Archive for Albert Lewin

Zee and Co.

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 27, 2009 by dcairns

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James Mason is Hendrik van der Zee, the Fying Dutchman, in Albert Lewin’s PANDORA AND THE FLYING DUTCHMAN, which we were inspired to watch by the passing of its cinematographer, the great Jack Cardiff. And I quickly remembered the words of my late friend Lawrie: “We were all so excited when it came out. And then we were all so disappointed.”

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A viewer sinks into lassitude. Or Lassie-tude?

It’s easy to see why members of the British film community would have high hopes for the movie — here was British talent like Cardiff, designer John Bryan, and actors Nigel Patrick, John Laurie and Marius Goring (South African by birth, but who’s counting?) united with Hollywood talent like Ava Gardner and Brit expat James Mason, in a film by the maker of the much-admired PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY. In fact, with his aspirations to self-conscious literary and painterly effects, Lewin was the kind of filmmaker perhaps more admired by Brits than Americans. 

And the disappointment is easy to understand too. While PANDORA is beautiful, with stunning images served up on a regular basis, the ponderous script and lack of dramatic tension make it a wearying experience. It’s tempting to blame the framing structure for giving the end away, but there are plenty of movies that get away with that. There’s the fact that the film is stuffed full of nightclub singers, race drivers, archaeologists and matadors — nobody seems to have a proper job. And yet there many movies that throw together impossibly glamorous or eccentric characters and we love them. Certainly it’s a problem that everybody talks in a ponderous, pseudo-poetic way. When they quote scads of verse from memory it’s actually a relief — it sounds more natural. Perhaps the biggest problem lies in this movie being basically an original story, “inspired” by the legend of the Flying Dutchman — Lewin’s best films are adaptations, and he was an elegant and respectful conveyor of other people’s stories.

There are moments when the dialogue becomes so windy and carbohydrate-rich that it almost works, in a MARIENBAD kind of way. The trouble is, although nobody seems like a real person, they don’t quite attain mythic status, which is presumably the intent. With the rich colours, florid verbiage and striking of attitudes, the proceedings ought to stand a good chance of attaining camp, but nothing doing. Maybe because the prosaic narration, delivered by antiquarian Harold Warrender, an actor who looks like he could aspire to drollery if the script permitted it, flattens the mood like a giant fly-swatter made of print. Even the “exciting” attempt at the land-speed record gets broken up by Lewin’s unending prose. Action scenes are not usually aided by voice-over exposition.

It is a tale told by an archaeologist. Devoid of sound and fury, trying to signify everything.

Only a few moments at a wild party in the middle show Lewin’s surrealist streak, and allow the intrusion of a welcome gust of humour ~

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Still, even as we felt the life oozing from our frames, we would be moved to declare,”That’s beautiful!” every few minutes. It was a kind of dispassionate declaration, since if there’s one thing above all that the film isn’t, it isn’t moving. But beauty like this is uncommon.

RIP, Jack.

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Quote of the Day: sounds like a plan

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 26, 2008 by dcairns

‘Even more than in THE WILD CHILD, THE GREEN ROOM was conceived as a succession of plans-séquence. The term “master shot” is used in English for what in French is “plans-séquence”, but the two expressions mean different things, because a “master shot” implies that there will be supplementary shots of the same scene (often close-ups), and that these will be inserted later on, during the editing. The fact that there is no American expression for “plans-séquence”  is evidence of a basic difference in concept. In Truffaut’s plans-séquence nothing can be inserted because it is sufficient unto itself. The character moves about from one character to another, lingers, makes a leap into the void to take in the whole scene, retreats, advances, all at a stretch, without cuts. The scenes between Davenne and Cecilia in the auction room are the best examples of this technique.

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‘From the practical point of view, this sort of filming has advantages and disadvantages. One of the problems is focus. Since the camera is always moving on wheels, it is difficult for the assistant to correct the focus, since the actors are constantly at different distances from the lens. It also presents a challenge for the camera operator. In a short space of time innumerable compositions are being produced with every slight change of place. Preparing shots of this type takes hours, because the actors’ movements must be adjusted in relation to the movements of the camera. Sometimes a whole day is needed to get a single shot.

‘But when a scene is split into different shots, to be edited together later, it creates the false impression that shooting is done quickly, whereas in fact the opposite is true: one must be sure that there is continuity of illumination from one shot to the next, that the actors are looking in the appropriate directions, that entrances and exits from the frame fit into the preceding scenes. With the plans-séquence these preoccupations are no longer relevant. In any case, the main interest of this technique is not that it offers advantages from the point of view of production but that it allows the director to define his style. For it is in the style that we recognise the artist’s signature. All of this is quite close to certain concepts that Truffaut inherited from his mentor, André Bazin.’

~ A Man with a Camera, by Nestor Almendros.

Nestor

The term “sequence shot” is now often used to describe a shot that covers an entire scene without alternate angles being edited in, although the term is maybe more commonly used in criticism than “on the floor”. My suspicion is that we don’t have a widely-used term for this approach in Britain and America because (a) the technique isn’t widely used and (b) when we directors do it, we don’t tell anyone what we’re doing.

As my cinematographer friend Scott Ward says, there is a school of thought in television that says the director’s reason for being is to obtain sufficient coverage to make the show. Since shows are made for specific time slots, there needs to be a way to manipulate the duration of the footage, which becomes much harder if every scene has been covered with only one shot.

On my most extensive TV gig, I shot some scenes in sequence shots, purely because the schedule was so tight. I was aware that if anybody asked for additional angles in the edit, I would probably be in trouble (I was constantly in trouble on that shoot, or so it seemed at the time). So they had better work. More than half of the scenes had more than one angle, though after falling behind schedule on day one, and further on day two, I took to devising schemes that allowed even the most busy scene to be taken in no more than two shots, if at all possible. We finished on schedule and the episodes were manipulated into the right time slot with relative ease.

But consider the case of Leonard Kastle’s THE HONEYMOON KILLERS. The first five or so minutes of the film are a series of elaborate long takes, stretching the abilities of the camera crew beyond breaking point, but still fascinating and effective. The director of these scenes was the young Martin Scorsese, who was swiftly fired for only shooting masters. “If you only shoot masters, the film could end up four hours long,” he ruefully reflected, understanding his employer’s ruthless response.

It may be also that some producers will object to long takes for the very reason Almendros recommends them: as an expression of directorial style. Producer Pandro S Berman is supposed to have approached director Albert Lewin and asked, “Why do you do these long tracking shots?”

“It’s my style,” explained Lewin (naïve fool!).

“Style. I always wondered about that. What does that mean, style?”

Lewin is taken aback, bt endeavours to explain: “Well, style, that’s like when Picasso paints a certain way and you can tell it’s a Picasso. Or with Rembrandt, he has a style, and you can see how it’s different to Picasso.”

“Is that so? Is that what style is? Well, I don’t want any of it in MY PICTURES!”

Lewin

Now this may well be one of those libellous stories directors like to tell about producers (writers tell them about directors too), but there is a certain mindset that probably sees the producer’s job as being to quash any excessive outbursts of directorial style. Hiring the right director and then trusting her might be an easier option, but such a person, or such an emotion, is not always available on demand.

As Howard Hawks said to Peter Bogdanovich when asked if he ever had final cut; “No. Suppose I went crazy?”