Archive for Edgar Ulmer

Dress to camera

Posted in FILM, literature, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 11, 2020 by dcairns

I have this neat little book by filmmaker Tony Bills called Movie Speak — it’s a guide to the language used on film sets, stuff I often don’t know because I hardly ever get to be on a film set. “Dress to camera” means to arrange a prop or person to see it best, usually by moving it into frame. The word “cheat” is also used a lot for this, that’s the one I know. You have a perfect composition of a guy leaning on a desk but you want to see the telephone, but it’s not visible, so you get the props guy to slide it into view, a deliberate continuity error which you’re confident you can get away with because the angle is so different from the wide shot, or because you haven’t established the position of the phone yet.

Walter Murch says some good stuff somewhere about hieroglyphs, or anywat about ancient Egyptian figure drawing. People look kind of odd in these things, and he says it’s because they arranged the body parts into their most recognizable aspect. The body and limbs are frontal so you can see the shape and the number of limbs, but the feet sideways so you can see how the feet stick out. The hands are turned in a way that’s not impossible but not exactly natural, so you can distinguish the fingers. The heads are sideways so you can see what a nose is.

Murch says that the way editing fragments space and people is arguable a means of achieving the same goal: showing everything in its most recognisable, or maybe most dramatic aspect.

The most extreme example of this might be Edgar Ulmer’s description of the German expressionists building a whole different set for every camera angle — something I doubt they ever did, at least not consistently. But, given unlimited resources, for that kind of look it might make sense.

Josef Von Sternberg writes in his memoir that when he was an assistant, his director told him to never arrange a chair onscreen in such a way that one leg was behind another, because it would look like it had three legs and some idiot in the audience would get distracted waiting for it to fall over. He seems to take this notion pretty seriously. I think it should be taken seriously but not literally — it’s not primarily a lesson about chair photography, it can apply to everything. Dress to camera.

And this leads me to Murnau’s important advice to Hitchcock: “Remember, it doesn’t matter what’s on set, only what the camera sees.” And my cinematographer friend Scott Ward’s dictum, “Nothing in film is any good unless you can photograph it.” That’s not wholly true, it ignores sound, and the things which can be suggested or inferred. But he said it in the context of a TV show where someone had proposed having four characters wear shiny helmets which would have reflected the entire crew and everything behind the camera, so I think he was definitely onto something.

Red Detour

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on April 14, 2020 by dcairns

A choice of viewing for my students and anyone else interested: DETOUR, directed by Edgar Ulmer and written by Martins Goldsmith and Mooney, available on YouTube, and LE CERCLE ROUGE, written and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville.

cercle3

I’ll probably discontinue these shortly — keeping the students engaged long-distance with anything other than the central coursework the need to pass — which they’re all doing fine with — is proving impossible, and I don’t feel I should be guilt-tripping them on top of everything else that’s going on. So it may be up to you, the Shadowplayers, to fill my comments section.

LATE IT WAS, HOW LATE

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics, Radio, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 5, 2017 by dcairns

Regular Late Show participant Matthew David Wilder is a screenwriter (Paul Schrader’s DOG EAT DOG) and director, but I first became aware of him as one of the few people using reviews on the early IMDb as vehicles for actual ideas. Here he is on the way we live now, in these late days ~

HOW LATE IT WAS, HOW LATE

by Matthew Wilder

I’ve noticed a little nervous squinch—that tiny pulse at the far left side of my left eyeball—that usually comes from too much caffeine. It starts annoying me because I shuttle in a most annoyed way from close-up-vision glasses to far-off-distance glasses. Right now, as I feel the squinch, I am shifting from close-up glasses to far-off glasses as the monitor I am looking at is now a little bit farther than it is close. The picture I am staring at is Regarding the Case of Joan of Arc, a movie I shot in July that features, in almost every frame, a great but only moderately well-known actress named Nicole LaLiberte, best known as the femme fatale we assumed would be around for a long time in Twin Peaks: The Return, but who was dispatched with terrifying swiftness by the Bad Agent Cooper.

The genius of the scene is that David Lynch and Mark Frost have Nicole’s character repeatedly ask, within the same scene, “Are you gonna kill me?” to which Bad Coop says “Yes…” There is something terrifyingly childlike about that notion of re-asking a terrifying question and hoping to get a different answer. Eventually Bad Coop makes good on his yeses.

The squinch keeps pulsing as I look at a scene of Nicole’s character being waterboarded.

In our picture, Nicole is Joan of Arc, an alt-right Christian militia terrorist who blows up federal buildings because her voices have told her to take back America for Jesus Christ. As a result of her purity of purpose and her virginal character, she has the same kind of supporters Trump has, but more. She owns a good fifty percent of the populace. Even people who disagree with her politics respect her self-sacrificing and rigidly uncompromising vision.

In the scene, Joan says “I don’t, and can’t, know what is in their hearts.” We have dropped in a version of the line that sounds more Middle American and less precise, like “I doand, and cand, know what is in their hearts.”

As the doand and cand are about to go in, a little ting, like a coin falling in a cup, lands on my phone, and I see an email has arrived. It’s from a film festival in Texas, asking “a number of people who think a lot about movies” to answer the question “Is cinema over?”

A few moments before “Is cinema over?” landed in my lap, some other events came to me by phone. The Republicans passed a tax bill generally considered a wild looting of the Treasury by many sane, centrist people, a giant redistribution of money upward that involved such gleeful moments as lobbyists writing in special dispensations for special friends in pen during the sleepover party at which the Senate passed the bill.

In the same moment I discover that a host of National Public Radio, someone I’ve never heard of before, is being fired for “inappropriate behavior,” one of which is signing an email “xoxo.” The portrait of this gentleman depicts him looking somewhat enfeebled in a wheelchair, which somehow—is this intentional or just my interpretation?—scores as “See? We’re gettin’ ‘em ALL!” rather than “Isn’t this just too sad?”

Joan’s head is seen on a sort of dentist’s-chair-cum-surgical-table-cum-torture-device. Her head is down low and her feet, out of frame, are up high, as if she were lying on an upended seesaw. Are you gonna kill me? ……Yes.. I look at the phone again, which gives me evidence from a friend of people piling on Richard Brody’s attack on Woody Allen’s character in a review of Wonder Wheel. The Texas question sticks with me: Is cinema over?

Immediately there is an attempt to evade the question. Over what? is one way. What difference would it make if it were over or not? is another. But the intention is clear. We know what the guy who wrote this question was thinking. Is “cinema”—that thing where people gather in an operahouse-like setting (which runs the gamut all the way from majestic to degraded) to see moving pictures, together, historically on celluloid, in a communal experience of laughing or crying or being bored together—over? As in dead.

I pull out my notebook. The page I am about to write on is full of little mispronouncements in our picture’s dialogue. You said you wanted to meet with a spiritual advisuh. Some of them are crossed out, done, some of them persist. Next to them, on the next page, I write Is cinema done? and under that EXAMPLES OF NOT DONE.

Here is a pause.

I think of all the things I have enjoyed in recent times in that big room with people I don’t know in it, and most of them are rather effete, culturally anodyne art objects. Frederick Wiseman reflecting on the good deeds done by idealistic public servants. Bruno Dumont making a kind of comedy so broad it becomes a meditation on the nature of comedy itself.

Stuff someone could write a long, thoughtful article about. But how about cinema itself, invader of the unconscious ¹. Something that hits us on a gut level, as Woody Allen once said, the thing that appeals not to our ideas but to our emotions and senses. Is that still around? I searched the hard drive of my brain for recent examples and could only find one.

I scratched on the page:

guardians vol. 2

It is a commonplace in Los Angeles that everything in movies is story story story, but, as anyone who has seen studio movies in the last 20-odd years knows, that’s not really the case. The story is pro forma, usually a somewhat banged-up and disfigured version of a very generic story (the Boston critic Sean Burns made a delightful case for JUSTICE LEAGUE as an almost exact reworking of THE AVENGERS, somewhat like Gus Van Sant’s PSYCHO, a reworking that got away scot-free because no one could remember the plot of THE AVENGERS enough to see the similarities). The picture that stands out as the most cinematic, in the old-fashioned sense of “pure cinema,” a perfect storm of camera movement, staging, editing, color, sound and score, is James Gunn’s GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2, and it’s maybe six months since I’ve seen the picture and I can barely remember what it’s about—except that Kurt Russell is a godlike figure who wants Chris Pratt to join the family business, to accept a bear hug from him, to shape up and start doing things like his old man…Except, of course, we discover that the ever-lovable Kurt is not, in fact, an example of lovable old-school manhood but turns out to be a diabolical villain.

Turns out to be. I look at a text from yesterday. I asked a girl who used to work with Garrison Keillor, “Did he ever do anything to you?” I recall her never having a bad word to say about him. She was the only cutie under 50 in his vicinity during the tapings of the show; if he did something, she must’ve known about it. The response I get to the text is “Do I know u? Think u got the wrong #, ”

I write underneath GUARDIANS the following phrases: SHANG-A-LANG + LAKE SHORE DRIVE.

What’s cinematic in GUARDIANS is that the director, James Gunn, somehow got the global commercial juggernaut of Marvel to sign on to a movie about a motley crew of humans and creatures whose universe is lit up in the fluorescent psychedelia of a Gaspar Noe movie, and whose whiz-bang action set pieces are all scored to…nearly forgotten AM-radio hits.

Here is the key to what’s powerful here. It is tiresome, albeit sometimes funny, to repurpose overfamiliar pop songs—see John Lithgow coming down the escalator to some cheesy Barry Manilow in DADDY’S HOME 2. But what is truly powerful—what is the excavation—is when something you’ve almost entirely forgotten comes zooming back in the form of a physically exhilarating set piece: see the tour of alien worlds scored to Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah’s “Lake Shore Drive” in GUARDIANS 2.

Hold on a second—the words don’t fit the mouth. I doand. And cand. Know what is in their hearts. I ask the editor to hit pause. He was born in 1993. “Can I ask you something? Do you remember the song ‘Lake Shore Drive’ in GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY 2?” This chap loves STAR WARS movies—I think he wears a different hoodie with a Sith on it every day—but second to that really digs Marvel movies. He doesn’t, so I play it:

“Ring a bell?”

“Nah, not really.”

“Does it work, though?”

“Oh my God! It’s genius!”

I find this often. Young kids respond to Led Zeppelin or Stevie Nicks as if it had just come out yesterday. No baggage attached to it—they just like it more than the Autotuned things they are offered today. I think there is a certain extra something, however, that comes from being aware of the craziness of that admixture of Liberace twinkling piano, folk-rock shuck ‘n’ jive, and reference to “comin’ on by on LSD” that makes its placement in a 2017 corporate product all the more endearingly insane.

I stare at the notebook. Guardians 2 SHANG-A-LANG + LAKE SHORE DRIVE. Well, there must be something more to it, right? That is “cinema.” It’s just a bunch of ricocheting, highly digitized, extremely artificial-looking set pieces scored to earwormy ditties that remind me of grade school in the Gerald Ford era?

“Can’t we get one of these ‘doand’s to fit with where her mouth opens?”

“I’ve tried all of them,” the PHANTOM MENACE fan says, “but they’re all too late. She’s slower on the ‘doand’ version than when she’s saying ‘don’t.’”

We go back to the earlier, cleaner, nicer, hard-T sound of don’t.

I try to find more reasons for this movie I vividly but only partially remember, reasons other than fleeting euphoric moments in which all the elements of cinema harmonize to make something that crashes into every one of your pleasure centers—but I can’t find any more.

“Matthew, I think I’ve run out of don’ts.”

Someone texts me that there was supposedly a mass shooting at a “You Will Not Replace Us” rally near Roy Moore’s home in Alabama, but it was some fake news.

I find out that a grad-school professor of mine has nine women complaining against him. It’s always nine.

I’d try to make the words fit again, but it’s too late.

You may press me to know what my people are planning, but I can tell you I have no answer. I don’t and can’t know what is in their hearts.

(1). The night after this encounter with “Is cinema done?” I saw Edgar Ulmer’s THE AMAZING TRANSPARENT MAN at the Echo Park Film Center, a room filled with seemingly flammable stacks of super-8 film. An abject, Skid Row invisible-man movie, with one interesting exception. The scientist in it—not a mad one, but the other archetypal kind, the kindly Mitteleuropa Einstein-accented genius who is extorted by evil men to do evil things—we discover cracked, spiritually, because he was forced to do experiments in an Auschwitz-like camp on women with masks on their faces; and, of course, he discovered that one of them was his own wife. At the end, he tells the no-account roughneck whom he has invisibilized that he is to be “a sacrifice,” a Judas goat for the atomic age. Somehow it is as if, in the script form, the real concerns of the artist Ulmer leaked onto the screen. In other words, it’s as if Ulmer’s movie excavated his own unconscious without his being aware of it—a kind of naïve Lynch-ism. (While watching TRANSPARENT I was also at all moments half thinking of the stormy exit from the theatre of a recent ex-friend, at one time the about-to-be editor of JOAN, who came to watch a series of tortured shorts by international arthouse directors, then left in a huff when the tawdry TRANSPARENT come on.)