Friday, October 26, 2012

RAYMOND BENSON ON HIS FAVOURITE OVERLOOKED FILMS

Raymond Benson is perhaps best known as the author of six continuation Bond novels from 1997 to 2002. He also wrote three Bond film novelisations, and three short stories, as well as the seminal 1984 reference book, 'The James Bond Bedside Companion'. His fascinating career has also covered computer and role playing game designing and writing, teaching and writing about Film, writing plays, musical theatre production, video game novelisations and fifteen novels outside of Bond. The second entry in his acclaimed series of novels featuring the female adventuress, 'The Black Stiletto', entitled 'Black and White', has just been published. Above all, though, Raymond is a huge movie fan and he agreed to share some of his favourite 'misunderstood and forgotten' films for MIL. 


HOUR OF THE WOLF (Ingmar Bergman, 1968)
Ingmar Bergman is well-respected and is seen as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, but here in America it's only really cinephiles who know and appreciate his work. You're not going to see an Ingmar Bergman movie showing on network television. When I got into his movies in the '70s, you could only see his films at an arthouse theatre or on campus. Colleges would often show foreign films on campus and that's how I discovered Bergman. THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957) was my first Bergman film. I was a freshman in college and a friend said to me "Have you seen this movie? You gotta see it!". So, he dragged me there and it knocked me out. From then on I was a huge Bergman fan.

When people look at Bergman's work, they tend to put HOUR OF THE WOLF in a lower ranking. I think it's one of his best and is one of my favourites. It's his only real horror film. It's about demons, vampires or witches - you're never really sure what the people who live in the castle are. But they can crawl across walls! It has two of Bergman's best actors in it - Max Von Sydow and Liv Ullman. Like all of his movies in the '60s, it's a very challenging movie. It deals with the psyche and nervous breakdowns. You're never really sure if what Max Von Sydow is seeing is real or in his head. The way the film is structured, it begins like a documentary with Liv Ullman addressing the camera and explaining that this is the story of what happened to her husband and that he has disappeared. The movie is the flashback.

I just find it very creepy and affecting. If you're a horror film buff, it's a must-see, even if you don't like Bergman or you don't like art films.


This would make a good companion piece to HOUR OF THE WOLF. They're very similar. The ambiguity of LOST HIGHWAY is also similar to THE SHINING (1980). Here in America, ambiguity is kind of a bad word. They don't mind unhappy endings or weird stuff but people have a problem when things are not fully explained to them. Ambiguity is an element that appeals to me. I like to be able to put my own interpretation onto something. I don't mind going to a movie and being challenged.

LOST HIGHWAY (David Lynch, 1997)
LOST HIGHWAY is a movie that was ignored when it came out. It had been a few years since Lynch's last film, TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME (1992), which was seen as a disaster although I quite liked it. That movie deserves a place on this list as it is very underrated. Lynch himself believes the original four hour version is the definitive cut because it includes all the other 'Twin Peaks' characters. I think that version would have been a better movie.

LOST HIGHWAY is very similar to MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001) and INLAND EMPIRE (2006) in that they are all about doppelgangers exchanging places. It's almost a trilogy. He seems to like that theme a lot. Like most of Lynch's personal works, it's very creepy and has this foreboding atmosphere throughout. You're not quite sure what's going on, but it keeps you on the edge of your seat with the mystery of it. His use of dark and light is striking, and this is almost a neo-noir, but a very surreal one. You have to be in tune with David Lynch and know what to expect in order to enjoy his films. It's one of his trippy movies, and I guess it's an acquired taste. The scene in which Robert Blake tells Bill Pullman he is at his house is brilliantly bizarre.

 
This would make a good companion piece to HOUR OF THE WOLF. They're very similar. The ambiguity of LOST HIGHWAY is also similar to THE SHINING (1980). Here in America, ambiguity is kind of a bad word. They don't mind unhappy endings or weird stuff but people have a problem when things are not fully explained to them. Ambiguity is an element that appeals to me. I like to be able to put my own interpretation onto something. I don't mind going to a movie and being challenged.

DOMINION: PREQUEL TO 'THE EXORCIST' (Paul Schrader, 2005)

All of Paul Schrader's work is underrated. He has never achieved the success that he deserves. AMERICAN GIGOLO (1980) is probably his most succesful film. MISHIMA: A LIFE IN FOUR CHAPTERS (1985) is my favourite of his films. It's an absolutely brilliant film, and another one that was not very noticed.

The story behind DOMINION is an interesting one. Schrader was hired to make a prequel to THE EXORCIST (1973). At first he didn't want to do it, but he started to put his own spin on it, being from a strict Calvinist background. He made a very psychological, meticulously paced mystery. The studio saw it and said "We can't release this!". They took the same screenplay and gave it to Renny Harlin. He filmed it as EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING (2004) and it came out first. It was a disaster and I think it's an awful film. But what is cool about these two movies is that you can see two different interpretations of the same screenplay. DOMINION got released after THE BEGINNING bombed and was trashed by critics. It didn't do any business either, but the critics liked it for the most part. I think it's the second best EXORCIST movie (after the original). Stellan Skarsgard is great as Father Merrin (much better than he was in THE BEGINNING).

THE MIST (Frank Darabont, 2007)
This movie blew me away. I designed and wrote a computer game based on the Stephen King novella back in 1985, so I was very familiar with the story. I even had a telephone conversation with King about the game at that time. So when they made a movie of it, I was one of the first people in line to see it. I thought it was excellent, one of the best horror films of the last ten years. It was scary, very well done and it had you on the edge of your seat the whole time. The ending is probably the ultimate horror ending. A lot of people hated the movie because of the ending. But why does a horror film have to have a happy ending? That is what horror is! No happy endings! If you like horror films and you like monsters and giant insects (!), and relentless suspense I highly recommend this movie.

It was directed by Frank Darabont, who also wrote and directed THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994) and THE GREEN MILE (1999), so no stranger to Stephen King, and this is a very good adaptation. I know King was very pleased with it. This is probably my favourite King adaptation, although I do like CARRIE (1976). I love THE SHINING (1980) but I hesitate to call it a Stephen King adaptation. As he always did, Kubrick took the source material and reshaped it and moulded it into his own vision. The story he wanted to tell. When it first came out in 1980, a lot of new King fans didn't like the movie. I was a huge fan of the book, and I still believe it to be his best book. When I first saw the film I was bewildered, but as time went on I grew to like the movie better than the book. Kubrick tapped into something much more interesting. THE MIST is more locked into what King does.

EYES WIDE SHUT (Stanley Kubrick, 1999)

I saw a press preview of it here in Chicago with my wife. The audience seemed to like it and I turned to my wife and said ''This is Kubrick's most accessible movie. It's going to make a lot of money." Boy, was I wrong! At least in this country, people stayed away from it in droves and it got very mixed reviews. I think it's his most misunderstood movie, which considering his career is saying a lot. The ambiguity threw people, and I think after twelve years without seeing a new Kubrick movie, many people had forgotten the way he makes movies. With the star power involved (Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman) people went in expecting something totally different to what it was. And as in all cases when you don't get what you expect, you have a bad reaction. The film was marketed as a really sexy movie but it's really not. In fact, the eroticism is purposefully spooky and unpleasant. Also, I think many didn't get the fact that much of the film is in a dream state, and that a lot of the events are just in Tom Cruise's head. It's a movie for older people too. Which is interesting because it was the young people who got 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY back in 1968! These same people thirty years later were the same people who 'got' EYES WIDE SHUT. It's a mesmerising film. I get something new from it every time. I still maintain that it is an unfinished movie, though. Kubrick died four months before it was released, and you know he would have tinkered with it like he always did. He would have been making changes until after the opening weekend! Maybe it's a flawed masterpiece. But it's still a masterpiece.


A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (Steven Spielberg, 2001)
This is another movie where people went in expecting one thing and they didn't get it. It was Steven Spielberg, science fiction...they thought they were going to get a heartwarming story about a robot boy - a feelgood Spielberg movie in the tradition of E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982). What they got was a Stanley Kubrick movie, interpreted by Spielberg. Except for the look of the film, which is very Spielbergian, with lots of natural light and soft-focus (Kubrick would have made it sharp and clear like he always did), this is a Kubrick movie in terms of themes, mood, tempo, and vision. The film has some of Kubrick's signature traits - ambiguity and irony. He likes to turn a concept on its head and throw it at the audience. Kubrick made a career out of making people uncomfortable, and this is no exception. I think it's one of Steven Spielberg's best movies and it is totally underrated. It's a heartbreaking, sad and depressing story that gets me every time. I guess people found the way Haley Joel Osment was treated like a pet in the movie disturbing. But it tied into the questions Kubrick was asking about what constitutes real love.





THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (Nicolas Roeg, 1976)
This was a movie that bewildered a lot of people. I saw it when I was in college. I was not a David Bowie fan at that time. I appreciated his music, but I didn't own any of his albums. This was 1976, and he was pretty huge. When I saw this movie (his first lead acting role), I got interested in his music. I went out immediately and bought 'Station to Station' (1976), which was the current album, and had a still from the movie on the front cover. I also bought 'Low' (1977) when it came out, and it also had a still from the movie on the front cover. I fell in love with those two albums and then went back and rediscovered his earlier music.

Bowie was striking in the film. He had a lot of charisma and screen presence. You couldn't take your eyes off him when he was onscreen. He was perfectly cast in the role. I think they originally wanted Peter O'Toole.

It's a challenging movie. It's non-linear, it jumps time-frames and is very dense. It's confusing at times. You have to see the film a few times in order to fully understand it. Candy Clark is also great in it.

THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH is not for everybody. It's not your typical science fiction movie. The Walter Tevis book reminds me of the works of Philip K. Dick and also Robert Heinlein's 'Stranger in a Strange Land' (1961). It's a flawed film, but it has such brilliant sequences and imagery in it. Only Nicolas Roeg could have made this film. His first three films as sole director - WALKABOUT (1971), DON'T LOOK NOW (1973) and this - are all great. I also love the music by Stomu Yamashta, and I got into his music after the movie.



THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2001)
I've loved everything that the Coen brothers have ever done (except their next two missteps, 2003's INTOLERABLE CRUELTY and 2004's THE LADYKILLERS). This is one that didn't receive the acclaim it should have. I think it's one of their better movies. It's very much a film noir, and beautifully shot in black and white by Roger Deakins. He was nominated for an Academy Award. It's the moodiest and most depressing of all their movies, yet it does have a black, ironic sense of humour that is really funny. Some people don't get black humour. I guess it requires an ability to think abstractly. Billy Bob Thornton is wonderful in it, and the plot is very good. It's very underrated.


THE KING OF COMEDY (Martin Scorsese, 1983)
This is the fifth collaboration between Scorsese and Robert De Niro, and it is a film that just died. Again, it's a black comedy that made people uncomfortable. Most people didn't understand or appreciate it. De Niro is just brilliant in it, one of his very best performances. Scorsese has actually gone on record to say that it is his favourite De Niro performance. He is so creepy in the film but funny at the same time. I love the scene where De Niro is imagining he is interviewing famous people in his basement and his mom is shouting "Rupert! What are you doing down there?". Hilarious. They wanted Johnny Carson to co-star in the film, but he turned it down. Jerry Lewis is great in it, and basically plays himself, as it is rumoured he is a cantankerous guy offscreen. I rank the film very high in Scorsese's filmography. With the popularity of acerbic TV comedies like 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' now, I bet THE KING OF COMEDY would be a hit if it was released now.



STARDUST MEMORIES (Woody Allen, 1980)
Woody Allen is one of my favourite filmmakers and one of the greatest screenwriters who ever lived. STARDUST MEMORIES came out after the huge success of ANNIE HALL (1977) and MANHATTAN (1979). It's another black comedy where the audience didn't understand what the filmmaker was going for. Allen pays homage to Ingmar Bergman a lot in his movies, but here it's Federico Fellini. In fact, this is his 8 1/2 (1963). It's about a filmmaker trying to come to grips with the kind of films his audience wants him to make and the kind of films he wants to make. There are fantasy sequences, and as his character in the movie is someone who hates his fans, people thought Woody was thumbing his nose at his actual fans. Which wasn't true. He was just playing a character. There are some brilliant sequences in the movie. For example, the opening sequence. Woody is sitting on a dark, dismal, depressed train amongst ugly, starving passengers, and the only sound you can hear is that of a ticking clock. He looks out of the window and you can see another train. On this train, there is a big party going on with people laughing and drinking champagne, and a very young Sharon Stone blowing him a kiss! As his train stops and starts to leave again, he wants to change trains! There's another great sequence with Charlotte Rampling, who is put in a mental hospital in the film. He has the camera close up to her face and does a series of little jump-cuts as she is performing a monologue. It's so affecting, and the most powerful scene in the piece. It's not your typical Woody Allen movie but I'm glad he experiments. He puts out a new film every year, and they are like little gems. Some of them are great, some of them are good, some of them are mediocre. But they're always interesting. He's one of America's national treasures. STARDUST MEMORIES is a neglected, underrated Allen movie, and actually one of his personal favourites.



THE TREE OF LIFE (Terrence Malick, 2011)
This is only the fifth Malick movie in four decades!. A lot of people did like this movie, and it was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It got mostly terrific reviews but I don't think that many people actually saw it in theatres. It appeared on DVD, Blu-ray and on Movie on Demand quite quickly and I think this is where most people saw it. It was still playing in some theatres!

Terrence Malick is a filmmaker who does not make conventional films. He is a cinematic poet, and you need to know that before you watch any one of his films. Malick is not interested in linear narratives. He is more interested in emotions, nature, life and death, and people trapped in a cycle of life as it were. THE TREE OF LIFE is not a movie, but something that you 'experience'. It's more like a treatise on the nature of existentialism. It's a film that defies description, which makes recommending it to people very difficult. There were more walk-outs during the screening of the movie that I attended than any other movie I have seen in a long time. But I personally thought it was one of the most profound and moving experiences I have ever had at the cinema, in a similar way to 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968). And strangely, it is EVEN better on the small screen. It's a film you should watch alone or with your significant other. Different people will take away different things. It's a film that speaks to you personally.


CUTTER'S WAY (Ivan Passer, 1981)
I love this film! This was made at the end of the '70s, just as New Hollywood was giving way to something else. The late '60s and the whole of the '70s had been the age of the auteur, of artistic freedom and taking chances. An 'inmates running the asylum' kind of situation. The failure of HEAVEN'S GATE (1980) and other movies made the studios clamp down on giving power to directors.

It was first released as CUTTER AND BONE here in the US and it bombed. It played a week and the studio pulled it out of the theatres. They tried to figure out what happened since they felt it was a good movie with commercial prospects, and they decided it must have been the title and the marketing campaign. The film was received quite well critically, but it was a movie that just slipped in under the radar and not many people saw. Jeff Bridges is good in it, but the real highlight is JohnHeard's performance. He is absolutely great in a performance comparable to Dustin Hoffman's Ratso Rizzo in MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969). Both are kind of off the fringe, ne'er do well characters. You have never seen Heard do something like this before or since. It's a murder mystery that goes unresolved, which is realistic, because that is often the case in real life. This is a movie about obsession and what a friend will do for a friend. I just find it a very powerful, understated movie.



BREWSTER MCCLOUD (Robert Altman, 1970)
This came out only a few months after the great success of M*A*S*H* (1970), and like most of the movies I have talked about, it bombed! It's one of Altman's black comedies, and one of his many ensemble movies, with a cast that appeared in quite a few of his subsequent movies. Bud Cort (from HAROLD AND MAUDE, 1971) plays a kid who has invented a flying machine and lives in the newly-built Houston Astrodome. I am from Texas, and the Astrodome was a big deal for me. It has a great cast. This was Shelley Duvall (THE SHINING, 1980)'s first movie. Margaret Hamilton, the Wicked Witch from THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) plays a music conductor in the opening credits, complete with red shoes. It has a running theme of flight throughout, and is such a wacky, of-the-wall, unique movie. I can't think of another movie quite like it. You have to sign up for the ride and just go for it. Some people are just not going to get it. The movie begins with Rene Auberjonois as a teacher in a classroom, who throughout the movie slowly becomes a bird! I think the movie is really about freedom of expression, of standing up to those who try to stop you from expressing yourself. The film is finally available on DVD now here in the US, so people should check it out.

SPIDER (David Cronenberg, 2002)
This is a Cronenberg film that came and went. I didn't even realise it was out in the theatres and missed it, and I had been a Cronenberg fan since SHIVERS (1975)! I finally caught it on DVD. I hadn't felt that he had been at his best in the '90s. He had moved away from the horror genre and was going in more surreal directions. The films were challenging and interesting, but I am not sure they worked as well as his other movies. SPIDER is a return to form. It's about a mentally ill person, played by Ralph Fiennes, with a secret that proves to be devastating. Fiennes is incredible in the film, it's one of his best performances. It's a highly effective, mannered, nuanced piece of acting. The film is many things at once - it's a psychological drama/ thriller, a mystery, a horror movie and a character study.

LICENCE TO KILL (John Glen, 1989)
Before the release of QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008), this was easily the most controversial James Bond film. LICENCE TO KILL itself had replaced ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE (1969). I am continually defending this film to my fellow 007 fans. I don't understand the negative reaction the film got from them, especially the 'serious' ones who appreciate the original novels. LICENCE TO KILL captures Ian Fleming's James Bond. If you combine the novel 'Live and Let Die' (1954) and the short story 'The Hildebrand Rarity' (from the 'For Your Eyes Only' collection, 1960) you will see Bond in a very dark, violent and grim light, as he is in the movie. Timothy Dalton's 007 in this movie doesn't have a sense of humour and he is on a revenge mission. He is playing Fleming's version of the character. It was an edgy, exciting film, and a refreshing change to the more light-hearted era that had begun with DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER (1971). I had very much liked Dalton's first Bond film, THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS (1987), but they went all-out with this film. It has one of the most interesting plots of any Bond film, with some nice surprises and twists, and owes something to Kurosawa's YOJIMBO (1961) with Bond infiltrating the bad guys and sowing dissent. In 1989 I was in New York and was the Chairman of The Mystery Writers of America. I was on the Committe awarding the 'Edgar' for Best Film, and all of us thought LICENCE TO KILL was one of the best of the year and nominated it.

I think with CASINO ROYALE (2006) and Daniel Craig's characterisation of Bond, they were trying to make a similar change to the series. Audiences weren't ready in 1989, but they were ready over fifteen years later. Craig is excellent, but to my mind, Timothy Dalton's Bond is the most accurate depiction of Fleming's Bond that we've had.



Paul Rowlands' essay on EYES WIDE SHUT.
MIL's review of BREWSTER MCCLOUD.

Raymond chatted with me via telephone on 10th April 2012. I would like to thank him for the generous use of his time.

Raymond's books can be ordered from his website or from Amazon. Check him out on Facebook.

Paul Rowlands is a Japan-based writer. After completing a BA Humanities course (majoring in English and Science) at the University of Chester, he moved to Japan in 1999. He writes for the James Bond magazine, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, has had articles published on Press Play and has had an almost lifelong obsession with cinema, something the advent of DVD only increased. Paul is also a writer of so far unpublished short stories and novels, and is planning his first short film.

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