Archive for Dziga Vertov

The Sunday Intertitle: Not Notfilm

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 10, 2020 by dcairns

It feels mean to have a go at NOTFILM, Ross Lipman’s documentary about the making of Samuel Beckett’s FILM. Lipman has all the right materials and a potentially great subject and has spoken to some of the key people, but he is not the right person to be making the film.

When he says “Barney Rosset conducted his last interview,” he means, “I conducted Barney Rosset’s last interview.” Maybe this is modesty. But it’s also misuse of the word “conduct.” And a person who uses words sloppily cannot make a satisfactory film about the precise Beckett.

“One can file these works, almost in sequence, before and after FILM.” I have no idea what this means, or why Lipman says it so portentously. Actually, I can file Beckett’s work absolutely in sequence, before and after FILM.

“Beckett’s was the only that would be completed.” This is just a horrible sentence, the missing word “one” giving the feeling of climbing a flight of stairs and imagining there’s one more step, and having that lurching feeling when it isn’t there.

I liked it when he cut between Keaton’s THE CAMERAMAN and Vertov’s MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA in such a way that it felt continuous, but I didn’t like it when he did absurd 1980s video effects, where the image puckers up and shrinks into a ball, etc. I felt that a person who uses images so sloppily couldn’t possibly make a film about the precise Keaton.

There are a lot of great stills and documents… Both the subject, and the fact that the key personalities are dead and have left limited documentation, seem to invite an experimental approach, but apart from the intrusive Kenny Everett Video Show effects, the piece unfolds like the most standard-issue documentary. The default film.

However, within that constraining frame, there is plenty of good stuff — the fact that Boris Kaufman, cinematographer of FILM, was Dziga Vertov’s youngest brother produces not only historical connections but trapdoors into philosophical pondering which Lipman plungers down, investigating the points of contact between Vertov’s all-seeing camera eye and Beckett’s.

This is a two-hour film about a twenty-minute film, but oddly that’s not a problem. If the material were handled more deftly, I can imagine it flying by, and it still manages to trundle fairly effectively.

But asides from the philosophical trapdoors, Lipman also drops down some sinkholes of cliché, devoting line after line to Keaton’s “expressionless stone face.” All wrong. Keaton’s face is not expressionless and it does not leave itself open to interpretation, as Lipman asserts. And FILM has some of the more overt facial acting of any Keaton film, so this is both a failure to observe and willingness to be led by received wisdom.

The most useful interviewee is James Karen, the man who was there — he seems to have been responsible for getting Keaton into the film, something he had cause to regret.

Another really useful person to have spoken to — and one who would have fitted right in with the doc’s pattern of catching people right before they checking out — Barney Rosset and James Karen and Haskell Wexler are no longer with us, alas — would have been Karen Black. I can’t blame Lipman for not tracking her down — her involvement in this tale is only a random fact adrift in my brain like an earwig in a cup of coffee. In some old issue of films & filming magazine, a profile, which also mentions her performing Bowie’s Time while dressed as a Nazi stormtrooper in her cabaret act — Black recalls witnessing the NYC location shoot of FILM, and being horrified by Alan Schneider’s yelling instructions to Keaton during a take. “How can you do your job with someone yelling at you?” she asks, reasonably enough.

But I think Schneider was (a) being a silent film director of the old school, something Keaton probably didn’t mind, and (2) cueing Buster for the moment where, as indicated in the script, his character, O, senses without seeing, the approach of E, the film’s other major character, played by the camera itself. What doesn’t work, though, is the end result: in the film, it looks as if Buster is waiting for the word “Action,” and then takes off on command. Buster, of course, could play anything he could understand, like Ginger Rogers. He didn’t understand, or particularly like, Beckett’s script, though his eventual guess as to its meaning is not a bad one: a man can hide from everyone except himself. Beckett wouldn’t have put it like that, but it comes close enough to the authorial intent to be playable.

Karen complains that the filmmakers didn’t let Buster in on their thinking, and in Schneider’s published reminiscences (quoted too sparingly here), he makes it clear he found Keaton uncommunicative, closed off (Keaton was fairly deaf by this time, which Schneider seemingly didn’t know). Beckett was partially blind, Keaton deaf, and Schneider was a complete novice to cinema. I think Beckett’s notes about “the angle of immunity” wouldn’t have meant anything to him — Keaton isn’t likely to be open to learning a new concept of film terminology, one personal to Beckett, at this late stage in his life. But a direction like “you don’t SEE the camera, but you sense it’s there suddenly, and you want to escape it,” would have worked and even with his back to the camera, Keaton could have TOTALLY have acted that.

I should say that the doc has some tremendous material: recordings of Beckett in conference, outtakes, and clips from a pin-sharp transfer of a film I’ve only ever seen in fuzzy form.

Oh, and THE LOVABLE CHEAT! This is a 1949 film in which Keaton appears, alongside Charles Ruggles, Peggy Ann Garner and Alan Mowbray. It’s based on a play by Balzac which Beckett denied having read (lying bastard), in which a bunch of characters await an unseen figure named Godot. In the Balzac play and the film, however, Godot finally arrives, and everybody’s really happy. Personally I think Lipman missed a trick here — opening with the jubilations about Godot’s arrival, which are funny only because of their absurd resonance, without any explanation of how this sequence came to exist, would have been really striking. Lipman, by taking us through events in a more rational order, has spoiled the surprise. It’s still really funny, though.

Oh, and I think he should have compared the scene in SHERLOCK JR where Buster struggles to get himself incorporated the film within the film (he uses plenty of clips from that one but not this bit) with Beckett’s Act Without Words I, which seems to be telling the same story. (If Beckett denied the influence, again, he’s a big fat liar.)

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…

Non-Fiction Film Thing

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on April 30, 2016 by dcairns

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Masters of Cinema’s stunning new Dziga Vertov set, photographed on the rich brown leather background of my couch. If you rush out and buy this, you get not only MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA, but all of Vertov’s other major works, providing not only valuable context, but a bunch of brilliant films some of which it might even be possible to prefer to the more celebrated title.

You also get a video essay written and sort-of-directed by me (Vertov deserves credit for all the shooting!) and edited by Timo Langer, entitled NON-FICTION FILM THING (Vertov’s subtitle description for his KINO EYE newsreel/essay works).

I urge you to acquire!

Property is theft: it makes you feel clever.

Use the link below when purchasing in order to benefit Shadowplay by a few sticky pennies:

Man with a Movie Camera (and other works by Dziga Vertov) (1929) [Masters of Cinema] Limited Edition 4-Disc Dual Format (Blu-ray & DVD)