Irving Dweibeck - a life in film

Funny story written by Simon Cockle

Thursday, 10 January 2008

image for Irving Dweibeck - a life in film
Irving Dweibeck on the set of "Tuna Dawn" (US,1971)

Recall, if you will, a pan shot - the camera moving slowly and surely across a plate of fancies in a Boston tea shop. The light slants in at an angle, bisecting the angel cakes as the face of Katherine Hepburn looms into view like a Spanish omelette. The camera now zooms in on her mouth as she takes a bite from a mini-roll - the camera, it seems, is moving towards those lips. Now it's inside, following the masticated morsel down her gullet..

A scene we all know from Dweibeck's classic 1947 film "Dust on my Battenburg" but a seminal piece of film-making, too.

It was Dweibeck's experiences both as a cameraman in the 1st World War and an amateur pot-holer that guided him to conduct such audacious experiments with the camera. The son of Polish dentists, he was raised on a diet of Mark Twain and William Faulkener. When his parents were sent to prison for feeding him books instead of food, he was sent to Boston where he was adopted by Nat Foley, the inventor of the lens. Here, his interest in films became apparent, and he often practiced directing films using a loaf of bread for a camera and snails for the cast. War came, and soon the slugs were fighting for the allies in France. Dweibeck, however, was conscripted into the Film Army, and sent to California to scout for locations.

After the war, he got a job with MGM spooling film into canisters and then unspooling it into a dustbin. He never found out why. However, it was here that he fell in with the avant-garde of silent movie makers - Bing Springnik, Lou "Lou" Bugatti, Curve Slightly - and soon his first film, "An owl and an ox" (US, 1923), made its way onto the screen, a four-and-a-half hour epic about the struggle for dominance of an owl and an ox in a field somewhere in Delaware (the ox won).

His first Oscar, for the romantic comedy "He coughed it up" (US 1929), cemented his position in the A-list of directors (although he had to wait for three hours until the cement hardened). Another Oscar, for the sweeping anti-war film, "Oh my God, don't shoot me" (US 1932) paid for a home in Los Angeles so big that many thought (wrongly) that it was the model for Xanadu in "Citizen Kane" (US, 1941). Actually, the model for Xanadu was infact made of balsa wood and stood approximately 14 inches high (and was destroyed by a sausage dog, interestingly called Orson, in 1954).

As his career moved from success to success, his experimentation became more outrageous. In the 1940 picture "Where the elk springs, there springs I", he nailed a 45 pound camera to the head of an elk and fed it amphetamines to make it race around an abandoned speedway track in Baltimore. In order to retrieve the film, they had to spread margarine over the track to make it skid into the arms of twenty waiting policemen. Then, in 1952, in an attempt to emulate the great Alfred Hitchcock's opening scene to "Strangers on a Train" (US, 1951) where the camera focuses on the walking feet of the actors, Dweibeck chose to focus only on the ears of his actors the entire way through "Lobes in the dusk" (US, 1952).

As the new wave swept the world in the sixties, Dweibeck became less and less interested in the mechanics of film making, choosing instead to conduct affairs with a succession of leading ladies. This succession would queue up outside the gates of his mansion, and employees would date-stamp them to ensure freshness.

In the 1970's, Dweibeck was seen as a spent force, and his final film, "Slime trails" (US, 1977), seemed to be a meditation of those first childhood forays into film-making. Indeed Dweibeck even claimed to have constructed the world's first camera made of bread, but it was later discovered that he had hidden a Super 8 camera inside a Malt Loaf

The funny story above is a satire or parody. It is entirely fictitious.

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