Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Jabba the Hutt of Geeks: Harry Knowles

That grotesque tinpot dictator of fandom Harry Knowles is partly guilty for diluting film criticism to pre-adolescent fanboy idiocy-- what he did wasn't criticism by someone with critical acumen, just reviewing by an enthusiast. You couldn't pay me to read Ain't It Cool News. Guys like him helped drain a lot of the gravitas out of the movies, which is why there are so few films geared for discerning adults now. He was a studio shill, bought and paid for, who wouldn't dare criticize the latest shlock for fear of being denied his place at the studio trough. I'm delighted to see a greedy, sexist pig like him be undone.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Carry On Wuthering: Screenwriter Patrick Tilley remembers adapting "Wuthering Heights" (1970)

NOTE: The quotes in this article from my correspondence with Patrick Tilley are used with his permission. Many thanks to Mr. Tilley for his help with my research. The text of this article is © Copyright 2017- Justin Humphreys.)  

            While writing about director Robert Fuest’s The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), I became very curious about the film he made immediately before it, Wuthering Heights (1970). Fuest was a dear friend and I spoke with him about the film occasionally. It was a relative anomaly in his career—Bob’s work was marked by sleek stylishness and a wonderfully bizarre sense of humor, neither of which were evident in Wuthering Heights. But with the film, Bob proved that he could also direct a relatively straightforward film, virtually devoid of his trademark eccentricities.
Though he didn’t gripe about it, the film had been a disappointment for him, in one sense: Its producers, American International Pictures, had sheared around 45 minutes off of the film, adding interstitial narration by Nellie the maid (Judy Cornwell) to fill in the many gaps. The film’s last act was left largely untouched, but its first two acts were heavily altered. Why the drive-in movie specialists allowed a relative newcomer like Fuest to make a two-hour-plus movie remains a mystery.
            What troubled me most about this was the realization that the film would probably never be restored. No one (Fuest included) seemed to know if there was a full-length print of Fuest’s cut. In the near future, I will be making announcements about a verbal reconstruction of sorts of the film that I’ve recently done.
            In the process of researching Wuthering Heights, I corresponded at length with its screenwriter, Patrick Tilley. Tilley, like Fuest, was a relative newcomer to feature films when he adapted Emily Bronte’s novel. He had begun his career as a graphic designer and illustrator, and had contributed the design and script of Richard Attenborough’s Oh! What a Lovely War (1969). Tilley would go on to write films like The People That Time Forgot (1977) and The Legacy (1978), and went on to greater success writing science fiction novels, including the popular Amtrak Wars series.
Tilley began adapting Bronte’s novel the most logical way: By thoroughly studying it: “Having been given the assignment by AIP, I read the novel five times making notes as I went along and watched the Ben Hecht movie only to discover that lines of dialogue by one character in the book had been given to someone else. Luckily I found an extract from a book analyzing Wuthering Heights which gave the ages of the main characters and the historical period—Georgian, not high Victorian with Heathcliff and Cathy as teenagers which again put an entirely different slant on the story. . .
“The decision to actually film the movie in Yorkshire was a bold move and gave an entirely different slant on the pre-War Hollywood movie which was a complete travesty of the book. . .
Wuthering's problem is that the public take on the story has been forever warped by the Ben Hecht movie. I didn't see the BBC's latest version but I would be surprised if it covered the whole of the book. Most people think Heathcliff died but of course he didn't - and is alive and well and as gruff, brutish and unwelcoming as Earnshaw was. But then - in my book - it's because he has inherited his father's genes.”
By that, Tilley is referring to a point that is implied in Bronte’s novel, and which he makes explicit: Heathcliff is Mr. Earnshaw’s bastard son, which makes Cathy his half-sister:
 “Mea culpa. Must confess that making Heathcliff the result of Earnshaw's trips to Liverpool was my idea. Geographically speaking Liverpool is an odd destination for a farmer living in the Yorkshire dales and I seem to remember that he had made the journey several times before. Add the fact that Heathcliff had a "swarthy complexion" hinted at a mixed-race dalliance - and the port of Liverpool has always been a melting pot. And why else would a hard-nosed son-of-a-bitch like Earnshaw bring back a stray and make him one of the family? Making him an unpaid child worker on the farm would have been much more likely. And give him the name of their dead first-born. . . ?
“Gimme a break. . .   
“I also felt that it gave the relationship with Cathy a doomed quality and
strengthened the reason why Mrs Earnshaw's dying wish that Heathcliff should not inherit any part of Earnshaw's estate.”
Other plot points Tilley left tantalizingly vague, like how Heathcliff transformed himself from a ruffian farmhand into a cultivated, worldly gentleman:
“Regarding H's acquired wealth and his transformation into a gentleman, Emily never enlightens the reader on how this happened. It could be through gambling, becoming a rich person's toy-boy, or by murder and theft - take your pick. It is by not dotting the ‘i’s’ and not crossing the ‘t's’ that makes Emily's story so compelling and mysterious.”
As Bob Fuest would do the next year in his The Abominable Dr. Phibes, there was no reason to explain everything. Having to fill in that gap is much more fascinating for the audience. As far as working with his director on the script went, Tilley says: “I didn't have a close working relationship with Bob Fuest who I first met through a mutual friend who had been at art school with him. So I can't tell you much about him although I did admire his imaginative film Dr Phibes.”
Tilley found writing Cathy’s death scene nearly as agonizing as the character did: “I spent a long week just on her death scene and got so worn out at times I thought I was going down with what she had. . .”
            Tilley’s script was “typed out on an IBM machine years before computers and Final Draft were available.” Tilley saw a lot of AIP’s European liaison, Louis “Deke” Heyward, in London. Fuest wasn’t especially fond of Heyward—he once referred to him as a “wanker” in conversation with me. But Tilley got along with “Deke” well: “Since AIP went on to commission more screenplays from me (at one point it felt like being Writer in Residence) I had an extended period with AIP's London Office. I wouldn't say Deke was a ‘wanker’ (eg: tosspot/jerkoff) but while he could summon up an imposing all-powerful presence, I felt he was essentially a lightweight who did as little work as possible-- his main job was ringing up Sam and Jim at 2:30 am in the morning London time to discuss progress on the various projects going through, which were mainly scripts I had been asked to write or rewrite. I often dropped into the office where he had an English assistant who may have been instrumental in getting me the WH gig as he was aware of the large contribution I had made to the script of Oh! What A Lovely War! writing dialogue for all the theatrical knights who featured in the movie and acting as creative assistant/ production illustrator to Dickie Attenborough. . . I had a previous career as a graphic designer/illustrator before starting off writing tv scripts before transferring to movie work.
            “Anyway, to cut a long story short my dealings with Deke were amiable enough and he dined at my house a couple of times and had a cozy apartment in St. James' Street - if memory serves me right. We had a mutual interest in aviation - I had enjoyed four years flying in the British equivalent of the ROTC while at art college while he had been a primary flying instructor in the States using a Stearman bipe carrying the name ‘Paper Dolly’ before flying B-24's from the States via the Azores to North Africa. . .
“Once the final draft was written, Deke called Bob and I in and having complimented me on the script said ‘This is great - but there's one thing missing. There are no ‘killer lines.’’ Bob and I looked at each other then back to Deke who explained – ‘We'll always have Paris’. . . ‘Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn’ - plus a few more immortal gems then explained he was going to book the three of us into a country hotel for a long weekend where we would examine every line of dialogue and keep at it - all through the night if necessary to come up with something that would outlive us all. Lets face it - he had a point. Anyway - it never happened. Deke never got around to booking us into the hotel - and the problem was never mentioned again.”
Fuest used to say that AIP had never read Bronte’s novel, only the Classics Illustrated version. Tilley wrote something similar about Heyward’s initial response to his script: “Deke Heyward gave mine to his book-wormy 14-year-old daughter to read. And so it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut used to say. . .
“AIP was very pleased with my efforts and commissioned me to write several
more screenplays for them including The House of Seven Gables - none of them
reached the screen. Then Jim Nicholson died and Sam sort of faded away.”
Unbeknownst to Tilley, Bob Fuest had also been hired to write a Seven Gables script: “I have no recollection of Bob Fuest working on the script. Certainly not while I was writing it. It's quite possible he might have been asked to work on it at some later stage but I must have been out of the loop. Time-wise it was after my second script for AIP Public Parts and Private Places - adapted from a novel by a British writer, then I did another - might have been a rewrite or from a synopsis called Make for the High Ground.”
Originally, the film ended on a tight shot of Heathcliff’s dead hand on Pennistone Crags, his cuff’s ruffles billowing gently in the wind: “When the film was completed with an ending drawn from events in the book, [producers] Sam Arkoff and Jim Nicholson took the film back home to Los Angeles and screened it for their wives in Sam's private cinema. The ladies were unhappy with the end and wanted it replaced by a version of the Ben Hecht ending. A director and crew were hired and two doubles for Cathy and Heathcliff were paid to replicate the Hollywood ending where the pair run up towards their favorite place at the top of the hill.”
The film received mixed reviews: “Dilys Powell headlined her piece ‘Carry On Wuthering’ from the very British ‘Carry On’ Comedy series of films in the 60's and 70's. . . But you might like to know that AIP's Wuthering was the first western movie to be screened in Chairman Mao's China and reputedly garnered 9 million dollars. It cost 3 million to make. Can't guarantee that - it was a long time ago.” Newsweek’s critic made some venomous remarks about the incestuous slant of Cathy and Heathcliff’s romance—an obvious dig at AIP’s exploitation movie pedigree. But Wuthering Heights was AIP’s first film to play at Radio City Music Hall and it apparently did very respectable business.
AIP was obviously trying to rise above their usual drugs-and-bikers fare with Wuthering Heights, partly through their choice of the film’s score’s composer, Michel Legrand. Tilley says he “was impressed at the time that AIP had the good taste to hire him.” Though AIP discussed making subsequent public domain literary adaptations like Camille and A Tale of Two Cities, they were not to be.

More to come about Wuthering Heights. . . Stay tuned. . .

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

RIP Richard Adams: "My friend has stopped running."

There isn't a week that goes by that I don't think about the late Richard Adams's magnificent novel "Watership Down." Reading it as a kid, I liked it, but as an adult, its deceptively simple premise clicked completely with me. The novel's huge, lasting popularity is completely justifiable-- it's timeless. It gains new generations of fans every decade because it is about subjects that abide and matter. Above all, it's about survival, courage in the face of endless horrors, and about making sense of your place in the universe-- all through a group of rabbits desperately seeking a new warren. I've never been more gripped by a story or rooted harder for a group of characters than Hazel and his band. Along with "Charlotte's Web," it's one of the greatest works of anthropomorphic fiction of the 20th century, and, within its fantastic concept, it has far more of value to say than many (allegedly) realistic novels. Adams's other works, like the lovely "The Girl in the Swing," are strong, but to produce one book as truly great as "Watership Down" in a lifetime is as much as any novelist can hope for.

“All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed.”

Monday, December 5, 2016

"We must burn the books, Montag . . . ALL the books!"

Once again, my home state has been in the news for something embarrassing: from London to L.A., newspapers have been reporting that the Accomack County School System has been considering banning Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" and Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" from its curriculum because of complaints from a lone student.

This is the most unthinkable and pernicious kind of censorship: trying to cover up the wrongs and ugliness of the past (in this case, the book's villains use a very ugly racial epithet) to calm down one kid's complaints, meanwhile keeping the rest of the students from enriching their lives by reading a lasting work of deep moral, ethical, and social value. "To Kill a Mockingbird" is exactly the kind of novel that kids should be reading--it isn't simply a story about race, but about making difficult moral choices when society itself is wrong and pitted against you. The potential ban of a book of such extraordinary value and power, one writer suggested, makes him want to buy hundreds of copies of the book and hand them out to Accomack County school kids.

"The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" presents America during the time of slavery, which shouldn't be presented in a kind or pleasant light. Like "To Kill a Mockingbird," it deals with a youngster who discovers that he has been brainwashed by a racist society, and who rebels against it, in the process realizing that his friend, the escaped slave Jim, has been dehumanized and brutalized by the utterly wrong adults around him. This is NOT an easy or simple book, and it involves some very ugly words and the ability to contextualize them; to deny that those words were once widely used is to lie about history. When you start banning books because one person is offended, where does it stop? Which book is next? Who is the arbiter of what kids can and cannot read? This is the slipperiest of slopes.

The late, great Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451" keeps coming up as this controversy is bandied around in the press. Bradbury's Fire Chief, the head book-burner of a completely repressive future, describes why all books must be burned: sooner or later, SOMEONE will be offended by them, and people shouldn't be offended-- when they're offended, they THINK, they get discontented, they question things, they're forced out of their safety zone. In Francois Truffaut's film version, the Chief tells the protagonist, Montag "We must burn the books, Montag . . . ALL the books" as he smiles and holds up a copy of "Mein Kampf."

If you are as horrified by the potential banning of two very valuable and important books, please sign this petition and spread the word about it to other concerned parties:

http://action.everylibrary.org/book_banning_in_virginia_schools


Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Rocky Horror Television Show?

So, "The Rocky Horror Show" was the initial stage show, right? And the film version, being a "picture show," was "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Then why isn't the TV series titled "The Rocky Horror Television Show"???

Sunday, October 9, 2016

"Dawn of the Dead" (1979) in 3D: Review

Last night, I took in the North American premiere of the 3D version at BeyondFest in LA. Being a longtime "Dawn" aficionado, I kept thinking it would either be a fiasco or fantastic. It turns out it's a major treat--I have NEVER seen "Dawn" look or SOUND clearer. I was picking up bits of background dialogue that I had never caught before, even after seeing the film untold dozens of times. The clarity of the picture--no doubt essential to the 3D process-- was incredible. The 3D experience of "Dawn" is fascinating and it's hard to explain quite how. The "money" gore shots aren't necessarily the most effective ones in 3D: intimate, character-driven scenes like the one with the one-legged Priest work extremely well in the process. The same goes for any shot involving characters in big, open areas, or behind glass, for some reason. The 3D "Dawn" is well worth seeing (and hearing!). Before the movie started, Rubinstein said that he hadn't made any editorial changes to the movie, which is almost true: during the end credits, they used freeze-frames of the shots of the zombies shambling through the mall. That's a minor quibble, and other than that, it's true to the original film. The good news is, what could have been a gimmicky desecration of a great American film proved to be the opposite.

As added bonuses, Producer Richard Rubinstein intro-ed the film and Ken Foree, John Harrison, and Zilla Clinton were sitting two rows down from me. BeyondFest threw t-shirts into the audience reading "When there's no more room in Hell, BeyondFest will walk the earth." It was an indescribable kick seeing John Harrison watching himself as the screwdriver zombie.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

RIP Edward Albee

There are few things more annoying than an author, actor, or other artist getting off on the sound of their own cleverness and describing in endless, hellish detail how their "creative process" works. Artists of any kind can easily become too smart for their own good (and the good of their audiences). So I will say "Rest in Peace" to Edward Albee with this wonderful Albee quote:

"Few sensible authors are happy discussing the creative process. It is, after all, black magic."