Monday, December 20, 2010
Small Soldiers is one of Joe Dante's tilt-shift satires, where prejudices/desires/America get miniaturized to the size of toys (see also Gremlins 2, Matinee, certain parts of Looney Tunes: Back in Action) and tossed around, burned, played with. Two well-meaning toymakers (a strangely Jerry Lewis-like David Cross, and Jay Mohr doing Dean-lite) design a line of action figures using their parent company's military artificial intelligence chips, unaware of the consequences. When the teenage son of a bumbling toy shop owner talks a delivery truck driver into letting him have a few for his store, they come to life and wreak Chuck Jones havoc (rockets, pop culture references, sound effects gags) on a sleepy town (locals include Phil Hartman and a 15-year-old Kirsten Dunst, seeming more alive than she does in any of her adult roles). Some of Dante's funniest material is here, as is some of his creepiest, like the scene where an army of sentient Barbie dolls tie Dunst while blasting a Led Zeppelin song.
Friday, December 17, 2010
Shane Black's gimmicky, giddy directorial debut Frankensteins together a mid-period action movie and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? into a lot of smartly-executed dumb fun. Robert Downey, Jr. (in what could be called "the Tony Randall role") plays a New York thief who stumbles into a Hollywood satire and in the process of getting whisked off to LA gets entangled in a thriller plot that involves his childhood crush (Michelle Monaghan) and hard-boiled private eye Gay Perry (Val Kilmer). Black has a grating tendency to "cynically" mock his own crowd-pleasing plot mechanics (before, of course, indulging in them), but he makes up for it with a strong command of formal gags, including Downey's self-aware narration, which would seem post-modern if it wasn't so firmly rooted in the cartoon humor of the 1950s.
Probably best known for its inclusion in Manny Farber's famous/notorious/seminal "'Best Films' of 1951" round-up, this cheapie Lippert Western (was there any other kind?) marked the directorial debut of the vastly-underrated Charles Marquis Warren, a man of wealthy, cultured origins (F. Scott Fitzgerald was his godfather) who realized that he simply preferred to write pulp cowboy and soldier stories. Of course he could never shake those high-brow East Coast origins, and what should have been just a quick Custer's Last Stand retelling instead becomes a languid drama heavy on psychological details; the indoor mise-en-scene is almost Fassbinderian in its careful framing of actors and use of mirrors, while the outdoor scenes have a shadowy naturalism. In many ways, this is the first Late Western, and its sparing use of action paradoxically makes it all the more tense. This is artful filmmaking that never resorts to cheap artiness.
The characters in Helmut Käutner's early films, more pre-war French than Third Reich German, exist in puckish spite of national politics. With the division of Germany after the war, the romantic realist (who owed more to Zola, Maupassant and Renoir than to his Weimar roots) turned into a disappointed humanist observer; his best films from the period directly following the war are about characters who exist either in direct resistance to or at the mercy of political forces. With her eyes stern and sad like Anne Wiazemsky's in Au hasard Balthazar, Eva Kotthaus plays an East German factory worker who kidnaps her son, the product of a wartime tryst with a soldier, from his West German grandparents; a romance develops between her and an affable West German border policeman (Erik Schumann). Käutner's command of interior and exterior spaces allows him to make a film of constantly shifting points-of-view (literally and emotionally); muscular camera movements and pivoting changes in perspective, where a shot may shift from a medium to a close-up in the midst of a dolly, create a world in permanent, controlled flux.
Monday, December 13, 2010
Wednesday, December 8, 2010
Saturday, December 4, 2010
In Spy Game, Redford and Pitt play CIA agents; Redford, once Pitt's mentor, arrives for his last day of work to discover that his former protege has been captured in China and that their mutual boss has decided that it's not worth it to rescue him. Throughout that 24 or so hour deadline before Pitt's execution, when Redford must tell the agency about his often difficult relationship with his old friend while also slyly engineering his rescue (partly, it becomes obvious, out of a sense of guilt and a newfound acceptance of his friend's life apart from him), Pitt is unconscious on the other side of the globe. In the lengthy flashbacks, they're as likely to be separated as together, occupying different spheres even when sitting across from each other at a table.
The framing cuts them apart and then the editing glues them back together until it becomes clear that their camaraderie isn't a question of professionalism and day-to-day interaction (the seeds of many of Hawks'—and Johnnie To's—most complex relationships) and is in fact an emotional bond existing on some kind of "more subtle level." Sure, ok, this is the usual male weepie hokum, but it's in movies more than anywhere else that hokum finds its greatest opportunity to be profound. At the speed at which the shots change, almost spinning, this idea is unable to be carried as a clearly-discernable metaphor; it simply becomes the accepted reality of the style. It's a bond that's already extant at the start of the film, and which we become privy to through rhythms; after a while, it's simply assumed that any shot of Redford will soon be followed by a shot of Pitt, regardless of where or when the two them are. Scott's intuitive approach—which eschews most conventions of setting up a scene (sometimes one will start only to briefly cut back to another one) and construction (unrelated shots from other scenes will be edited in)—lulls one into intuitions.
Scott's directorial technique uses a very large number of cameras and very few takes (at least for a modern Hollywood movie). It requires a finessed and detailed acting; as in certain kinds of theatre, a performance must function when viewed from any angle. It also gives performances an off-the-cuff quality, because these same actors who must act in all directions are also unable to grind a scene down to its bones over the course of a dozen takes. There's a lot of improvisatory fat, especially in Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, which—as a movie about two flawed men talking to each other over a radio—is nearly an epic of just-guys-shooting-the-shit hard-boiled one-liners, set-up & punchline games and epigrammatic nonsense.
Even the characters who start out as Michael Bay-like caricatures of authority (James Gandolfini's unpopular mayor, John Turturro's negotiator) grow into likeable people through a profusion of jokes and asides, more or less the same way as strangers stuck in the same place might come to be on friendly terms (it helps that both characters do not devolve, as their equivalents in Bay movies do, into punching bags for third act violence, but instead are shown to be helpful and worthwhile people). There's something genuine and uncomfortably intimate to this union of foul-mouthed voices who occupy the same screen but whose bodies are never in the frame together; when Travolta says to Denzel Washington, upon finally meeting him near the end of the film, "You're taller than I thought ... and good-looking, too," you know he means it.
Friday, December 3, 2010
Cinephilia set itself aside from mere film-buffery by becoming the hunt for small moments and small films, things that appeared to exist outside the realm of obvious gesture. Criticism sought to explain the tracking shot; cinephilia looked for the meanings of drifting cigarette smoke, stray glances and apparent accidents, and to divine the patterns of hats, cars and donkeys.
Over the decades, the practice of filmmaking has changed. Though it's still rare for directors to act as their own cinematographers, it's common for them to operate the camera when they feel like it, especially during handheld shots.
It could be argued that the ongoing switch to working digitally has been more revolutionary in how it has changed the editing of films than in how it's affected the aesthetics of the image. Though most directors still use a professional for the job, director / editors are increasingly common and a director is more likely to take an active role in editing instead of just writing memos and putting together plans. In her recollection of working with the late Eric Rohmer for a recent issue of Senses of Cinema, Jackie Raynal writes that the director hired her as an editor because she was good with her hands; physical editing takes dexterity and skill. On the other hand, most people (and this includes directors) can learn the basics of Final Cut Pro in an afternoon. Editing has moved from the solitary, poorly-lit editing room to the Steenbeck and into comfortable multi-screen editing suites. Nonlinear editing gives decisions fluidity; it's no longer a question of cutting and splicing, but of composing and arranging. It enables more intuitive approaches. In big-budget productions, the approach to editing has increasingly shifted from the fulfillment of plans to the construction of scenes out of moments. The director, who was once defined by an iron will, must now also have a hunter's instinct.
Combined with the increased input directors have into the mixing of the sound in their films (which itself has gone from mono to stereo to surround), the control afforded by color correction and digital processing of the image and the fact that even productions shot on film stock use video replays to judge takes instead of waiting for the daillies, on the increasing prevalence of improvisation (which nowadays pretty much dominates American comedy, which was once the set domain of the screenwriter), multiple-camera set-ups and dozens of takes, it can be said that filmmaking operates on a more minute level now than ever before. The reign of the art director has ended, and the reign of color grader has begun. Though much of the way film is defined and judged is still based on grand gestures—on obvious stylistic propertie—the people making films have a greater than ever awareness and control of the small moments that had previously been the obsession of the cinephiles. In essence, filmmaking has caught up with cinephilia while outpacing commonly-accepted theory and criticism.
Part of the reason the Tony Scott movies of the 2000s are disliked by many—and intensely loved by others—is the total lack of "big" gestures in his current approach to directing. These movies consist entirely of small moments, off-the-cuff images, strung together into something massive yet lacking an "obvious" grand design. No big plans, just hidden smiles. This makes Scott a harder sell than similarly-concerned directors like Michael Mann, who anchors his intuitive moments to grand ones, or Claire Denis, who presents them as the directorial gestures that they are. The party line on Scott is that he's an "empty stylist," a man who makes "technically accomplished" and therefore insubstantial films with too much editing. On the one hand, I probably wouldn't be here defending Scott if his movies consisted of shots that ran for minutes instead of seconds; on the other hand, I wouldn't think they were worth defending if that were true.
You've probably figured this one out: I don't intend to brush off Scott's style, nor am I going to defend it as candy, as sugary, calorie-free style, as "pure color" or "style-for-the-sake-of-style-get-over-it-and-have-some-fun-why-don't-you." Scott's recent films are beautiful, but beauty is not a question of surfaces (contrary to the old saying, it's "prettiness" that's merely skin-deep). I am here to defend the substance and morality of Scott's recent films, and a defense of the recent Scott is, at its core, a defense of his editing: the jitters, the saccades, the 250 BPM intercutting, crashing and burning that are integral to the hidden-in-plain-view heart of Scott.
Scott's three great movies of the 2000s—Spy Game, Deja Vu and The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3—are metaphysical romances, though only Deja Vu is a romance in conventional terms. Spy Game and Pelham can be summed up in the words in which Howard Hawks once described A Girl in Every Port: "'a love story between two men," an unerotic fraternity that borders on courtship, and which, described in terms of conventional romances, whether straight or gay, would make Spy Game a melancholy story of break-up and reconciliation and Pelham a sort of mutant screwball comedy, where two men start the film as strangers set against each other and develop mutual admiration by prying open one another's faults. This is fairly traditional Hawks Territory, but what's integral to Hawks is presence, which isn't just a question of two or more people occupying the same constructed (i.e. classically delineated) space, but the same frame, whereas the relationships between Brad Pitt and Robert Redford in Spy Game, Denzel Washington and Paula Patton in Deja Vu and Washington and John Travolta in The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 all exist across canyons of physical space, narrative time and, most importantly, editing.So here we leave Hawks Territory and enter the historical domain of Frank Borzage—yet Borzage's criss-crossing of space and time sprouts forth from classical ideas about both, and the love story in a movie like I've Always Loved You (the most Borzagean of titles: a sentence that includes the personal aspect of love while simultaneously painting it as something beyond time) is impossible without a firm grounding; love can't transcend nothing—to break through, you have to make a wall first. Borzage's reputation as a "transcendent romantic" is misleading—not only because it fails to encompass his varied work, but because it denies the tactile, fingertips-and-nostrils physicality of those films of his that are romances. Scott, however, is genuinely uninterested in both concrete reality and linear time—in the fabled "clear delineation of space" or the defined boundaries between scenes that are supposedly the mark of, respectively, good directors and dramatic construction.