Archive for Hitchcock

Mental Cruelty

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on May 9, 2023 by dcairns

It’s marking time at the University I teach at — cuts into blogging a bit — not only does it eat up my time, but I can’t blog about it. Not directly anyway — the marks are all secret for now and anyway, you lot haven’t seen the films unless you happen to be one of my students.

On Saturday night we ran Bunuel’s EL, which Fiona hadn’t seen. You wouldn’t expect Bunuel to make a feminist film, but this kind of is one: a woman is lured into marriage with a bloke who turns out to be obsessively jealous and controlling — his paranoia gradually becomes full-blown, but she can’t get any help because he’s a rich, respected man — even the church is on his side, even her mother is on his side. Maybe the real target is his respectable bourgeoise power, but the fact that the movie is named after the male pronoun is… suggestive, wouldn’t you say?

If this sounds earnest and social realist, it’s anything but — Bunuel’s surrealistic impulses are more apparent than in, say, LOS OLVIDADOS (which has dream sequences and a certain grotesquerie but could, with only minor deletions, be the sort of subject Ken Loach would like). There’s a lot of fetishistic business with shoes and feet, but when El/Francisco — Arturo de Cordova — quite a risky performance from a big star — finally cracks, the scene becomes a fragmentary, jumpcutting phantasmagoria of overlapping sound — he imagines everyone in church laughing at him, and their laughter continues across cuts which instantly turn the mockers po-faced. It’s a delirious nightmare.

Other scenes are quite Hitchcockian — like a companion to SUSPICION maybe? Francisco rips up a stair rod and bangs it frantically against a banister in the night — and we’re hearing the drums of Calanda which form such a major part of Don Luis’ cinematic soundscape. (Hitchcock to Bunuel when they finally met, and after Hitch had seen TRISTANA: “That leg!” As great director encounters, I like that as much as Ford’s remark to Kurosawa: “You really like rain, don’t you?”)

For a long time the “Mexican melodramas” were hard to see and kind of referred to dismissively. I now think Bunuel’s Mexican period is his richest, even if a few of the films really are just work for hire with only touches of the Bunuelian. Many of them are quite full-on, smashing surrealism together with melodrama is always going to be intense.

And cinema — especially Latin cinema — was dreaming of Hitchcock’s VERTIGO for some years before he actually made it:

Floral Arrangements

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on April 22, 2023 by dcairns

Two dedicated professionals: M. Verdoux is still sending flowers to Mme. Grosnay; Det. Morrow (shouldn’t it be “Moreau”?) is trailing him, an indefatigable Javert of Justice. A single, slightly wobbly tracking shot takes us from Verdoux floral purchase to the watchful flic — this kind of storytelling camera move is extremely rare in Chaplin’s work.

[I’ve identified five principle motivations for the camera to move: exploring space; following a moving character; representing the POV of a moving character; evoking a psychological change in a character; and telling a story. The narrational tracking shot is common in horror movies and Hitchcock. By moving from one subject to another, the director self-consciously lets us in on what’s happening beneath the surface of a situation. Often, the movement takes us from a seemingly innocent wide shot to a detail that has sinister implications, as it does here. MONSIEUR VERDOUX, dealing with crime, murder, and detection, is next-door to a thriller. We can assume that had Orson Welles been able to develop his own idea (which Chaplin basically nicked), the thriller aspects may have been even more evident, since the Wellesian style leans towards noir.]

Of all the plot strands in the film, Morrow’s feels the most Wellesian, because it plays games with our sympathies and defies narrative expectations: Morrow is set up as Nemesis, but is neatly taken out of the game just when his purpose seems set to be fulfilled.

Morrow beards Verdoux in his den — the doorbell provokes a startled look, almost to camera (and thence to Charlie’s chums in the audience) in which his head is amusingly framed by a wall mirror, creating a halo effect. Verdoux is able to check Morrow out via the window, a POV shot that aligns us with the prey, not the predator. A series of elegant movements here as Chaplin moves around the room, expressing Verdoux’ discomfiture and his fast thinking. Another ring of the bell makes Verdoux look at us again.

Verdoux runs into the kitchen and we get an axial violation — the switch in camera position causes his movement to flip from left-to-right to right-to-left. This is supposedly the first thing Chaplin learned about movies, and the only thing he learned from Henry “Pathe” Lehrman. Possibly we should blame the production designer for forcing the issue, but Chaplin had the authority and money to order a set wall removed and another put in so he could maintain consistent screen direction…

It’s not that the effect is actually confusing — one man going through a doorway is unlikely to throw us off, comprehensionwise. But it’s inelegant.

Verdoux seems cool as a cucumber once he lets Morrow in (he has his poisoned wine in readiness). Then a nice bit of slapstick as he bumps into the dressmaker’s dummy from act one — not only does the clumsiness betray nerves, something Morrow notices, it’s clumsiness involving an object associated with his murderous career — the dummy represents the dead Thelma Couvais, rising, a stuffed torso on a pole, to accuse her assassin.

Chaplin can now play the scene for suspense — how prepared is Morrow to arrest Verdoux, and will he drink the poison laid out for him? I imagine it may have pleased Chaplin to reduce dialogue to mere delaying action: the cat-and-mouse game going on in the interrogation is secondary to the ticking bomb element.

Morrow has been conveniently silly, not telling police headquarters of his lead. This is a crime story trope, a fact pressed into my awareness by its appearance in Comencini’s THE SUNDAY WOMAN which I watched a week ago: whenever a supporting character says “I know who the killer is but I’m not quite ready to tell,” you can be sure they’re about to get it in the neck. Poor, overconfident Detective Morrow. When he stands up, the camera pushes in with vulturine eagerness as he turns to look right at us, perhaps already feeling the effects of the slow-acting mickey (he’s a touch shiny). Perhaps the Chaplinesque look to camera in this film is associated specifically with Death?

The familiar intersticial shot of racing train wheels leads us by quick dissolve to Morrow’s own dissolution. Like McTeague, antihero of GREED, Verdoux finds himself handcuffed to a corpse, but unlike him he has the key handy. (I worked out a solution to McTeague’s dilemma, although it would still leave him stranded in the desert. We planned to use it in LET US PREY, the horro movie Fiona & I wrote, but amid the innumerable rewrites it got pruned, saved for another day.)

Cut from Verdoux exit, leaving the snoring Inspector in his compartment, to the headline announcing the man’s death, to Verdoux’s smug reaction as he sits at a curbside cafe. As he stands, his eyes seem to catch our own, just as Morrow’s had done…


What George Saw in the Sand

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 11, 2023 by dcairns

Blood, Sweat and Chrome is a terrific read — an oral history of MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, its long gestation, its making, and its near unmaking. No mention of the 3D version or the black & chrome version, oddly enough — though we do get a brief history of the abortive attempts by Kennedy-Miller to create their own 3D camera that could survive the heat and dust of desert filming, something that doubtless added a few bucks to the eventual cost (reckoned at “over $250 million” here, described as “$500 million!!!” by industry scuttlebutt that came to my ears).

Author Kyle Buchanan is a pop culture reporter who puts together a great story. I wish he’d had more of the nerdy camera stuff — before the film appeared, cinematographer John Seale and his second unit man David Burr did a fabulously indiscrete talk which appeared online and hinted at the troubles, the craziness and the extraordinary approach director George Miller took to his material.

Miller’s approach was, appropriately enough, mad. I love the movie — a two-hour anxiety attack — and so, in a sense, one can’t fault his methods. But, in another sense, one can. It was nuts.

Apart from the opening and closing scenes in the Citadel, Miller shot in sequence. This is rarely done even in small movies because it’s not practical. On a big movie, it’s crazy. On a HUGE movie, it’s suicidal. It was basically a way of making the easy bits of a mostly insanely difficult movie become also difficult. Need two shots of a character at the steering wheel, one for scene ten and one for scene twenty? Don’t film them together, film them weeks apart, necessitating two set-ups where one would have done you. Then multiply that by hundreds. Actors like filming in sequence, when they can, because it allows a clearer sense of the emotional throughline. But both Miller’s stars confessed themselves hopelessly confused.

Tom Hardy, confused while wearing a garden fork on his face.

Miller worked from a storyboard, not a script. Everybody says there WAS no script, though I also read interviews where Miller’s collaborators claimed they had to produce a script to satisfy Warner Bros, which seems plausible. But then they never referred to it and apparently didn’t show it to the actors. This was all supposed to HELP. A more detailed, granular plan, which shows exactly what has to be shot. A more useful, visual document for a movie that’s literally almost all action.

Storyboards are great for specifics but a trifle unwieldy — MM:FR’s boards papered a large room — it can be hard to get an overview of the story because of all the detail — Miller or a collaborator would have to talk interested parties through the boards, because storyboards can be hard to interpret if you’re used to scripts. They tend not to be as intuitively clear as comic strips. One of the “writers” claims that reading action scenes is “fucking boring” so storyboards were the only way to go. Read a James Cameron action scene sometime. Or read a book. It’s true that most screenwriters suck at describing things, just as most directors suck at filming them. But the exceptional ones prove it can be done.

Miller’s mania was, at every level of the production, to focus on details, and attempt to make the perfect film by assembling a series of perfect details. Crazily, it kind of worked. You can’t say he wasn’t seeing the big picture, because he obviously very much had a vision. But he didn’t always succeed in conveying its essentials to his actors. (In that talk above, Seale says he didn’t have a clue what the film was going to look like, since digital cinematography is so utterly, dizzyingly flexible.)

Miller also largely eschewed master shots, shooting little tiny pieces, like Hitchcock. The stars would beg him for a bit of run-up, so they weren’t just acting in five-second bursts. “No, I don’t need that,” he would say.

Now, coverage is not in itself a wicked thing. And Miller had final cut, so he had no need to fear it. USUALLY if you’re shooting five seconds of vital material it does no harm to surround it with ten or twenty seconds on either side, which will give you cutting choices. Miller was working on the theory that there’s only ever one correct camera position, while Seale was shooting multicamera because he suspected this was an approach that could easily land one in difficulties. And some of the B and C camera stuff did make it into the movie, so he was right.

We’re told that an assembly of early scenes was created (Margaret Sixel, Miller’s wife, is also his editor, and they obviously have a beautiful relationship and understanding) but this, apparently, was not shown to the actors. It would have been INCREDIBLY useful, I would have thought. Hitchcock did this to Sylvia Sidney on SABOTAGE — confused her by shooting piecemeal then wowed her with an assemblage. Psychologically a masterstroke: you disorient your star, make them worried that you don’t know what you’re doing, then dazzle them with your brilliance, and they have no choice but to trust you from then on. I mean, I wouldn’t do it: I’d prefer to keep people onside throughout. But, in the wild, cult-like atmosphere of Miller’s film, this seems like a workable scheme.

Miller also believed in fine-tuning every sequence in the cut before moving on to the next one. Which is also batshit. I always tell my students to assemble the outline of the film quickly — you don’t make shonky cuts you know aren’t acceptable, but you work fast and aim to get, as quickly as possible, an overview, all the scenes in order. That way, you learn as quickly as possible how much trouble you’re in. You get to the most depressing part as quick as possible, and then everything after that is about making it better.

To some extent, that may have been impossible for Miller due to his “goddamn jigsaw cutting,” as Selznick referred to Hitch’s approach. But if everything’s following a storyboard and there’s no fat, it’s not that hard to cut off the clapperboards and string the shots in their intended sequence, even if the timing is initially rough. Slightly harder when you have 480 hours of footage, I know…

George Miller is clearly a more successful (and better) filmmaker than I am, as a comparison of LORENZO’S OIL and episode 13 of Intergalactic Kitchen will demonstrate. But I learned about shooting masters, putting things in a clearly formatted script, communicating with my actors and aiming for a rough cut as fast as possible relatively early in my career. It maybe took ten years. Miller turned 70 while making FURY ROAD, and he’s a very smart guy (a doctor!). He clearly handled his crew brilliantly, his supporting cast were happy (working with a dramaturge), and his struggles with the studio all worked out in the film’s favour (the diciest moment was when the head of Warners ordered him not to shoot the opening and closing of the film, a ruinous decision which had to be reversed later, at great expense, when it turned out that a film without an introduction and a climax tended to be rather incoherent).

So it’s a mystery — maybe George never made the early mistakes I struggled with, and so he was able to discover them at an advanced age? Or maybe he’s right and I’m wrong.