Friday, 23 July 2010

The Evil Queen of Nature

After writing the previous post I went for a walk in the local forest, and - as if by magic - I bumped into a very nice lady. She was quite happy for me to film her with an array of equipment. Before I continue, familiarise yourself with this:

It's the very lovely, very bosomy Mellie D, who has exactly the right costume in her enormous wardrobe. I went into this with a bag of lenses, a tripod, batteries, and precisely two ideas.

You see, one of my favourite film directors is John Boorman. His films are often brilliant but flawed, and they are always good to look at. He lives in a picturesque area of Ireland and his director's commentary tracks are always interesting.

Two films in particular haunt me. The first is Zardoz, an epic meditation on mortality ruined by too many drugs. It is the one with Sean Connery wearing a silly costume and also there's a giant flying head that spits out guns - Sean Connery's tribe worships the head, and it tells them that "the gun is good! The penis is evil! It shoots seeds that create new life!", and there are immortal people in a dome, and lots of topless women, and a co-star who looks like Rodney Bewes but isn't. Everybody is pasty white. The film has a germ of brilliance, however, and it looks wonderful. The cinematography was by Geoffrey Unsworth, who worked on 2001 and Cabaret and Murder on the Orient Express and Superman, which is dedicated to his memory, because he died in 1978. Zardoz has a distinctively glowy look, and Sean Connery in a silly costume, viz:

Perhaps someone could remake it without the silly costume and the topless women. But that would defeat the point; the end result would just come and go without leaving a trace, whereas Boorman's version of the story will live forever. Yes, he is wearing what is supposed to be a kind of pre-Mad Max post-apocalyptic bandana thing, and no you don't get to see his todger although you are left in no doubt that he has one.

The other film is Excalibur, which was a surprisingly straightforward take on the Arthurian legend. Coming from John Boorman it should have been packed with allegory, and it is still slightly silly - Nichol Williamson's take on Merlin has a peculiar accent, all of the characters shout all of the time - and it packs too much story into too little time. If Zardoz is killed by excess and indiscipline, Excalibur is wounded by being too streamlined. I would have liked to see a drug-crazed, allegorical, four-hour Excalibur with silly costumes and topless women and people delivering portentous dialogue. And more of Helen Mirren in her metal breastplate viz:

According to the DVD commentary track, John Boorman owns that breastplate and has it in his house. Does he occasionally invite Helen Mirren over so that she can put it on, and he can film her? We may never know. She would probably still fit into it today, you know. And people would pay good money to watch her do so.

But I digress. Even the bits of Excalibur that do not feature Helen Mirren look wonderful, but in a different way to Zardoz. It is much harder-edged, more grainy, and has a clever effect whereby the crew shine green lights onto the knightly armour in order to make it look spooky, viz:

John Boorman seems to have had a thing for practical optical effects. The floating text in the cap from Zardoz is just projected onto a sheet of glass, and there are the green lights that I have just mentioned. Nowadays this kind of thing would be done with computers. There is probably a button marked "green glow" in Adobe Premiere. Excalibur was shot by Alex Thomson, and it won him an Academy Award nomination. He also shot Ridley Scott's Legend and Kenneth Branagh's 70mm version of Hamlet and Michael Mann's The Keep, which is one of those cult favourites that isn't very good but it looks awesome. And there's the bit with the silver crosses and the giant cavern and Tangerine Dream that you remember, yes you do:

Sadly Alex Thomson died in 2007.

So, to the point, I set out to emulate my half-forgotten memories of my idea of these films and I have done so. I brought along a small torch with a green gel filter that you can see working in the first clip, but I will talk more about this later, with individual examples. For now, I command you to eat, drink, and be merry. For tomorrow you will live.

For the record, I used three lenses. The wide shots with done with an Olympus 24mm f/2.8. Medium close-ups were done with a Tomioka-made Auto Chinon 55mm f/1.4, which I haven't written about properly. Both of these lenses were shot almost exclusively wide open, using a UV filter smeared with vaseline. I also used my Nikon 75-150mm f/3.5 for telephoto shots. It has excellent circular bokeh (e.g. in the sequence starting at 0:15) and great contrast and the focus ring is very smooth, which is useful for video. It is rapidly becoming my favourite lens.