Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Key Images of 21st Century Cinema #16: "Have fun."

Arnold Schwarzenegger tells The Rock the secret to being an action star in The Rundown (Peter Berg, 2003)

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Adventures of Allan Dwan #1

Brewster's Millions (Allan Dwan, 1945)

Key Moments of 21st Century Cinema: Let me define "directing" for you

The first ten minutes of Breaking News (Johnnie To, 2004)


Armored (Nimrod Antal, 2009; photographed by Andrzej Sekula)
[Some short pieces, mostly recent, for Cine-File]

Hôtel du Nord (Marcel Carné, 1938)

[This Carné was being screened in a 35mm print with a lecture at the Film Studies Center]

The Hôtel du Nord is another of Marcel Carné's microcosms--spartan but not completely dingy, a place for those who are down-on-their-luck but aren't yet impoverished. It's close to the railroad, and seems to be located in a duller part of the city than Visconti's Le Notti Bianchi was set in.

Pierre (Jean-Pierre Aumont, who looks like a grown boy) and Renee (Annabella, who looks like a woman) check in. They've decided that double suicide is the next step their romance should take. Pierre chickens out, but not before he shoots Renee, who, rescued by a local pimp, lives. Pierre ends up in jail and the pimp ends up in love with Renee, who still loves her Pierre. It's got neither Jacques Prevert's screenwriting nor Jean Gabin's scowl -- yet Hôtel du Nord is Marcel Carné's finest film, because Carné's films are always measured by their endings (his direction being a question of execution, like Fassbinder's, in every sense of the word) and the conclusion of Hôtel du Nord is his most tragic, his truest, and his least forced. Gabin died at the end of Port of Shadows for no reason except a cruel fate (oh, all the terrible things Jacques Prevert characters had to suffer in the name of dramatic irony!). The death (and life) at the end of Hôtel du Nord seems to be the product of nothing more than human nature.

The Chaser (Na Hong-Jin, 2008)

[The film has a week-long run earlier this year]

The defining trait of most serial killer movies is the idea that serial killers are more interesting than the regular people chasing them. It's also often the problem with them, too. The investigators either become paper-thin dramatic foils for our beloved villains (who in turn become showcases for the idea that misanthropy is inherently charming) or have to be "troubled" (results may vary; William Petersen's Will Graham, in Manhunter, takes that characterization to its poetic extreme).

Hong-Jin Na's scenario for The Chaser is essentially based on giving the middle finger to that convention, as well as to the equally common ploy of making the killer's apprehension the film's climax. Here, the ex-cop-turned-pimp investigating the crimes is more interesting than the sorta boring dude he pursues and catches within the first 40 minutes. The guy even confesses. But the script doesn't let the investigators off easy: the confession's inadmissible, so for most of the rest of the movie, our pimp and his former colleagues have to scramble and find evidence (and a missing woman) before the 12 hours they're legally allowed to hold a suspect without evidence are up.

Besides a clever script - and the shot where Yun-seok Kim whacks a guy over the head with a folding chair - what The Chaser has to recommend it is its first half-hour, cut very quickly but almost never between the same takes. Every edit instead brings a new image - and not just of lowlifes, but low life. Too often in film, the criminal (under)world is a place in stasis. But The Chaser's Nighttown is a place where people actually live and work, like in a Yuzo Kawashima movie. None of that "it's hard out there for a pimp" nonsense - it's a hard world, period. Everybody here has pincers for hands. Na doesn't marvel, and it gives the film a criminal vigor.

Disengagement (Amos Gitai, 2007)

[This was written for Disengagement's screenings as part of EU Fest]

I recall a recent article about Klaus Schmidt, the man who started the dig at Göbekli Tepe, the world’s oldest known temple. Schmidt came to Turkey by following the notes of another archeologist who had visited Göbekli Tepe decades prior and decided not to investigate further. Arriving at the site, Schmidt looks around. He spots what he recognizes to be the remains of a limestone quarry, and realizes that a structure must be buried under the hill he’s standing on. At that moment, he understands why the earlier archeologist had left. He has a minute to make his decision: either he jots some notes in his journal and turns around, as the other man had done, or he can walk forward to investigate. If he does, he’ll spend the rest of his life digging into this hill. Sometime during the 1980s, Amos Gitai made that same decision: to dig up old and recent ruins using every technique available to him.

Disengagement was made in 2007, before the excellent One Day You'll Understand (which played at the Film Center last year) and Carmel (which hasn’t yet played in the city). It’s a film in two acts with a prologue. The prologue: a handsome Israeli man of French citizenship flirts with a Palestinian woman of Dutch citizenship aboard a train; both carry passports for countries they don’t belong to. Act one: the man is a policeman, taking leave in France before he must evict settlers from the West Bank. He’s there for the funeral of his adopted father, and he spends his time rejecting the desperate, kinda incestuous advances of his adopted sister and sitting around in a dilapidated mansion that alternately resembles the circus from Lola Montes and a war zone from Notre Musique. Act two: he returns to Israel and the sister comes with him, looking for a daughter she gave up for adoption, who now works as a schoolteacher in Gaza.

All of this is depicted with scientific accuracy. Or maybe that should read “poetic accuracy,” since the impulses of science and poetry are the same: to seek out terms with which to define our experience of the world.

Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (Damien Chazelle, 2009)

[The film was screened as part of CIMM fest]

In the 1970s, Jacques Rivette took the chance meetings and unlikely coincidences of a Hollywood plot to their natural conclusions: paranoia. If you lived in a world where everyone was star-crossed and every encounter with a stranger served some purpose in a grand narrative, you'd be paranoid too. Whether he intends to or not (and since he's a graduate of Harvard's film department, it's safe to assume he's seen some Rivette), Damien Chazelle has started there and worked his way back, finding the giddy and the romantic in the most archetypal "Rivettian" images: endless rehearsals (here it's musicians instead of actors); actors and non-actors intermingling awkwardly; people groping their way around rooms, inspecting the mise-en-scene as if they can only see three feet in front of them; individuals communicating in stares and gestures as though language has failed them.

But these sorts of inversions are par for the course, because there's an element of gleeful perversity to Chazelle's debut, a reversal of values: it's a musical shot in black-and-white 16mm in Academy ratio (reportedly made with a camcorder strapped to the top of the Aaton to record sound), but with a crisp, digitally recorded score. The film has no dolly shots and no cranes, but it has a 90-piece orchestra. Dialogue is not Chazelle's strong suit; he mixes conversations as if they were crowd noise, as if the words his cast comes up with don't really matter. But when they start to sing, their voices are clear, and the strings soaring behind them are even clearer, as in the film's first true musical number: a single take with two tap dance routines that proves Chazelle knows how to use the lowly zoom better than any of its current crop of obsessive practitioners; that is, he doesn't need dollies. And when his characters don't speak, when their communication expresses itself solely through hands lightly touching others on a subway handrail, or through a cut between two faces, they're even clearer.

The Man From London (Bela Tarr, 2007)

[Written for the film's belated Chicago run last month]

By the late 2000s, we finally found a place for Bela Tarr movies. But maybe not for new Bela Tarr movies. When Facets finally put Satantango (1994) out on DVD in 2008, it was as heralded as The Man from London was ignored on the festival circuit.

Many have complained that the film is "style for the sake of style," as though cinema consists of something other than style and that a tracking shot represents less substance than dialogue. At this point, Tarr's style can't be separated from what he means to express: he isn't trying to bend the world to fit a set of techniques, but using those techniques (slow zooms, long takes, black-and-white film stock, post-synced sound) as a launching point for the creation of a world; every movement of the dolly establishes a new geography.

If you're gonna complain that the action of a Tarr is "unrealistically" slow, you might as well complain about the coincidences of a Hitchcock or the rapport police and thieves enjoy in a Mann. The film's soundtrack, which is as musique concrete as Play Time's, combines Mihaly Vig's synth strings with Tarkovsky's (or are they Fassbinder's? or maybe even Welles'?) post-synced voices. Yeah, sure, even the current version of the movie, re-dubbed following complaints about the voice-acting at Cannes, is as jarring in its mismatch of voices as an Americanized giallo. But that isn't a deficiency. There are no deficiencies in a movie where everything is intentional.

The Man from London
's capriccio is a glum French port, populated with little lost men imported wholesale from the opening shot of Werckmeister Harmonies. Maloin (Miroslav Krobot), his jacket collar permanently turned up, operates a railroad switchyard by the docks. The half-hour opening sequence, a virtuoso example of Tarr's directing, has more than a little of De Palma's Snake Eyes to it: the first visible cut occurs roughly 13 1/2 minutes in, and this dialogue-less series of dollies, zoom-ins, zoom-outs, and measured movements of the camera crane creates a tiny universe of half-noticed intrigues and sleepy tension, introducing every mystery the remainder of the film unpacks, if not solves. There's a suitcase, a ship (as menacing as that ferry in The Ghost Writer) and a few men who hide in the shadows. Whatever you may think of the slow movement of the camera in The Man From London, you can never be completely sure where that camera will go. It restores mystery to mysteries. The wind, fog and rain, which always arrive on cue, may be fake, but its sense of wonder is genuine.

35 Shots of Rum (Claire Denis, 2008)

[The film finally opened in Chicago at the beginning of 2010]

Claire Denis is the greatest director of our time. Every new film of hers provides sufficient evidence to prove that statement.

Let's take the case of 35 Shots of Rum, which isn't her newest film (that would be White Material), but the newest to screen in Chicago. 35 Shots is set, like her earlier Nenette & Boni, in a small world, one that consists largely of a handsome, quiet train operator approaching 50 (Alex Descas, who gets better with every gray hair) and his beautiful college student daughter (Mati Diop).

Crossing over their borders are three intruders: a neighbor (Gregoire Colin, almost as familiar a face in Denis' films as Descas) threatening to move away while playing out a sort of romance with the daughter; the train operator's on-and-off girlfriend (Nicole Dogue), a cab driver that he tries to keep at arm's length; and Rene (pensive Julieth Mars Toussaint), the train operator's melancholic ex-colleague. There are a few locations: two apartments in Paris, two bars, a balcony, a car, a classroom, a locker room, a train, an apartment in Hamburg. What Denis is able to make out of these elements isn't a lesson in economy, but the story of how the most mundane things (a For Sale sign, a blue door, two rice cookers, a cerulean table top, an iPod's white headphones, a bar's asparagus-colored walls, The Commodores' post-Lionel Richie hit "Nightshift") and gestures (half-hearted dancing, a kiss on the cheek, a lean, a glance) acquire meaning in our lives, and how, through that shared meaning, we come to understand one another.

Denis' previous non-documentary feature, The Intruder, is arguably the most revolutionary film since Playtime (which screens next month at the Film Center). It rediscovered of the world by divorcing itself from consciousness; it wasn't concerned with who was experiencing what or why, or the traditional delineations of character and time. 35 Shots of Rum rediscovers both character and time by showing us things that seem to lie outside both.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Five kamikaze pilots playing with a puppy, May 26, 1945

Friday, March 26, 2010

Watch His Face

Excerpt from an episode of Press Your Luck aired June 11, 1984

You wanna see drama? Or a "great performance," for that matter? This little clip's got both.

This is the notorious "Michael Larson incident," or the Larson Sweep, or whatever you wanna call it. In the summer of 1984, Michael Larson, an unemployed Ohioan and Philip Seymour Hoffman-lookalike, won a little over $110,000 on Press Your Luck, a chance-based game show where final winnings were usually capped off at $25,000.
Watch his face, because Larson isn't lucky: using months of preparation and a VCR, he figured out the seemingly "random" patterns of the game board. This is a performance of intense concentration and hand-eye coordination, a man who has put himself through rigorous training, pretending to be a game show contestant. When they analyzed the show and figured out exactly how he'd done it, the producers tried to keep from paying, but nothing in their rules qualified him as a cheater.

He spent almost all of the money trying to win other contests and lost the rest to Ponzi schemes and burglary. He died of throat cancer in 1998, estranged from his family and on the run from the IRS.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Detail from an early draft of the screenplay for On Dangerous Ground,
written by A.I. Bezzerides and submitted on March 9, 1950

Monday, March 22, 2010

Carl Theodor Dreyer, letter to Louis B. Mayer

Ad Mann

There is, in certain auteurist circles, a stigma attached to commercials. "A director should never advertise a product." But of course most good films are themselves the products of an industry, and directors invariably advertise their work, ideas they support (and even ones they don't) and the work of the producers who put their projects together. And countless good directors cut their teeth making commercials, and many even better ones used commercial money to pay for projects that didn't have a chance of getting financing. The truth is that the real test of an artist is what he or she does on commission.

Advertising is a funny industry, even stranger than Hollywood: they offer a tiny canvas and vast resources. The same people who wouldn't give $10,000 to fund a feature film (and nowadays it's possible to make a pretty damn good movie on that kind of budget) will gladly drop $1 million to make a minute-long ad.

Ferrari California (Michael Mann, 2008)

Since the start of the 2000s, Michael Mann has directed three ads: two for cars, and one for Nike. The most recent ad, and the least interesting, is a promotional film he directed for the launch of the Ferrari California at the Paris Auto Show in 2008. Like a lot of wealthy men, Mann likes sports cars. And, like (hopefully) every director, he likes filming things. So, for this fairly undemanding project, Ferrari gave him money to do some things he likes for a few minutes. With the exception of the fact that Mann is better at filming fast cars (and private jets and speed boats) than anyone in the history of cinema, it's nothing to write home about. That is, the beauty of Mann's cars is how they fit into the plans of his films; as standalone homages to automotive design, they would be, like this ad, merely pretty.

Lucky Star (Michael Mann, 2002)

Lucky Star is much better, and the best, messiest and most fully-realized of Mann's 2000s commercials. It's a two-minute ad for Mercedes-Benz which Mann originally directed for the UK market in 2002. It ended up being the test drive of the approach he'd take for his subsequent features, the first tryout of the digital aesthetic (and of some casting ideas as well -- you'll recognize the Portuguese bartender from Miami Vice as one of the "leads" here; in fact the whole short seems like a screen test for that film -- Benicio Del Toro has never more closely resembled Colin Farrell than here). Part of what makes it seem "fully-formed" is the fact that Mann developed the ad as a "real movie," and his contract included the stipulation that he could turn it into a feature if he wanted to. He even hired his regular production staff. It's a pretty good set-up: Benicio Del Toro's a professional gambler and stock trader with preternatural luck who arouses everyone's suspicions because of his winning streaks.

Leave Nothing (Michael Mann, 2007)

Leave Nothing, a Nike ad that ran during the Super Bowl, is more of a standard "trick film" commercial, a neat little minute made possible by a lot fancy special effects. It's as straight as Lucky Star is confusing. Per Mann's famous tendency to revisit his own work, the score from Last of the Mohicans is used. But what's actually better than the morphing effect that connects disparate shots in the ad is the kinetic quality of the images and the tactile sound effects. The trick is less impressive than the tackles and passes. Leave Nothing does something no film has managed: it makes American football look like an exciting sport. The "how did they do that?" quality that makes these sorts of commercials successful viral videos isn't in the CGI, but in the movement of the players.

Spinotti's Workshop

The Gardener (Dante Spinotti, 2009)

A little treat for those who (like me) think Dante Spinotti's a pretty smart guy. Like a magician performing his most famous trick, Spinotti shot this little dialogue-less short in front of a crowd of Polish film students late last year. He was in Łódź to receive a lifetime achievement award at the cinematography-focused Plus Camerimage festival (which is now apparently moving out due to conflicts with the city), and took time during his visit to do a little workshop, taking a break before every shot of The Gardener to explain his motivations. The film was finished in time to screen at the closing ceremony.

Notes Towards a Review of Vincere

"Paradoxically, intimacy is violence, and it is destruction, because it is not compatible with the positing of the separate individual."
--Theory of Religion (Georges Bataille; translated by Robert Hurley)

"Even when you were unwilling, resisted to the utmost of your power and tried to dissuade me, as yours was the weaker nature I often forced you to consent with threats and blows."
--Abelard, to Heloise, letter no. 4 (translated by Betty Radice)

Polanski + Party + Seigner + Dance

Frantic (Roman Polanski, 1988)

Bitter Moon (Roman Polanski, 1992)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

(James Estrin / New York Times, 2007)

[Jeffrey Mark Deskovic, exonerated after spending his entire adult life in prison, swims for the first time in 16 years at a hotel pool]



(James Estrin / New York Times, 2007)

[Deskovic inspects his new apartment]

Monday, March 15, 2010

Thursday, March 11, 2010

(Jean-Luc Godard, 2010)

Monday, March 8, 2010

Key Images of 21st Century Cinema #15

Catherine Samie in The Last Letter (Frederick Wiseman, 2002; photographed by Giorgos Arvanitis)

Friday, March 5, 2010

Performance by Tatsumi Hijikata, 1972

Untitled Video ("Ampex Quadruplex video tape machine on air"), May 1982

Steve Teague's account says he's 48, so basic math tells that he was about 20 when he shot this video. Maybe he was a student, maybe he was a trainee at the station. He's uploaded a few to YouTube, all of them showing the workings of TV stations in Birmingham, England in the early 1980s.

This one's the simplest and the best. I found it while looking for footage of what a Quadruplex machine actually looked like at work, and he shows not only that but how exactly one operates the machine, the general mood of a regional TV control room at the time, how the machine relates to what is being broadcast and how live footage interacts with pre-recorded segments, as well as fleeting details of the life of the machine's operator (who isn't terribly different from a factory worker), all in a single take and a single framing.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010