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Burt Lancaster : a watching and reading guide

I remember the precise moment I understood Burt Lancaster. Or, at least, I remember the precise moment I understood that person he was on screen – the person he wanted to let me see. It was From Here To Eternity (1953) and it wasn’t the scene you might think. Though the film is justifiable notable for a thousand moments, let alone that iconic moment between Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in the surf, it was a scene in the bar that got me. The soldiers are on temporary leave, carousing and partying. A simmering tension explodes between two of them in a bar. Warden – Burt Lancaster’s character – breaks it up.

There is a lot of talent in that room. Montgomery Clift. Frank Sinatra. Ernest Borgnine. And then there’s Burt Lancaster who just takes all that star-power and eats it for breakfast. He is a big man at this point, all muscle and height and power, and yet he moves with a lightness that I still can’t quite understand. Look how he places himself in this scene, how he handles himself – how he smashes that bottle only when he has to. This is West Side Story but with soldiers; a ballet of power, force and raw, sudden anger, and Lancaster the passionate, mad, desperate heart of it all.

Image: Nick Cravat and Burt Lancaster perform on the parallel bars. (Library of Congress – public domain)

Burt Lancaster was discovered in an elevator. Anybody who looked like him – a tall, handsome guy – was bound to be an actor, reasoned the producer who rode those few flights with him. He invited Lancaster to an audition, the audition was successful, the rest is history. But every history comes with a story of what happened beforehand, and Lancaster’s story comes from the circus. He was an acrobat and together with his friend, Nick Cravat, formed Lang and Cravat and joined the Kay Brother’s Circus. Although injury formed a halt to his act, Lancaster and Cravat stayed close friends. You can see Cravat as the mute Ojo in The Crimson Pirate – mute, only because Cravat’s broad New York accent would have been somewhat out of place on a pirate ship on the high seas. A fascinating film in many respects – not only in how it gleefully goes past stupid and all the way back to brilliant – The Crimson Pirate sees Lancaster and Cravat leap and swing their way through the rigging, pausing only to break the fourth wall and address the camera directly, or to smile in a devilishly handsome manner at the local ladies.

A bodily actor at the best of times, Lancaster’s movement and grace could shift from elegance to pain and suffering in a heartbeat. Pent up in a small room, or limping down a traintrack, Lancaster could give you a man that’s done with the world and everything in it without a word. But when he does speak, he talks quickly, sharply. He talks in the manner of somebody who knows he’s going to be listened to. Who knows that he should be heard.

“Here’s this great big aggressive guy that looks like a ding-dong athlete playing these big tough guys and he has the soul of—who were those first philosophers of equality?—Socrates, Plato. He was a Greek philosopher with a sense that everybody was equal.” Tony Curtis, qtd. Burt Lancaster : An American Life.

Titanic in every sense, Lancaster had a prolific career that ended more recently than I realised. Forced to retire in 1990 after having a stroke, and passing away in 1994, his final role was in Field of Dreams in 1989. It’s easy to see actors of his ilk as belonging to another generation and so it’s rather strange to see him on the same screen as Kevin Costner. But time is tighter than we realise it to be, and even though he’s older, it’s his voice that makes the scene for me. Lancaster tells a story like it’s the first and last time he’ll ever tell it. There’s a cadence to his work, a rhythm. A song. In a way, he’s balanced on the bars and working the moment, same as he always did. But that’s Burt. That’s what he does.

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How to make the perfect film : take one small brown bear…

It’s not easy to make a children’s film. It’s not easy to do anything with or for children (parents, I can see you nodding in the back there) because of the sheer breadth of childhood experience that is out there. Articulating a story is easy when it’s for yourself; articulating a story that reaches out to others and hits something within them, that’s hard.And when you’re adapting something from a book, it gets even harder. Do you adapt your reading of the book or do you try and broaden the experience? Do you keep the bits you love or do you drop them when somebody else gives you negative feedback? How do you find the space for your story within a very successful other story?

Shall I tell you what you do, oh mystical implied other? You watch Paddington, that’s what you do, and you realise that this is probably the best movie out there (ever) that’s been adapted from a children’s book and then you hang up your socks and do something else because nothing you ever do will beat this pure and wonderful and loved piece of work.

paddington_bear_ver4.jpgPaddington is a joy. Adapted from Michael Bond’s Paddington books in which a small bear from Darkest Peru comes to London, the film is pretty much perfect. I don’t say that lightly and indeed, I didn’t expect it to be. You come to these movies with an awareness of the potential for failure. For every Paddington, there’s a Golden Compass or a Narnia; films which take these great swathes of wonderful literature and transform them into something a bit, well, awful.

Paddington defies that because it is a film which doesn’t underestimate its audience. Driven by a strong sense of magical realism, this London teeters on the edge of the fantastic and revels in it. Candy coloured houses, preternaturally present pigeons (one of the best running gags in the films), bands playing in the street, and characters who don’t bat an eyelid at a bear walking down the street. There are references back to evacuated children, touching on one of the great themes at the heart of Paddington, and this drives one of the most wonderful and heartwrenching sequences of the film (underpinned by a lovely and incredibly potent turn from Jim Broadbent). It’s smart film-making, and it’s brave and it’s innovative and it’s challenging. Scenes shift on a dime, leaves fall from a painted tree to signify the shift in the seasons, and I’ve never seen Paddington station look so wonderful. It’s easy to neglect the background in a film like this, but this is painterly space; landscape which tells the story as much as the spoken word does.This is a film which delivers slapstick and social commentary all in the same breath, alongside some of the best looking marmalade I’ve ever seen.

It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed a film on this blog, and a lot of that’s driven from a slight malaise. I’ve not seen a film for a long time that has had me marked with love for it from the get go; there are moments, always, within every film, but it has been too long since I have been left breathless with love for something.

Paddington is perfect. It really, really is.

Here’s to you bear.

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A book & movie review : Where The Wild Things Are

WherethewildthingsareA 2009 Spike Jonze film, and a 1963 picture book classic may not seem the closest of relations, but they are. Jonze’s live-action adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s superb ‘Where The Wild Things Are’ was released in 2009. The book and the film form the second of my combined book and movie reviews (the first was a look at The Black Stallion).

The book itself is one of those big picture books that, with a mastery of economy and a subtle lightness of touch, expresses a pivotal moment in a boys life. This is what happens when Max throws a tantrum. He is sent to his room where suddenly a forest start to grow and he is transported to the island where the wild things live. Max becomes their King, before eventually missing home and sailing back home in time for his still hot supper. That’s a very bald synopsis for a very complex and rich book. Some of the finest parts of it contain no words and show the ‘wild rumpus’ on the island being enjoyed by both the wild things and Max. These are pictures full of an exuberant and glory-filled wildness.

It’s a book that has shifted into iconic status, and rightly so.  What I personally love about it is that Sendak allows Max to rage against the injustices of his life. His fury is legitimate. Max will not go quietly into that dark night. He is allowed to be angry, to be fiery, to be unreasonable, and yet to also gain a sense of self and to grow. It’s a fine, fine balance to achieve in a book and an even finer achievement when one considers the relative brevity of a picture book.

Adapting this book into a film would always rely heavily on Max. He needs to be furious and endearing, complicated and naive, brave and scared. He needs to be everything when he needs to be, and nothing when he doesn’t. And Max Records, the actor cast to play him, delivers superbly. When he’s still, his eyes tell everything, and when he’s caught in fury, his body expresses his rage. Wholly. He’s an all or nothing sort of actor, and delivers without an inch of self-consciousness. I loved him. I fell in love with him in the opening sequence, practically instantly, when he caught that subtle moment of having fun and then suddenly it all goes too far and somebody gets hurt.

What’s also pleasing is that one of the other pivotal roles, Max’s mother, is equally astutely cast. My beloved Catherine Keener takes the role, and brings to it a lovely sense of warmth and sympathy. I also had a bit of a moment at the sight of Percy Jackson’s mother chatting to the Incredible Hulk and briefly entertained the thought of an epic crossover between the two franchises.

On a personal level, I had some severe doubts at hearing the Wild Things actually speak, and the accents they spoke in,  but a lot of that relates to them being book characters in the first place. When you read books, you read them in your own voice and so I imprinted my perceptions onto these monsters. It did grate initially but I barely noticed it after ten minutes or so.

There is a lot of love in this film, from the quite beautiful and subtle soundtrack (Karen O) to the warm and potent script (Jonze & Dave Eggers). Jonze shoots this film with an epic sense of romance, allowing the camera to dwell for long beats on sunshine drenched frames and beautifully staged moments. The final beat of the film is particularly potent. I also enjoyed that there was a lot of respect for the source text; shapes and colours and elements from the book were brought to the film’s visual identity with wit and grace.

The transition to film perhaps pulls the story slightly into a more adult perspective, what with the careful construction of the Wild Things who slowly pull and question Max to facilitate his development. It’s vaguely reminiscent of a Woody Allen film at parts, but as a whole, this film is a languid, subtle experience and one that, when the dark moments come, hits you very hard. There’s such tension here, and such beauty, even in the anger and sadness.

Where The Wild Things Are is an utter gem. It’s a stunning book, and a valuable, elegant and beautiful film.

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A book & movie review : The Black Stallion

First published in 1941 and ultimately spawning a series still published today, the Black Stallion by Walter Farley is a classic of children’s literature and of the horse genre in the particular. A film adaptation, directed by Carroll Ballard,  of the first book in the series came in 1971.

I chose it as my first combined movie / book review for one particular reason. It’s one of the few occasions where a film adaptation of a bestselling book more than matches the book itself. The movie is epic. I’m not the only one who’s been moved to rapture by it – Roger Ebert’s review of it is more than worth a look for example.

So what of the book? It’s a heroic tale told in vivid prose and heart-stopping excitement. Some of the details passed me by when I read it for the first time (there’s really a place called Flushing? Like – like – toilet flushing?) and I admit to being a bit mystified by the whole let’s keep a stallion in the shed thing. These are passing things though because you can’t help but be caught up in this book.

In a way, this book embodies the “all or nothing phase”  perfectly. It is horses or nothing. Or, to be more precise, it is this horse or nothing. Alec and the Black click. They’re meant for each other in a way that you just know. And, when the series progresses and the Black’s original owner makes himself known, it’s not just Alec that learns how pain feels.

The film brings all of this and it does it perfectly well. Where the film shines, and it’s a place that a book can never quite get to, is visually. The scenes with Alec and the Black on the island are just poetry. There’s an utterly perfect beauty to every frame that Ballard composes from the Black and Alex galloping through the surf, , or the silhouette of the stallion in the hill.

And the best way to illustrate this is, well, visually. There are some gorgeous fan videos available online and if you’ve not seen the film, these are a good place to start. I watched one which covers Alex learning to ride the Black and just burst into tears. Stuff like this makes me jealous. It makes me want to create to that level of perfection. It makes me want to do better each and every time.

I think this is one of the few stories that can’t really be split into a better or worse version. They are both stunning in their own right and I defy you to be not caught up in the story – whether you read it or see it first time round.

It’s magical.

Further resources on The Black Stallion:

1. Movie IMDB Page

2. Book Publication History and Walter Farley bibliography

3. Wikipedia pages on the Book and Film.