Thursday, October 29, 2009

Film as a Cornell Box

Just finished Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954) with the Film Studies class. Probably one of the most written-about movies anywhere, anytime, and I have no desire to add to the blather. (We look at the film to study its employment of the Kuleshov effect, the creation of association by juxtaposition in film, which Hitchcock himself explains nicely here.

Two things struck me this time around. One is the almost complete dissociation between the soundtrack and the important action of the film, especially in the second half. The first part of the film has a lot of chatter, much of which is really unnecessary and inefficient characterization. But once the story catches fire, the pictures take over, and the soundtrack becomes almost irrelevant. Almost as though Hitchcock was thumbing his nose at the talkies.

The other was that the stack of apartments reminded me of a Cornell box (see example above). Joseph Cornell made a form of three-dimensional collage, often enclosed in a box. All the items in the box were thematically and visually related. And that's what we have in the courtyard in Rear Window. We have the visual cohesion of the courtyard setting itself, and all the stories in each "compartment" is about relationships. (How very satisfying to see Miss Lonelyhearts with the Songwriter. Only the newlyweds don't end up happily ever after.)

Satisfying. That's a word my son uses for well-made stories. Just the word for Rear Window. Satisfying.

Monday, October 26, 2009

What defines comic tone?

Don't get me wrong--I liked The Informant! (2009). But it did not feel as sure-footed as the critics had led me to believe.

For example, there's the hair. Sure, you can see that Matt Damon's hair is a bit goofy right to begin with (you can even see it in this picture). But it's too easy to ascribe that to the fact that you have a dweeb-turned-businessman in the Midwest 20 years ago. It's not clear that this hair looks as goofy to the people in the movie as it does to us. It is not until over an hour into the movie that Damon tugs at the wig and puts it askew that we can say to ourselves, "Oh, Mark Whitacre [Damon's character] is the only one who doesn't know this hair is goofy.

Yes, you have the improbably jaunty music by Marvin Hamlisch. But it is counterpoised with the fuzzy-documentary look, where everything has gone orange as if the cameraman inadvertently used the wrong filter (not to mention catching light flares in nearly every scene). See, the way you light comedy is--turn up the lights. Legendary director of stage farces George Abbott made that an iron-clad rule: "Turn up the lights. This scene is supposed to be funny." Dark is mysterious. Dark is dangerous. Dark is not funny, unless we're busting ghosts.

And Whitacre is a rather sad and pathetic character. It is hard to develop the distance we need to laugh at him. Neither Damon nor director Steven Soderbergh have done anything to give us permission to laugh at him--other than Whitacre's rambling, often irrelevant voiceovers and Hamlisch's faux-James Bond guitars and that late-arriving tug on the wig. Finally, about 75 minutes into an approximately 100 minute film, the lies start to tumble and tumble and tumble out, and thanks to the craftsmanship of all involved, the laughs start to come. I suppose the presence of actors such as Scott Adsit, Tony Hale, Patton Oswalt and the Smothers Brothers is supposed to encourage the laughs, although they seem to have been forbidden to be funny. (Oswalt in particular seems as though he could have a solid career as a character actor.)

But I can't help wondering what this film would have been with Jason Alexander as Mark Whitacre? His very presence would give us permission to laugh. And the hairpiece would have told us something about the film from the start. I presume the choice of a "dramatic" actor like Mark Damon was quite deliberate, a ploy to make the first part of the film ambiguous--maybe Whitacre really is a good, self-sacrificing guy, a little naive perhaps, but good. But if that's true, what is the music signalling us?

Stanley Kubrick had a similar experience adapting the book Red Alert. After some time with it, he informed his screenwriters that the story had to be a comedy. I understand that something similar happened with The Informant! [See the interview with screenwriter Scott Z. Burns in the September-October 2009 Creative Screenwriting Magazine -- not available online.] The problem is that the finished film feels as though nobody went back and changed the first half of the movie to fit with that idea.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Unknown to me

Even as a silent-film buff, I had only seen Lon Chaney's two most famous performances, in Phantom of the Opera and Hunchback of Notre Dame. But with Halloween on its way, it seemed appropriate to catch up on some of his other work.

Chaney's films aren't really horror films, but they dwell among the grotesque, bizarre and sometimes horrific. The Unknown (1927) is a prime example. Co-written and directed by frequent collaborator Todd Browning (best known today for the Lugosi Dracula and Freaks), the story is typically weird. It concerns a criminal with double thumbs who poses as Alonzo, an armless knife thrower, to avoid police detection. He falls in love with a young woman (played by a very young Joan Crawford) who is sorta sweet on Alonzo, since she has a phobia about men's arms and being touched. Alonzo blackmails a doctor into removing his arms, only to find that the young woman has fallen in love with someone else. Chaney's performance when he realizes what he has done to himself for no reason is still quite startling, ending in a cry which is no less piercing because there is no soundtrack.

The film's technique is rudimentary--it is all about Chaney's acting (which includes some well-staged stunts using a real armless actor). But it has set me off on the trail to see as much of Chaney's work as I can.

Again again?

Not much need be said about 17 Again (2009) an acceptable Friday night entertainment. Just two things really. I applaud any film with an implausible premise which does not waste time over trying to make it plausible or explaining it in any way. Poof, our main character is 17, poof he's 37. No big deal. Get on with the story. I always objected to the huge amount of time It's A Wonderful Life wastes explaining itself. I want to shout at the screen, "We get it, we get it, get on with it and make your point." Some snappy editing by Padraic McKinley helps a lot.

Secondly, Zac Efron is a full-on movie star. Independent of his teen heart-throb status, he speaks, carries himself and--most importantly--moves like a man able to and entitled to pick up the entire movie and carry it on his back. Granted, in this case, there is not so much carry. But let me repeat, he moves beautifully--not just dancing--his hands, his whole carriage. And that is an asset not to be underestimated in film stardom. They are moving pictures after all. He deserves to be up there a long time.

Only one question: why does a piece of piffle like this require six credited producers?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Not chopped liver

Just finished viewing The Night They Raided Minsky's (1968) again, this time with my Film Studies class. I've always enjoyed the seedy backstage atmosphere of this film, and the corny humor, but I scheduled the film in the course because in his book, When the Shooting Stops, film editor Ralph Rosenblum gives such a detailed account of how it was rescued in the editing room. He spent a year re-working it from what the studio executive called the worst first assembly he had ever seen to a reasonably pleasant entertainment.

The problem for the course is twofold: first, the point is made fairly early on in the film as to the devices that Rosenblum used to enliven the film; and those devices have become such common coin in film today that it is hard to see them for the innovations that they were. But then we are committed to seeing the film to the end to see how it turns out. Luckily, one of the best edited sequences, free of any gimmickry, is the suspense scene near the end when the we see how the strip was "invented." The cutting between the on-stage character and the audience with which she is interacting is impeccable.

And the film has never shown any signs of the agony it went through to become playable. Friedkin made good contributions, even if the success of the final result cannot be ascribed to him. The Lower East Side location is the best of its kind until Godfather Part 2, the principals are well cast (this was the last film of Bert Lahr and the first film of Elliott Gould--what does that mean?) and the extras who portray the audience--well, as my mother would say, you can practically smell them. There are other examples to demonstrate how an editor can "save" a film, and time will tell as to whether I decide to substitute them in a later year.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Eastwood channels Bud Abbott

I recently finished the engaging but overlong, over- adulatory and premature biography of Clint Eastwood by Richard Schickel (it was written in 1996, before Eastwood's directing eclipsed his acting). The most interesting write-up of a film was that of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), which is, as Schickel wrote, a loopy low-rent heist comedy in which Eastwood lays back and plays straight back to an electric Jeff Bridges. This is Eastwood lite--not so much the tight-lipped, sharp-elbowed loner, but a fellow who has long been involved in left-handed forms of human endeavor (to borrow a phrase from Huston's Asphalt Jungle) and has learned to keep his head down.

Most surprisingly, the film is written and directed by Michael Cimino, who thereafter brought forth onto this continent the ponderous but thrilling Deer Hunter and the ponderous and tedious Heaven's Gate. (Cimino has made a few films since, but effectively he has fallen off the planet since Heaven's Gate's failure wiped out an entire studio, United Artists, which had been in existence for 62 years. That is literally an epic fail.) None of his other work would suggest that Cimino had the easy-going sense of humor displayed here; actually, there would have been little reason to expect it of Eastwood, other than the black humor of the Leone films, which could have been ascribed purely to Leone.

Today this film would have to be produced independently, directed by a Rian Johnson or maybe Soderbergh doing a downscale run. Of the big stars, only Clooney or Pitt would let themselves be overshadowed by a supporting player (and let themselves look ridiculous) as happens here. Only an independent film would let the heist go wrong in quite the way it does, nor let the tables be turned the way they are in the end. In one sense, it makes the 1970's seem long ago, in that this was considered a routine studio-star project, even with a brand-new writer/director. In another sense, the film seems eminently contemporary, with neither heavy production or heavy morality imposed on it by the ponderous studio system that reconstituted itself in the 1980's and 1990's. I'm reminded of Charley Varrick or Quick Change, dark comedies disguised as action or crime films.

Here's the best thing I can about this movie: this would be the perfect picture to lay around on a Sunday afternoon watching with my old man. He would really have liked it.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Why are you telling me this?

Give the makers of The Soloist (2009) credit: they did not crank out another piece of phony "Life can be good" uplift. They adhered to the ethic of the journalist played by Robert Downey, Jr. and engaged in honest journalism. Which would have made a documentary far more valuable than this well-meaning slog through a string of non-events.

There is no reason to belabor this. The film is not without merit. It is true that Robert Downey, Jr. and Jamie Foxx give excellent performances that would be very impressive in any acting laboratory. And the expressionistic techniques used to give a sense of what the inside of a schizophrenic's head is like are very effective--overlapping voices and swirling, distorted images. But the film would not be much different if it had ended at the half-hour mark than it is at the end of an hour and three-quarters. There is no narrative drive, no push forward. The characters don't seem to know or care where they're going, so why should I? In short, the film fails to address the question that every story must address, "Why are you telling me this?"

The only continuing significance of this film is that its failure (which was exacerbated by a reported $70 million negative cost--probably due to a long development process) along with that of State of Play, occasioned talk that the audience for mid-budgeted studio-produced serious adult films had disappeared, and that this market segment was best left to independent producers.

First, people in the industry should be aware that the audience knows or cares not if a film is produced with studio or independent backing. It is impossible to detect these days. They should also know that the audience for poorly made or dull films has always been fairly sparse, and the best path to financial success would be to have better scripts written and to film them.

Next year there will probably a mid-budget film for adults which is a smashing success and everyone will run through the streets to hail the discovery that grown-ups like movies, too. Amnesia is a film executive's (and journalist's) perpetual malady.

An "Anti-80's Movie" 80's Movie

I'm a decade too old to share in 80's nostalgia. I was busy starting a family and a career and my recollection of that time was that between the music, the fashions and the politics, Americans were ready to accept any pile of horsehockey that was thrown at them. The zeitgeit of the me-decade 70s was nauseating enough, but the mantra of the 80s seems to have been, "whatever."

Therefore I can approach a film set in the 1980s, such as Adventureland (2009) without any patina of nostalgia and say it's a pretty decent coming-of-age romance. My recollection is that the film had a disappointing release earlier this year, because it was marketed as the next film from the director of Superbad. And while Bill Heder and Kristine Wiig are on hand to provide a little Second City-SNL vibe, they are in fact minor characters. And there is no evocation of the cheap slapstick, T&A teen comedies of the period.

So the question is, why the 1980's? Evidently this was an autobiographical piece, and the writer/director's own youth was some 20 years ago, but there is absolutely nothing in the story that demands this time period. I could have told a similar story of my own college summer job in the mid-1970's. I'm sure my kids and their friends could tell the exact same story in contemporary terms. Meanwhile, the clothes and hair just clouded the issue, as their very appearance seems to call for irony and ridicule that this sweet little film refused to traffic in.

This is where producing comes in. It cost the film extra production expense and difficulty to create the retro setting, and it brought on confusion in the marketing phase of the film. It is hard to see the upside of the 80's setting--it only made a difference to the director, who like so many directors on their commentary tracks, spends most of the time discussing the records they selected for the soundtracks. Why don't these guys just make a mixtape (yes, there's one in the plot of the movie) and leave their nostalgia home?

Even the amusement park setting was wasted. This story would have been exactly the same at a burger joint. It appears as though the director felt this was a more unique and individual picture than it actually is--there's really nothing startling or new here, although it is well-acted and pleasant throughout. This feels like a classic case of premature indulgence of auteurism. Which is not to say it's not a nice little picture--just a terribly misleading one.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Mumblecore for kids?

Where The Wild Things Are (2009) offers a new approach to a problem that has been developing recently in large-scale studio films for kids. More and more films are being based on what essentially are picture books, with narratives that can be summarized--or even read in their entirety--in less than a minute. The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, The Cat In The Hat, The Polar Express, Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs, Jumanji are all examples of brief diversions meant to help pre-schoolers to fall asleep being expanded into full-scale works. There have been many explanations for this, but I believe that the reasons studios finance these movies is that these are the only books that film production executives have actually read. Or actually can read.

So what to do with 90 to 120 minutes to fill up and a one-minute story to fill it with? Some films, such as Cat In The Hat fill it up with production expense and annoying noise. Some tell their simple little story real-l-l-l-l s-s-s-l-l-o-o-o-o-w-w-w. Spike Jonze has come up with a new idea for Wild Things, a book that is only 10 sentences long. Make a mumblecore movie for kids. Mumblecore is the perfect genre for filmmakers with actors, a setting and no story. It was created by young filmmakers with little or no resources--a digital camera, friends for actors, their own apartments for sets, and little life experience to write about, except their own embarkation into the world of adult relationships. So it is dialogue-driven and relationship-oriented. And its worst, it is draggy, self-indulgent and pointless. At its best, it reaches a hyper- or even meta-realism about young adult life.

Surprisingly, this works really well for Wild Things. (The screenplay is co-written by novelist and memoirist, Dave Eggers, who is having a heck of a year, given that his first film, Away We Go was completely brilliant. ) The book told children, it's OK to be angry, it's OK to let the wild things out and let them romp awhile, as long as you learn to let them go back into hiding when it's time. The film expands on that idea. Max's Wild Things have gone out of control and he leaves his home completely to go live with them for a while. But the Wild Things don't know how to live with each other any better than the other people in Max's life. They have some wonderful simple joys--sleeping in a big, warm furry pile (yes, the pile is scary at first, but then it is OK, because you're with your friends). And there is a terrific dirt clod fight and a really cool fort with underground tunnels and a fantastic tower on top and you don't have to let in anybody you don't like--and this voice I am imitating in my primitive way is the voice of the film. The entire film lives inside the head of a kid the way none of the expensive entertainments by Disney or Pixar or their imitators could ever do.

The child entertainers want to make everything all right, to soothe us, to homogenize experience into the formulas of narrative we find so comforting. But even as kids we know life to be formless, erratic, ebbing and flowing without pattern or, it seems, reason. Friends are really close and then they hurt us or leave us and they come back and they want everything to be all right again and we don't ever get to understand it--we just learn to accept it. And all this is stuff is hard, but we gotta learn to do it. So this is not an easy film for kids. But they will get it. And judging from the kids all around us at a matinee show, they will enjoy it.

I confess, I may not be the best possible judge for this film. My son, who grew up entirely in the age of digital animation was not completely convinced by the eyes and lips of the characters, which were evidently digitally grafted onto the actors romping in big furry character suits. For my own part, I was delighted by the low-key, almost improvisational acting style adopted by the voices of the Wild Things, so far from the over-emphatic voice acting that plagues so much animation, as if children could not understand anything that wasn't shouted at them. This movie knows that if kids are good hearing anything, they're good at hearing the stuff that wasn't meant for them. Wild Things is meant for them...and it isn't.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Places, everyone!

Just finished looking at Do The Right Thing (1989) with my Film Studies class again this year. More than ever I am struck with the theatricality of this film and wondering when Spike Lee is going to act on his prediliction for live theater. Yes, I know his film of the stage Passing Strange will be in theaters soon, but I mean actually directing a play. A number of filmmakers have done it--Arthur Penn and Mike Nichols split their careers almost equally between film and theater, Sam Mendes, Rob Marshall, David Mamet and Neil LaBute are leading examples today, and in the Classical Era, even John Ford directed plays in California (a look at the staging of group scenes in The Searchers would suggest just how good Ford probably was in the theater.)

Perhaps I am influenced by the fact that I put Do The Right Thing in the syllabus as a basis for examination of the concept of mise-en-scene, specifically with reference to the use of space; the establishment and invasion of territory is a central theme. But given the deliberate limitation of the story to one day on one block, this piece feels like it wants to be a play, or perhaps a cutting-edge musical. So far I've yet to find a theater artist who agrees with me, but I haven't given up looking!

It depends on what you mean by disciplined...

As I said in my earlier post on Gran Torino, I am absolutely staggered by the high level of achievement of Clint Eastwood's last six films as director, and I marvel that I have not seen any prominent critic point that out. Given Eastwood's generally high esteem in the critical community today (a 180-degree reversal since the 1970s, when I remember avoiding his movies), I wondered if I hadn't underestimated his work all these years.

My impression of his films was that they were craftsmanlike, indulgent of actors and a bit lackadaisical in the areas of narrative economy and suspense. I decided to look at one of his best-regarded westerns, The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), which began the turnaround of his critical reputation.

Eastwood gets a lot of favorable press for being humble, efficient, considerate of the people he works with and with other people's money, always being on time and on or under budget. These are indeed admirable in an age of wasteful and self-important directors. But these fine characteristics have no bearing on the quality of his work. John Ford was often an obnoxious jerk, but he has no serious rival for the post of Greatest American Director. So frequently Eastwood is described as a "disciplined" director. Well, disciplined he may well be in his personal life and in his professional demeanor. But his films, at least until recently, display little or no narrative discipline, meandering around into every little backwater and side event until the main line of the story is almost forgotten or obliterated.

And so, though I had not seen it before, Josey Wales delivered exactly the virtues and drawbacks that I expected. Fine photography by Bruce Surtees, wonderful casting and rich performances, gentle and self-deprecating humor, virtually no narrative drive and overlength. Functionally, the film's story ends about 23 minutes in. Yes, that's when the baddies begin to chase Josey, but Josey doesn't seem to have anything he wants to do or anywhere he wants to go other than to avoid the baddies who want to kill him. So he wanders around, picking up a collection of interesting oddball characters, including Chief Dan George and Sondra Locke, and finally the baddies show up and finally he kills them all, and to whom was that a surprise? [Oops--shoulda had a spoiler alert--oh, c'mon!]

Filmmakers always say in interviews that they were drawn to a project by the great story, and this one is no exception. But so often I have no idea what they're talking about when say there's a great story. A comparison of the running times of Eastwood's films of the 70s and 80s with his current works will demonstrate that his pictures are getting shorter, stories are becoming tauter and he has developed greater skill in maintaining consistent lines of tension and interest throughout his films. The virtues of his mid-career work still seem limited to me.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Blink once for yes...

I was intrigued by this recent segment on Radiolab, a science-for-dummies-show on public radio:

In it, esteemed film editor Walter Murch contends that although we have been taught that the blinking your eyes is to moisten the eyeball, in actuality it corresponds to a unit of information and thought, which we punctuate or "hit save" by blinking our eyes. This seems to be confirmed by the work of scientists in Japan who filmed people watching a movie and summarized their conclusions as follows:

Blinks are generally suppressed during a task that requires visual attention and tend to occur immediately before or after the task when the timing of its onset and offset are explicitly given. During the viewing of video stories, blinks are expected to occur at explicit breaks such as scene changes. However, given that the scene length is unpredictable, there should also be appropriate timing for blinking within a scene to prevent temporal loss of critical visual information.

Here, we show that spontaneous blinks were highly synchronized between and within subjects when they viewed the same short video stories, but were not explicitly tied to the scene breaks. Synchronized blinks occurred during scenes that required less attention such as at the conclusion of an action, during the absence of the main character, during a long shot and during repeated presentations of a similar scene. In contrast, blink synchronization was not observed when subjects viewed a background video or when they listened to a story read aloud. The results suggest that humans share a mechanism for controlling the timing of blinks that searches for an implicit timing that is appropriate to minimize the chance of losing critical information while viewing a stream of visual events.

Murch has long contended that a cut, or an edit in a film, corresponds roughly to a blink, and has anecdotal evidence to support that. (He even titled his book about film editing, In the Blink Of An Eye.) If that is true, then film editing is not just a matter of creative syntax or grammar, but an actual physiological need, or at least, desire, to create a satisfying film-viewing experience.

Appropriate thought as our Film Studies class begins to consider the subject of editing.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The film about a revolution that should have revolutionized film

Before you read any more, please watch this excerpt, shot around 1962-63:

Soy cuba - procession - procesión

If that didn't make your jaw drop, then skip the rest of this post.

OK, now that it's just those of us who really love film and are intoxicated by images, you should stop reading this post and add I Am Cuba (1964) to your Netflix queue right away. This astounding film was not seen in the United States until 1992, which was a good thing for a lot of conventional filmmakers. Because if it had been seen in 1964, it would have radically changed film from thereon, bringing in ideas and images that didn't arrive until 20 or 30 years later; and then where would we be by now?

The film was a co-production between the Soviet Union and Cuban film propaganda organizations to celebrate and publicize the Cuban Revolution and foster support for it within Russia and presumably elsewhere thereafter. But they made a mistake. They sent artists to do a propagandist's job; specifically director Mikhail Kalatozov, cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky, camera operator Alexander Calzatti , writers Enrique Barnet and Yevgeny Yevtushenko (yes, that Yevtushenko) and composer Carlos Fariñas. The team created a dream about Cuba, told in four slightly interlinked parts with minimal dialogue and maximum imagery packing extreme emotional content. It feels as much as if it were inventing a new visual language as some of the early work of Griffith and Eisenstein.

It wasn't seen because the Soviets found it too beautiful, too poetic. There was not enough straight-forward propaganda, and a little too much romance about pre-Revolutionary Cuba. But clearly these artists love all people, good and bad; and that is not good politics. So the film was shelved in the Soviet Union and the director died in 1970 without it ever receiving a full public airing. It started to appear on the festival circuit in the 1990's, and if you want to see it, avoid the Image Entertainment DVD and go for the Milestone version, which is restored from excellent pre-print materials with a clean Spanish track (that is, without spoken Russian translations). The Ultimate Edition even has a feature-length documentary that explains how that shot I posted above was done. But I'm not going to say--I don't believe in giving away magician's secrets!

(If you'd like to see how I Am Cuba could have influenced other film, take a look at this review at the Onion AV Club which compares a famous shot from the first sequence of the film to a similar sequence in Boogie Nights.)

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Burying the lede

State of Play (2003) was a terrific twisty paranoid thriller mini-series from the BBC with an interesting cast of then-emerging stars, including James McAvoy, Kelly MacDonald plus the always reliable Bill Nighy. There was every reason to expect that the US feature film remake (2009) could create a similar excitement with analogous situations and twists in an American setting. And at first it really seems it will.

The film starts with great energy, evidently in the tradition of great newspaper pictures; you know, the disheveled but honest reporter who exasperates the editor, who really respects his work--the cub reporter eager to make his/her bones on the Big Story, racing through the big open office, the whole schmear. The tempo and the music of the montages is particularly invigorating, Ben Afflect seems particularly appropriate as a self-involved politician and we settle down for the big, fun ride.

Then the Emperor takes his clothes off. Whereas the BBC series seemed to uncovering layer after layer of shadowy, suspicious conspiracies and connections, each more shocking than the one before. Maybe we are not surprised by shadowy conspiracies in the States, but I also think the compressed running time (2 hours as contrasted with 6 hours for the source mini-series) forces the film to rush past its own story points, lightly touching on them like a water bug skimming the surface of a pond. Finally the film is no longer about who has power and how they use it, and degenerates into a hunt for a deranged killer. Just like we get three or four times per night on network TV.

There was a lot of talk in the industry this past spring about how the failure of this film was a bellwether signaling that big studios like Universal Pictures could no longer produce serious films for adults. But if this is the best they can do (even with Russell Crowe, Rachel McAdams, Helen Mirren and the rest of a superb cast), then maybe the studioes should leave grown-up movies to the grown-up independent filmmakers and investors, and stick to movies about guys in spandex who leap around and catch people in funny make-up.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Required viewing

I was warned at my library that a number of other borrowers had been bored by The Class (2008), a French film about the dynamic inside a Paris classroom of students over the course of a year. The students correspond in age to a freshman or a sophomore class here, and the class is a French class--that is, literature, vocabulary and grammar. That's my racket, only I do it in English

So naturally, I had a keen professional interest in the film. And happily, it is not another melodrama of the dedicated young teacher at the beginning of his/her career overcoming students hostility, administrative hostility, etc., etc., breakthrough, yada yada, change kids' lives forever, yada yada, fulfilling, yada yada

This teacher has been at it a while, although he makes a lot of rookie mistakes in classroom management, which I presume are done to heighten the conflict. And the struggle is not to get students to learn some vital information, like the test preparation in Stand and Deliver. In this case he is struggling to get them to think, mostly about themselves--not in narcissitic way, but to develop some perspective and see themselves as others do. No, we don't see him giving tests and grading assignments--why would you want to? Instead, we see him pushing students to explore their own minds

The film was created in such a unique way that a number of early reviewers mistook it for a documentary, although it is difficult to see how that could be--it is too elegantly structured and shot for documentary (handheld camera notwithstanding). But it is based on an autobiographical novel written by the man who plays the teacher, François Béagaudeau, and improvised by a group of students who prepared for a year with the director, Laurent Cantet, with whose previous directing work I am unfamiliar

One of the most uncomfortable aspects of the film is the uneasy mix of ethnicities which are pouring into Europe. Students were from North Africa, the Middle East, Asia, all struggling to find a foothold in France, which boasts a long, deep, proud culture of its own (as contrasted with our magpie American culture). Students deny being French or even wanting to be French. Ethnic animosities are played out in the classroom, reinterpreted through the usual adolescent posing and conflict. A troubling prospect for us melting-pot-mosaic Yanks

Another aspect that was difficult to take was the number of important decisions made by committees, some of which include students, who hear teachers discussing other students. Clearly, the French are just asking for trouble--which does result from the students being present at such a meeting, although not in the way you'd expect. This is especially delicate when discipline decisions can result in deportation

My attention was riveted for all 130 minutes. There was a lot of talk, almost all of it in one classroom, one meeting room and a playground. There was no melodrama, no music track, no cheap uplift, no easy answers. I suppose some might be bored by the absence of those elements, but I could not look away for a moment.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Whale watching

I finally finished Forbidden Hollywood Volume 1 from Turner Classics by viewing the original 1931 Waterloo Bridge, directed by James Whale, most famous for Frankenstein and The Bridge of Frankenstein, and portrayed by Ian McKellan in the excellent Gods and Monsters. Whale didn't go into films to make horror pictures, but success can point a person in strange and unanticipated directions, and Whale, a semi-closeted homosexual seemed to be drawn to stories of outsiders, people less than completely acceptable to the world at large.

In Frankenstein and Freaks the outsiders were terrible to look out, but in Waterloo Bridge Mae Clarke has the kind of glowing every day beauty of a Jennifer Aniston--you could have known this girl, even if you couldn't have actually dated her. Clarke and her opposite, Kent Douglass (who under the name Douglass Montgomery had pretty undistinguished career) give astonishingly natural and relaxed performances in high contrast to the stagy shouting sort of histrionics to be found in the Frankenstein films. (Frederick Kerr, the burgomeister of the Frankenstein films appears here as the boy's stepfather--he had a near-genius for playing lovable old codgers, effortlessly zig-zagging between grumpiness and generosity.) The first half-hour feels extremely contemporary, and it is only when the plot requires that the girl, through pride, refuse to accept money from this man because she likes him (it would be no problem if he were a John), that the age starts to show.

There are no great cinema breakthroughs here, no astonishing technical feats. But there are some lovely cinematic story-telling flourishes. After the fallen woman and her boyfriend's mother have spoken, and they agree that there can be no marriage, the girl leaves the room and we are led to wonder--how does the woman feel? After all, her boy is sincerely in love (he has no idea that his girlfriend is turning tricks) and she doesn't want his heart to be broken. But clearly, this match is impossible. She sits at her vanity, her face turned away from us. Then she picks up a small handkerchief and silently dabs her nose. Fade out.

And then there's the white fur. At the beginning of the film, Mae Clarke's character is a gold-digging chorus girl, and we see her flaunt the new white fox stole her boyfriend has given her. Later in the film we see her don the stole to hit the streets and it no longer looks fresh. In the final shot (I'm trying to avoid a spoiler here), the fur lies discarded on the street, and its shabby, mangy condition gives silent testimony to its owner's own fall from grace.

What a 1931 Mae Clarke had! Besides this film, she was the prostitute who commits a gaudy suicide in The Front Page, she got a grapefruit shoved in her face by Jimmy Cagney in Public Enemy, and was carried off by the Frankenstein monster! Yet by 1967, no one remembered her in the business, and she was thrilled to get a walk-on as an office worker in Thoroughly Modern Millie. A brutal business, kids.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Jackie's Children

A few years ago, I (figuratively) flipped over a martial arts film from Thailand called The Protector starring Tony Jaa. It had one of the most brilliant and demanding action scenes I had ever seen. The hero is penetrating the villain's lair, a large casino-club of four stories wrapped around a large round atrium. Jaa runs up the stairs, fighting with various henchmen all the way up, stopping at landings, tossing villains over the rail, all the time, running up, up, up...all in one continuous shot. You could even see his fatigue as the end of the take neared--a fatigue which made his skill all the more impressive.

Director Prachya Pinkaew returned in 2008 with a new star, a tiny young woman named Jeeja Yanin, who is the most limber and indefatigable movie star you are ever likely to see. The film is called Chocolate, which is an utterly terrible title since it does little to describe the film, and will probably cause it to be confused with many similarly titled films, such as Chocolat. Presumably the title refers to the heroine's fondness for an M&M sort of candy. She even practices her martial arts skills by popping the candies into her mouth in amazing ways.

The premise is a mixture of the tried and true and the original--a daughter strives to save her dying mother by collecting money owed the mother from various shady characters and their apparently limitless loyal henchmen. (Why has a flunky in one of these movies never seen the hero's dazzling talents and just said, "I'm out of here?" Why do they always stay and fight? For a paycheck? These guys are idiots!)

But the original notion, beside the novelty of a female martial arts star--although Michelle Yeoh and others blazed that trail over 20 years ago--is that the girl is autistic, and has acquired her fighting skills via television and video games. She has almost a magical power of observation, picking up the characteristic motion of an autistic opponent within minutes. I should think this character will be very popular with mentally challenged people everywhere. I would advocate showing it in school, except that it is a very violent R.

And finally, there is terrific fight choreography here Panna Rittikrai, who shows herself to be, like Yanin, to be the spiritual child of Jackie Chan. When I was a teen, martial arts films were always the same boring routine--the challenge, the training period and the carefully staged fight in a designated fighting area. Jackie Chan took martial arts out of that ritual, integrated the fights into plots, using props and the specifics of settings. And in doing so, he completely transformed the genre. It is impossible to make a martial arts film and ignore Jackie, any more than you can make a Western and ignore John Ford. The climactic fight in Chocolate displays this influence in spades, with a brilliantly designed set of balconies, rails, electric signs and train trestles.

Jackie may be approaching the day when he must retire from performing, hopefully to direct the next generation of Jackies, but his mark on the action film and on film as a whole has been indelible.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Picture book

Watching The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) again with the Film Studies class is enjoying a visit from a reliably entertaining old friend from childhood. I loved this movie before I ever saw it in color (we never had a color TV in the house until after I left for college). It is the perfect mixture of adventure, action, humor, a dash of politics--which could be said to be anti-authoritarian, except that Robin and his men are so attached to King Richard. And there is that music score--maybe the best ever written for a movie. My class had no trouble seeing the connections with Star Wars.

The reason for the film being in the syllabus is as part of the cinematography unit: Robin Hood is a fine representation of the first generation of 3-strip Technicolor films, with color being used lavishly, but nonetheless under exacting control. The inspiration for the palette and the Academy-Award winning production design seems to have been the 19th-century tradition of book illustration that adorned various versions of the Robin Hood legend, not to mention the works of Robert Louis Stevenson and so many other vigorous "lad's tales" of the late Victorian era. The example by N.C. Wyeth which decorates this post looks like a frame from the Warner Bros. film at a quick glance, the examplar is so close. (Of course it helps that Wyeth's draftsmanship, modeling and shadowing lend an uncannily three-dimensional aspect to the picture.) It must have been exhilarating for 1930s cinematographers who at best could model their films after photographs, line drawings, lithographs and such, to now be able to emulate fine painting in their work.

Brand dilution

I am a fan of film noir and have see most of the basic canon. (You can go here to check how many you know.) 20th Century Fox Home Video has been one of the most active distributors in promoting noir as a brand, with special packaging and commentary tracks on all their noir titles. And 20th has a a lot of good ones, especially Otto Preminger's work in the late 1940's, such as Where The Sidewalk Ends.

But noir has evidently reached the point where it is a profitable and successful brand, and as sometimes happens with such things, the brand is being applied to products that do not fit in the hope that such a misidentification will boost sales. So I borrowed a copy of Dangerous Crossing from the library, as it was clearly identified as a Fox Noir. It is no noir. It has neither the worldview nor the visual flourish of a noir, other than a few scenes of low-key lighting and some very nice fog effects. For the rest, it is a standard factory-produced suspense piece, a "locked room" mystery in which a new bride's husband mysteriously disappears just after they board a cruise ship. The twist ending is not bad, and everyone--actors, camera, editors, composer, does a good, everyday, journeymen work.

But Fox needs to be more careful lest film buffs new to noir mistake a film like this for the real thing and conclude that noir is some kind of random label for crime films and miss the depth and richness of the style/genre that is presently attracting more critical attention to films of the Golden Age than any other.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Elongated student film

I rather liked We Own The Night and Two Lovers, written and directed by James Gray, so I thought I should check out Little Odessa (1994) which launched his career to much acclaim and awards.

I did a little research and learned that this was not actually a student film--Gray's student film was called "Cowboys and Angels." Nonetheless, Little Odessa has the feeling of a 35-minute short stretched out to feature length. It has so little action, whether narrative events or interior development of the characters; the characters are so sketchy and generalized, and their choices are without motivation or purpose. Vanessa Redgrave has nothing to do but vomit and die. Tim Roth is a hitman for a criminal organization that doesn't seem to make any money, because all they do is kill each other. Edward Furlong looks sad, because that's what he does. It is hard to imagine such an empty bag of pretension was hailed as the arrival of a new talent. If I'd seen this in 1994, I could never have predicted that Gray would be revealed as an actual talent, albeit a narrow and limited one to date.

The other mark of a student film is that it is based not on human experience, but on other movies. This is understandable, given that film students are generally young with limited experience. But even movies based on other movies have to make some kind of sense. I mean, Tim Roth carries an enormous body wrapped in a bloody sheet down the middle of a Brooklyn street in broad daylight without exciting comment of any kind. This is a movie? Twaddle.

The film received much praise for its moody cinematography by Tom Richmond. He did a good job.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Sound effects that can put you to sleep

Most people probably do not realize that about 40-50% of the sound you hear in a major American release was not heard on the set when the scene was being filmed. In an effects-based film, that number runs to 80-90% and nowadays, those sounds may never have been actually heard anywhere before the computer generated them.

That is not reprehensible in and of itself--film is a medium of illusion and imagination. It stands to reason that a lot of fabrication is required to make things seem real, or if not real, plausible. But it is a little dispiriting to think of all the sound effects that are used in film after film, many of them not that good to begin with. ListVerse has tabulated the Top 10 Movie Sound Effects We All Recognize and it's a woeful testament to the lack of creativity in mainstream Hollywood. Some of these effects are so overused that their very appearance, e.g., the cat scream, has become a joke in and of itself.

If these people can't be bothered coming up with a new thunderclap or coyote howl, why should we expect them to come up with new situations, stories or characters?

Sunday, October 4, 2009

How not to make films about ideas

Just watched Hidden Agenda, a British film of 1990, which was recommended to me because of its handling of the subject of the government involved in illegal interrogation and other suppression techniques. But it's not much of a movie, talented participants notwithstanding. The problem is, its all politics and police investigation, and despite the presence of Frances McDormand and the ever-reliable Brian Cox, has no human story whatsoever.

It is impossible to imagine, for example, Gene Hackman playing the reliable, dogged police investigator of the type Cox plays in the film without insisting that the character be given his own storyline, his own quirks. For heaven's sake, at least let the guy have a head cold so he has something interesting to play. As it is, the character is squeezed at the end and succumbs to government pressure to stop the investigation, presumably because of circumstances around his career or his family life. But we never knew enough about him to care or to have any sympathy for his decision. The result is the film is just a flat pro-Ireland anti-England polemic, and of limited interest historically and nearly zero interest dramatically.

You can have stories driven by ideas and politics, but the narrative engine must always engage human sympathies. If you don't want to do that, if you that's "compromise," then don't make a narrative fiction film, make a nice documentary for you and a handful of your friends to watch.

Engineering entertainment

This recent report from the public radio show On The Media tells about a project to use a functional MRI--that is, a live brain scan--to figure out what people respond to in a movie faster and more accurately than a focus group. Listen to it here (use the slider to skip through the first 28 seconds of promotional and underwriting announcements):

Great way to insure that we only see things we already like and are never ever surprised by anything new and startling created by a genuine artist! Thank you Hollywood!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Light and Shadow

Just finished watching Raging Bull and The Long Voyage Home with the Film Studies class as part of our initial examination of black-and-white cinematography. We are moving on to look at color films now.

For both films, the value of black-and-white is its ability to abstract human experience, to take it from the specific and individual and lift it to a poetic level. It's not "this ship," it's The Ship; it's not "a fight" it's The Fight.

Both films focus on men in dirty, brutal, rough occupations, yet both films can be said to be beautiful. Long Voyage is almost too beautiful for its own good. Narrative flow is overwhelmed by the sensuous visuals, a syndrome to which Ford succumbed completely in his gorgeous misfire The Fugitive. (Not the Harrison Ford film.) And yet the visuals are not irrelevant--their romantic beauty explains why these men cling to this unpromising calling in life.

As for Raging Bull, black-and-white does not disguise the brutality and blood, but it transfigures them (in some cases, literally--at one point a boxer's body is presented as if being prepared for burial). To those who say the unreality blunts the pain the characters are experiencing, I say that color would not increase that sense at all and would in turn diminish the way the images transcend and universalize the events. But this is a subject of endless debate, as evidenced by Stefan Kanfer's celebration of black and white in City Journal (though I believe Kanfer is motivated by nostalgia more than aesthetics).

There is no doubt, however, that deep focus (as shown in the illustration above) means a lot more in black and white than it does in color--perhaps it is the sense of "something" looming up out of the dark "nothing."

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Hurry up, gang, there's another Chester Morris movie on!

Red Headed Woman (1931) is some odd duck of a pre-Production Code movie. I viewed it as part of a package from Turner Classic called "Forbidden Hollywood." These are films that were so lurid or salacious that they couldn't have been released once Hollywood began organized self-censorship in 1934. But this one is not as racy as it thinks it is. Harlow, as a gal trying to sleep her way into polite society is more annoying than sexy. In the climax we are shocked to see her shoot her husband as he drives away with his first wife (and true love) and crashes into a streetlamp. But then he is all better and she is never prosecuted--so the whole thing was just completely pointless. Nowhere near the juice of Baby Face (discussed earlier in this blog).

What pleasure that can be taken from this limp film comes from the crisp, low-key and rather modern acting of Chester Morris. As you can see, Morris had large round eyes, a forward-thrust chin and pushed-in nose that made him look a bit tough for the society swell he is supposed to be, and he graduated to tough cops in the next decade. In the 50s he turned to Broadway and live television. Recently I saw him in a television play called Arena in which he plays a hard-bitten but still decent and sensitive old political operative. His work had none of the ham and artificiality of his contemporaries--he could step right into a David Mamet play today, so easy, natural and strong was his work. Trust me, you could do worse than checking out Chester Morris, even in one of his Boston Blackie cheapies.