Archive for House

Legit Video Essayist

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 2, 2018 by dcairns

This is the complete-to-date heap of discs I’ve contributed video essays to, for Criterion, Masters of Cinema, Arrow and Kino (just the one, on Zulawski’s COSMOS). More are on the way and then there’s some that are purely online, notable the Anatomy of a Gag series for Criterion, which there will be more of soon.

I was quite anxious when I made my first piece for Arrow’s release of Roger Corman’s THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER. I wanted the thing to have a style of its own and not to be just a text essay read out flatly with images from the movie run under it. But I wasn’t sure how to make sure it was more than that. I tried whispering the VO but the producer kindly told me the effect was ridiculous. I had two ideas for all-visual sequences, one where we cut together all the mood scenes where Corman’s camera wanders around the house, and one where we dissolved all the exterior matte paintings of the house together to create a kind of time-lapse image of the mansion by day, by night, in fog, on fire, and finally crumbling into the tarn. And I read in bits of Poe’s source story. The rest of the time it was basically a text essay read over film clips, though they were at least edited to make them appropriate to what was being said.

A HARD DAY’S NIGHT gave me a wealth of material to work from — the film, lots of stills, behind-the-scenes footage shot by the BBC, film of the premiere, clips from later Richard Lester films, and then an audio interview with Mr. Lester which had to be cut in a couple of weeks before the deadline. Having additional material helped turn the piece into a mini-documentary, and the feedback from producer Kim Hendrickson was always helpful, but it was something Lester said that solved my worries about the form. He advised me not to directly illustrate what was being said, but to aim for oblique connections. Or maybe he was just talking about his own preferred approach. But I think it gave him a physical pain whenever I matched an image directly to a word. And I should have known better.

One that’s pretty direct that I still like is when the VO, spoken by Rita Tushingham, explains that Lester never used a shot list or storyboard, he just carried the film in his head, and I accompanied this with a rear view from the BBC footage of Lester operating a hand-held camera, the magazine beside his cranium. That’s pretty close to an illustration — it has FILM and HEAD in it — but I like it because it accompanies an image you can’t literally show photo-realistically, of a man holding the thought of a sequence in his mind.

A good review from the film dept. technician at college.

From then on, I started writing my VOs without regard to what the images would be. If you assume there will be a suitable image, you can always find one. Or maybe you end up cutting a sentence or two. But the editor’s code states, as I understand it, that there will always be a solution to any editing problem. You just need to look hard enough. So an account of C.T. Dreyer’s childhood for the forthcoming Blu-ray of MICHAEL gets illustrated with one of the film’s few urban exteriors (connecting pretty flatly to the word “Copenhagen” even though the shot is probably a wintry Berlin), a face at a window (played in reverse) and a pan across an array of dolls. An anecdote about HB Warner playing Jesus Christ for Cecil B DeMille which I decided was useful for my piece on THE APARTMENT started life with a series of stills from the movie, but when MGM nixed that idea we used a shot from the movie in which a guy dressed as Santa Claus appeared right on cue when the messiah was mentioned. I liked the effect.

I think literal connection is better than no connection at all, but the human mind is always making connections, so the real danger is not a lack of connection but the confusion of false connections. After the new year we’ll be returning to a work in progress where a line about an actor’s early, unsuccessful work needs changing so it doesn’t play over a later, successful one, even though there’s a nice metaphorical link between the image and the sentence.

I showed a bit of the Vertov set (bottom left) to students, and one said, “Is this, like, a legit DVD extra?” in an impressed voice.

Sometimes the VO deals with biographical info and background, if I know it or can research it. That’s sometimes the most fun, because you end up cheekily matching images from the film at hand with facts only abstractly connected to them. Close analysis of the film-making technique presents a different challenge, because often what I say takes longer than the clip at hand, or jumps about in time. Often my long-suffering editors Timo Langer and Stephen C. Horne do the hard work here, subtly changing the timing of the sequence to make it fit the VO, or else we might blatantly rewind, speed up or slow down the footage to make it overt.

I always like to bring in a director’s other work, if we can do it by fair use, or public domain works, or other films the distributor owns. Combined with stills, this can get you closer to the feeling of a true documentary, it enhances the production values.

My pieces for talkies are usually longer than the ones on silents because I drop in lines of dialogue from the movie. This is maybe too much like a TV clip-show, and maybe it can get illustrative again. I’m a little wary of it, but at the same time it can be amusing and I enjoy finding lines to take out of context and give fresh undertones to. What I need to remind myself to do is use wordless clips from silent films in a similar way. I’ve also added sound effects into silent movies, a technique I would generally disapprove of if it were done to the movie itself but which I give myself permission for in video essays. DER MUDE TOD has guttering candles, CALIGARI has creaking hinges. And I got Timo, who’s German, to read a couple lines in for that one also. I got Fiona to narrate DIARY OF A LOST GIRL. I should have got her to do DER MUDE TOD too: her voice sounds more serious than mine.

With CARNIVAL OF SOULS we had a whole array of public domain industrial films made by director Herk Harvey’s company. The trick was to use them amusingly but not condescend to the material too much, not make fun of the filmmaker. I also recorded audio interviews with critic and novelist Anne Billson, cartoonist Steve Bissette, and Fiona again, in her capacity as horror screenwriter. These had to be recorded over Skype, so we alibi’d the audio quality by cutting to radios and jukeboxes from the movie whenever these voices were going to come in. We did the same with Groucho biographer Steve Stoliar for Arrow’s Marx Bros at Paramount box set.

Finally, for a forthcoming piece with Randall William Cook, we worked it so that we both had recording devices going on opposite sides of the Atlantic so both halves of our conversation were recorded well, and just had to be synched up. But then I cut all my lines anyway.

With Bill Forsyth things were technically easier: I was able to record him in the same room for Criterion’s SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, and then Stephen actually filmed some original material indirectly illustrating a story about recording the movie off the TV on audio tape in the days before video. We’ve filmed a few more things since then.

For Masters of Cinema’s forthcoming release of Nobuhiko Obayashi’s HOUSE, I made an animated main title. I haven’t done any animation in twenty years, but I was inspired by a story about Obayashi’s beginnings as a filmmaker. Actually, I just traced the hand-drawn title in different colours with different patterns, and Stephen scanned the pages, flipped them into negative and we cut them together in time with the movie’s soundtrack. I really enjoyed that and I want to do more of it.

But another part of the operation has been Danny Carr, who made titles echoing Lester’s graphics to accompany the A HARD DAY’S NIGHT piece. Then he created an amazing animated title for the SULLIVAN’S piece, ANTS IN YOUR PLANTS OF 1941, in the style of a 1941 cartoon. Since then, I’ve had him disassemble the graphic grids of Ozu’s GOOD MORNING so that the pastel panels slide off the screen like, well, like sliding screens. We’re working on something else now…

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Too Cool for School

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on November 22, 2017 by dcairns

SCHOOL IN THE CROSSHAIRS isn’t about school shootings at all, it’s a lighthearted cosmic adventure story set at a Japanese high school, combining mythic good v. evil stuff with martial arts and teen romance. John Woo meets John Hughes? But NO, for this work springs from the delirious oeuvre of Nobuhiko Obayashi, the fellow who gave us the frankly mental HOUSE. I’m delving into his world for work…

Every Obayashi film has a piano in it.

Once you get over the high weirdness of Obayashi’s ADHD style, the content here is fairly Marvel comics, with young adult soap opera merging with superheroics. The particularly Japanese elements — kendo tournaments, a fascination with schoolgirl panties — do add to the peculiarity for this western viewer, though. But in a way, this movie kind of reminds us how strange OUR culture’s fantasy life is.

Abstract climax in a floaty void with lots of ALTERED STATES type imagery. Obayashi’s raison d’etre, in a way, is creating pop culture emanations which tick the necessary genre boxes but are still perceived as weird even in his own culture. Weird but good. Teaching kids to enjoy weirdness is important work.

I says so!

Win One for the Gifford

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 8, 2010 by dcairns

Watched HOUSE, or HAUSU, as the Japanese call it — our friend Kiyo had recommended we obtain it, and then we read a glowing FaceBook recital of its many virtues from regular Shadowplayer and critic Anne Billson. Eaten by a piano? Drowned in cat’s blood? This sounded like a film to give Ozu a run for his money.

What concerns us for the moment, however, is a moment relatively early in the film, which has an unusually long preambular sequence setting up the arrival of seven cheeky Japanese schoolgirls (soon to be dead and possibly naked) at the titular haunted hausu. We’re on a coach, heading into the country. But what’s this extra on the left reading?

“The Gifford!” cried Fiona, startling me worse than anything in the movie would.

What a nice tribute from director Obayashi-san: Denis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies (far left of frame), suggesting a possible clue to his movie’s patchwork style — he’s been inspired by the random collection of images approach taken by Gifford in illustrating his Big Green Tome.

As I’m working my way through all the films illustrated in this book, it was a pleasure indeed to find a fellow fan.

So how am I doing?

Candace Hilligoss, so effective in her goose-like beauty in CARNIVAL OF SOULS, makes her only other appearance in CURSE OF THE LIVING CORPSE (that’s not her above, though), a movie that actually does try hard to be good, and even seems to have a partial, coffee-stained map guiding it in the right general direction. Period flavour has been aimed for, unusual dialogue attempted (“The body is a long insatiable tube!”), and suitable actors engaged (a nubile Roy Scheider, not yet tanned to alligator-hide perfection, is particularly effective). Plus a decent nasty plot premise, in which some insufferable rich folks in period New England are wiped out (perhaps by a departed relative) in the manner of their worst fears. Lest the gimmick and the talking stuff don’t quite carry the day, some gore and some decorous semi-nudity are laid on. It doesn’t quite make it to being memorable or actually, y’know, good, but one can’t fault the intent.

Attempts to obtain THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE have so far defeated me — anyone out there can help?

I have, however, got my sweaty mitts on FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD, a Japanese kaijin flick using the man-made man, grown to giganticular proportions, as protag. Can’t wait to sample this Ishiro Honda weirdfest.

Also obtained but not yet watched: the 1957 THE VAMPIRE, which for some reason Gifford illustrates twice; THE PHANTOM OF SOHO, in two distinct versions;

Enjoyed two surviving Melies masterworks, THE VANISHING LADY, from which Melies produces three frame enlargements for a before-during-and-after account of M. Melies magic trick, and THE GIGANTIC DEVIL, whose oddly simpering Satan I had long admired in still form. This year I intend to recreate, in my own fashion, the lost movie LA PHRENOLOGIE BURLESQUE, so I can tick that one off my list also.

CRY OF THE WEREWOLF was directed by I LOVE A MYSTERY’s Henry Levin, but disappointed on most levels: there IS a werewolf, but it’s played by a large-ish dog, and the transformations are just crummy dissolves. Nina Foch lends low-budget class, but it’s all uphill.

VOODOO MAN amuses pretty thoroughly (especially George Zucco runnign a gas station) and DR RENAULT’S SECRET is genuinely, like, good, with an affecting monster act by J. Carrol Naish. Appallingly, I mainly knew this fine thesp for his swan song, DRACULA VS FRANKENSTEIN, a truly tragic affair in which his struggle to keep his false teeth inside his head while mouthing idiotic lines is the sole memorable feature, unless you count a mute Lon Chaney Jnr, who, like his great father, had been robbed of the power of speech in the last months of his life, and thus appears here as a wordless monster.

THE MAGIC SWORD, known to Gifford as ST GEORGE AND THE SEVEN CURSES, making it slightly trickier to track down, is a full-to-bursting confection of sub-Harryhausen fantasy FX. Not half bad by Bert I Gordon’s standards (and he does have standard — though if challenged I’m not sure I could quite explain what they are). The prosthetic hag in Gifford’s still turns out to be Maila Nurmi, AKA Vampira, and the hero turns out to be Gary Lockwood of 2001 fame. Basil Rathbone and Estelle Winwood heap on the ham, but the film’s finest thespian delight turns out to be busty nonentity Anne Helm, playing “Princess Helene” in the manner of a concussed cosmetologist. It’s so wrong it’s exactly right.

THE MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES seems to exist not to honour MGM’s 25th anniversary, as suggested, but merely to prove that even James Cagney’s talents have their limits. The real casting coup is Robert Evans as Irving Thalberg, before Evans made the transition from tanned-yet-pallid toyboy leading man to high-powered, wide collared exec. It’s perfect casting, with what one might politely call Evans’ limitations as an actor (Peter Sellers, on hearing of Evans’ appointment as head of Paramount: “Why, you silly cunt, you couldn’t even act the part!”) serving him well in the role of the ultimate empty suit.

In fact, it’s a pity Chaney never played The Invisible Man, robbing us of the sight of two shirt collars, encircling vacuum, nodding in cheerful agreement.