Archive for FW Murnau

Thus Spake Zorro

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 19, 2022 by dcairns

A fun-packed day in Bo’ness for the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival yesterday — and more today and tomorrow. My programme notes are online this year, you can access those for THE MARK OF ZORRO here. And the whole history of programme notes is up here.

Fred Niblo’s swashbuckler of old California — his finest film, I think — looked stunning on the Hippodrome’s big screen, in its Photoplay restoration and with Neil Brand and Frank Bockius accompanying it on piano and percussion (amazing feats of synchronization, quite apart from the romance and excitement). A treat.

Earlier in the day I saw Lawrence Napper lecture on the filmic history of Nurse Edith Cavell, as prelude to Herbert Wilcox’s 1928 DAWN, starring Sybil Thorndyke as the patriotic nuse. Discussing the case, we all agreed to disapprove of Nurse E.C., since she was smuggling British soldiers home under the cover of the Red Cross — undermining that organisation’s whole existence. We reckoned if she’d been a German doing the same thing, the British would have shot her too.

Anyway, the film, accompanied by Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius, was suspenseful and made with some skill, though heavy on the intertitles. Maybe it was partly because the Belgian print screened (the film exists in two cuts) was titled bilingually, but doubtless British silent cinema’s tendency to prolixity was also a factor: whenever you got one title card, it spilled onto a second, the writers just having too much good stuff they wanted to say.

Today I hope to see NOT FOR SALE, CITY GIRL and THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER — a Murnau, an Epstein, and the first-named will be my first experience of W.P. Kellino, and Ian Hunter’s first film. Expect some reviews or reactions shortly.

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.

Joseph Keaton Jnr. and Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on November 16, 2016 by dcairns

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Recently received.

I made video essays for both of these fine collections from Masters of Cinema. With Timo Langer as editor I created THAT’S SOME BUSTER!, riffing on ideas from Walter Kerr’s magisterial The Silent Clowns. Stephen Horne edited WHAT WILL YOU BE TOMORROW?, which is mainly about THE LAST LAUGH but draws on the vast panoply of Murnau movies available from MOC.

The Murnau collection is essential if you’ve seen some of the major classics but are less familiar with TARTUFFE, SCHLOSS VOGELOD etc. The Keaton set is a real upgrade, incorporating newly discovered alternative versions of THE BLACKSMITH and MY WIFE’S RELATIONS. Both sets come with booklets that are both lavish and scholarly.

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Both are available to buy now: if you use the following links, I will get thruppence!

Early Murnau – Five Films (Schloß Vogelöd, Phantom, Der Letzte Mann, The Grand Duke’s Finances, Tartuffe) (Masters of Cinema) (Blu-ray)

The Complete BUSTER KEATON Short Films 1917-1923 (Masters of Cinema) (Blu-ray)

More Christmas shopping opportunities from Shadowplay shortly.