Archive for Francis Ford Coppola

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.

Telluride Survival Guide

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 8, 2013 by dcairns

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Telluride is such a lovely festival, located in the most spectacularly beautiful place I’ve ever been — as Ferris Bueller says, “If you have the means, I highly recommend it.”

Such a place shouldn’t really require a survival guide, and indeed it doesn’t — it’s Cannes that you have to watch out for — Cannes wants you dead — but I thought that in the guise of such a guide I could get away with waxing lyrical about my six days of cinematic bliss –

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The weather guide for the place told us it’d be warm, but that it could be cold at night. That’s true as far as it goes, as was my friend and editor Timo’s description of “proper shorts weather,” but you had best bring an umbrella too, or acquire one (the Festival’s own official umbrella is $30 but the design is beautiful). We had thunderstorms every day but one, I think, and corruscating hail that bounced down the street after you like Rover from The Prisoner only 80,000 times faster. None of this spoiled the pleasure, indeed the distant rumbles from the mountains added a touch of Tolkein. I was in La Pierre waiting for a screening and so missed the week’s most acclaimed meteorological event — a rainbow across the mountains bisected by a lightning bolt — but I certainly saw plenty of raw-nature-as-backdrop. I didn’t go trekking because I fear bears. It’s the cuddly killers you have to watch out for in this life.

The hell of every film fest is that as you see one movie you’re probably missing four more. You just have to relax, target things you fancy that might not get a release, but mix it up with things everybody’s excited about, and see live stuff that’ll never come back too.

Godfrey Reggio, no less, described Telluride as like an ocean liner — you walk up, then down, and meet the same people three or four times a day. Although sometimes you miss them because you’re in films when they’re out and about, and vice versa.

The festival feeds its guests once a day, and well. A spectacular brunch in the mountains, a picnic in the park (“It was no more a picnic than he was a man,” as Welles says in LADY FROM SHANGHAI — what I mean is that this is a huge outdoor banquet with marquees and movie stars and people congratulating you on your film (which you had best get used to if you go with one), parties at fabulous houses. Go to any of these you get invited to, each is memorable and unmissable.

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If, like me, you have a certain level of vertigo, journeying from your hotel to the town, or from the town to the Chuck Jones Theater, may prove emotionally taxing. You are dangled on a wire in a little booth seating six, and trundled through the sky above the treetops. The ominous drone of the machinery occasionally varies as the contraption pauses for no discernible reason (a delay caused by someone having difficulty dismounting at the other end, apparently).

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In daylight the view is so incredible it serves to distract nicely: I likened the resulting combination of beauty and terror to having Halle Berry come at you with an axe. At night the gondolas are pitch black, though the starscapes, fuzzed by perspex, still add awe. I recommend Diazepam if you think you may need it, but don’t hide on the floor: the scenery is your best tonic/distraction/sedative.

The gondolas are also the best place to practice your pitch. Tell people about your film and they will go. I couldn’t believe this at first, and missed many chances to persuade people to attend. By the end I had it down cold and managed to nearly pack our cinema for a last-minute bonus screening at 9am on a Monday morning. Telluride is a word-of-mouth film festival — there’s been very little press about our film, but people seemed to hear about it alright.

Leave the brunch early to avoid a huge wait. But stay and enjoy it and you can find yourself chatting to interesting people in line. It’s win-win, like so much at Telluride.

See the smaller films: MUSIDORA: THE TENTH MUSE by Patrick Cazals studied the life and work of Feuillade’s great star, revealing much I hadn’t known: did you know Musidora directed several films? Now I want to see them, as they look very good, and as star she is always compelling. I left with even more respect for her acting, which magnetically pulls focus from her co-stars without any visible effort, and runs the gamut from startling naturalism to savage pantomime. This ran alongside NATAN at the bonus screening and made a perfect mate for it (almost too perfect: it uses all the same techniques, only better — apart from not having a papier mache main character). Cazals has made docs on figures as diverse as Paradjanov and Mamoulian, which I now crave to see.

Coppola was in attendance with RUMBLE FISH, subject of a new doc (LOCATIONS: SEARCHING FOR RUSTY JAMES) — Paul Duane approached him at a party to voice his admiration: “He didn’t look very interested, but the acoustics weren’t good at that party, so while I was telling him that RUMBLE FISH had always been a great cult film in Ireland, he was probably hearing ‘Blah blah blah I’m a boring cunt.’”

Festival co-founder Tom Luddy informed us that Chris Marker actually shot background plates for RUMBLE FISH — some of that time-lapse stuff — which raised our eyebrows. Also that Marker’s last major work was on Second Life. He wasn’t interested in spending time restoring his earlier films as he was too excited by new media. “I can’t waste time on that — the tools I need are finally here!”

Be sociable! I regret not telling Coppola what a big cult item RUMBLE FISH always was in Scotland, but I had great chats with Philip Kaufman, John Ptak, Patrick Cazals, and formed the kind of intense friendships with fellow filmmakers that festivals are really good for. I want to see Esther Julie-Anne, Battiste Fenwick and Dario Naldi again soon. Dario takes a good picture –

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Light My Fire

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on July 31, 2013 by dcairns

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Watched IS PARIS BURNING? because I’d been meaning to and it was one of the film’s on Spike Lee’s recent, very good, list of films every film-maker should see. (Full list here.) Also recommending it was the fact that René Clement is aces, and the cast is beyond sumptuous (although some of the big names are only in it for a cough and a spit) and the screenplay is adapted by Francis Ford Coppola and Gore Vidal (were those two actually in a room together?).

The best aspect of the movie, about the liberation of Paris and the Nazi scheme to blow the city to schmidtereens, is the accumulation of little anecdotes, vignettes with the bizarreness which marks them as true. Belmondo conquers a palace just by showing up with his wife and demanding the French police hand it over to him. Jean-Pierre Cassel conducts a machine-gun assault from an old lady’s apartment as she watches, enchanted, sipping tea, then orders his men to clear up the spent bullet casings from the floor as they leave. Anthony Perkins treats his invasion as a sight-seeing tour.

It’s an oddly upbeat war movie, but not in the offensively jingoistic John Wayne manner — it’s really a celebration of Paris, which blossoms into colour as the end credits roll. Stylistically, there are some awkward moments, and the marriage of stock footage and not-quite-verité action is sometimes a trifle jarring.

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There’s an early moment which is a very striking example of muddled filmmaking. Two resistance members (Delon & Caron) meet in a cinema where a newsreel is screening. For some incomprehensible reason, the cinema screen is in a 14:9 aspect ratio which did not exist in the 1940s (IPB? is itself widescreen), with the footage anamorphically stretched to fit, resulting in stretch tanks and tubby Wehrmacht. I can only assume somebody in the production felt a 4:3 screen would look old hat, and that no audience could possibly care about such a detail. Strange when so much work has gone into every other detail.

The cinema seems very bright — and this is factually correct, for when the Actualité Mondiale newsreels (co-produced by Pathé and Gaumont and serving up Pétainiste propaganda: several are quoted in our film NATAN) were screened, audience members heckled. To prevent this, the lights were kept on. Somebody knew this, and thought it worth including in the film, even though there was no opportunity to explain it to audience members who might not know — and yet they compromised on the aspect ratio to make it look more modern.

There must be a lesson in this, and the one I choose to take is: far better to simply be honest.

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