Archive for John Frankenheimer

Rubber Biscuit

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 10, 2018 by dcairns

Was discussing something with Anne Billson on Twitter. Those shots where either a character moves on a dolly independently of the camera —

Examples:

Belle in Cocteau’s LA BELLE ET LA BETE, gliding eerily down a corridor of wafting curtains.

This ghost in William Castle’s HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL — Cocteau maybe invented the trope and Castle maybe introduced it to Hollywood.

The implacable revenant in Bava’s BLACK SABBATH, who never makes the mistake of moving like a normal living person. She teleports from room to room like Droopy (“I do this to him all through the picture.”), sits up in bed without the use of arms, rising like a drawbridge, then finally wheels forward through a rainbow of artfully gelled lighting, arms already in position for a spot of strangling…

Kathleen Freeman as the Penguin in THE BLUES BROTHERS. Landis’s parodic use of the supernatural glide is striking because the trope was scarcely in common use at the time. It wasn’t like the trombone shot/exponential zoom in his THRILLER video, where the gimmick was maybe on its way to becoming overexposed and thus ripe for parody. The nun on wheels (at the very end of the long clip above) feels like it could have been played absolutely straight in a real horror movie.

(I like to think they intended to hire Kathleen Byron as a scary nun but asked Freeman by mistake. But I know this is not true.)

Also, those shots where the camera moves WITH the actor, as if the actor were on wheels or the camera were attached, or both. There are two variations on this (well, two main ones) ~

At the opening of SECONDS, John Frankenheimer and James Wong Howe mount their camera on an actor via some kind of rigid harness, getting a whole range of eerie effects whereby the world lurches about, a drunken handheld nightmare, while the foreground shoulder or slice of face remains rock steady.

Another example of the same thing: Scorsese fastens on to Harvey Keitel for (appropriately) a drunk scene in MEAN STREETS, to the tune of Rubber Biscuit. Scorsese has also attached his lens to a boxer’s forearm to deliver a fist’s-eye view of a punch in RAGING BULL (blink and you’ll miss it) and to Willem Dafoe’s crucifix as it’s raised in THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. Interestingly, mounting the camera on a car is normal film language (although this still feels unusual) but latching on to any other moving object is still a novelty.

The other variation ~

Spike Lee is the main proponent of this one — camera and actor are moving in unison, but it’s a steady tracking shot, as if the actor is standing on the same dolly the camera moves on (and he is). Lee seems to do this in every film, and, distressingly, sometimes he seems to be doing it just to prove it’s him. His signature shot.

I used this one in my short film CLARIMONDE, back in the nineties — so Lee may have been the influence. I wanted a dreamlike effect and to show a character moving without free will. We didn’t actually have a proper dolly, just a tripod with castors, so I got my lead actor, Colin McLaren, to balance his feet on the castors and grip the top of the tripod so we could wheel him across the studio floor. I still like the result.

This whole slew of techniques seems to be without a name, unless I’ve missed something. I propose calling it the Rubber Biscuit Shot, even though Scorsese didn’t invent it and Spike Lee could probably stake a better claim to ownership. I just think Rubber Biscuit Shot sounds absolutely right for the weird, dislocating effect.

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The View

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 21, 2017 by dcairns

When David Leland’s lovely WISH YOU WERE HERE came out, he did a Q&A in Edinburgh and said the main difference he’d found between theatre and film directing was that “In cinema, there’s only one seat in the house, and it always has to be the best one.”

This is cute, glib, somewhat true, but worth unpicking. A director in the theatre has to consider what can be seen and heard by audience members scattered around the auditorium. In cinema, though obviously there ARE lots of seats, the view controlled by the director is that of the camera. The camera, Leland is saying, always has to be in the best position. But what IS the best position?

Looking at creatively directed movies soon demonstrates that the best position is not necessarily the most explicit view. Sometimes the camera withdraws somewhat to aid the emotional effect of the scene. Billy Wilder suggested that a character having an idea, or receiving terrible news, is best filmed from behind, enlisting the audience’s imagination, showing a certain discretion, avoiding cliché (the lightbulb over the head), and maybe saving the filmmaker from the impossible task of showing the unshowable (what should MacDuff’s face do when he’s told his entire family have been killed?)…

In THE PUBLIC ENEMY, and again in THE LIMEY, a massacre occurs inside a building while the camera waits, timorously, outside. Refusing to serve up the usual action shots creates an awe-inspiring sense of something too horrible to be seen. In TAXI DRIVER, Scorsese slides his camera off Travis when he’s on the phone to Betsy, preferring to show us the empty corridor down which Travis will inevitably walk once rejected. Mike Hodges pulled back from George Segal’s breakdown in THE TERMINAL MAN, feeling “It’s too painful,” and wanting to give the character some privacy. The suits couldn’t comprehend this choice, and wanted him to close in, to “show the emotion,” an approach Hodges found pornographic.

Choosing to conceal rather than reveal can be terrifically effective, and always indicates a creative filmmaker at work (unless it indicates pure ineptitude). I can sort of respect the choice even when I don’t think it works. In Peter Brook’s KING LEAR, he includes fairly frequent shots of the backs of people’s heads. He explained that in Shakespeare, there are moments when the words are doing everything and images would detract. (In the continuous longshot of the stage, this is less of an issue, apparently.) Brook didn’t feel he could just cut to black, but he and his cinematographer DID feel they could get away with filling the screen with a centrally-framed, often blurry, rear view of Paul Scofield’s cranium. They were dead wrong, and Brook is no filmmaker if you ask me. But it was certainly an example of creative thought in action.

(Why I don’t think it works: the blank walls of hair and scalp serve as interruptions; they make the audience wonder, futilely, what is going on; they aren’t incorporated into a blocking and cutting pattern; they distract from the words far more than simply holding the shot would have done.)

There’s a particularly great example of directorial discretion in George Stevens’ film A PLACE IN THE SUN. Montgomery Clift arrives hours late at Shelley Winters’ place. He was supposed to spend his birthday with her (his official girlfriend) but instead has been with Elizabeth Taylor. Winters feels miserable about being stood up. Clift feels miserable and guilty for doing it (but would totally do it again).

And Stevens films the whole thing from outside the room.

As the scene develops, the angle comes to seem, in a conventional sense, less and less adequate. When the characters sit, we only have Shelley’s back, a Brooksian lump of hair. By the end of the scene, both characters are almost entirely unreadable, you would think, Shelley still just a blind slab of back, Monty crouching on the floor, hidden behind her with just his hand in shot. Our expensive stars are turned away from the lens AND blocked AND tiny in frame. “Shoot the money” this ain’t. But as the awkwardness and discomfort of the scene mounts continuously, and is obviously the correct emotion, nobody could reasonably say the action isn’t well-covered. Stevens’ bold choice delivers the required feeling. And paradoxically, by showing discretion and averting our eyes from the angst-ridden subjects, he doesn’t protect us from suffering, in a way he elevates the agony. Big close-ups of blubbering faces are often so repellant that you’re prevented from pity by sheer revulsion. Wide empty frames enlist the imagination — in this case, the empty bed forms an accusing plain.

What makes this even more impressive is what we’re told about Stevens’ filming style. “He shoots in a circle,” they said, meaning that Stevens would start aiming north and film a wide shot and singles of different sizes of every character, then arc around the action ninety degrees and shoot from the east, repeating all the shot sizes, and then do the same for the other points of the compass, acquiring a colossal amount of footage, most of it useless as soon as he made his choice in the cutting room about what view he liked best. Incredible to think he began as cinematographer to Laurel & Hardy, who didn’t even rehearse.

In this case, either Stevens made a single bold decision before turning over a frame of film, suggesting that the conventional view of his approach is exaggerated or incomplete, or he went ahead and filmed every possible angle on this scene and, in reviewing the material in the cutting room, noticed that this take worked, sustained interest all the way through, and was better than anything he could get by cutting back and forth between different angles (meaning, presumably, he’d have had to cut the scene together a few different ways to be sure of this). Either explanation is hugely impressive to me.

I once read an article by Arthur Koestler explaining that computers would never be able to play chess. This was written decades before computers learned to play chess. Koestler explained that, since computers were not intelligent (which is still true), they could only attempt to play chess by considering every possible move, even the ones that make no sense and are instant suicide. “This is a very stupid way to play chess,” he argued. Since the number of possible moves increases as you project more and more turns ahead, and quickly becomes astronomical, Koestler argued, reasonably enough, that there would never be enough computing power to pull it off. Well, now there is, and I assume computers still play chess the same way, considering all the choices, but can really consider ALL the choices, so a good chess computer is just about unbeatable.

Stevens seems to have been trying to direct films the way computers play chess. And it IS, usually, a stupid way to direct films. Dump-truck directing tends to look bland, and just filming a wide shot and many many medium and close shots does not even guarantee that you’ve covered the scene. John Frankenheimer found that an ECU of a raindrop hitting a stopwatch was just the shot required to solve a huge storytelling/pace/continuity/weather problem on GRAND PRIX. The kind of thing that can only be attained by imagination, which is a fuzzy and chaotic approach, not a methodical one.

What blows my mind with Stevens is how he frequently got imagination to thrive within what would seem to be a rather arid methodology. Hats off!

The Sunday Intertitle: The Be Carefuls

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on October 15, 2017 by dcairns

As stated yesterday, the nice people at the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society kindly invited me to join their blogathon, The Great Breening.

My initial reaction to discovering there are people who think the Hays Code was a good thing was a bit like when I learned there are people who think the Sandy Hook massacre never happened. Incredulity and dread. But, having gotten over this, I spoke to them a bit and they seem awfully nice. And they agreed that Rule 6 prohibiting the portrayal of miscegenation was a very bad rule. So, in the spirit of the free exchange of ideas, I’d taking part, in my own way.

(The PEPS people have responded very politely to yesterday’s article here. They’ve invited me to respond and I think I will, later,)

In addition to their list of Don’ts, chiseled into granite tablets using Will Hays’ nose, the initial 1927 Production Code had a second, longer list which, like the Pirate Code, could be viewed as “suggestions rather than rules.” The Be Carefuls are subjects which filmmakers should be careful when dealing with. Arguably filmmakers should always be careful when dealing with any subject. Joe Breen could have saved on typewriter ribbed and just hammered out the words BE CAREFUL and left it at that. Nevermind, here’s the list, with annotations.

One) The use of the flag;

I’m not sure why, historically, Americans are so serious about their flag. You might think that all nations are, but in fact, the star-spangled banner gets treated with a reverence appreciably more demented than that applied to other national symbols. All those injunctions against flag-dipping. And the obsession about standing for the national anthem is part of it. This nation founded on the separation of church and state by pilgrims fleeing religious persecution seems to have invested a kind of religious zealotry shading well into idolatry towards the flag, national anthem, and constitution.

But sure, whatever, be careful with the flag. Store it in a cool, dry place.

Two) International relations (avoiding picturizing in an unfavorable light another country’s religion, history, institutions, prominent people, and citizenry);

There’s already a Don’t applying to this exact thing. So, Don’t do it, and Be Careful when you do it. Seth Rogen.

Three) Arson;

I think this one is to do with portrayals which might help arsonists in the pursuit of their craft. Avoid handy hints. I don’t find that unreasonable.

Four) The use of firearms;

This is something else again, I think. They’re not warning filmmakers to avoid showing how guns work. I think it’s about avoiding glamorising the use of guns for criminal purposes. Guns is another subject the US is slightly crazy on. So I don’t imagine they’re asking for gunplay to be minimized.

Five) Theft, robbery, safe-cracking, and dynamiting of trains, mines, buildings, etc. (having in mind the effect which a too-detailed description of these may have upon the moron);

Good to see the sensibilities of the moron are being taken fully into consideration by Hollywood. This is perhaps a combination of anxieties — will the exciting depiction of crime inspire imitation? — will the films provide helpful information useable by criminals? I’m generally in favour of being careful when potentially giving criminals lessons in criminality, but most crime happens because of dreadful intent rather than dreadful knowledge. It might be fun to have a rule that says crimes depicted in movies should always contain a secret, fatal blunder, not alluded to in the plot, so that copycat criminals will screw up and get caught if they try to perpetrate the offense in reality.

Six) Brutality and possible gruesomeness;

Two of the staples of entertainment right there. We don’t need to point to Shakespeare, do we? Remember, it’s NOT REAL. We agree, it would be very bad if it were.

Seven) Technique of committing murder by whatever method;

In practice, most movies depicting murder use techniques which would work. Stabbing, shooting. You could create quite an interesting national cinema by insisting that all murders shown in films must be committed by striking the victim upside the head with a soft cushion.

Eight) Methods of smuggling;

Just read in John Frankenheimer: A Conversation: While shooting FRENCH CONNECTION II in Marseilles, Frankenheimer was approached by actual drug smugglers who asked him to change the script as the smuggling method used was a bit too close to reality. They happily suggested a convincing alternative and he happily accepted their notes, in exchange for their help getting cooperation from the city.

Nine) Third-degree methods;

This would rule out much of 24. It seems strange to me that such a series existed so recently: a series dedicated to creative torture and threats of torture. Anyhow, don’t want to give the cops ideas.

Ten) Actual hangings or electrocutions as legal punishment for crime;

I’m perturbed and confused by the word “actual” here. I would agree with Messrs Thalberg et al that we don’t want any snuff movies carrying the MGM logo.

Eleven) Sympathy for criminals;

Practically an essential element of any dramatic treatment of crime, since without a degree of sympathy, insight is impossible.

Twelve) Attitude toward public characters and institutions;

Don’t give me any of your attitude!

Thirteen) Sedition;

Don’t know what it means.

Fourteen) Apparent cruelty to children and animals;

Does this mean it’s fine if it’s ACTUAL?

Fifteen) Branding of people or animals;

Extremely weird that this has an entry of its own. But I guess there had been a fair bit of it after DeMille’s THE CHEAT.

Sixteen: The sale of women, or of a woman selling her virtue;

Like I say, the idea of being careful is not a bad one. Meanwhile, White slavery is on the Don’t list.

Seventeen) Rape or attempted rape;

It’s just weird to find this here and not on the Don’t list along with drugs and profanity. But I guess they just thought it was too useful a dramatic situation to exclude altogether. In practice, it was rarely even implied.

Eighteen) First-night scenes;

At the theatre?

Nineteen) Man and woman in bed together;

This became really crazy later. When it was pointed out that there was nothing wrong in a husband and wife sharing a bed, the censors said that the audience knew the actors weren’t really married, and so it would be a potentially corrupting sight to show them between the same sheets. Which makes me wonder if casting a real married couple would have then allowed the depiction of a double bed? I imagine it wouldn’t help. There’s nothing wrong with a husband and wife having sex, either, but Breen wasn’t about to allow THAT to be shown in a movie.

Twenty) Deliberate seduction of girls;

It’s really hard to pull it off accidentally.

Twenty-one) The institution of marriage;

I’m not sure quite what you have to be careful about. Usually this means “careful not to lampoon it” but lots of movies do. It pretty well always IS in fun, and there are very few movies which actually proselytize AGAINST wedlock,

Twenty-two) Surgical operations;

I guess we shouldn’t lampoon these either?

Twenty-three) The use of drugs;

Are these the same illegal drugs we’re not allowed to talk about at all?

Twenty-three) Titles or scenes having to do with law enforcement or law-enforcing officers;

Titles? So JUDGE PRIEST might offend both rule twenty-three and rule twelve?

Twenty-four) Excessive or lustful kissing, particularly when one character or the other is a “heavy”.

Heavies need love too. Still, anything excessive must be bad, mustn’t it? I can agree that if the kissing proceeds to the point where the two skulls actually fuse, they’ve probably gone too far for most tastes.

I wanted to briefly reflect on the effect of the Code itself. I agree with those behind the Great Breening Blogathon that the period of the Code produced some of the finest American cinema, but I am reluctant to give Breen and his office too much credit. I do agree that the Code provided what the industry wanted from it: some protection from local censorship boards and from the threat of official state censorship. I differ with them in that I do see it as censorship, even though it was imposed by the industry itself, not the government. If a filmmaker can’t deal with a subject or show an image because it violates a set of rules, that is surely a form of censorship. And one of the most insidious forms of censorship is self-censorship. We know of films which couldn’t be made, and films that had to be heavily adapted to be permissible, but how many countless films never got past the notional stage, because writers or producers told themselves, We’ll never get away with THAT?

Hollywood in the 30s and 40s was immensely profitable. The studios had a virtual monopoly, controlling production, distribution and exhibition. They could buy in the best talent from all over the world, not only enhancing their own product, but depleting other countries’. They made films in bulk, which meant they could afford the occasional artistic risk, and with so many talented and smart people on the payroll, they enjoyed a high rate of artistic as well as box office success.

In the pre-code era they enjoyed a degree of freedom in what they could show and discuss, but the studios had to be cautious still about offending public taste and local state censors, which kept things within reasonable limits most of the time. Compare a racy 1933 film and a racy 1973 film and the distinction is clear. But predicting what will cause offense to a shopkeeper in Illinois or a politician in Tennessee is not an exact science, and while the studios wanted to be cautious, they also knew that sex sells, sensation sells, and so there was a commercial pressure to see how much they could get away with.

Under the Code, filmmakers had a better sense of what was allowable, and the back-and-forth discussions with Breen allowed studios to anticipate problems before making costly commitments to movies or scenes that would end up cut. Financially, this made total sense to them.

And unquestionably, filmmakers became adept at implying story content that couldn’t be treated openly because of the children in the audience. Had a ratings system existed that kept kids out of films intended for more mature viewers, more adult themes could have been treated — but probably the studios would have seen this as limiting the financial prospects of the adult films, and it would have required a wholesale restructuring of the way Americans consumed movies — you can’t just rock up at the “theater” (as Americans quaintly spell it), not knowing what’s on, if you might not be able to get in, or bring the kids, or if you don’t like more mature content. Ironically, nowadays such a system would work fine, but Americans still don’t have a working certification system that protects kids. If the R were adults only, kids would be better protected and more sensible decisions might be possible about what kind of images really need to be restricted. The MPAA’s weird tolerance for extreme violence coupled with prudishness about all forms of sex, but especially gay sex, is partly to do with anxieties about children, and partly to do with the organisation’s history as a largely Catholic outgrowth of a largely Jewish business. Violence — i.e. the crucifixion — can be part of a morally uplifting story — but sex must always be shut away.

But the Code, and the less articulated thinking that went along with it, did make it flat-out impossible to tackle certain themes, and I don’t believe there are any themes that should be forbidden to art. I don’t really care for official restrictions about the WAY themes can be tackled, but creative types can work within strictures of taste as well as those of time and money, so this aspect of the Code wasn’t destructive, it just created a certain artful stylisation when it came to sexual passion, violence, and other hot-button material. The real harm was not in the Be Carefuls, it was in the Don’ts.

All intertitles from DW Griffith’s THE SORROWS OF SATAN.