Archive for Wooden Crosses

Paper Edit

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on November 6, 2012 by dcairns

My first day in the edit was a day of hanging around. Hanging around waiting for a courier to deliver rushes from Ohio (our shoot covers two continents!) — he came, decided he couldn’t get in, didn’t try the buzzer, and left again. Hanging around as our ace editor assembles our paper edit, which he doesn’t need me for. Hanging around as he digitizes various Pathe-Natan films I’ve brought with me from Edinburgh. So far that’s been my only concrete contribution, although at least I performed my courier duties better than the professional.

The paper edit is a document created from transcripts of our various interviews. We chopped them up and assembled them into a rather long-winded and repetitious narrative — the next stage is to assemble the actual video into a matching order, before beginning to prune it down. And also adding a ton of footage that’s NOT interviews — scenes of Paris, clips from movies, newsreels and other archive material, and shots of pertinent objects in our interviewee’s homes. And also some special footage I don’t want to say too much about yet.

Listening to Mark Cousins lecture on his excellent new feature WHAT IS THIS FILM CALLED LOVE? I got a great tip. Index cards. Tomorrow I will buy myself a stack. I was always slightly dubious of the index card approach, but that was before I became a documentarist. The argument against file cards is that if you can remove a scene from your narrative and replace it five scenes later, then you might as well remove it altogether. But this project seems different, partly because it’s a true story, and a story which advances on several fronts at once, as well as jumping back and forth between the subject’s life in the early twentieth century, and his reputation in the early twenty-first. Mark says that when he had his scenes written on cards he could INSTANTLY tell what belonged where. I long for that sensation.

Optimistically, I also feel that when I can hold the film as a stack of cards, I will have a better mental grasp of it as well. Currently, it exists on various hard drives, as a series of ones and zeroes, and you can only experience a frame of it at a time. When I have my stack of cards I will be able to weigh the film in my hands. I don’t know what good that will do me, but I’m expecting some kind of perceptible benefit.

Meanwhile, my co-director Paul is in London where he’s nominated for a Grierson Award for best newcomer with his feature BARBARIC GENIUS. He’s in good company — Julian Schwanitz, a student from Edinburgh College of Art, where I teach, is up for best student film with his short KIRKCALDY MAN. Wish them both luck!

Today’s Pathe-Natan film recommendation: LES CROIX DE BOIS (WOODEN CROSSES). Available on the Eclipse set of Raymond Bernard movies, it’s maybe the darkest and strongest of all the early talkie WWI movies. All the major members of the cast and crew (including Natan) were veterans, and the film achieves both a palpable sense of authenticity (complete with de-lousing and lost limbs) and an epic scope, while ambling along in a disarmingly free-form manner. The lack of an obvious theatrical structure just makes the movie feel even more lifelike.

Screenings were arranged up and down the country for veterans. One was so distressed that he killed himself. Not an effect any of the movie-makers intended, but a terrible testimony to the impact of their work. I only recommend the film to you on the assumption that Shadowplayers are pretty resilient people.

Eclipse Series 4: Raymond Bernard (Wooden Crosses / Les Miserables) (The Criterion Collection)

Mud and Blood

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 10, 2012 by dcairns

WOODEN CROSSES (CROIX DES BOIS) still impresses. Raymond Bernard’s big WWI film — the French equivalent of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT — has many of the expected elements, but quite a few unexpected ones.

There are the double exposures that show phantom soldiers trudging off to heaven, which seem to have been a staple of WWI cinema since Gance’s J’ACCUSE (see also ALL QUIET, or Rowland V Lee’s BARBED WIRE), but they’re really the only obvious element of sentimentality. The battles are colossal, easily matching anything in Hollywood films on the subject, and with the explosions going off in the sky, they surpass PATHS OF GLORY in sense of scale and spectacle.

But the more surprising elements make all the difference. Bernard, as in his enormous LES MISERABLES, lets the camera run handheld through the action, evoking the panic, flurry and chaos of battle, not only long before SAVING PRIVATE RYAN but long before the WWII documentaries of John Huston which inspired that look. There must surely be WWI footage with a similar look, but I haven’t seen it. The stuff you see in war docs from that era always looks very stable. It would be amazing if Bernard latched onto the effect purely as a stylistic choice, rather than to mimic documentaries.

The narrative is extremely loose, driven by a series of situations, some short (picking the lice out of uniforms), some protracted (the anxious wait as Germans dig under the trench to plant a mine and blow everybody to blazes — they can’t leave unless ordered) which butt up against one another without the usual cartilaginous connections. And the ending is so devastatingly horrible you can’t quite believe it. The simplicity of ALL QUIET’s famous ending comes with poetic melancholy, but that’s largely obscured here by the sheer grueling brutality. Bernard’s intent is to make the audience actually feel gutshot. Strong stuff.

Eclipse Series 4: Raymond Bernard (Wooden Crosses / Les Miserables) (The Criterion Collection)


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