Archive for Francis Ford Coppola

Warren Beatty’s biscuits

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 23, 2016 by dcairns

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Warren Beatty’s biscuits are brought to you by MICKEY ONE, successfully bringing you Warren Beatty’s biscuits since 1965.

It’s a fascinating piece. The opening sequence, which unfold like a really great fashion spread of the sixties, only with moving parts, had me convinced this was going to be great before the director credit. And then I got progressively less convinced, but still impressed.

Mickey One titles from David Cairns on Vimeo.

Arthur Penn, fabulously squandering the goodwill generated by THE MIRACLE WORKER, goes all out to create an American art film, which is not a form native to America. I think the ultimate cargo cult art film may be Frankenheimer’s STORY OF A LOVE STORY, which dutifully assembles a bunch of talents with impeccable arthouse credentials and then sits back, well pleased with itself, while the already-sparse audience shuffle out. Penn likewise has a leading lady and a cinematographer with nouvelle vague references, and an actor from THE SEVEN SAMURAI (I was thinking I know that guy for the longest time, simply assuming he was Japanese-American, but NO, they imported him), but to his credit his film is also 100% American, with a particularly strong sense of time and place.

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The very young Warren Beatty plays a stand-up comedian on the run from the mob — in the third act he reverses his course and tries running TO the mob, which is the main bit of plot development. There’s intriguing support from Franchot Tone (looking like he’s been in another fight), Hurd Hatfield and Jeff Corey. Alexandra Stewart is the Cahiers-approved leading lady.

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On the minus side, Beatty’s material isn’t funny, and he isn’t funny doing it; the plot is paper-thin but not really meant to be otherwise; the film wants to be Felliniesque but only Fellini could pull that one off (is there any other great filmmaker whose influence on US film was so overwhelmingly negative? Fellini has an especial appeal for filmmakers who don’t want to do the work of telling a proper story — I think it’s significant that just as Picasso knew how to draw a credible realistic human figure, Fellini was a master storyteller who moved beyond storytelling); the attempts to do quirky, ludic filmmaking with undercranking and stuff are mainly a bit embarrassing.

On the plus side, fabulous imagery is thrown up all the time, working best when it arises naturally from the settings rather than being some kind of surreal conceit. And the movie has the most glorious dissolves: scenes melt into one another, frequently resulting in Beatty sharing the screen with himself (which I’m sure he loves). One time, driving a car, Beatty turns his head as if reacting to something, and a second landscape bleeds through in just the spot he’s looking at, followed by a second Beatty, peering uncertainly from the back of the first one’s head. The brilliant editor was Aram Avakian, later a fine director.

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Two Beattys #1: ethereal foreground Warren looks at background Warren seemingly walking through fire.

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Two Beattys #2: Warren 2 looks out the back of Warren 1’s head.

(In his autohagiography The Kid Stays in the Picture, Robert Evans says he fired Avakian from THE GODFATHER for manoeuvring against Coppola, trying to steal his job. It may be true, But Avakian had worked with Coppola before [YOU’RE A BIG BOY NOW], was Coppola’s guy. Evans, on the other hand, was manoeuvring against Coppola (it’s kind of what some producers see their job as — stop the film from being too individual a creative expression) and I suspect him of simply trying to weaken Coppola’s band of followers. He couldn’t easily fire the cinematographer, but editors are easy to snip out of the picture, privately.)

More acting with himself: it’s kind of hilarious the number of scenes Beatty plays with other actors who won’t talk to him. Little Kamitari Fujiwara never speaks at all, and Tone and Hatfield and the rest spend long scenes just staring balefully and refusing to answer Warren’s impassioned questions. “Why does nobody want to talk to Warren?” I asked.

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The ending is a would-be Fellini trope that rather irked me, but there’s a bit where Beatty tries to perform his act in the spotlight’s glare with the strong sense that he’s about to be killed — he performs to the light, as if meeting his maker, and it does achieve the existentialism the film is clutching for. The trouble is, it happens TWICE, at roughly the two-thirds mark and at the end, which rather dilutes the effect. But I could see the potential — Micky’s Kafkaesque contract, which may or not exist, makes him a man under obscure sentence of death, like the whole human race. Pompous and self-serious, maybe, but evocative, especially in black and white.

The Look # 1: Julie Flashes

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 25, 2016 by dcairns

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Julie Christie flashes the camera in BILLY LIAR.

I am reading and enjoying Geoff Dyer’s Zona — it really is as good as everyone says. The kind of book I’d like to write, if I could settle on a film and if anyone would agree with me on which film was worth settling on.

Dyer has plumped for Tarkovsky’s STALKER, and his discursive approach echoes the antics of a lively mind watching a slow film — sometimes totally concentrated on the sounds and images in front of him, sometimes darting off into memory or fantasy, inspired by the movie but running on a parallel track. Here’s Dyer on a moment when Tark’s characters seem to meet the camera’s gaze ~

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This is in direct contravention of Roland Barthe’s edict in his essay ‘Right in the Eyes’, that, while it is permissible for the subject to star into the lens–at the spectator–in a still photograph, ‘it is forbidden for an actor to look at the camera’ in a movie. So convinced was Barthes of his own rule that he as ‘not far from considering this ban as the cinema’s distinctive feature…. If a single gaze from the screen came to rest on me, the whole film would be lost.’

Either the quotation is doing Barthes no favours, or Barthes is a silly man who hasn’t seen enough movies. “Don’t look at the camera!” cries Francis Ford Coppola in APOCALYPSE NOW, playing a documentary director, ignoring the fact that in documentaries (which are, arguably, movies), characters looking at the camera actually ENHANCES the realism. It’s when they’re too good at pretending it isn’t there that the fly-on-the-wall approach starts to seem artificial, staged.

Nevertheless, in fiction films it’s true that there’s a convention — which only means that those, quite frequent moments when the rule is broken always seem mildly unconventional. In a mainstream film, the effect is noted, and the ticket-buyer says, “OK, this is a little unusual, but as long as the filmmaker doesn’t get too crazy, I’m going to allow it.”

My favourite video store story: two young men looking at prospective rentals. One picks up the Christian Slater vehicle KUFFS. The other says he’s seen it. “Any good.” “Aye, awright.” “Much action in it?” A micro-pause. “Ah… he talks to the camera.” Said as if this were, arguably, a form of action.

In BILLY LIAR, Julie’s lapse is momentary and obviously unintentional, but in good movies even flaws are good. This scene is already breaking from Billy’s POV, which makes it a violation of the movie’s own rules. If Julie is exceptional enough to merit a scene of her own, away from the prying eyes of the POV character, and devoid of any fundamental narrative purpose (well, it’s introducing Julie, swinging her handbag, and that’s ENOUGH), then surely she’s allowed to sneak a peek at camera operator Jack Atchelor. She’s Julie Christie, she has special privileges.

Inaugurating a little season considering some looks to camera, and what they might mean.

Mondo Kane #1: Xanadu

Posted in FILM, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 28, 2013 by dcairns

Join me as I watch my Blu-ray of CITIZEN KANE. All frame grabs, for technical reasons, come from the standard DVD. By the end of this journey, the movie will, I confidently predict without the least touch of hoop-la, be ready to knock VERTIGO out of the top slot once more. I always liked the idea of KANE being the unassailable No. 1. It meant we didn’t have to think about “What’s the Greatest Movie Ever Made?” and could concentrate on more interesting questions…

***

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RKO logo, as normal, but then followed by — dead silence. Welles’ signature on the movie, an unheard-of, near-Stroheimian conceit. And a main title that fills the whole screen, in stark b&w outlined lettering. The strategy is already clear: make choices that are different, but not inferior to, from the Hollywood norm. Where the conventional approach is faulty it can be improved upon, and when the subject matter suggests an unusual but appropriate way of doing things, that can be adopted, but elsewhere, where there’s no particular reason to depart from the default approach — depart anyway. Not too far. Just enough.

Then, music! Bernard Herrmann’s sonorous chromatics, in which the whole opening sequence will stew, with only one spoken word and no sound effects (Herrmann is happy to “Mickey-Mouse” the shattering snowglobe with a blunt stab of orchestra, and provides a similar sound effect for an extinguished light).

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I find myself squinting at Gregg Toland’s first image. Note how the NO TRESPASSING sign (a similar sans-serif font to the opening title card) is composed with nose-room on the left of frame. Toland could have centred the sign perfectly within the frame — instead, he frames it in perspective — as if he’d lined up the shot flat on, with equal space on both sides of the sign, then leaped through space to observe it at a diagonal (as we do at the end of the News on the March newsreel). What I’m saying is, there’s equal space both sides of the sign, but it looks like there’s less on the right because that side’s further away. I’m intrigued by this petty detail.

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Lap dissolves and floating upwards and then dissolving in towards the painted Xanadu… Kane has monkeys! Clearly he was a very happy, contented man.

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Playfully, one shot takes the reflection of Xanadu as its subject, rather than moving in on the castle itself. If you manage to see the version of OTHELLO with opening titles spoken by Welles, you’ll see a similar shot of a tower reflected in a Venetian canal, a single window illuminated. Images recur in Welles in the most dreamlike way, and it’s even more dreamlike when you watch a film like OTHELLO and it’s different from the last time you saw it, not because you’ve changed, but because it’s literally a different edit…

Like the eyes in Ozu’s closeups, the lit window in Xanadu is usually positioned to occupy the same part of the frame as we dissolve closer, even when it’s a reflection in a lake.

Xanadu’s golf course appears to be spherical, as if Kane arranged for the construction of a private planetoid (kind of thing he might do). One pictures him putting away on it like the Little Prince. A kind of big grassy snowglobe…

We reach the window, that mysterious source of light which has led us like a will-o’-the-wisp in search of the promise of STORY. And the light is at once snuffed out. And Welles dissolves 180 degrees through space so we’re looking at the same window in the same composition but from the other side. This kind of match-dissolve was very rare up until this point — it’s still uncommon enough to be a good idea if it can be done with taste. I would suggest that Coppola’s dissolve from puncture wounds in Sadie Frost’s neck to the eyes of a wolf was not a distinguished use of the technique. An earlier usage which might conceivably have influenced KANE is HE WHO GETS SLAPPED. Victor Sjostrom had an interest in this device throughout his career, devising a sinister variation in UNDER THE RED ROBE (1937), his last film as director, where he melts from an empty noose to a glowering Raymond Massey, framed so that the cord briefly encircles his throat…

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Now the first snow-dissolve, giving the effect at first of a snowstorm breaking out within Kane’s bedroom. But that’s absurd. Then a tiny log cabin, which later we’ll surmise symbolises Kane’s childhood home. So he was born in a model and died in a matte painting. There’s upward mobility for you. Optical effects supremo Vernon L Walker created the zoom out which lets us pass through the glass ball as if by osmosis, only to find it’s still snowing OUTSIDE. Our initial misconception about weather conditions in the CF Kane bedroom turns out to be correct. This was apparently an artifact of sorts — Walker roughly superimposed snow over a shot to give Welles an idea of how it would look — Welles LOVED the idea of snow continuing to fall outside the globe, even though as Walker observed, it made no sense. Hell, BECAUSE it made no sense. It’s at this precise point that the opening of KANE becomes an experimental film: the big-budget remake of HEARTS OF AGE.

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The reverse angle gives us giant lips with tiny snowflakes drifting past, suggesting the view of a very small lodger inside the snowglobe, also establishing the idea of Kane as a fee-fi-fo-fum titan, bestriding the world like the RKO radio mast.

These angles haven’t actually set up where the snowglobe is in the room or who’s holding it, even if we’ve glimpsed the prone figure on the bed in that window shot, so the next few brief shots where the glass ball rolls from Kane’s cold dead hand allow us to play catch-up and figure out the geography — and then the snowglobe apparently explodes into a million fragments and globules of water (Water! So THAT’S how they get the snow to float!) before reconstituting itself miraculously for shots in which a nurse enters the room, reflected in the glass sphere.

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Very VERY grainy shot where Welles has run crazy with the optical printer while Vernon L Walker hangs onto his coat-tails screaming at him to stop, in God’s name stop. In a strange way the speed of the cutting and the fact that we immediately cut to a much wider view of the same thing somehow makes it OK.

Note that the shot following the sphere-reflection is the first in the movie where the wide-angle lens is allowed to distort space into a funhouse grotesque. It’s as if all the subsequent photographic choices are cued by that snowglobe reflection. Or as if the rest of the film were happening from the snowglobe’s point of view, which is a reading I may try to make stick.

Then there’s a brief fade-out, then the window is illuminated to silhouette Kane’s sheeted body, suggesting perhaps sunrise over the Kane estate. There’s also a dark horizontal smudge over Kane’s body, apparently a piece of tape stuck on during optical printing to mask it out. Because the movie is now too bright and high-res we can see it rather vividly on Blu-ray (but it looks just fine in the frame-grab below). See also the animated shadow on the wall in the swimming pool scene of CAT PEOPLE.

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What must 1941 audiences have made of this weird onslaught of imagery? It has to be the most experimental, abstract sequence in any Hollywood movie not featuring Olsen & Johnson, and it lacks the conventional excuses — musical exuberance, comedy, pop psychological surrealism, horror — which commercial cinema uses to render the avant garde safe. Welles was obviously intending to throw the audience off-balance, but also hoping that they’d then forget about this sequence as the film went on rather than allow it to keep nagging at them. I guess at a basic level he also wanted to plant a clue to Rosebud’s identity but surround it with so much opaque mystery that nobody would realize it.

But in fact, if it weren’t for the surreal snow drifting where it has no right to be, the sequence would be perfectly lucid and realistic, for all that it’s filmed with unconventional shots. Overlaying the snow pushes us beyond the bounds of sanity, and gives us bedroom as dreamscape and Kane as titan and forces the audience to essentially pretend they hadn’t just seen what they saw.

Welles, never entirely satisfied with what he shot, would continue sculpting his material in post-production, but never did he change its overall effect as completely as he does here.

Next week: News! On! The! March!

Thanks to Randy for the Blu-ray and thoughts.