Archive for March 24, 2008

A Hanging Thought…

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on March 24, 2008 by dcairns

The Man in Black 

…from my recent piece about camera movement and its various motivations. Miklos Jancsó was cited by David Ehrenstein as something of an exception to all “rules” normally followed, and this is sort-of true, I think. Watching THE ROUND-UP (the only classic Jancsó I’ve seen recently with this issue in mind) I felt that the shots were nearly all straightforwardly motivated by the need to follow action — though what they do with that need is very creative and unusual. Jancsó would progress to sequence shots lasting well over ten minutes, but at this point in his career he only had access to film magazines capable of holding five minutes at a time, so he was technically constrained in this way.

[John Orr of Edinburgh University rather confusingly introduced the film with a statement about the filmmaker “editing within the shot without cutting”, which strikes me as basically inaccurate in literal terms (“cutting” and “editing” are synonyms) and unnecessarily convoluted if taken as some kind of metaphor. Let’s be clear, a sequence shot is a single shot which cover an entire scene. THE ROUND-UP does have cuts within most of its scenes, but far fewer than the average film.]

[I asked Jancsó about what the long take meant to him, and he talked about giving the audience time to think. He spoke with disdain of the modern fast-cutting style which forces ideas upon the audience, as in commercials. But I’m not sure I totally buy this argument, at least, not as a total explanation.]

Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush

Jancsó very occasionally moves the camera up to get an overview, which is more of an authorial statement, and also has to do with exploring space, but 90% of the tracking here is following characters — but in an extremely elaborate way. I’m told David Bordwell talks about certain overt stylistic moves in terms of their excess in relation to story function and/or normative industry practices, and that seems on the money as a description of Jancsó. Moving actors serve as a pretext for camera movement, but cannot account for the elaboration and excess of it. The real motivation for these sinuous, incisive tracking shots may be purely formal. Jancsó will follow one character until he discovers another, then follow that one, but first behind him and then in front, with foreground objects wiping frame and new compositions created with other elements whenever the character pauses. It looks very much like Janscó is deliberately devising ways to make the shot ever more stimulating and complex, not to express thematic concerns but to explore the possibilities of sheer cinematic beauty. I haven’t looked at it lately but THE RED AND THE WHITE is obviously even more “excessive”.

Army of Darkness

There is still an element of economy to this — filming in long takes allowed Janscó to make big costume films very quickly (26 days for THE ROUND-UP) — but we should separate narrative economy clearly from the financial kind. Indeed, in terms of narrative, THE ROUND-UP feels like it could be told in half the time, but Jancsó’s visual and atmospheric elaborations extend the movie into a baroque dimension where time often seems suspended.

One can rhapsodise about how Jancsó’s choreographed moves create a closed world in which his characters are trapped, so that the stylistic curlicues become a thematic element, but in a sense, when faced with a stylist as extreme as this, it may be wise to allow that sometimes the primary motivation for moving the camera may simply be the desire to move the camera — an interest in the shapes that can be created in four dimensions. Everything else is a pretext — you need to have the pretext, but we shouldn’t mistake it for the real point.


Quote of the Day: Days and Nights in the Forest

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 24, 2008 by dcairns

Into the Woods

“A LUMINOUS AFTERNOON in the black-and-white forest. The monster, played by Boris Karloff, pauses as he hears the sweet notes of a violin. His face lights, he lumbers through the woods, following the sound. He comes to a cosy cottage among the trees, very gingerbread. Inside, the violin is being played by a blind hermit, who is being played by O.P. Heggie. The monster approaches, and pounds on the door.”

~ from Jimmy the Kid, by Donald E. Westlake.

Well, since we just had Otto Preminger Week, seems like a good idea to name-check that other O.P., surname Heggie.

(Actually, Westlake conflates two scenes: the daylight forest above, and the hermit encounter which happens at dusk.)

The Sound of Music

The parody of the blind hermit scene in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, with an exuberant Gene Hackman in the Heggie role, is so very fine it almost ruins the original. But Mel Brooks clearly loves the James Whale movies he’s satirising, so there’s no real damage done. It may be a difficulty of the parody genre — if the filmmaker doesn’t love what s/he’s mocking, the spoof rarely hits the right notes. If they do love it, the parody won’t have bite. In Brooks’ case he’s not out to destroy the original, he’s just riffing on it, and so we end up with a pleasing comedy version of ’30s Universal horror, rather than any kind of deconstruction of it. Whereas BLAZING SADDLES attacks the ailing western the way Gary Cooper attacks Jack Lord in MAN OF THE WEST, not only delivering a punitive beating, but tearing the pants off it as well.

The Dead Walk

By Love Possessed

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , on March 24, 2008 by dcairns

“In Kabbalah and European Jewish folklore, a dybbuk is a malicious possessing spirit, believed to be the dislocated soul of a dead person.”

Death and the Maiden

After drinking altogether too much bubbly, I passed a restful night on producer Angela Murray’s comfortable Glaswegian couch then, come morning, I quit the couch and caught the coach back to Edinburgh, nursing a hangover and perhaps unwisely determined to catch the one-off screening of THE DYBBUK, a supernatural yiddish musical from Poland in 1937. Well, it isn’t every day you get a chance to see something like that. 

Unfortunately, due to my depleted state I couldn’t really do justice to this two-hour-plus folkloric tragedy. When one is hungover, one’s heart sinks slightly when the film begins before the birth of the main characters. Director Michal Waszynksi has an interesting camera style, preferring to pan across from character to character, and often back again, rather than cut, which again helped lull me into a somnolent state but was pretty interesting as an approach. Perhaps because Polish cinema had been crushed by a punitive tax when sound came in, the industry was just recovering and so the film combines elements of late ’30s visual slickness with a few wobbly touches of early ’30s primitivism.

The last half of the film contains the most interesting stuff, including the Dance of Death, with a female figure in skull makeup dancing with the heroine, who has been possessed by the soul of a male Kabbalist — plenty there for the gender studies crowd to get their teeth into. The performances are often highly rhetorical and heightened, but still compel — at times there’s a real connection to the Jewish fairy-tale flavour of Polanski’s THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS, particularly in the stylised body language.

The film was a German co-production and many German crew-members were employed. Due to intense anti-Semitism in Poland at the time, cast and crew often fought their way through mobs of thugs to get to the studio, and had to nurse their injuries before beginning work. Horribly, a few years later some of the same German technicians came back to Poland as soldiers, and with their inside knowledge they could point out those Polish film industry workers considered “dangerous”…

More happily, the two stars of the film travelled to New York for the US premier of the film in 1939 — and stayed. They survived the war, unlike many of their colleagues, and unlike the vanished world captured in the film.

Her Muddy Buddy is no Fuddy-Duddy

Suggested Fever Dream Double Featurewith Julien Duvivier’s LE GOLEM, a visually stunning ’30s remake of the Paul Wegener classic, which borrows heavily from James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN movies. It stars Harry Baur, a major star of French cinema, later murdered by the Nazis. These films contain ghosts. No, these films ARE ghosts.