Archive for Arrow Academy

Vertigo Views of VistaVision

Posted in Dance, FILM, Painting, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 21, 2018 by dcairns

Having been blown away by the new 4K of VERTIGO, I called up Nick Varley of Park Circus, who are releasing it in the UK, for an interview — after all, he’s only over there in Glasgow, that other, darker city. But I learned the hard way that the audio recorder on my phone doesn’t record phone calls, apparently, so I can’t give you any direct quotes. But I learned lots of things of interest…

The first thing I learned is that the restoration is by Universal, not Park Circus. Universal went back to the original Vistavision negative and scanned it at 4K, so what we’re seeing is 100% new. And, since prints formerly would be several stages removed from the negative, via interpositive etc, we’re able to see more than even audiences of the original release could see. Fortunately, in this case, I can attest that this doesn’t show up anything that wasn’t visible before that the filmmakers didn’t mean for us to see. Nick cited the wires suspending the Wicked Witch’s winged monkeys in THE WIZARD OF OZ as a major example of a not-entirely-welcome discovery. The line where Martin Balsam’s makeup ends on his neck in PSYCHO is a less glaring one from Hitchcock’s work.

I asked about the sound — it feels much more authentic than the 1996 job, which threw out the foley tracks and replaced them with modern stereo recordings, so that the gunshots at the opening had a jarringly contemporary quality — the metallic sound of the hammer coming down that you get in DIE HARD, the gratuitous ricochets on bullets being fired into the air. They now just go BLAM! as they should. Nick spoke of the tendency to sometimes want old films to sound and look like new films, a misguided approach I hope is finally going out of fashion.

I asked what Park Circus are up to next, in terms of restorations they’re doing personally. THE APARTMENT just got a 4K restoration, fixing one damaged reel and some problems with the main title. The results played in Cannes, and are different from the Blu-Ray Arrow just released (with a video essay by me). They’re now at work on SOME LIKE IT HOT, which could be very exciting, and next up will be John Huston’s MOULIN ROUGE, for Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation.

I mentioned meeting the film’s script supervisor, Angela Allen, in Bologna, and it turns out she’s a good friend of Nick’s. We paused briefly to marvel at the life and career she’s had.

The standard problem with MOULIN ROUGE as a 3-strip Technicolor film is that often the film shrinks, and as there are three negatives (red, blue and green), if they shrink at different rates, when you combine them you get the colours out of register, like in a cheaply printed old comic book, with characters and objects acquiring luridly coloured halos around their forms. In the digital age, this problem can be 100% solved, so that’ll be one result of the restoration.

The more unique problem comes from the film’s unique look. Huston loved experimenting with colour (MOBY DICK, REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE) and Oswald Morris was doing things with diffusion and the palette to emulate the look of Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters. And there seem to be no original 35mm prints extant to show what the results were supposed to look like. All we have as an authentic guide is the negative, and a 16mm dye-transfer print in Scorsese’s collection, which will be referred to.

It’s going to be exciting! I think in this case, possible the false noses will look falser, but they already look pretty false. The main result will be that a gorgeous looking film that exists only in tatty dupes, will suddenly look many times more gorgeous. Ossie Morris is the man.

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Legit Video Essayist

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 2, 2018 by dcairns

This is the complete-to-date heap of discs I’ve contributed video essays to, for Criterion, Masters of Cinema, Arrow and Kino (just the one, on Zulawski’s COSMOS). More are on the way and then there’s some that are purely online, notable the Anatomy of a Gag series for Criterion, which there will be more of soon.

I was quite anxious when I made my first piece for Arrow’s release of Roger Corman’s THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER. I wanted the thing to have a style of its own and not to be just a text essay read out flatly with images from the movie run under it. But I wasn’t sure how to make sure it was more than that. I tried whispering the VO but the producer kindly told me the effect was ridiculous. I had two ideas for all-visual sequences, one where we cut together all the mood scenes where Corman’s camera wanders around the house, and one where we dissolved all the exterior matte paintings of the house together to create a kind of time-lapse image of the mansion by day, by night, in fog, on fire, and finally crumbling into the tarn. And I read in bits of Poe’s source story. The rest of the time it was basically a text essay read over film clips, though they were at least edited to make them appropriate to what was being said.

A HARD DAY’S NIGHT gave me a wealth of material to work from — the film, lots of stills, behind-the-scenes footage shot by the BBC, film of the premiere, clips from later Richard Lester films, and then an audio interview with Mr. Lester which had to be cut in a couple of weeks before the deadline. Having additional material helped turn the piece into a mini-documentary, and the feedback from producer Kim Hendrickson was always helpful, but it was something Lester said that solved my worries about the form. He advised me not to directly illustrate what was being said, but to aim for oblique connections. Or maybe he was just talking about his own preferred approach. But I think it gave him a physical pain whenever I matched an image directly to a word. And I should have known better.

One that’s pretty direct that I still like is when the VO, spoken by Rita Tushingham, explains that Lester never used a shot list or storyboard, he just carried the film in his head, and I accompanied this with a rear view from the BBC footage of Lester operating a hand-held camera, the magazine beside his cranium. That’s pretty close to an illustration — it has FILM and HEAD in it — but I like it because it accompanies an image you can’t literally show photo-realistically, of a man holding the thought of a sequence in his mind.

A good review from the film dept. technician at college.

From then on, I started writing my VOs without regard to what the images would be. If you assume there will be a suitable image, you can always find one. Or maybe you end up cutting a sentence or two. But the editor’s code states, as I understand it, that there will always be a solution to any editing problem. You just need to look hard enough. So an account of C.T. Dreyer’s childhood for the forthcoming Blu-ray of MICHAEL gets illustrated with one of the film’s few urban exteriors (connecting pretty flatly to the word “Copenhagen” even though the shot is probably a wintry Berlin), a face at a window (played in reverse) and a pan across an array of dolls. An anecdote about HB Warner playing Jesus Christ for Cecil B DeMille which I decided was useful for my piece on THE APARTMENT started life with a series of stills from the movie, but when MGM nixed that idea we used a shot from the movie in which a guy dressed as Santa Claus appeared right on cue when the messiah was mentioned. I liked the effect.

I think literal connection is better than no connection at all, but the human mind is always making connections, so the real danger is not a lack of connection but the confusion of false connections. After the new year we’ll be returning to a work in progress where a line about an actor’s early, unsuccessful work needs changing so it doesn’t play over a later, successful one, even though there’s a nice metaphorical link between the image and the sentence.

I showed a bit of the Vertov set (bottom left) to students, and one said, “Is this, like, a legit DVD extra?” in an impressed voice.

Sometimes the VO deals with biographical info and background, if I know it or can research it. That’s sometimes the most fun, because you end up cheekily matching images from the film at hand with facts only abstractly connected to them. Close analysis of the film-making technique presents a different challenge, because often what I say takes longer than the clip at hand, or jumps about in time. Often my long-suffering editors Timo Langer and Stephen C. Horne do the hard work here, subtly changing the timing of the sequence to make it fit the VO, or else we might blatantly rewind, speed up or slow down the footage to make it overt.

I always like to bring in a director’s other work, if we can do it by fair use, or public domain works, or other films the distributor owns. Combined with stills, this can get you closer to the feeling of a true documentary, it enhances the production values.

My pieces for talkies are usually longer than the ones on silents because I drop in lines of dialogue from the movie. This is maybe too much like a TV clip-show, and maybe it can get illustrative again. I’m a little wary of it, but at the same time it can be amusing and I enjoy finding lines to take out of context and give fresh undertones to. What I need to remind myself to do is use wordless clips from silent films in a similar way. I’ve also added sound effects into silent movies, a technique I would generally disapprove of if it were done to the movie itself but which I give myself permission for in video essays. DER MUDE TOD has guttering candles, CALIGARI has creaking hinges. And I got Timo, who’s German, to read a couple lines in for that one also. I got Fiona to narrate DIARY OF A LOST GIRL. I should have got her to do DER MUDE TOD too: her voice sounds more serious than mine.

With CARNIVAL OF SOULS we had a whole array of public domain industrial films made by director Herk Harvey’s company. The trick was to use them amusingly but not condescend to the material too much, not make fun of the filmmaker. I also recorded audio interviews with critic and novelist Anne Billson, cartoonist Steve Bissette, and Fiona again, in her capacity as horror screenwriter. These had to be recorded over Skype, so we alibi’d the audio quality by cutting to radios and jukeboxes from the movie whenever these voices were going to come in. We did the same with Groucho biographer Steve Stoliar for Arrow’s Marx Bros at Paramount box set.

Finally, for a forthcoming piece with Randall William Cook, we worked it so that we both had recording devices going on opposite sides of the Atlantic so both halves of our conversation were recorded well, and just had to be synched up. But then I cut all my lines anyway.

With Bill Forsyth things were technically easier: I was able to record him in the same room for Criterion’s SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, and then Stephen actually filmed some original material indirectly illustrating a story about recording the movie off the TV on audio tape in the days before video. We’ve filmed a few more things since then.

For Masters of Cinema’s forthcoming release of Nobuhiko Obayashi’s HOUSE, I made an animated main title. I haven’t done any animation in twenty years, but I was inspired by a story about Obayashi’s beginnings as a filmmaker. Actually, I just traced the hand-drawn title in different colours with different patterns, and Stephen scanned the pages, flipped them into negative and we cut them together in time with the movie’s soundtrack. I really enjoyed that and I want to do more of it.

But another part of the operation has been Danny Carr, who made titles echoing Lester’s graphics to accompany the A HARD DAY’S NIGHT piece. Then he created an amazing animated title for the SULLIVAN’S piece, ANTS IN YOUR PLANTS OF 1941, in the style of a 1941 cartoon. Since then, I’ve had him disassemble the graphic grids of Ozu’s GOOD MORNING so that the pastel panels slide off the screen like, well, like sliding screens. We’re working on something else now…

Festive Cheer

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on December 18, 2017 by dcairns

New, big, special limited edition Blu-Ray of Billy Wilder’s THE APARTMENT from Arrow. Very proud and pleased to have contributed a video essay, The Flawed Couple, dealing with Wilder’s work with Jack Lemmon, which is included as part of the bulging bag of extras, along with a hardback booklet featuring pieces by Neil Sinyard, Kat Ellinger and Travis Crawford & Heather Hyche, commentaries from Bruce Block and Philip Kemp, interviews with Wilder, Hope Holiday, a video appreciation by Kemp, a making-of featurette, a Jack Lemmon profile, and the screenplay as a BD-ROM attachment.

MGM’s lawyers were kind of a nightmare to deal with on this one (that’s a legal term, I believe) which is why the Billy Wilder ABC that Stephen C. Horne and I put together could not be included, but maybe it’ll show up separately. The strange thing was, having to talk about Wilder’s other films with Lemmon without being able to show them, and sometimes without even being able to show stills, forced us to be creative. At one point we found ourselves trying to illustrate an anecdote about Cecil B. DeMille’s KING OF KINGS using only footage from THE APARTMENT. It worked out quite well, I think. You can judge for yourselves by buying a copy…

Here.

Maybe there’s an algorithm describing how working within constraints can enhance your creativity up to a point, until suddenly a balance is tipped and it doesn’t. (I once described writing for kids’ TV — supervised by anxious bosses — as like juggling in a strait-jacket.) This one got to just about Prime Restraint Level, so the results are grand.

I’ve done quite a bit on Wilder now — there are also text essays on THE LOST WEEKEND and FEDORA for Masters of Cinema. Collect ’em all!