Archive for the Painting Category

Early Nothing

Posted in FILM, Painting with tags , , , , , , , on June 30, 2015 by dcairns


A conversation with a friend years ago comes back to me. We debated the strange blandness of the interiors in Fritz lang’s American films. Strange because his German films were known for their elaborate, stylised and striking production design. When he returned to his homeland in the fifties, his Indian duology and to some extent his final Mabuse movie returned to the elaborate sets of the pre-war era. He had trained to be an architect, and gave us the first city of the future. But those American films have a distinct, flat, bleak quality to their look. In THE BIG HEAT, Gloria Graham even comes up with an aperçu to describe the decor: “Early nothing.”


Looking more closely — frame-grabbing, in fact (a new critical weapon which not much has been written about) — I find that, firstly, you have to make an exception for the films with period or foreign settings, where the art direction works hard to create the required exoticism. Secondly, the design isn’t really all that flat. Even a film like WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS, which has a kind of pulpy, comic-book quality to it anyway, isn’t afraid of letting the sets make a splashy statement from time to time.


I think it has more to do with Lang’s shooting style. The distance between the actors is one factor. Lang’s readiness to shoot actors from behind, which you see again and again. His willingness to pull way back and show the characters frozen in longshot, those aforementioned gulfs between them. It turns out Cinemascope isn’t just good for snakes and funerals, it can suck the warmth out of a scene and turn movie stars into distant planetoids signalling to each other in Jodrell Bank bleeps. There are quite a few shots, especially in SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR, which just show empty rooms, abandoned by any visible characters. Lang will flatten the set by shooting it straight on, or creating a crisp geometry even when the angle is more oblique. The very care of his composition, which certainly hasn’t slackened off from the German films, has a cold, clinical quality. The sense of America as a frosty, unwelcoming place, makes the country feel as it might to an exile.

As if al that weren’t enough (it IS enough — it’s too much — STOP!) Lang subdivides the frame, using architectural features, doors, windows, corners, to box his characters into their own little cubicles. Like prisoners in adjacent cells (for obvious genre reasons, cells recur) they can talk to each other but they’re still in solitary. The world is in solitary.



(Lang’s German films were opulent, and so was his home — African masks on the walls, modern art, and all kinds of glamorous, slightly decadent stuff. No wonder he didn’t want to leave, and supposedly hung around almost long enough to be adopted by the Nazis as an official filmmaker — though Lang’s well-practiced anecdote about that may be a convenient fiction.)

Scorsese speaks of the way Lang’s tracking shots make his characters seem fated, in lock-step with their destinies — as if the very nature of the means by which the camera moved made existence a train track towards death. Meanwhile, Lang plotted out the actors’ movements like dance steps, measuring out their paces himself, though Lilli Palmer complained he made no allowance for their difference in stride. So with minute care the figures in his puppet theatre are slid from mark to mark, framed and reframed, staring at each other with longing as they are shuffled like playing cards.




The classic Lang space is the corridor or stairway. All his rooms aspire to the status of interstitial spaces. Comfortless, more empty than full, propitious rooms for murders to happen in. Crime scenes in waiting.



Sun, Sand and Scuzz

Posted in FILM, literature, Painting with tags , , , , , on June 17, 2015 by dcairns
A Marriage of Reason and Squalor Sky Arts © Justin Downing For Sky Arts 2015

A Marriage of Reason and Squalor
Sky Arts
© Justin Downing For Sky Arts 2015

Edinburgh International Film Festival is upon us (pictured)! Or almost — the opening gala is tonight, but the press screenings began on Monday and I am scurrying to catch up before the event has even opened.

I feel I should have an Edinburgh-themed banner, but haven’t gotten around to that either. I was thinking of photoshopping Greyfriars Bobby into the TRAINSPOTTING toilet, or showing a woad-daubed Adrienne Corri torching Sean Connery in a Wicker Man fashioned in the likeness of Alastair Sim.

We took a punt on THE MARRIAGE OF REASON AND SQUALOR, the debut feature from Jake Chapman, one half of the Chapman Brothers art-making entity, although getting in proved tricky when neither one of us could remember the title.

“That was exactly what I would expect him to have made,” Fiona said afterwards.

“As meaningless as its title. Although there was a marriage.”

“And squalor.”

“But no reason.”

The film is sometimes icky, as you’d expect from the guy who assembled child mannequins with sex organs for faces, and indeed from the brother of the other guy who did the same thing. It’s also sometimes funny, I have to admit. There is apparently a shorter TV edit, and that seemed like it would work better — the film’s more interesting ideas are overextended at feature-length. As a grotesque parody of Mills & Boon-style Gothic romantic paperbacks, it begs the questions Why Do That Now? and Do You Think That’s Edgy?

A very good perf from Sophie Kennedy Clarke, traveling to the beautiful but smelly island of Morass to marry her consulting surgeon Rhys Ifans, helps anchor the thing in some toehold of reality. The island itself is a mix of modest sets, un-sunny British locations, and CGI. It never achieves the stylistic wholeness of Stroheim’s Sternberg’s wholly artificial ANATAHAN. There are some terrific bits of percussive editing in the more experimental scenes, and lame editing in the dramatic ones.

I couldn’t quite work out why Chapman felt himself qualified to write this as a novel, and to direct it as a film/TV show, but needed Brock Norman Brock, he of the comedy name, to write the adaptation. “Maybe he’s not qualified to write a script?” Fiona speculated. “He’s not qualified to write a book or direct a film, but that didn’t stop him.”

I can be cruel, as Fiona will tell you. Actually, I’m kind of glad something as peculiar as this can get made, even if for basically silly reasons. (“He’s an artist! Give him a camera and he can be an artist with a camera!”)

Looking seriously forward to THE LEGEND OF BARNEY THOMPSON opening the Fest tonight, and to the press showing of Bogdanovich’s SHE’S FUNNY THAT WAY earlier in the day. Also industry screening of THE CHAMBERMAID LYNN, which goes before the public on Friday — that’s one of the few I’ve already seen, because I got to write the catalogue copy — I’ll quote you a bit later. It’s lovely.

Seen It

Posted in FILM, Painting with tags on June 10, 2015 by dcairns


Photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto undertook an interesting project in the early nineties. visiting cinemas across the US, he photographed screenings of movies, timing his exposure to the exact runtime of the movie showing. The film was thus condensed into a single white rectangle, all its 24fps overlapped into a white void like the one Jimmy Stewart plunges into during his VERTIGO dream sequence. This one is called Grand Lake, Michigan, but alas does not inform us of what movie was running. It might have been HOME ALONE II: LOST IN NEW YORK, or SISTER ACT. And we would be able to say, truthfully, “Yeah, I’ve seen that. It was OK, for what it was.”


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