Archive for Goodfellas

Here Comes Mr. Jordan

Posted in FILM, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 7, 2014 by dcairns

Wolf 1

All images, showing the characteristic Scorsese crucifixion-triumph pose (Pupkin on TV/LaMotta on the ropes) swiped from Apocalypse Now.

Maybe a tiny bit spoiler-y? Exercise your discretion.

The only problem I had with THE WOLF OF WALL STREET really is that it’s the same story as GOODFELLAS, and the earlier film is a more stylistically varied film (fast pace but also long takes) and benefits from Scorsese’s greater intimacy with the social scene depicted. (If, as Scorsese argues, nobody but an Italian-American should have been allowed to tackle that subject, arguably a WASP should’ve helmed WOLF). But that’s largely where my quibbling ends — the movie is rambunctious and loud and relentless, and I kept wondering how it could fill its running time this way, since it seemed to have reached a climax of excess before the first hour was up, but it keeps finding reasons to move forward in propulsive bulges, reminding me of the mutated Tetsuo in Katsushiro Otomo’s AKIRA, an obscene caterpillar of psychotic bloat.


I don’t get why this movie’s attitude to its subject should be any more controversial than GOODFELLAS’ portrayal of the gangster lifestyle, awash with blood and cocaine and tacky furnishings and delicious-looking sauces. Scorsese has clearly articulated his philosophy of showing not telling, which in the stories he chooses means not editorializing or moralizing but making a moral point apparent by being truthful about the essence of something (even while frequently fictionalizing details). So you don’t have a cop make a speech like Huston was forced to do in THE ASPHALT JUNGLE — the closest to that here is the subway scene which makes a point of contrasting the lifestyle of the honest FBI agent played by Kyle Chandler, with what we’ve already seen of Jordan Belfort/Leo DiCaprio’s world, and what we’re about to see of his soft prison time. But this, like the film’s final shot, is accomplished visually, not by making speeches. The only speeches made are to represent what the characters think or pretend they think, not to allow the filmmaker a podium. This is known as treating the audience as adults.

Wolf 4

Like GOODFELLAS, the film’s moral standing is perhaps compromised or tainted by the fact that its subject is still at large and benefiting from his crimes, but GOODFELLAS would seem in some way the more problematic case. Henry Hill was this gangster who apparently never killed anybody, but just happened to be there when people got killed, or was involved in jobs where most of the other participants subsequently wound up killed. He’s our storyteller, so we have to take his version of events, which doesn’t exactly paint him sympathetically but does differentiate him from his more murderous buddies. Whereas, if Jordan Belfort was guilty of more outrageous abuses than are presented onscreen, it’s hard to imagine what they could be. His only possible moral edge over Ray Liotta’s character is that Belfort tries to save his best friend from the consequences of Belfort’s stool-pigeonry. But even this is portrayed as another example of his treachery (to the FBI) and stupidity. “You just learned the two most important lessons in life: never rat on your friends, and always keep your mouth shut.” I always loved that line in GOODFELLAS, it’s so dumb: the two lessons are exactly the same thing. And are disregarded as soon as it’s convenient.

Others have also pointed out the stunning physical comedy perpetrated by DiCaprio during the quaalude abuse scene — I just have to echo that because it would be criminal not to. Flailing, writhing, attempting to walk on his shoulders while flat on his belly, the actor achieves a liquid spasticity undreamt-of by the nuttiest of professors (check out his comedy dancing too). This may be the first time Scorsese has appropriated from Jerry Lewis, even though he DIRECTED Jerry Lewis. And the pay-off to this bit involves an unreliable narrator gag in which the scene is rewritten before our eyes — a joke touched on at the outset of the film when Belfort’s Ferrari changes colour in one shot from Ferris Bueller red to Don Johnson white, because it’s important to Belfort that these details are correct. And that little CGI joke seemed to come from nowhere and vanish into nowhere, until it comes back to sideswipe your brain two hours later. VERY nice work from screenwriter Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire).

Haven’t seen AMERICAN HUSTLE yet (I will!) so can’t comment on the other hot topic, “Which is the better Martin Scorsese movie?” Though I do have my own opinion about who has the better right to make Martin Scorsese movies.


Euphoria #23

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 20, 2008 by dcairns
run fat boy run 
Danny Carr, Shadowplay informant, offered a plethora of marvellous suggestions for our regular Euphoria section, all of them gold-plated cinematic pulse-pounders. He climaxes, metaphorically speaking, with this un-toppable offering:
“Or actually the infectiously brakes-off and anything goes first few minutes of Jules et Jim. has a movie ever been more fun?”
There’s quite a lot to be said about this sequence, but let’s start with Scorsese’s “I had never seen anything so exhilerating” and take it from there.
(No subtitles on this clip: go learn French)
Truffaut’s big innovation is to throw together what looks at times like a random selection of out-takes. Organising principles are provided by Georges Delerue’s ebullient bombast on the soundtrack, which the images cut to, and by an ilustrative approach, some of the time: we see the actors as their credits come up, some of the images seem to relate to some of the technical credits. What has been gloriously abandoned is narrative sense: that can come later. I don’t think anybody else had started doing this at the time, although maybe it was happening in T.V. The device certainly became a mainstay of television credits a little later:
Scorsese’s adulation is worth returning to because, though maybe it’s just my imagination, I’m posi-sure (as Dan Dare would say) that the J&J opening had some kind of effect on Scorsese’s approach to GOODFELLAS. Jeanne Moreau’s voice-over on black screen (stolen by me for my short CLARIMONDE), followed by that boisterous theme, seems to be distantly echoed in the Scorsese flick by Ray Liotta’s first V.O., “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster,” mopving into a freeze frame, with “From Rags to Riches” blasting in on the soundtrack a couple frames later.
Scorsese’s use of an unusually FAST V.O. also ties his work to Truffaut’s. Since Scorsese’s major influence on GOODFELLAS was the abrupt cutting seen in movie trailers, it’s natural that he’d have thought of Truffaut, since that’s kind of what this title sequence is: a trailer for the movie we’re about to see.
Another filmmaker who sometimes starts his films with a trailer is Richard Lester, much on my mind at present as I’m teaching a class about him on Friday (plus, he was nice enough to contribute some funds towards the aforementioned CLARIMONDE). Lester, A Truffaut fan, begins A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM with a piece-to-camera by Zero Mostel which climaxes in a fast-cut musical montage of scenes from the upcoming movie. And Harold Pinter’s unproduced screenplay for Lester’s proposed film of Joseph Conrad’s VICTORY, begins like so:
A boat becalmed, far out to sea. The mast slowly sways. Heat haze. Red sun. 
Gulls encircle the boat, screeching. 
Screeching violins. A ladies’ orchestra. Bare arms. White dresses. Crimson sashes. 
A wall of foliage. Bamboo spears pierce the foliage, quiver, stay pointed. 
Camera pans up to see, through leaves, impassive native faces. 
An island. Moonlight. Silence. 
Figures of men seen at a distance at the door of a low, thatched house. The door is kicked open. The sound reverberates in the night. Explosion of shrieking birds. 
Driving rain. Leashed, barking dogs leading men with rifles through jungle. 
One of the men suddenly turns in panic, raises gun to shoot. 
Champagne corks popping. Two men standing on a jetty. Champagne is poured into glasses. In background a freighter leaving. Natives waving, cheering. The freighter whistles. 
A cylinder gramophone playing in a room. Rosalia Chalier singing. 
A girl’s figure in a sarong passes, carrying a bowl of water. 
In background a mosquito net canopy over bed. A man’s body on the bed. 
The girl parts the netting, places the bowl on the bed, kneels on the bed, looks down at the man. 
The gramophone hissing. 
A creek. Night. Crackle of fire. Two figures seated in foreground. 
Fire burning. 
Beyond the fire two Venezuelan Indians poking long knives into fish. They eat. 
The two foreground figures remain still. 
One of these raises a hand and wipes it on a silken handkerchief. 
High up on a hillside two figures in the grass. Bright sunlight. 

A girl’s stifled scream.


I love how Pinter writes the opening montage, breaking every rule of screenwriting and format. The fragmented, snappy sentences are also quite close stylistically to Carl Mayer’s work for Murnau…

More on screenwriting soon!

“Her name is Clarimonde. I am sure of it.”

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 2, 2008 by dcairns

This is CLARIMONDE, a short film I directed mumblety years ago.

I thought it might be fun to ‘fess up to the various things I stole in making it. Whether this is instructive or interesting to anybody else, I have no idea. It might serve as a useful insight into the creative process, or that part of it that’s not so much creative as felonious.

First stolen item: the story, THE SPIDER by Hanns Heinz Ewers, also author of THE ALRAUNE, filmed with Brigitte Helm. Ewers was a queer sort of fellow: an early member of the Nazi Party, he also believed that Jews made the best Germans. He fell out of favour, unsurprisingly, and died as an un-person. So I figured there was no copyright to worry about… apologies if I was wrong!

The title sequence. The text is kind of illegible, which I regret. But I liked the idea of using SPACE: 1999 type lettering seemingly for no reason. It broadens out the confusion about when the hell this story is set.

The way each title appears below the one before is lifted from a couple of Richard Lester films: he does it in PETULIA and JUGGERNAUT and I always thought it looked really nice. (I’m always telling my students, “That’s NOT a good enough reason!”)

The artwork which we slowly zoom into is sort of influenced by VERTIGO’s titles. I happened to know a really gifted cartoonist, Garry Marshall, now an award-winning animator, so I drafted him in. (Filmmakers’ rule #1: exploit your acquaintances!)

It's all in the eyes.

The opening shot. Hitchcock again, I was wowed by the massive amount of information gathered by the camera exploring Jimmy Stewart’s apartment at the start of REAR WINDOW, so this is my poor man’s version. The iris-out was achieved in-camera, with a borrowed lighting iris gaffer-taped to the matte box (Gaffer Tape, and not The Force, is what binds the universe together, at least in film and TV). We had no tracks so the camera pulls back on a wheeled tripod as the guy on the floor making the curtains billow backwards-somersaults out the way and cinematographer/operator/grip has to step gingerly over one tripod leg while maintaining a steady movement and panning 180º so the track away from the window becomes a track in on the door handle.

I read an interview with George Cukor where he said something like “I’m not one of those directors who tracks in on door handles,” and I thought, “Well *I* *AM*!”)

The door handle in the film is now on my front door.

Just as the shot was ending the film ran out! I liked the way that looked, so I kept it in. Scorsese did the same at the end of LAST TEMPTATION, but I wasn’t consciously emulating him on this shot, I just got lucky.

I understand you have rooms to let?

When our protag, psychic detective Anthony Flear, enters, the way his face is revealed by his lowering hat is a direct steal from Alec Guinness’ first appearance in THE LADYKILLERS, a film I should write more about later. Flear is played by Colin McLaren, a genius writer who later won a BAFTA and now, like your friend and humble narrator, spends most of his time writing screenplays that don’t get made. It’s important work.

(Actually, it looks like one of Colin’s is finally happening, and it’s the follow-up to RED ROAD. But his version will be funnier.)

Colin had just made a short film with Sarah Gavron, for which he’d been paid in coal. I paid him in spurious money, since he owed me some but we couldn’t agree how much, so it seemed the best policy to make that his fee rather than let it get in the way of a beautiful friendship.

Colin wears my old National Health specs a la Harry Palmer.

The floorboards of this room are actually made of BROWN PAPER.

The use of diary entries: TAXI DRIVER, I guess.

The camera’s tracking and zip-panning about: GOODFELLAS, I think.

The three victims pictured: a film student, the composer’s sister (in drag as Ringo Starr) and a harmonica-playing cartoonist. The theme of gender-swapping is oddly Prophetic since the production designer is a man now, but at the time we made this, I could have sworn he was a woman.

Our makeup artist has since worked on all the HARRY POTTER films, and transformed Jude Law in the recent SLEUTH. His work here was mostly done with tissue paper and liquid latex. The corpses wore ping pong ball eyes with pinholes in. The transvestite corpse wore only one eye because the tunnel-vision made her claustrophobic.

All this tracking around — I just got into it! On my previous films it had been too much work to move the camera, and we’d been habitually behind schedule struggling to finish. here, because it’s a studio film, suddenly there was time to make things more interesting. In all the previous movies, the shots I achieved were compromised versions of the storyboard — on this one, they were enhanced versions.

Peter Greenaway once said, “I don’t move the camera much because that would tend to increase audience involvement,” and I thought, “Well *I* *WILL*!”

Some things were just spontaneous, wild choices, like the camera gradually tilting diagonally, or pulling out of focus on the phone (influenced by an ad for Cadbury’s Flake, I think). I would say to Kenneth Simpson, who was shooting it, “This shot seems a bit normal. What can we do to weird it up?” If you have Just Enough time, you can pause for a nanosecond when a shot is ready and think about whether there’s anything you can do to improve it. The falling leaves at the end of THE THIRD MAN came about that way: two men up ladders with sacks of dead leaves they’d gathered a minute before.

Valli girl.

The first clip ends with my fake time-lapse, which required the help of the entire crew. One person was turning the clock hands from behind while another dimmed the lights and another pair physically lowered a biggish light outside the window to simulate a setting sun.

BTW, the building seen across the street is a quarter-scale model in long shots. In Clarimonde’s closer shots it’s actually the same window Colin is at, dressed differently. So the actors are never actually looking at each other at all.

The second clip begins with some out-of-focus stuff that I should have retaken, but I couldn’t afford to. It would’ve been nice if it had gone into focus when he puts his specs on though. I’m not too keen on the dream sequence. The words which the corpses mouth, out-of-synch, are the same words divined by Flear earlier, and they sort of make a warning, but it’s not very clear or well-done. Should have just cut this scene.

Somebody once said they thought the way Clarimonde slides her finger along the window sill was “erotic”, which pleased me. “I can do erotic!”

When she catches the fly I used both takes, so we get a nice flurry of action. I like that it’s not too obvious that she catches it TWICE. When Flear opens his hand to show her, we pull back through the window without breaking it (because, duh, there’s no glass in it), a swipe from CITIZEN KANE.

During the dance, we used a simple matte to block out the top of Clarimonde’s window, since I was worried the studio lighting rig might show up. Just a black piece of tape in front of the lens. So when C raises her hand to mime a toast, her hand kind of disappears…

I’m pleased with the theatrical lighting change on Flear’s face. Had I seen DETOUR at this point? Or A CANTERBURY TALE?


The curtains billowing open is played in reverse: we weighted the curtain ends and THREW them at poor Althea, who caught them.

The spider shadow puppet was designed by my flatmate, who later went schizo and started stalking the critic and documentarist Mark Cousins.

The vertical mouth is a straight Freudian vagina dentata. A lot of horror films play with this image and I thought it would be fun to do it fairly blatantly. Poor Althea had her mouth glued shut and couldn’t help but inhale the fumes through her nose. She communicated in Post-It notes, which were apparently quite obscene, and mostly detailing how she’d like to avenge herself upon me.

The policeman on the phone is voiced by awesome genius Ken Campbell, who recorded his role in the green room at the Traverse Theatre during a break in a six-hour performance he was giving of his legendary “bald” Trilogy. Diamond geezer.

I like the idea that when Flear tries to resist, we get the only handheld shot, but revert back to “tracking” when Clarimonde takes control again.

Believe it or not, the visual rhyme of the doorknob and Flear’s hand wasn’t planned at all. Fortune favours the prepared mind.

The next two shots don’t show Colin’s face because he was late that morning.

Colin sat in the corner hemmed in by alarm clocks was one of the first images I got reading the short story. Vaguely inspired by the guy in prison in CALIGARI.

My only crime is eating.

Clarimonde gets the old-style movie lighting, a patch of light that just hits her eyes. Selective Moonlight.

Schreck the First

Colin at the window with his hand raised is pure NOSFERATU. We decided right then to make it rain and rigged up some tubing… we’d seen the clip from IN COLD BLOOD which they excerpt in the documentary VISIONS OF LIGHT, where the light filters through the rainfall onto Robert Blake’s face… this may have come about through me asking the cameraman, “What have you always wanted to do?”


The fast Psychological Track-Ins on the victims and Flear: this comes from a combination of MILLER’S CROSSING and Sam Raimi. I was interested by the sense of violence the moving camera can have. Now I say that for violence in camera movement the real king is Andrei Zulawski.

The spinning wheel shot was done at the end of the shoot, after we’d taken the set apart but I didn’t want to stop filming, I was enjoying it too much… I figured I could use the shot somewhere…

Craning up (actually raising the camera on the tripod’s pneumatic riser) to reveal the noose: some of you may have spotted where I pinched this from. Thanks to Maestro Leone for a really terrific, funny shot.

Flash Bang Wallach


Colin rides towards his death on the tripod itself, a foot atop each wheel, discretely hanging onto its neck. Inspired by Cocteau, probably:


The POV track thru the noose was another idea that came to me as I read the story for the first time.

Clarimonde’s voice-over comes from a different short story altogether, another fictional CLARIMONDE from Theophile Gautier’s La Morte Amoreuse, translated by the great Lafcadio Hearn.

The kiss: REAR WINDOW again. The zoom into the eye doesn’t really work. But the repeat of the opening shot is something I’m fond of. My heads of department all did a great job on this movie, considering we had no money and the heads of department generally were the departments.

Even though it’s made of cardboard and string, I like this film best of all my stuff apart from CRY FOR BOBO. If I can defend the plundering at all, it would be by saying that while I lifted general style and atmospherics from German Expressionism and noir, the specific things were often swiped from more unexpected sources, like comedies and spaghetti westerns, so that they hopefully get transformed somewhat in the process — stealing becomes an imaginative act.

I hope.