Archive for Coppola

Crossfade

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on August 18, 2014 by dcairns

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Thanks to David Wingrove for recommending PAYMENT ON DEMAND (1951) — I think we were discussing theatrical tropes in film and he mentioned this Curtis Bernhardt flick — co-written by Bernhardt himself, unusually enough. Bette Davis plays a tyrannical homemaker whose husband leaves her, prompting a reassessment of their lives via flashback — the really interesting part of the film. There’s a good bit afterwards where Davis ruins hubby in the divorce settlement, and then a rather unconvincing bit where she has to redeem herself, which is a depressing thing for Bette to have to do. With the new look dresses comes a new conformity. In the old days she would have fallen under a train or something, but at least her vivacious malevolence would be undimmed until the final fade-out.

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Bernhardt’s framing and cutting are sharply expressive. In the best scenes, every shot brims with tension, and clashes boldly with its predecessor and postdecessor (well that ought to be a word).

But those flashbacks are remarkable. Here’s how Bernhardt gets us into the first, which shows the young Bette (“Not too close!”) plotting elopement with future hubby (Barry Sullivan).

Present tense: Bette was all dressed up to go to a party, but since it turns out her husband is leaving her, she begs off. Sitting at the dressing table, she removes her jewelry and grows wistful. A soft focus effect fades in, blurring her surroundings in luminous mist. I think how you do this is an in-camera effect — there’s gauze — possibly a bit of silk stocking with a hole in — over the lens, but it doesn’t show up until the light hits it. So it’s a Death of a Salesman type lighting change effect, and not the last.

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Then, rather than do a straight dissolve, Bernhardt mixes through ever so slowly, keeping Bette’s head and shoulders solid as her environment melts away and is replaced by the past. This is either a complex optical involving a circular wipe to remove Bette’s background, or it’s simply a lap dissolve over a shot in which Bette’s surroundings have been faded down on a dimmer, a spotlight keeping her face illuminated so that it cuts through the dissolve and remains dominant (the CITIZEN KANE approach). I suspect it’s optical, and a bit of an afterthought, since ideally you’d have Bette’s bedroom, around her head, disappear much earlier, and this would be perfectly easy to do with faders on the set.

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But wait! This is where it gets really interesting, and beyond anything anyone else was doing at the time. As Bette’s pensive visage disappears, we find ourselves looking at a peculiar inside-outside environment. A barn interior with a silhouetted buggy. Behind it, a farmhouse seen from outside. As Bernhardt slowly dollies in towards “teenage” Bette (“Not too close!”) and “teenage” Sullivan proposes that, since it must be the 30s, they should run a way on a freight train and she should disguise herself as a boy (he’s very keen on this part) like in WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD (Plan B: she can say she’s his sister, like DAYS OF HEAVEN), something very strange happens.

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An openly theatrical lighting change causes Bette and Barry to emerge from the shadows (“Not too clearly!”) while a wall fades in to obscure the farmhouse. We’re now in an enclosed set. The farmhouse was only visible due to the kind of X-ray vision that Bette Davis has in her memories, apparently. This means that during the Old Hollywood scenes in WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?, Bette’s character can see everyone naked. Bear that in mind next time you watch it.

Since the camera is in motion, we know this isn’t a dissolve (since motion control hadn’t been invented yet, though Howard Hawks rigged up something similar for the fake 360° pan in RED RIVER — a motorized pan — and on careful examination we can see faint traces of the planks of the barn wall visible over the farm exterior. So that whole wall is painted on translucent gauze, and becomes opaque in as the lighting changes. A technique unseen until Coppola revived it for ONE FROM THE HEART, unless I’m forgetting something.

At the end of the scene, Bette’s mother starts calling from the house, an echoing offscreen spoil-sport like the mothers in PSYCHO and KING OF COMEDY, and Bernhardt renders the barn see-through again to visualise her — a great black building with staring bright windows. Bette is a tiny outline in the foreground. Then we dissolve back to New Look Bette in 1951.

And this is just No. 1 in a cluster of flashbacks, all of which contain some similar trick — lighting changes that melt walls away, impossible inside-and-outside perspectives, theatrical as hell but inhabiting that strange space where the theatrical becomes the cinematic. OUR TOWN (1940) is the only earlier example that comes to mind, though RED GARTERS is a weird parallel from three years later. I do suspect Death of a Salesman, staged in ’49, is the key influence. I also suspect that Bernhardt got a little carried away with the opportunities for this technique and rushed ahead before he’d worked out his story properly. I’m not even convinced the flashbacks happen in the right place. But they’re magnificent.

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These two totally different frames are actually from the same angle, with only a slight pull-back. Bette’s beau and her partner are revealed digging roads since their law practice hasn’t taken off yet. They enter what seemed to be a shadowy diner and it lights up and becomes a kind of site office, the back wall materializing at the same time to close it off for a more naturalistic scene which plays out in a single shot, returning to the astral-ghost perspective at the end.

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Panels of miniature hillside — the little one on the right is a mirror. Crossfade lighting so that night falls outside and the bedroom appears, Bette hoisting her offspring.

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The baby is crying, I think, because she’s the only one who’s noticed they live in a square tent made of translucent gauze where the lights keep dimming up and down.

 

Geology, litigation, gender, cinema: my Saturday night.

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 27, 2008 by dcairns

The Rat-Infested City of Glasgow

The glamour of film-making — the unit assembles for ROUNDING UP DONKEYS.

Just back from the rat-infested city of Glasgow, which I plunged into in order to attend some birthday celebrations. I was also on the look-out for info that might help me land another film or TV job, though it was unlikely that anybody at this party would be able to grant me one directly, and I was also looking out for any little items of interest for the blog.

The 40th birthdays belonged to Travis and Helen Reeves, whom I know from way back. They are that rare phenomenon, non-identical twins who look alike, though not so much now. I shall explain — while not genetically identical, they have a strong facial resemblance and similar build. But not so much now, since Travis, who used to be Helen’s sister, is now her brother, which makes a fair difference.

It’s all prefigured weirdly in my film CLARIMONDE, I think, where Travis, then outwardly female, provided the voice for a male character (a ghost). The same scene featured another male ghost who was actually a woman in drag, looking like a cross between Ringo Starr and a Mexican bandit.

Along with his gender reassignment, Mr. T has also changed careers — apart from his writing and directing, he used to be a production designer, arranging objects within the three-dimensional space of a set, and is now a sound designer, arranging noises within the three-dimensional space of a cinema (or TV viewer’s lounge). This comparison between the two jobs originates with Walter Murch, and it’s the reason he invented the job title “sound montage designer”.

Helen Reeves is a “diminutive antipodean singer-songwriter” who used to duet with Travis under the unofficial heading “The Twindigo Girls”, though Travis’ deepened voice has made their harmonizing trickier, and rendered the nickname inaccurate.

I did find out a few things that might prove useful in my film-hustling, and caught up with several old friends, such as Bert Eeles, editor of CRY FOR BOBO, and John Cobban, sound designer of same. I also picked up fascinating insights into forensic archaeology from Travis’ friend Friga (sp?), with whom I also co-invented a futuristic dwelling space (the kind of thing I tend to do after a few pints). Friga was bemoaning the fact that geological drill cores, which are basically cylinders of rock, are often very beautiful, what with the interesting laminations in sedimentary stone, but if you’re a geologist you get too many of them to keep. I suggested building a house out of them. Friga initially thought this impractical, since the cores are cylindrical, not brick-shaped, until we jointly realised they could be assembled into a STONE LOG CABIN.

So when you find yourself spending your retirement years in an edifice constructed from little cylinders of laminated sedimentary rock, you’ll know it’s my fault.

The night was spent in Morag McKinnon’s spare room. Morag is fresh from directing her first feature, ROUNDING UP DONKEYS, but I can’t tell you much of anything about that because it’s all at a sensitive stage, rough cut and all. I’m still very much psyched to see it, but there’s a no-DVD policy in force at the moment to stop unfinished edits falling into THE WRONG HANDS, i.e. probably mine.

I can tell you about the LAWSUIT though, because that’s been in the papers. As I mentioned before, ROUNDING UP DONKEYS is the second film in a trilogy, following on from Andrea Arnold’s RED ROAD. While the films are supposed to deal with the lives of a common group of characters, the fact that each movie is the work of a different writer and director means that this was never likely to have the uniformity of Kieslowski’s DECALOGUE. In fact, screenwriter / mad god Colin McLaren refitted the characters to suit his dramatic purposes, giving Kate Dickie a new daughter, and having her meet Martin Compston for the first time, even though she meets him in RED ROAD. So it’s an alternate universe sequel to RED ROAD. (There should be more of those!)

Following in the same spirit, Morag recast a minor character in RED ROAD — Dickie’s dad — since he’s the major character in ROUNDING UP DONKEYS. James Cosmo, a distinguished player who also embodies a dad in TRAINSPOTTING, takes the role. This has upset the actor from RED ROAD, Andrew Armour, who apparently feels that by taking the part in film 1, he was effectively contracted to play him in all subsequent films, should the character appear. I don’t think he has a legal leg to stand on, but there’s a terrible pathos to his position: he’s said that this is his only chance at a leading role, which is tantamount to admitting nobody would ever cast him in a star part except by accident.

I like Armour in RED ROAD — he seems like a real old guy who’s kind of wandered in front of the camera, rather than like an actor, which is surely a good thing. But the character written by Colin is a new person in all but name, and requires a different sort of player to bring him to life. It’s just one of those things.

If you want a really sad casting story, consider the case of the actor originally cast as Sonny in THE GODFATHER. In order to get Paramount to agree to cast Al Pacino (an unknown who had underperformed in screen tests), Coppola had to agree to take James Caan as Sonny and let the original guy go. Not only had the guy already celebrated getting the part with his family… I can’t remember his name. Because he’s not famous. He never got another break — that was his shot.

(Maybe I’m inclined to depressing tales because I’m hungover. More cheerful stuff tomorrow!)

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