage in 1971, the very notion of a rock-n-roll passion play must have carried an unmistakable air of sacrilege. (Although another pop-oriented take on the story, “Godspell,” premiered off-Broadway the same year, and a film of that musical also came out in 1973.) But the show struck a chord with audiences; spawned from a concept album that had sold millions of copies, the musical ran for nearly two years on Broadway and spent eight years on the London stage, closing as the longest-running show in British history. A film version was probably inevitable; that the adaptaion would be placed in the hands of the director of In the Heat of the Night and The Thomas Crown Affair might not have been.

To Norman Jewison’s credit (the screenplay is credited to him and British broadcaster Melvyn Bragg), the movie faithfully retains the show’s determination to treat its characters as human beings, rather than the religious icons they have become. Lyricist Tim Rice sparked some controversy by suggesting that he and partner Andrew Lloyd Webber simply wanted to portray Jesus as a man, but they doggedly stuck to that vision, and the results are intriguing: Jesus is beleaguered and plagued by doubts. Judas is a buzzkill true believer, hectoring Jesus for being insufficiently pious and ultimately betraying the man he idolizes out of a sense of moral outrage. Pilate is the most reasonable man in Judea, Mary Magdalene is hopelessly confused, and the apostles are shiftless hippies. It’s probably not the version taught in Sunday school, but it lends the events a greater dramatic heft.

If Jesus Christ Superstar is controversial, it’s because it doesn’t traffic in the more mystical Continue reading CAPSULE: JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (1973)

CAPSULE: THE ARBOR (2010)

DIRECTED BY: Clio Barnard

FEATURING: Manjinder Virk, Christine Bottomley, Natalie Gavin

PLOT:  A quasi-documentary about the short life of Yorkshire playwright Andrea Dunbar, the

Still from The Arbor (2010)

impoverished housing estate she called home, and the troubled family she left behind, told with actors lip-synching to tape recordings of real-life individuals.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Arbor is built around an unusual, film-length gimmick.  The movie itself, however, is a straightforward telling of Dunbar’s life. The story is surprising, but all too believable in its depiction of circumstances impossible to overcome.

COMMENTS: Andrea Dunbar was 15 when she began writing a play about her life in a working-class slum. The play, called The Arbor, was eventually discovered and produced by the prestigious Royal Court Theater.  Her next play, Rita, Sue and Bob Too! was successful enough to be made into a film, and it seemed she had the makings of a great theatrical career.  But Dunbar was something of a screw-up.  Probably alcoholic, she was careless with relationships and had three children by three different fathers.  Ultimately, she died of a cerebral hemorrhage while out drinking in her favorite pub at the age of 29.

This biography would be interesting enough, but The Arbor has a trick up its sleeve: director Barnard recorded interviews with Andrea Dunbar’s family and friends, and then cast actors to lip-synch those interviews, literally mouthing every word, stutter, and vocal tic.  It sounds like a stunt, but this technique gives Barnard a level of freedom unprecedented in documentary filmmaking.  Rather than a series of talking heads narrating unseen events, Barnard is able to place her actors in tableaux that reflect the accounts provided by the authentic voices.  In one early scene, recalling a fire set by one of Dunbar’s daughters, two adult actors stand side-by-side in the burning room, delivering contradictory recollections of the people they portray in a way the two real women never could.

It’s a daring convention, and sometimes a distracting one. A title card announces the technique at the start, and it’s almost impossible to forget as you watch each actor’s lips and try to get your head around the idea that they are channeling someone else’s voice.  Barnard seems to welcome the disorientation.  Consider that one of the actors (George Costigan, playing one of Dunbar’s occasional boyfriends) was also one of the stars of the movie of Rita, Sue and Bob Too!  Blurring reality seems to be the goal.  Add to that the fact that scenes are filmed in actual locations, including the pub where Dunbar died, and the line between reality and fiction is almost completely obscured.

Perhaps an even more clever touch is the staging of scenes from the play The Arbor on the streets of the Buttershaw Estate where the playwright grew up.  Even more than the archival footage of Dunbar from over 25 years ago, her play brings the world of late 70s working-class England to life, and the contrast with today reveals the community to be a gravity well of misery from which no one seems able to escape.  Plus, it’s immediately clear how thinly-disguised Dunbar’s characters are.  She, too, kept reality at a close remove.

The word “harrowing” is almost cliché in stories like this, but it’s hard to think of a better one as we learn the awful fate of Dubar’s daughter Lorraine.  An alien in her own family (half-Pakistani, she is scorned by the community, and possibly even by her own mother), Lorraine has resentment to spare.  However, it becomes clear that she has made even worse life choices than her mother, culminating in an unspeakable personal tragedy.  Here is where the gimmick works best, as the deadened voice of the real Lorraine Dunbar mixes with the sad eyes of actress Manjinder Virk to create the perfect blend of lament and hopelessness.

Ultimately, The Arbor is a bold attempt to do something new with the documentary format, to find a visually compelling way to tell a true story.  The lens we view the story through is an odd one, but the film’s real power is an all-too-familiar story of people in desperate circumstances.  Dunbar got a little closer to making her way out, but the outcome is heartbreakingly familiar.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The disconcerting effect of the lip-syncing becomes exacerbated as Barnard surrealistically positions her subjects within their own descriptions of the past…The resulting eeriness combines identification with the characters and a Brechtian removal from them, establishing the mystery of the director’s intent.”–Eric Kohn, INDIEWire (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: OBLIVION (1994)

DIRECTED BY: Sam Irvin

FEATURING: Richard Joseph Paul, Andrew Divoff, Jimmie F. Skaggs, a parade of C-list all-stars

PLOT:  Many years from now, on a faraway planet, a one-eyed alien villain comes to the frontier outpost of Oblivion to raise a ruckus and murder the sheriff in cold blood.  It’s up to the sheriff’s empathic, violence-shunning son to assume his father’s mantle and save the day.

Still from Oblivion (1994)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A sci-fi/Western mashup has an inherent level of oddity, and the casting is genuinely off-the-wall, but in the end, Oblivion is really just a Western rehash dressed up with some futuristic elements in an effort to make it seem more unusual than it is.

COMMENTS: Years before Cowboys and Aliens would take up the task of blending, um, cowboys and aliens, Oblivion would stake its claim, opening with a magnificent beauty shot of a familiar looking Western landscape, into which zips a nifty flying saucer. Once a snake-skinned alien emerges and kills a creature that looks like the furball from Captain EO just to make a point, we’re well on our way.

The town this villain stalks into sure looks like the Wild West: dusty streets, men in long coats and Stetsons, a stockade in the middle of town. Make no mistake, it’s the future, with such touches as a robot deputy, laser pistols, a rare and powerful substance called draconium which has reduced gold to a pittance, and giant scorpions roaming on the outskirts of town. Oh, and ATMs. ATMs of the Old West.

Exploring one genre through the conventions of another is a time-honored tradition, but that’s not what Oblivion is up to. This movie is really just a Western with science fiction elements pasted on to make it feel different. But having done that, all the clichés are still the same. For example, when the sheriff lays down his poker hand before a showdown, it can only be aces and eights–a dead man’s hand. The fact that you’re seeing the cards on a handheld LCD screen doesn’t reinvigorate the cliché. It merely dresses it up in new clothes. Much of Oblivion is like this: something outwardly strange, but quickly revealing itself to be something quite ordinary.

If the movie’s not as weird as it wants to be, that’s not to say it isn’t odd. It’s just that the bulk of the strangeness seems to have originated in the office of the casting director, where a Continue reading CAPSULE: OBLIVION (1994)

READER RECOMMENDATION: THE TINGLER (1959)

Submission for the reader review writing contest #4 by Shane Wilson

“In the final count, I think we must have buzzed 20,000,000 behinds.” – William Castle

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Vincent Price, Judith Evelyn, Darryl Hickman (the older brother of “Dobie Gillis” star Dwyane Hickman)

PLOT: There are two plots running simultaneously in The Tingler. In the first, Dr. Warren Chapin (Price) frees the parasite that lives in the human spine and grows when the host experiences fear, and must save the unsuspecting public from the menace he’s unleashed by stressing the importance of screaming.  In the other plot, film director William Castle raises his penchant for outrageous gimmicks to new heights by running shocks of electricity through auditorium seats.

Still from The Tingler (1959)

BACKGROUND:

  • As was his wont, director/producer Castle supported the release of The Tingler with several gimmicks, including hiring actresses to play nurses to stand outside the theater and planting audience members to scream and faint at key moments in the picture.  His piece de resistance was called “Percepto.”  For the theatrical release, Castle arranged for a handful of auditorium seats to be wired with war-surplus electric vibrators.  At a key moment during the film’s climax, the projectionist would activate the zappers, buzzing unsuspecting viewers (or eagerly-hoping viewers) with a jolt of electricity, thereby breaking the fourth wall in a way 3-D never could.
  • William Castle earned his reputation for his attention-getting publicity stunts. Beneath his huckster’s heart, however, lays a surprising credibility. Castle served as assistant director on Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai, and produced the horror classic Rosemary’s Baby.
  • Directors Stuart Gordon and John Waters both included The Tingler in their Top Ten lists for “Sight and Sound”‘s 2002 Top 10 poll.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: A blank projection screen, onto which ambles the shadow of a large rubber insect puppet, followed immediately by blackness, the sound of faux audience members shrieking their heads off, and the unmistakable command of Vincent Price: “Scream! Scream for your lives! The Tingler is loose in this theater!”

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: William Castle always dabbles in oddness. The Tingler’s means of engaging the audience certainly ups the ante in this regard. Whereas previous auditorium gimmicks were content to merely startle theater patrons, The Tingler was now actively complicit in harming the audience, by attempting to electrocute select viewers.  On another level, though, The Tingler represents a fascinating metatextual experience. On the one hand, Percepto pushes the film beyond the boundaries of the screen by affecting the audience physically, rather than through the usual avenues of picture and soundtrack.  The movie not only breaks the fourth wall, but actually rebuilds it behind the audience. Consider Price’s admonition: “The Tingler is loose in this theater!”  He means the very theater we are sitting in.  We have suddenly assumed the role of the audience in the film-inside-the-film, and for a moment, we are actually part of the action, not merely in front of it.  Castle’s prank destroys the proscenium.  Many films play games with the insurmountable distance between the screen and the seats.  Castle is happy to throw it away entirely.

COMMENTS: Vincent Price’s legend is built on a reputation for portraying elegant, velvet- Continue reading READER RECOMMENDATION: THE TINGLER (1959)