Archive for Victor Sjostrom

Autumn Smiles of a Winter Light Darkly

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 29, 2013 by dcairns

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Ran WILD STRAWBERRIES for students. As one might expect, following the plot synopsis I gave them, not as many attended this screening as had shown up for CRISS CROSS. This is a shame, as it’s a cracking film. I hadn’t actually watched it all since I was about eighteen or something, and was relieved to find it as interesting as I remembered it. Also, huge parts of it I hadn’t remembered at all, and I enjoyed those too. Afterwards, one student agreed with me that Bergman can be pretty funny.

(As I recall, I recorded the film off of BBC2′s Film Club on a Sunday night, and sat down to watch it Monday lunchtime with a plate of fish and chips. And something that happened during the dream sequence five minutes in caused me to fling my knife and fork across the room in shock, startling the spaniel.)

They just showed the film in Lyon, too, where I learned that the French call it LES FRAISES SAUVAGES. SAVAGE STRAWBERRIES. Sounds like the kind of film George Clooney might have made early on, just so he could look adorably rueful about it now.

Of course, it’s not that, and nor is it a gloomy art film (Woody Allen, in his praise of I.B,, seems to WANT him to be a gloomy Swede, and doesn’t even notice the comedy in THE SEVENTH SEAL, which is at least 50% laffs) — it’s more like an anthology genre mash-up, beginning with an expressionist horror movie dream, then becoming a road movie, with diversions into teenage romcom and Kafkaesque noir (another dream). There’s even a song. And a car crash. If only it involved the Mercedes of a comedy gay man, Jerry Bruckheimer could remake this.

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The fragmentary, tone-hopping picaresque approach allows the film to segue into flash-forwards to Bergman films he hasn’t even made yet. The protagonist (my man Victor Sjostrom) picks up a bickering married couple locked in a horrible sadomasochistic codependent purgatory. In one dream, a blackboard displays a message in an incomprehensible gibberish language, undoubtedly the same one invented for THE SILENCE.

Another student remarked that the film felt very modern compared to Hollywood films of the same era — which is true. Partly this is because it rejects genre (though as I just said, it sort of drives through a number of them); partly it’s because Bergman wasn’t subject to the same stringent censorship, which meant he could get into the habit of approaching things with a greater frankness (there’s no sex as such in the film, really, but he creates the feeling that if there were, it wouldn’t be coy); and technically, the film does some striking things which seem quite new. In particular, there’s plenty of subtle camera movement during the driving scenes, pushing in on the leads or sliding from one to the other, which of course means it’s done in a studio with rear projection background. But it’s so skillfully done it didn’t make me think of Hitchcock, but of the car scene in CHILDREN OF MEN, which reintroduced the same kind of dramatically-effective artifice.

Strange seeing Max Von Sydow turn up as a garage mechanic, but then it was strange seeing him at the next table in a restaurant in Lyon, sitting with Pierre Richard and other elder statesmen of European cinema. My friend Lenick was able to overhear and translate: “They’re complaining about how things are different now, you can’t have a glass of wine and go for a drive anymore.” And then Dominique Sanda showed up and introduced herself to Max: “My name is Dominique Sanda, I starred in a film with you once.” True, she’s been away from France and may not be as well-remembered as she should be — the modest retrospective at Lyon hopefully has done something to right that — and also, maybe Max has erased STEPPENWOLF from his mind.

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Somehow Victor’s closeup makes me think of Garbo in QUEEN CHRISTINA.

Anyway, this is basically A Christmas Carol, isn’t it? A mean old man has some dreams about the past, present and future and changes his way of behaving with others. Arguably one reason it seems more sophisticated than that is we never really see Victor Sjostrom being mean, we mainly learn about his emotional coldness via his son. He seems a fairly sweet old stick, and it’s hard to work out why his daughter-in-law is so mean to him. This removes the caricature element of Dickens and replaces it with Bergman’s more nuanced sense of sliding sympathies. It’s a proper grown-up film, so I was pleased that the kids today can still “dig” it, as I believe the expression is nowadays.

Mondo Kane #1: Xanadu

Posted in FILM, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 28, 2013 by dcairns

Join me as I watch my Blu-ray of CITIZEN KANE. All frame grabs, for technical reasons, come from the standard DVD. By the end of this journey, the movie will, I confidently predict without the least touch of hoop-la, be ready to knock VERTIGO out of the top slot once more. I always liked the idea of KANE being the unassailable No. 1. It meant we didn’t have to think about “What’s the Greatest Movie Ever Made?” and could concentrate on more interesting questions…

***

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RKO logo, as normal, but then followed by — dead silence. Welles’ signature on the movie, an unheard-of, near-Stroheimian conceit. And a main title that fills the whole screen, in stark b&w outlined lettering. The strategy is already clear: make choices that are different, but not inferior to, from the Hollywood norm. Where the conventional approach is faulty it can be improved upon, and when the subject matter suggests an unusual but appropriate way of doing things, that can be adopted, but elsewhere, where there’s no particular reason to depart from the default approach — depart anyway. Not too far. Just enough.

Then, music! Bernard Herrmann’s sonorous chromatics, in which the whole opening sequence will stew, with only one spoken word and no sound effects (Herrmann is happy to “Mickey-Mouse” the shattering snowglobe with a blunt stab of orchestra, and provides a similar sound effect for an extinguished light).

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I find myself squinting at Gregg Toland’s first image. Note how the NO TRESPASSING sign (a similar sans-serif font to the opening title card) is composed with nose-room on the left of frame. Toland could have centred the sign perfectly within the frame — instead, he frames it in perspective — as if he’d lined up the shot flat on, with equal space on both sides of the sign, then leaped through space to observe it at a diagonal (as we do at the end of the News on the March newsreel). What I’m saying is, there’s equal space both sides of the sign, but it looks like there’s less on the right because that side’s further away. I’m intrigued by this petty detail.

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Lap dissolves and floating upwards and then dissolving in towards the painted Xanadu… Kane has monkeys! Clearly he was a very happy, contented man.

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Playfully, one shot takes the reflection of Xanadu as its subject, rather than moving in on the castle itself. If you manage to see the version of OTHELLO with opening titles spoken by Welles, you’ll see a similar shot of a tower reflected in a Venetian canal, a single window illuminated. Images recur in Welles in the most dreamlike way, and it’s even more dreamlike when you watch a film like OTHELLO and it’s different from the last time you saw it, not because you’ve changed, but because it’s literally a different edit…

Like the eyes in Ozu’s closeups, the lit window in Xanadu is usually positioned to occupy the same part of the frame as we dissolve closer, even when it’s a reflection in a lake.

Xanadu’s golf course appears to be spherical, as if Kane arranged for the construction of a private planetoid (kind of thing he might do). One pictures him putting away on it like the Little Prince. A kind of big grassy snowglobe…

We reach the window, that mysterious source of light which has led us like a will-o’-the-wisp in search of the promise of STORY. And the light is at once snuffed out. And Welles dissolves 180 degrees through space so we’re looking at the same window in the same composition but from the other side. This kind of match-dissolve was very rare up until this point — it’s still uncommon enough to be a good idea if it can be done with taste. I would suggest that Coppola’s dissolve from puncture wounds in Sadie Frost’s neck to the eyes of a wolf was not a distinguished use of the technique. An earlier usage which might conceivably have influenced KANE is HE WHO GETS SLAPPED. Victor Sjostrom had an interest in this device throughout his career, devising a sinister variation in UNDER THE RED ROBE (1937), his last film as director, where he melts from an empty noose to a glowering Raymond Massey, framed so that the cord briefly encircles his throat…

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Now the first snow-dissolve, giving the effect at first of a snowstorm breaking out within Kane’s bedroom. But that’s absurd. Then a tiny log cabin, which later we’ll surmise symbolises Kane’s childhood home. So he was born in a model and died in a matte painting. There’s upward mobility for you. Optical effects supremo Vernon L Walker created the zoom out which lets us pass through the glass ball as if by osmosis, only to find it’s still snowing OUTSIDE. Our initial misconception about weather conditions in the CF Kane bedroom turns out to be correct. This was apparently an artifact of sorts — Walker roughly superimposed snow over a shot to give Welles an idea of how it would look — Welles LOVED the idea of snow continuing to fall outside the globe, even though as Walker observed, it made no sense. Hell, BECAUSE it made no sense. It’s at this precise point that the opening of KANE becomes an experimental film: the big-budget remake of HEARTS OF AGE.

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The reverse angle gives us giant lips with tiny snowflakes drifting past, suggesting the view of a very small lodger inside the snowglobe, also establishing the idea of Kane as a fee-fi-fo-fum titan, bestriding the world like the RKO radio mast.

These angles haven’t actually set up where the snowglobe is in the room or who’s holding it, even if we’ve glimpsed the prone figure on the bed in that window shot, so the next few brief shots where the glass ball rolls from Kane’s cold dead hand allow us to play catch-up and figure out the geography — and then the snowglobe apparently explodes into a million fragments and globules of water (Water! So THAT’S how they get the snow to float!) before reconstituting itself miraculously for shots in which a nurse enters the room, reflected in the glass sphere.

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Very VERY grainy shot where Welles has run crazy with the optical printer while Vernon L Walker hangs onto his coat-tails screaming at him to stop, in God’s name stop. In a strange way the speed of the cutting and the fact that we immediately cut to a much wider view of the same thing somehow makes it OK.

Note that the shot following the sphere-reflection is the first in the movie where the wide-angle lens is allowed to distort space into a funhouse grotesque. It’s as if all the subsequent photographic choices are cued by that snowglobe reflection. Or as if the rest of the film were happening from the snowglobe’s point of view, which is a reading I may try to make stick.

Then there’s a brief fade-out, then the window is illuminated to silhouette Kane’s sheeted body, suggesting perhaps sunrise over the Kane estate. There’s also a dark horizontal smudge over Kane’s body, apparently a piece of tape stuck on during optical printing to mask it out. Because the movie is now too bright and high-res we can see it rather vividly on Blu-ray (but it looks just fine in the frame-grab below). See also the animated shadow on the wall in the swimming pool scene of CAT PEOPLE.

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What must 1941 audiences have made of this weird onslaught of imagery? It has to be the most experimental, abstract sequence in any Hollywood movie not featuring Olsen & Johnson, and it lacks the conventional excuses — musical exuberance, comedy, pop psychological surrealism, horror — which commercial cinema uses to render the avant garde safe. Welles was obviously intending to throw the audience off-balance, but also hoping that they’d then forget about this sequence as the film went on rather than allow it to keep nagging at them. I guess at a basic level he also wanted to plant a clue to Rosebud’s identity but surround it with so much opaque mystery that nobody would realize it.

But in fact, if it weren’t for the surreal snow drifting where it has no right to be, the sequence would be perfectly lucid and realistic, for all that it’s filmed with unconventional shots. Overlaying the snow pushes us beyond the bounds of sanity, and gives us bedroom as dreamscape and Kane as titan and forces the audience to essentially pretend they hadn’t just seen what they saw.

Welles, never entirely satisfied with what he shot, would continue sculpting his material in post-production, but never did he change its overall effect as completely as he does here.

Next week: News! On! The! March!

Thanks to Randy for the Blu-ray and thoughts.

Film Stocking Fillers

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 23, 2011 by dcairns

A wild west Christmas tree from LES PETROLEUSES.

I hate lists, generally — too much film writing is based on the list structure, and at this time of year, “best of” lists proliferate horribly. But if I’m honest, the reason I never participate in them is I can never remember whether I saw something in the last year or the year previous. Or the year before that.

However, the idea of a list of neglected Christmas movies did seem potentially worthwhile — if you have access to nay of the below, or they turn up on TV, they might plug an otherwise unproductive gap in your schedule as you lie replete with turkey and pudding, or might even unite homicidal family members in yuletide bliss for ninety minutes. Anyhow, they’re all films I like, and many of them can be explored further on this site or elsewhere — links will be provided.

REMEMBER THE NIGHT — the first Christmas edition of The Forgotten focussed on this lovely genre-twisting 1939 charmer from screenwriter Preston Sturges and director Mitchell Leisen. What begins as a contrived screwball comedy, with assistant DA Fred MacMurray saddled with jewel thief Barbara Stanwyck over the holidays, dips a toe into rustic tragedy, settles into bucolic sentiment, then takes a side-swerve into near-tragedy. While Sturges typically pulled tonal shifts out of a seemingly bottomless hat and shuffled them like playing cards, here the film sticks to each emotion long enough to settle, which makes the mood swings all the more surprising, but also effective. And it captures some of the authentic family experience — good and bad.

L’ASSASSINAT DU PERE NOEL — not as iconoclastic as it sounds. Christian-Jacque directs this snow-bound murder mystery, with Harry Baur as a definitive Santa. The opening titles, where he lumbers, Frankenstein-like, out of darkness, sets a disquieting tone otherwise eschewed in favour of the peculiar cosiness a good whodunnit so often generates. An air of magic fringes on Cocteau territory, the feelgood fuzziness of the ending is accompanied by the funniest wrap-up to a mystery I ever saw.

LYDIA — Julien Duvivier’s not-exactly-remake of his own CARNET DU BAL doesn’t come on strong as a Xmas flick, but there’s enough studio-bound sleigh-ride romance to make it qualify. You may NEED to shed those tears, this time of year — otherwise you’ll be lugging them around in your ducts like ballast for another twelve months. No movie with Merle Oberon and three suitors sitting around with great wads of latex all over their heads should have any claim on our emotions, but this one does.

THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG — I like it when the Christmas spirit ambushes you, leaping from behind an Esso station and slugging you across the skull with a sack of presents when you’re least expecting it. And said spirit includes a fair share of melancholy, right? Of course, not every film with snow at the end is a Xmas film — I wouldn’t make that claim for FAHRENHEIT 451, although come to think of it, that red fire engine is kind of festive.

THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE — the concentration is on New Year’s, an even more tragic and melancholy time than Xmas, but this still counts. The Sjostrom version is a true classic, but the Duvivier remake deserves more love too — it has Louis Jouvet, and amazing constructed snowscapes, and the same morbid, redemptive storyline: it’s a little like Scrooge, only he has to die.

Stuff I saw on TV as a kid which I haven’t revisited recently enough — Chuck Jones’ A Cricket in Times Square and its sequels, the Harry Alan Towers production of CALL OF THE WILD (with an epic, emotive Mario Nascimbene score), and the Richard Williams animation of A Christmas Carol.

Your own suggestions, please!

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