Archive for Chinatown

Unmastered

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

How does he do it? In the book Cut to the Chase, Polanski’s editor Sam O’Steen talks about Polanski’s tendency to not always shoot masters. The master shot is the wide shot that covers the entire scene and establishes the space and where everybody is. There are filmmakers who ONLY shoot masters — Polanski has been known to play out entire scenes in single shots. And there are directors who tend not to shoot masters. Even though he made ROPE as an experiment in long takes, Hitchcock was famed for his “damned jigsaw cutting,” assembling his scenes from fragments that don’t cover the whole action. Close-up of one actor saying one line, close-up of someone else reacting, a hand, a landscape, a POV.


Polanski does something that seems even riskier. I flashed on the opening scenes of CHINATOWN, neither of which offers a true establishing shot or a master. Polanski doesn’t prove to us that Curly (Burt Young) and Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) are inhabiting the same space in scene 1, even when JN passes BY a whisky. He relies on eyelines and dialogue overlaps, plus there’s some movement of the curtains behind Gittes that suggests the distressed Curly has gone from trying to eat the Venetian blinds (just installed Wednesday) to clutching the drapes.

Polanski MAY have shot something showing the two men in one frame, but he cut it out, jumping ahead to Curly’s exit from the outer office, which finally shows both characters together. Then Gittes gets the news that “Evelyn Mulwray” (actually Ida Sessions, an impostor played by Diane Ladd) is waiting for him in another office.AGAIN, Polanski cuts his master-shot in two — making it no master at all.

As you’d expect, the scene begins with Gittes entering — but Polanski doesn’t show this at all. We hear it, and Sessions and the operative she’ been talking to look up. That’s it.Then we see Gittes in a separate shot, with another op behind him. These guys are chosen to contrast with Gittes and thus help characterise him. One is oldish, to emphasise Gittes’ youth, the other is a crass gum-chewer, to point up Gittes’ slickness. Incidentally, this guy is standing as Nicholson enters, for no reason at all — except to allow us to see him in a shot that’s framed to show a standing man. The height of the camera position is midway between Gittes and Sessions, so it looks down on her and up at her, and this helps tie the shots together. Not much else will.

At this point, there’s a pleasing mirroring, with Gittes screen left, Sessions screen right, and the ops positioned opposite.Now, as Sessions spins her tale about her husband cheating, Gittes and his op each cross the screen, the op going behind his desk, Gittes heading for a chair. Polanski had to stage all this carefully because O’Steen has to cut for key dialogue and reactions, but also to keep track of the men’s movements, otherwise you get an INCENSE FOR THE DAMNED teleportation situation.When Gittes pulls up a chair, the camera descends to sitting level, pulling in until Nicholson’s head almost hits the lens, and settling into an unusual composition: Gittes gets little nose-room, and his op is now positioned behind him. When we cut back to Sessions, the camera is lower and closer to match Gittes’ shot, a change so subtle it’s almost unnoticeable, but essential to create a sense of matching. And now we have the shot/reverse shot pattern that will prevail for the rest of the scene. Sessions’ close-up is a little bigger, and her op is screen right, just like Gittes’, which means she has all the nose-room she could wish for, and even space to wave a gloved hand with a long cigarette holder.And that’s IT for this scene. Polanski never shows the two main characters together in one shot. He never establishes the office in a wide (perhaps because that would tend to make it look like a set). He never gives Sessions’ op a shot where he’s in focus. (Gittes being slightly further from the lens, mostly, means his op can be acceptably sharp when he gets his one line.) We tie the separate images together in our mind’s eye and it feels like a coherent space and scene.

The right way to shoot a scene (or *A* right way) is generally the most economical. Not just because time is money, but because in a scene shot with economy, the audience senses that everything they’re shown has a purpose. Polanski has just covered a long, talkie scene involving four characters with just three set-ups, one of them involving a small camera move. (It’s always possible that the two Sessions angles were once joined together by a small move two, which would make the scene two set-ups long, but I’m certain this wasn’t the case. Polanski knew he would be on Nicholson for that reframing.) In its quiet, no-nonsense way, the result is radically different from the standard master-and-two-singles approach often used as a cookie-cutter by unimaginative directors.

Now, imagine this scene in a big Hollywood film today.

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Squeak

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on January 17, 2017 by dcairns

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CHINATOWN. Jack Nicholson as private eye Jake Gittes arrives at a swank mansion.

As he approaches the door, he hears something.

Evidently it’s coming from the limo. It is a squeaking sound.

Jack/Jake approaches the front door and rings the bell. A Chinese butler answers it, takes his card, and shuts the door in his face. While Jack awaits the manservant’s return, his attention is again caught by that damned squeaking. He looks back at the limo.

And now a chauffeur appears from behind the car, wiping it with a piece of chamois leather. Squeak squeak squeak.

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This always gets a great laugh. It intrigues me. I laughed too. But why? There is a mysterious sound. Then we find out the ordinary explanation. And for some reason that’s funny. It also seems apt in this film: there is  mystery, even in an apparently mundane setting. And we learn the solution. A microcosm for the whole film?

ERASERHEAD. Jack Nance as Henry Spencer visits his girlfriend at the parents’ house. For some time the conversation has to compete with an inexplicable squeaking noise.

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Squeak. Squeak. Squeak.

Henry eventually looks in the direction of the sound.

On the floor, a bitch is nursing a litter of pups.

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This is also weirdly funny. Lynch being who he is gets more discomfort out of the protracted and surreal noise, and the explanation when it comes still has a slightly icky biological feel: the anxiety of procreation, a major theme of the film. But we should not take any comfort from the fact that Lynch, like Polanski, eventually explains away this mystery. He can’t be relied upon to do so. The gag works better as an example of Henry’s curious and fatal passivity. This totally bizarre noise is whining away, and it takes him like a minute to muster the elementary curiosity to look for the source.

Poor Henry.

Warren Beatty’s Quest For A Comedy Partner Begins

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 9, 2014 by dcairns

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It’s a quest which would culminate in ISHTAR, which I still haven’t seen. I expect to maybe like ISHTAR.

But I did not care for THE FORTUNE, directed by the other half of the Nichols-May team, Mike Nichols, which pairs Beatty with Jack Nicholson. This thirties farce feels like an attempt to do a PAPER MOON, and Beatty’s comic stuffiness seems very Ryan O’Neal. Nicholson is dipping his toe in the waters of overacting for the first time. As is Stockard Channing, and the results are loud, shrill, and protracted. I’m sure there are people for whom the movie is hilarious, but they seem to be in a minority. We spent our time wondering what caused these people to choose to do this film. It’s hard to imagine it being funnier on paper, and in fact the pleasure we got was entirely from John Alonzo’s cinematography and Dick and Anthea Sylbert’s design, both of which recall CHINATOWN. Which is a somewhat better movie.

Screenwriter Carole Eastman was a friend of Jack Nicholson and wrote FIVE EASY PIECES, so I guess that explains him. And I imagine he would have Nichols and Beatty’s phone numbers on his rolodex. And so, a disaster is born. But a handsome one. We particularly enjoyed Warren’s 3D necktie.

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Turning to Biskind for the gossip, as usual, we find a story that Beatty used THE FORTUNE, regarded as a safe investment by its studio, to get the more tricky SHAMPOO made — with ironic results when the former flopped and the latter was a breakout hit. (I don’t really like either, but should give SHAMPOO another chance.) He claims Beatty bought the script for some vast sum, which Beatty denies… and he mentions Nicholson’s friendship with Eastman but doesn’t suggest that may have been a deciding factor in getting the thing made. He also says the script was too long and had no third act (all too apparent in the finished movie) — Nichols, concerned about his budget overages on CATCH 22 and DAY OF THE DOLPHIN took a machete to it and “cut out all the funny stuff” according to Polly Platt, at one point scheduled to design the movie. Doesn’t sound like something the talented Nichols would do, but the movie certainly has very little funny stuff, so if it was present to begin with, somebody must have cut it.

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This shot may explain where Beatty got the idea that he should play DICK TRACY.

Maybe if the film had been made in some other era, the theme of two men plotting to murder an innocent heiress for her money might have been acceptable, if unsympathetic — in the forties or fifties we’d know everything would turn out OK. In the seventies, all bets are off, which is part of what makes that decade’s cinema so exciting, but it means we can’t trust the filmmakers to end this film in a non-misogynistic, socially acceptable way. I mean, we’ve seen MASH and THE GETAWAY and STRAW DOGS and HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER at this point so anything is possible. The ending isn’t horrible like that, but it’s certainly peculiar, unresolved and kind of disturbing: a big shrug to rank alongside another seventies take on Old Hollywood, Elia Kazan a,nd Harold Pinter’s adaptation of Fitzgerald’s THE LAST TYCOON, which solves the source novel’s unfinished structure by just… stopping in mid-air.

vlcsnap-2014-05-01-00h46m06s136“There’s a man on the wing of this plane!”