Archive for Billy Wilder

The Sunday Intertitle: Mine, all mine!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 10, 2018 by dcairns

Seena Owen goes full Daffy Duck on Gloria Swanson in QUEEN KELLY, Erich Von Stroheim’s attempt to milk the absolute mostest out of every moment of melodrama in a misshapen, rollicking saga of innocence versus corruption and madness. It’s absurd, and impossibly drawn-out, but magnificent, even if only as demented trash.

Spectacularly incomplete — after an hour it starts breaking up into still photographs and captions to compensate for scenes lost, never completed or never filmed — Swanson and her producer, Joseph Kennedy, fired Stroheim when he finally went too far, though what would constitute too far for him is open to debate. It’s a ruin of a film — Kennedy evidently decided it was better for the movie to be ruined than himself, though why they didn’t replace EVS with some hack to quickly polish off the narrative is a mystery — at least they would have ended up with something releasable to show for the millions spent. It’s better this way, just as THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS should have a special edition that omits the scenes shot by other hands and paints in Welles’s missing sequences, using captions, stills, script pages and the stray moment glimpsed in the trailer but not in the final movie…

One surprise that shouldn’t have surprised me — the clip that turns up in SUNSET BLVD to illustrate Norma Desmond’s movie career — about the only commercial purpose those months of filming QK ever served — has been falsified, with fresh intertitles added to it —

In SUNSET BLVD, the sentiment expressed may be similar but the text is different — the intertitle puts into young Gloria’s mouth the words “….Cast out this wicked dream which has seized my heart…” Why change it? I think for RESONANCE — Wilder & Brackett’s new line turns the scene into an analog of SUNSET BLVD itself, with Norma’s movie-star madness as the “wicked dream.” Of course, it could be they’d located a variant print of the film with a wacky different set of titles, or it could be that Wilder just didn’t want any dialogue in his film he hadn’t written himself, or the impulse could have been to make QUEEN KELLY seem even more strange, dated and melodramatic than it already is… which would be impossible if you look at it as a whole, but very possible if you look at this one scene, a relatively restrained one by EVS’s fervid standards.

 

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The View

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 21, 2017 by dcairns

When David Leland’s lovely WISH YOU WERE HERE came out, he did a Q&A in Edinburgh and said the main difference he’d found between theatre and film directing was that “In cinema, there’s only one seat in the house, and it always has to be the best one.”

This is cute, glib, somewhat true, but worth unpicking. A director in the theatre has to consider what can be seen and heard by audience members scattered around the auditorium. In cinema, though obviously there ARE lots of seats, the view controlled by the director is that of the camera. The camera, Leland is saying, always has to be in the best position. But what IS the best position?

Looking at creatively directed movies soon demonstrates that the best position is not necessarily the most explicit view. Sometimes the camera withdraws somewhat to aid the emotional effect of the scene. Billy Wilder suggested that a character having an idea, or receiving terrible news, is best filmed from behind, enlisting the audience’s imagination, showing a certain discretion, avoiding cliché (the lightbulb over the head), and maybe saving the filmmaker from the impossible task of showing the unshowable (what should MacDuff’s face do when he’s told his entire family have been killed?)…

In THE PUBLIC ENEMY, and again in THE LIMEY, a massacre occurs inside a building while the camera waits, timorously, outside. Refusing to serve up the usual action shots creates an awe-inspiring sense of something too horrible to be seen. In TAXI DRIVER, Scorsese slides his camera off Travis when he’s on the phone to Betsy, preferring to show us the empty corridor down which Travis will inevitably walk once rejected. Mike Hodges pulled back from George Segal’s breakdown in THE TERMINAL MAN, feeling “It’s too painful,” and wanting to give the character some privacy. The suits couldn’t comprehend this choice, and wanted him to close in, to “show the emotion,” an approach Hodges found pornographic.

Choosing to conceal rather than reveal can be terrifically effective, and always indicates a creative filmmaker at work (unless it indicates pure ineptitude). I can sort of respect the choice even when I don’t think it works. In Peter Brook’s KING LEAR, he includes fairly frequent shots of the backs of people’s heads. He explained that in Shakespeare, there are moments when the words are doing everything and images would detract. (In the continuous longshot of the stage, this is less of an issue, apparently.) Brook didn’t feel he could just cut to black, but he and his cinematographer DID feel they could get away with filling the screen with a centrally-framed, often blurry, rear view of Paul Scofield’s cranium. They were dead wrong, and Brook is no filmmaker if you ask me. But it was certainly an example of creative thought in action.

(Why I don’t think it works: the blank walls of hair and scalp serve as interruptions; they make the audience wonder, futilely, what is going on; they aren’t incorporated into a blocking and cutting pattern; they distract from the words far more than simply holding the shot would have done.)

There’s a particularly great example of directorial discretion in George Stevens’ film A PLACE IN THE SUN. Montgomery Clift arrives hours late at Shelley Winters’ place. He was supposed to spend his birthday with her (his official girlfriend) but instead has been with Elizabeth Taylor. Winters feels miserable about being stood up. Clift feels miserable and guilty for doing it (but would totally do it again).

And Stevens films the whole thing from outside the room.

As the scene develops, the angle comes to seem, in a conventional sense, less and less adequate. When the characters sit, we only have Shelley’s back, a Brooksian lump of hair. By the end of the scene, both characters are almost entirely unreadable, you would think, Shelley still just a blind slab of back, Monty crouching on the floor, hidden behind her with just his hand in shot. Our expensive stars are turned away from the lens AND blocked AND tiny in frame. “Shoot the money” this ain’t. But as the awkwardness and discomfort of the scene mounts continuously, and is obviously the correct emotion, nobody could reasonably say the action isn’t well-covered. Stevens’ bold choice delivers the required feeling. And paradoxically, by showing discretion and averting our eyes from the angst-ridden subjects, he doesn’t protect us from suffering, in a way he elevates the agony. Big close-ups of blubbering faces are often so repellant that you’re prevented from pity by sheer revulsion. Wide empty frames enlist the imagination — in this case, the empty bed forms an accusing plain.

What makes this even more impressive is what we’re told about Stevens’ filming style. “He shoots in a circle,” they said, meaning that Stevens would start aiming north and film a wide shot and singles of different sizes of every character, then arc around the action ninety degrees and shoot from the east, repeating all the shot sizes, and then do the same for the other points of the compass, acquiring a colossal amount of footage, most of it useless as soon as he made his choice in the cutting room about what view he liked best. Incredible to think he began as cinematographer to Laurel & Hardy, who didn’t even rehearse.

In this case, either Stevens made a single bold decision before turning over a frame of film, suggesting that the conventional view of his approach is exaggerated or incomplete, or he went ahead and filmed every possible angle on this scene and, in reviewing the material in the cutting room, noticed that this take worked, sustained interest all the way through, and was better than anything he could get by cutting back and forth between different angles (meaning, presumably, he’d have had to cut the scene together a few different ways to be sure of this). Either explanation is hugely impressive to me.

I once read an article by Arthur Koestler explaining that computers would never be able to play chess. This was written decades before computers learned to play chess. Koestler explained that, since computers were not intelligent (which is still true), they could only attempt to play chess by considering every possible move, even the ones that make no sense and are instant suicide. “This is a very stupid way to play chess,” he argued. Since the number of possible moves increases as you project more and more turns ahead, and quickly becomes astronomical, Koestler argued, reasonably enough, that there would never be enough computing power to pull it off. Well, now there is, and I assume computers still play chess the same way, considering all the choices, but can really consider ALL the choices, so a good chess computer is just about unbeatable.

Stevens seems to have been trying to direct films the way computers play chess. And it IS, usually, a stupid way to direct films. Dump-truck directing tends to look bland, and just filming a wide shot and many many medium and close shots does not even guarantee that you’ve covered the scene. John Frankenheimer found that an ECU of a raindrop hitting a stopwatch was just the shot required to solve a huge storytelling/pace/continuity/weather problem on GRAND PRIX. The kind of thing that can only be attained by imagination, which is a fuzzy and chaotic approach, not a methodical one.

What blows my mind with Stevens is how he frequently got imagination to thrive within what would seem to be a rather arid methodology. Hats off!

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!