Weekend Reel Reads: Stoppard's Adaptations and Herzog's Chickens

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by Steve Greene
September 2, 2012 4:46 PM
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Weekend Reel Reads is a regular feature that gathers lengthier stories related to the world of film criticism you may have missed during the week. If there's anything you think would be ideal for future installments, please let us know at critic@indiewire.com.

Versions of Stoppard

Although Tom Stoppard’s had over 45 years in the professional writing spotlight, this fall is shaping up to be one of his most notable ones yet. Currently enjoying attention for "Parade’s End," his adaptation of a series of Ford Madox Ford novels, the playwright also penned the script for the impending (and anticipated) "Anna Karenina." Victoria Glendinning’s profile of Stoppard for Intelligent Life, The Economist’s lifestyle and culture magazine, focuses on the writer’s career trajectory, but also takes time to sample the bits of Chelsea that he calls home.

"He runs his fingers through his longish grey locks, quite often. He speaks with deliberation, and does not pronounce the letter r as others do. It is not rolled, it comes from somewhere at the back of his throat. He is conservatively dressed in dark trousers and a striped shirt, no jacket. In profile he is a Roman emperor. But just around the corner is the flash of a cape, the flicker of a flying scarf, all the tousled stylishness of Bohemia. He looks like Doctor Who as played by Jon Pertwee. He is the Doctor Who of theatre, spiralling round parallel realities, playing with time. Even in conversation, versions of himself jostle for primacy, subverting what he has just said. He could never have been an actor like his son, Ed: 'I’d be too self- conscious.' He’s not self-conscious at the moment—even though he is, he says, 'enacting someone being interviewed'—'because I’m not pretending to be someone else. I’d feel silly in someone else’s story, being someone else.'"

Werner Herzog Hypnotizes Chickens

There are very few stories that someone could tell about the production process of a Werner Herzog film and have it sound unbelievable. The films of the famed director that deal explicitly with nature seem to lend themselves to anecdotes brimming with absurd detail. Paul Cullum’s piece in the LA Review of Books examines the storytelling treasures contained in Alan Greenberg’s "Every Night the Trees Disappear: Werner Herzog and the Making of Heart of Glass." As Cullum explains, a book that focuses so closely on the events surrounding the making of a single film benefits from a strict attention to the proceedings. But even in 1976, Herzog was showing signs of the obsessive nature that would propel him into the successive decades.

"And yet what seems absurd on the page is often tragic, even operatic on screen. This may be attributed in large part to the director’s decision to hypnotize his entire cast, save for the glassblowers working with temperatures in excess of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit (it proving too dangerous) and Hias the cryptic seer, whose proclamations represent a clarifying light in a thick cotton of fog. That is to say, Herzog’s casting process consisted primarily of putting ads in German newspapers, screening respondents for susceptibility and stability and then using the power of suggestion to sculpt performances out of trance-borne civilians. Comparing hypnosis to acupuncture — a mechanical procedure whose physical explanation eludes us but whose application is straightforward — Herzog initially worked with a professional hypnotist bearing the positively Nabokovian name of Thorwald Dethlefsen (which Greenberg initially hears as 'death lesson'), and who he fires early on for the crime of 'New Age babble.' (Certain aspects of the hypnotist’s behavior reportedly made it into Tim Roth’s characterization of Erik Jan Hanussen, 'Hitler’s Jewish mystic,' in Invincible.)"

Temple of Gloom

One of the standard pieces of movie trivia from the 1980s is that "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" helped usher in the creation of the PG-13 rating. Bryan Curtis’ overview of the film for Grantland delves into the elements in George Lucas’ and Steven Spielberg’s preparation for the film, getting at the reasons for why the second installment in the franchise seems tonally different from the others (and how that affects the audiences’ absorption of the story). Although Harrison Ford’s on-set injury troubles and the casting process of both men involved in "that scene with the heart" might also be common knowledge to some movie buffs, Curtis weaves together those disparate elements to create a cohesive overview of the societal significance of "Temple of Doom."

"It started in Sri Lanka, where the crew had gone when India turned them down. "At night, you'd see the sky go black with big fruit bats going into their caves," Armstrong remembers.3 Sri Lanka turned out to be an inspired choice. The crew found British engineers to build the rope bridge that figured in the movie's finale. Spielberg grooved on the fact that David Lean had shot The Bridge on the River Kwai nearby, and Ford and Steinfeld found a decrepit YMCA where they could work out. The problem was the elephants. Ford and Kate Capshaw (playing the cabaret singer Willie Scott) and Jonathan Huy Quan (the Chinese orphan Short Round) spent days on them, evoking an old-fashioned jungle trek. 'First one leg, then the other is pulled forward,' Ford once told a biographer, 'which tends to spread you apart — like being stretched on a medieval rack, I imagine.'"

The Black Market Diplomat to Liberia

Mads Brügger’s new documentary “The Ambassador” is another installment in the ethical debate surrounding the responsibility of documentarians to handle “truth” in their work. It’s a film that’s been covered both on this blog and at Indiewire, and one that offers more than just a “real vs. fake” style of merit-based discussion. Vice’s Liz Armstrong spoke with Brügger about some of the techniques that he and his crew used in order to gain access to the upper levels of the Liberian government. It’s not extensive, but it does contain some behind-the-scene nuggets, intriguing for those who haven’t had a chance to see the film yet.

"Was there a point at which you actually believed the role you were playing? I'm not sure who was 'in' on it.

My secretary Maria (her real name is Eva, and she is also the production manager of the film) and I were the only ones who were in on it, and yes, because the role-playing was so extreme, so over the top, and because you have to be in character all the time, you start to become your character. There certainly were moments when driving around with my business partner, the diamond mine owner Monsieur Gilbert, and my two pygmy assistants, when I had this intoxicating feeling that I was really doing great as a super diamond consul, and maybe this was really what I was destined to do. Which is kind of psychotic, I think."

'Smokey and the Bandit': A Tribute to Hal Needham

Mike Ryan’s tribute to “Smokey and the Bandit” at the Huffington Post is a sincere appreciation of director Hal Needham and Burt Reynolds, the actor who helped to elevate the film to a “classic” level in the minds of many. But what really makes this a worthy read is the final paragraph, in which Ryan explains his reasons for the piece, but raises a helpful point about not waiting for the passing of an artist (be they an icon or slightly less well-known) to point out the quality of their achievements.

"Last week, after the death of Tony Scott, the Internet reacted with a deluge of 'Tony Scott made some fun movies that I like'-type pieces (including my own). But I couldn't help but feel some underlying guilt. A feeling of why didn't I ever write this when Tony Scott was alive? So, yes, that's why we did this. To say, 'Thanks, Hal Needham. You made some movies that entertained me greatly over the years.'"

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