The scary doll, or puppet, or dummy, is, by now, a cliché of horror: films from the Chucky movies to Poltergeist have availed themselves of it, to the increasingly begrudging fright of their viewers. For many (though not as many as there should be), the scary puppet motif began (and possibly ended) with the 1978 film Magic, directed by Richard Attenborough, who passed away in late August. The actor and director whom most would know either for his turn in Jurassic Park or for directing vast films like Gandhi or Chaplin had other exploits up his sleeve as well: an early film role was Pinkie in Brighton Rock, a movie about violence and terror on the English seaside birthed from the fog-swept, crime-obsessed mind of Graham Greene. What’s most evident, in watching Attenborough's films and considering his career, is a sense of embodiment, of polymathy. On the most basic level, this could mean he was able to act and direct with equal ability. To play Pinkie as a young man and then play Santa Claus (in Miracle on 34th Street) or a deranged scientist late in life suggests, at the very least, range, but it also indicates that he possessed the kind of intelligence invaluable to successful actors: the ability to imagine someone you have never met, and then someone else, and then someone else, and never let anyone see the workings of your imagination. Carvajal’s fluid, deft piece shows us both sides of this man, the acting side and the directing side--and reminds us of the great consciousness Attenborough obviously had of his audience. It is strange to remind one’s self, when witnessing the expansiveness of a film like A Chorus Line, in which the only way to tell the story is to go large, as large as possible, that the maker of these films also made a movie as creepy and all-out frightening as Magic, which captured the flitting, nervous intensity of Anthony Hopkins in his younger days and, as with many movies of this period, put very little between the viewer and the events unfolding on screen: there was little subterfuge, little music, even, just the pure fright of what was unfolding. The phenomenon of the actor-director is an old one, going back to Charlie Chaplin himself, or farther. It’s rare, though, that an individual pulls off great success in both in one lifetime. The projects an actor directs might take on the sheen of a “private project,” like the films of Tim Roth or Ethan Hawke, or they might assume a stature separate from their director’s reputation, like those of Sean Penn, in recent times, or, in a different sense, Woody Allen. Although these shape-shifters do something slightly different things with what might call their powers, the source is clear: immersion in a discipline, which is, in this case, film. RIP Richard Attenborough.—Max Winter
Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW which boasts the tagline: "Liberating Independent Film And Video From A Prehistoric Value System." You can follow Nelson on Twitter here.
Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.