Thursday, April 29, 2010

Angry lady, out of focus: The Muse (Albert Brooks, 1999)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Gershwin (Alain Resnais, 1992)
Wild Wild West (Barry Sonnenfeld, 1999; photographed by Michael Ballhaus)

Jon Peters, who produced this, also produced Money Train (a movie Wild Wild West frequently resembles -- and not only because it's about two cops, one white, one black, who spend a lot time around trains), and the entire plot was contrived to fulfill the hairstylist-turned-producer's lifelong dream of making a movie where the characters fight a giant spider in the end. It's a lot of high-concept dumbassery, but it's also easily the most fun Barry Sonnenfeld movie. Actually, it's at its worst ("cool" CGI, a long gay panic gag that's doubly offensive because of its awful comic timing) when Sonnenfeld is Sonnenfeld and at its best when Sonnenfeld apes Joe Dante: assassins pretend to be paintings, a water tower tumbles over and flushes out Will Smith, a dog and an earhorn recreate the HMV logo. It's about 40% blatant re-shoots (during which the studio apparently tried to turn this into a Bob Hope / Bing Crosby movie) and the sort of production where all of the actors (expertly miscast) seem "woefully underused." The period detail amounts to characters constantly pointing out that Will Smith is "a Negro," and both leads end up in drag at different points in the film (Kevin Kline treats it like he's Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot; Will Smith plays it like he's Bugs Bunny).
Vacancy (Nimród Antal, 2007)

One thing I like about Vacancy -- and this is also true of Armored, and I hope will be true of Predators -- is how pared down the movie is. The first 15 minutes of the movie take place almost entirely inside of the car being driven by the two main characters. Every possible angle is deployed to construct conventionally-paced drama inside of such a small space: shots of rear-view mirrors, unusual framings to keep two people sitting next to each other from appearing in the same frame, reflections on the windshield.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Kathleen Munroe in Survival of the Dead
(George A. Romero, 2009; photographed by Adam Swica)
[a couple of paragraphs from an unfinished review of World on a Wire, intended to coincide with the film's week-long run at the Museum of Modern Art in New York earlier this month]

The only starring role Fassbinder would give occasional company player Klaus Löwitsch, the lead in World on a Wire is Fred Stiller, a computer scientist with the mannerisms (and manners) of a pulp detective. A drinking game could be invented based on the number of times he grabs characters by the lapels (take two shots if he then pushes them against a wall or throws them against a table). Like coolcat sourpuss Jean-Louis Trintignant (to whom he bears a passing resemblance), Löwitsch expresses suspicion, fear, anger and shock though varying degrees of sullenness. He has an Eddie Munster-like widow’s peak that creeps up from under the brim of his fedora and the sort of intensity that, in film history, is the provenance of shorter men.


Here’s a rule of thumb a lot of cinephiles learn pretty early on: what looks good on a big screen doesn’t always look good on a small one, but what looks good on a small screen will always look good on a big one.

No surprise then that some of best revivals to come to theaters in the last few years – Out 1, Berlin Alexanderplatz and now World on a Wire – were all originally conceived for television. Though Jacques Rivette had to make an edited-down theatrical version for his film to get shown, Fassbinder shot and edited Berlin Alexanderplatz and World on a Wire exclusively for TV (he even entertained plans of remaking Berlin Alexanderplatz as a theatrically-shown feature with an international cast). On the small screen of a TV or a laptop, it's easier to grasp the geometric design of an image. At the expense of the details of mise-en-scene, the most rudimentary elements of framing and editing make themselves more obvious, a fact very few people seem to harness (Jack Webb was a notable exception). Like Roberto Rossellini, Fassbinder understood this.
Terminator: Salvation (McG, 2009)

Christian Bale in Terminator: Salvation is a puffy, ugly human face surrounded by immaculate set design. His skin is a bruised carmine pink. The chin is shaped by a rust-colored beard, the head is supported by a puce neck.

As Lev Kuleshov found with Ivan Mosjoukine (whose face would come to define so many ideas about cinema) and David Lynch rediscovered with Laura Dern in Inland Empire, the image of a face can be more expressive than a facial expression. When a CGI double of Arnold Schwarzenegger arrives late in the movie, that’s when the film finally confirms what’s long been suspected: that the Terminator movies are about décor, about wallpaper patterns and reflections. The real thing was always an afterthought. There’s a reason the only actor whose image (if not presence) has stayed consistent throughout the series is the one playing a robot.

Maybe its because it continues insisting that it’s “about humanity” that Terminator: Salvation seems more inhuman than Michael Bay’s burlesque Transformers, a Back to the Future pastiche combined with the image of a robot pissing on a man’s head and a bit of John Milius fantasy, all Hardy Boys teenage adventure and mythical authority figures (Jon Voight as the secretary of defense in that film might as well be John Bennet Perry as General MacArthur in Farewell to the King).

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Starship Troopers (Paul Verhoeven, 1997)

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Claudia Cardinale in La ragazza di Bube
(Luigi Comencini, 1963; photographed by Gianni Di Venanzo)

On The Pink Hotel

The Pink Hotel (Chris Hefner, 2010)

Calling a black-and-white movie The Pink Hotel seems perverse, until you remember that under bright studio lighting, pink often made a better white than the real thing. The famous drab white walls of The Passion of Joan of Arc were in fact all pink, and making them white would have made their texture invisible (a similar practice was the use of black to play red, because on black-and-white stock, the real thing didn't have the necessary intensity).

Though most points of comparison for the film seem to involve Guy Maddin (and this is only reinforced by the fact that director Chris Hefner will be working on Maddin's next film), The Pink Hotel actually makes no attempt to mimic or even lampoon the aesthetics of a past cinema, with the exception of the cast's Mid-Atlantic accents. And though its images were shot on grainy Super 8, the film's complex soundtrack is digitally crisp. The movie it most closely resembles -- in terms of pacing, framing, editing, sound design and structure -- is Inland Empire. It dreams a handful of incomplete stories, possibly occurring at different times: a pissed-off concierge who decides to destroy the Pink Hotel and spends the rest of the movie hiding bombs (the explosion never occurs, but we have no reason to believe that it won't), a bored little girl playing around the hallways, an inexplicably wounded man alone in his room and the cast and crew of a laughable melodrama who are shooting scenes in one of the suites.

Ray Pride, in his review for Newcity, was pretty right on about calling the setting a cut-rate version of the hotel from Last Year at Marienbad. The Pink Hotel is opulent only in description: all we see are dingy hallways, ugly suites, empty basements and boiler rooms. What makes the movie function as a critique of luxury is that there's no real luxury in it. Even the most decadent characters look incredibly tense, and half of their actions seem as it first like preparations for suicide. A movie about the guilt of the privileged with no privilege in it.

Hong Movies

"Lost in the Mountains," Hong Sang-soo's segment from Visitors (Hong Sang-soo / Naomi Kawase / Lav Diaz, 2009)

Every time Hong Sang-soo gets behind a camera, he sets out to make the same movie. That isn't to say every Hong movie is the same. Maybe every time he sets out, he fails. Maybe his career will become the story of a man who attempts to make the perfect autobiography and produces only beautiful fictions. Maybe Hong's self-critical aparatus is too strong, maybe he is too consciously attempting to make the same film over and over again to actually make the same film over and over again.

While countless writers and directors repeat themselves, thinking each repetition is an original, every one of Hong's copies boldly veers off in a new direction. The variations are not subtle: from the same basic material, he can produce a starkly schematic movie like The Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, a direct and fluid one like A Tale of Cinema or a dense and massive one like Night and Day. The elements remain the same: too much drinking leading to too much talking; surly filmmakers and artists, often educated in the United States; people who say too much when they should keep their mouths shut and keep silent when it's their turn to speak; friendships that exist more in theory or history (in Hong, the present is always the end of the past) than in practice; characters who are defined by whether they smoke, don't smoke or say they don't smoke but then bum cigarettes. A universe of puffy jackets (South Korea always looks so damn cold in Hong movies) and half-empty bottles. Hong's characters are always saved by their pettiness. If they were ever frank, it would destroy their lives.

Besides the subjects and techniques (lengthy takes that either frame a single person in the center, two people on opposite ends of the frame or three people forming a triangle, a camera that moves only to follow characters and, since around A Tale of Cinema, a distinctive and forceful use of the zoom), what all of Hong's films have in common is that they're all at least pretty good.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Still from Rentrée des classes
(Jacques Rozier, 1955; photographed by René Mathelin)

Les Glaciers (Jean Fautrier, 1926; Oil on canvas)

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Public Eye (Howard Franklin, 1992)

Monday, April 19, 2010

Two photos taken by an automated camera attached to a homing pigeon, 1908

German homing photo-pigeon, c. World War I

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Me and Orson Welles (Richard Linklater, 2009)

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Youth in Action #6

"The filmmakers Truffaut attacked, as Cahiers' top hatchet man, have two things in common: they all embody the craftsmanlike approach of French cinema professionals before the nouvelle vague set fire to the rulebook; also, they're all very good."
--David Cairns, "That Glaring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze"
An Examination at the Faculty of Medicine (1901)
For Hal Hartley, the movement of the camera is derived from the movement of the subject; the camera doesn't move with the subject, but in opposition. I'm thinking here of the way the camera pulls away from two men fighting in The Unbelievable Truth until they become shapes on a wall, or the way a man comes into focus at the beginning of Henry Fool by walking towards the camera. The camera is the partner of the action, and together they form a dance. Figures swing into the frame. One of Hartley's signature techniques is a shot that starts before a character has entered the frame and ends a half-second after they've left it. The elements of a Hartley image are all completely physical: people come in and out of shadows they way they come in and out of doors.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Updated: 2/5/13

[A deliberately incomplete index of links to texts available online. Newest additions are in bold.]

Notebook (formerly The Auteurs' Notebook)
April 2009 - present

Short Notes:
Roundtables and Polls: 
February 2013 - present

Selections from Tisch Film Review
December 2008 - February, 2010

The Chicago Reader
September 2010 - present

Capsule reviews:
Ebert presents At the Movies (television)
January 2011 - present
CINE-FILE.infoJanuary 2007 - present

A few selections from this blog
January 2007 - present

Friday, April 9, 2010

Michel Simon flings a chamberpot at the camera in On Purge Bébé (1931)

Thursday, April 8, 2010

French Cancan (1955)

The River (1951)

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Key Moments from 21st Century Cinema: The Cigarette War

Dead Or Alive 2: Birds (Takashi Miike, 2000)

Ben Sachs' essay on the film is up at the Auteurs' Notebook.
Dissolve from Hoodlum (Bill Duke, 1997)

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

“We have just screened Il deserto Rosso, would you please let us know if Technicolor desaturated the film. Also we would like any information that you can get regarding types of filters used, etc. One of the credits on this picture reads: 'I colori ‘TINTAL’ sono stati forniti dal COLORIFICIO ITALIANO MAX MEYER' I think the translation of this credit is: 'The colors ‘TINTAL’ were provided by MAX MEYER ITALIAN COLOR INDUSTRY' What exactly is 'TINTAL'? Did the MAX MEYER Company supply the prints for the sets or did they work in conjunction with Mr. Antonioni and Mr. di Palma to design the colors of the sets, or what?"

--Letter from Alfred Hitchcock's assistant, Peggy Robertson, to Giulio Ascarelli of Universal Films in Rome, April 1965, as quoted in "Notes on Some Limits of Technicolor: The Antonioni Case". The "we" refers to herself and Hitchcock.

Youth in Action #5

Final Victory (Patrick Tam, 1987)

The First Italian Neorealist

[This text integrates comments I made on the essay "All the Images" in October, 2009]

The Cardsharps (Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, c. 1594)

Caravaggio was the first neorealist, a neorealist before the realists; the fact that, like the great neo-realists of cinema, he also happened to be an Italian is just an added bonus.

I can't think of a word other than "neorealism" for his approach to the profession of being a painter: his use of ordinary-looking models (who, in the drama of Caravaggio's paintings, could just as easily / accurately be called actors); his way of developing meaning through the representation of physical reality; his interest in using the drama of the canvas to represent the social origins and repercussions of an event. And in working quickly and improvisationally (almost all of his work was done directly on the canvas, with few or no sketches), he also prefigured the directors of the 1950s and 1960s who would take inspiration from neorealism.

My favorite Caravaggio painting -- and one that's obsessed me for a while -- is an early one called The Cardsharps. The painting depicts three men: a man playing cards, the man cheating him, and an older man advising the card player (an accomplice of the cheater).

The figures are arranged in such a way that the activities of all three men can be seen clearly, as can the expressions on their faces: the cheater and the one being cheated both have innocent expressions on their faces. The young man being cheated is oblivious; he looks downright pleased, blissfully unaware of the system he is part of. It took until cinema came along for someone else to be able to use images representative of reality to so accurately depict what they felt were the unspoken forces at work in a moment.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Bruce Springsteen, "I'm On Fire" (John Sayles, 1986)

A lesson in the use of color, camera movement, nighttime streets, sound, cars and the 1.37 frame. And the way Springsteen half-swallows "I'll see ya" in the intro gets to me. Some kinda masterpiece.
M. Schérer lookin' smoove

"When it came to the editing of the sound, it took months! Rohmer was thrifty, but he was not sparing of his time. A year before the shoot, he would go to the exact location, and start recording all the ambient sounds – birds, dogs, cars, etc… – at the exact month and even week that the shooting was supposed to take place. This is why the sound editing took so long, for the Master was a real stickler about accuracy. You couldn’t put the recording of a summer fly taken in June on the soundtrack of a film shot in July and August. You had to find the exact recording of the flies buzzing through the landscapes in July and August! In those days, apart from Michel Fano and Antoine Bonfanti, film professionals had not yet constituted sound effect libraries – but you had private sound collectors, regular people (often doctors…) who recorded the sound of animals, birds, flies, dogs etc… All day long, in the editing room, I was splicing these little bits of magnetic tapes – and there were so many of them! It was really like the delicate, minute work of a seamstress, or a lacemaker. Meanwhile Rohmer was on the phone calling doctors in Rouen or Poitiers to inquire if they had sounds of this specific fly, or of this chaffinch that would sing only between two and five…"

--Jackie Raynal, "When Rohmer Was Making 'Silent Films'"

The Preminger Look

Nicol Williamson and Iman in The Human Factor (1979)

Gary Cooper in The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955)

As Billy Wilder characters have a distinctive look that they give, that quick glance at the wallpaper that when combined with a bemused sigh makes a sort of wordless "That's life for ya," so Otto Preminger's men have a look.

Preminger's men -- these guys, like James Stewart or Nicol Williamson or David Niven or Gary Cooper or Frank Sinatra, who wear their graying hair in a way that reveals their foreheads and their widow's peaks and have the sort of manly faces that don't look right with beards but could handle a mustache -- represent a wide variety of background and behaviors, united by a shared lack of one quality: boyishness. Not to say that they're old and infirm, but they are never youthful. They act their age. Cary Grant, for one, could've never been in an Otto Preminger movie.

The look these men of a certain age give is a fixed stare, the eyes half open. Their hands are down on the table, or maybe fiddling with something. Sometimes a tumbler is in the right hand. They realize they're fucked. They're in check; the moment you catch that look in their eyes you know they're going to try their damnedest to not get to mate.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Stax/Volt Revue Live In Norway 1967

The whole thing is so goddamn beautiful, but what really gets me is the shot that starts at around 1:51. I don't recommend skipping ahead -- just wait for it. These guys know how to use their legs. Watch their legs.

[Thanks to Michael Castelle for the tip.]
Jean-Louis Trintignant in The Man Who Lies
(Alain Robbe-Grillet, 1968; photographed by Igor Luther)

Mike Lane in The Harder They Fall
(Mark Robson, 1956; photographed by Burnett Guffey)

Nocturno 29 (Pere Portabella, 1968)

Saturday, April 3, 2010

A Dictionary of Accepted Ideas, with apologies to Gustave F.

1970s: The last decade movies were any good.

action: Not a serious genre, unlike detective movies or musicals.

art: What all movies aspire to be.

art film: A genre within which the deficiencies of commercial cinema are treated as strengths.

auteur: Every director.

Bresson: "Transcendental."

budget: Something it's possible to have too little of, but never too much of. A small budget is called "low," but a high one is called "big."

Cassavetes: 100% improvised.

cinema: Has been either dead or dying for over 100 years.

clear delineation of space: "The mark of a good director" and a very easy way to defend a bad one or attack a great one.

close-up: Important if the film was made before 2000; unnecessary if made after 2000.

comedy: Easier to make than drama.

conservative: No good directors were ever conservatives. Good directors who say they are conservatives are all crypto-Leftists.

criticism: Either dying or useless.

deep focus: Invented by Renoir.

early films: Always a director's best.

Eastwood: Crypto-Leftist.

Eisenstein: Invented almost everything.

editing: The more obviously grounded in existing theories, the better.

experimental film: New and fresh even when recycling 80-year-old ideas.

film stock: Proof of seriousness. Looks better than HD.

French cinema: A genre.

Griffith: "While no straightforward, consistent political stance is in evidence in the Griffith oeuvre, there is a theme that runs through his major works. That theme is Family."

handheld: How we see the world.

horror: See "comedy."

innovation: Important in old films, to be ignored in new ones.

Japanese cinema: Contemplative, because of Buddhism or Shinto or whatever their religion is called.

Jia: The only director who understands our modern world.

late films: The less they resemble the early films, the worse.

literature: Denser and more complex than cinema.

long take: The pinnacle of filmmaking, even when the director is using it to save money and time.

Kael: A great critic.

Kubrick: Hated humanity.

maturity: What young filmmakers should aspire to. Called "out-dated-ness" or "senility" if the director is over 70.

metaphors: Always "obvious."

mise-en-scene: Only present in great films.

Modern Times: A silent film.

montage: Didn't exist until Eisenstein, who either invented it or discovered it.

movie theater: The only place were cinema exists.

novelistic: A great quality for films to have, since they're all just failed books anyway. See "literature."

Ozu: His films are slow.

poetic: Usually used to describe an idea that would be called bad in poetry but is considered good in a movie.

pure cinema: Somehow different from all other cinema.

religion: Always bad to have in films, unless you don't understand its theology.

Renoir: Invented everything Eisenstein didn't invent.

Rohmer: Made the same movie over and over again.

Russian cinema: One of many things invented by Eisenstein.

science fiction: The quality of a sci-fi movie is the inverse of its special effects budget.

slapstick: Only good if the performer never talks.

sound: Something no one wants to hear about or talk about.

stagy: A terrible quality for a movie to have, even worse than resembling a TV show. Opposite of "novelistic."

video: Not cinema.

voice-over: Unacceptable in a contemporary film.

Welles: A failure. Didn't even make Citizen Kane himself.

when you were young: The time when movies were better.

wide shot: See "maturity."

youthful energy: What all older filmmakers should aspire to. If the director is under 40, then they're to be ignored.

zoom: Despite being something that can only happen in a moving image, considered "uncinematic."

Supercoherence, Revisited

[Spurred by a comment by Adrian Martin at Girish Shambu's blog, here's a revision -- maybe more accurately called a "re-writing" -- of an essay originally written for Tisch Film Review in 2008]

The Intruder (Claire Denis, 2004)

I would nominate The Intruder for the title of "most straightforward film ever made." Straightforward, in the sense that it has no pretenses, and that is not encumbered by anything: not by the usual patterns and models of framing, editing or just plain filmmaking, nor by traditions of narrative. The movie isn't structured along the lines through which we usually approach memory and experience. It passes over the "conscious" story, the way we think about our experiences, instead presenting a sequence of events and memories in the way we experience them. And it’s not concerned with who is experiencing what or why, or the usual delineations of character and time. It shows how a moment exists before we understand that it has occurred.

Since its raw material involves the filming of reality, cinema has always built itself and its structures on empiricism. But I believe that the reason we have movies is because our interests go beyond our senses. The camera is not an extension of the eye and the microphone doesn’t hear the world the way we do. At its heart, cinema is the idea of turning reality into a metaphor for itself.

The history of cinema begins with a complete unity of a plan and a moment (a single shot, a single idea), and then develops into increasingly complicated plans (casting orders, budgets, eventually screenplays) which in turn require systems (studio shooting, acting styles, crew hierarchies) for getting the fleeting -- "the moment of production," you could call it -- to conform to the plan. We invented directors after we invented something that needed directing, chief cameramen after we had plans that needed unity, editors when we had need for editing, movie actors when we invented something for them to act out. The holy plan-séquence was a way to maintain coherence between the moment of production and the finished film while also maintaining coherence with the original plan. The art of screenwriting, in its classical form, was the art of inventing structures strong enough to survive the ups and downs of the momentary.

But the defining trait of cinema as it moves into the 21st century is the relocation of coherence from the level of scenes to the level of moments -- the individual relationship between shots instead of the way those shots might be arranged to construct "dramatic action." We are discovering the molecular, maybe even the atomic level of cinema.

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (Tony Scott, 2009)

Tony Scott is a director often attacked for his "incoherence." Innovation often resembles deficiency.

Sure, his best films lack a clear delineation of space or clear cut-offs for where scenes might end and begin. But the coherence in his films is not between the pages of a script; its between shots, and his greatest asset (both to himself and to cinema as a whole) is his ability to construct scenes out of shots that take place across great distances of space or time, as in his two best movies: Deja Vu (much of whose running time consists of characters watching a past event through a sort of time machine) and his remake of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (where the two main characters develop a complex relationship despite not meeting until the end of the movie).