Archive for Amelie

Hazy Days of Summer

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

To the extent that most film criticism discusses the lens at all, you’re more likely to find discussions of Orson Welles and Gregg Toland’s use of the wide angle lens combined with deep focus in CITIZEN KANE, than any discussion of the properties of the long lens. This is partly because fairly long lenses were fairly standard for close-ups before KANE came along and changed the rules, and partly because Toland and Welles successfully publicised their work, so that the ideas behind it were out there, accessible to critics.

The ideas behind the long-lens closeup were far less discussed, because the approach had been commonplace for a long time. It’s easy to see why: the long lens both flattens and flatters the subject, avoiding any of the fish-eye distortion of the wide angle, which tends to warp and uglify the face, making mountains out of moles (notable exception: AMELIE. Camera tests established that Audrey Tatou’s face could look quirkily attractive through a wide lens, provided the camera was slightly above eye-level, so that her big forehead got the emphasis).

Also, unless you have massive amounts of light so you can stop down (as in the infinite, sun-blasted spaces of Leone’s westerns), the long lens tends to result in a shallow depth of field, useful for separating the subject from the background. Since the movie screen is flat, anything that produces an illusion of depth can be handy (deep focus has a contradictory quality of flatness, since everything is equally sharp).

But beauty is hard to talk about, and the idea that deep focus results in the illusion of depth is ingrained.

These shots of Julie Christie, taken by cinematographer Nicholas Roeg for Richard Lester’s bleakly romantic chronicle of a near-miss love affair in 1967 San Francisco, PETULIA, show another possibility of the long lens. Lester is fond (going at least as far back as THE KNACK, his 4th film) of using out-of-focus foreground material as well as background, situating the face, partially eclipsed, within layers of gleaming blur. It contributes to the kaleidoscopic quality of his work (often remarked upon, seldom analysed in detail) and strikes me as a purely photographic conceit, like the starburst filter, rather than a realistic one. You CAN get a shot like the above with the human eye, by sticking something between you and what you’re looking at, and then mentally “cropping” the image so as to enlarge one detail of your view, but would you? The effect achieved here has little of nothing to do with realism, which is probably why it wasn’t much used before the ’60s and all that mucking about with zoom lenses (Sternberg may be an exception, since he loved filming through layers of smoke and streamers and veils and branches and rain and whatever else he could think of).

In the same way that golden age Hollywood films didn’t like to show people talking in extreme longshot but with closeup sound (an approach which probably came in thanks to the radio mic, although dubbing could have produced the same result earlier), and felt that car scenes needed to be shot from INSIDE the windscreen, hence all those process shots whenever anybody went for a drive, a subconscious sense of naturalism probably stopped directors and cinematographers from exploiting the long lens in just this way (so it makes sense that Sternberg wouldn’t be put off).

Thanks to Chris Schneider, who suggested I write something about PETULIA. I wasn’t sure where to start (it’s a very rich film), but zooming through it in search of frame-grabs inspired these musings).


Of goblins and ghosties

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

MERMAID, from Russia, and LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, from Sweden, bracketed my Wednesday’s viewing at E.I.F.F. and together form a pretty neat Fever Dream Double Feature. Both deal with childhood/adolescence, both have a fantasy element and a dark side, while ostensibly taking place in the real modern world (MERMAID starts in the ’90s and LTROI is set in the ’80s, for no particularly obvious reason), both are commercial as hell but eschew the Hollywood manner of constructing a script like a Swiss watch (or pretending to do so while leaving colossal gaps and improbabilities, as is generally the case nowadays) and both benefit from a slower cutting rate than is standard in America and increasingly in the U.K.

One has a surprise downbeat ending and the other an upbeat, neither of which I was sure about but neither of which seemed to mar my enjoyment overall.

MERMAID, written and directed by Anna Melikyan, follows an unusual, misfit girl from aged 6, when she stops speaking after a solar eclipse, to aged 18, when first love with a dissolute moon salesman (yes, I believe people do make a living selling lunar real estate) cures her and brings about dramatic developments in her life, all of which she reads in the city of Moscow — it’s billboards and hoardings seem to carry private messages to her throughout. This I dig, as anyone who’s read my “Things I Read Off the Screen” pieces will understand.

It’s kind of an emo AMELIE. An EMOLIE, if you will. By this I mean that it substitutes a darker world-view and a keener sense of heart-ache for the more saccharine aspects of Jeunet’s Parisian romance. Perhaps that’s what you get when you trade Paris for Moscow.

As the Jeunet comparison suggests, the film is a big-budget visual banquet, but it shuns the hyperkinetic frenzy of NIGHT WATCH and even harkens back to this kind of thing:

There’s a recurring, developing, surreal dream-tableau that reminds me simultaneously of old Russian sci-fi, Fellini, and David Bowie’s Ashes to Ashes video.

This was my favourite of the new films I’ve seen at the festival, until I saw LET THE RIGHT ONE IN. I left the Cameo with a spring in my stride and a song in my knee. It restored my faith in green-haired Russian girls.

LTROI is, let’s be frank, a vampire story. Shrewd in its borrowings from legend and in the slow-burn way it allows them to be expressed onscreen, it most closely resembles George Romero’s melancholy MARTIN, but it doesn’t avoid the supernatural — indeed, it takes it quite seriously (which is refreshing) and plunges in feet-first.

Could I describe this film as a romance between two twelve-year-old outcasts? Yes, and it’s beautifully observed. It’s not often you can get a Proustian rush AND a body count. Could I describe it as a romance between a budding serial killer and a vampire? Yes, but you might get the wrong idea. It’s stately, luminous, tender, harsh, it mingles realism with the fantastic in a way that illuminates both. It’s directed by Tomas Alfredson and scripted by John Ajvide Lindqvist, from his novel.

“My script is about being lifted out of the darkness by love.”

Fiona couldn’t make it so hopefully she’ll get to see it tomorrow. I joked that it’s her new favourite film, only she doesn’t know it yet.

Euphoria #28

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , on January 25, 2008 by dcairns

Ellen Jackson suggests this doozy:

As my nephew Calum would say, “I find it good.”

buy me!

The obvious precursor for this “musical” moment of montage from Jeunet & Caro’s groundbreaking DELICATESSEN is the “Morning Song of Paris”number from Mamoulian’s LOVE ME TONIGHT, which builds up a symphony of sounds from the awakening denizens of the city. There’s even a hint of that film’s second number, “Isn’t it Romantic?” previously featured here in Cinema Euphoria: a tune is passed from person to person through the streets, like some kind of melodic disease. In J&C’s DELI montage, the accelerating rhythm of the bedsprings comes to influence the behaviour of everybody else in the building, just like the hypnotic ray I’m aiming at you RIGHT NOW.

I still think this is M. Jeunet’s best work. Although the constant sepia tone should become oppressive, somehow it doesn’t. Although the tone appears bleak, dark and cynical, there is room for sweetness and innocence, and the auteurs seem to really believe in it (the seeds of AMELIE are sown!).

sur les toits de Paris 

As Colin McLaren pointed out to me at the time, it’s clear that the filmmakers “have never done a day’s work in their lives, so when thay have to give somebody a job, it’s some piece of nonsense,” — here, the brothers who manufacture moo-ing cylinders from home, the world’s most pointless cottage industry.

I was sort of intrigued by the fact that my parents just hated this film. They focussed a lot of attention on the question of “when is it set?” Which is, I guess, the kind of thing we worry about when we just don’t like the sensibility of a film. The answer, “a retro-fitted near-future,” didn’t occur to them as remotely possible, since it’s obviously the past, sometime. I wonder if there’s a vaguely generational thing there, and this kind of fantasy setting, removed from our own reality by jumping sideways in time, just isn’t on the mental maps of many people whose film consciousness was formed pre-sixties? Although if you’ve read a lot of sci-fi and comic books, you’ll probably be well primed whatever your age. My mum did read her brother’s “Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future”comics as a kid, but that cheery vision from the last days of the British Empire just isn’t going to provide a workable compass for Jeunet and Caro’s dystopian farce.

double D