Archive for King Kong

Traveling Matte Finish

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 18, 2021 by dcairns

Joe May’s career has a curious shape. From detective series starring Anglophone-sounding heroes called Stuart Webbs and Joe Deebs, he graduated to epic adventure films starring his wife Mia, then sold his studio and went to work for UFA, reaching an artistic pinnacle with HEIMKEHR and ASPHALT. When sound came he turned his hand to musical comedy, and kept at that as he emigrated rapidly through France and Britain and wound up in Hollywood where he made another, MUSIC IN THE AIR.

His American career was patchy, and declined rapidly to B-pictures, but these are not terrible. He never made a little classic like his protege E.A. Dupont’s THE SCARF, but he never made THE NEANDERTHAL MAN either, so there’s that.

During his speedy passage through France, he managed to make three films, and two of those he made twice: PARIS-MEDITERRANEE (1932), for instance, was shot in French, and again in German (as ZWEI IN EINEM AUTO). Presumably the French contacts helped May get out of Germany the following year. The French version was a Pathe-Natan production, and I got hold of a scrappy off-air recording of it back when we were making our documentary NATAN. Somebody subsequently made very good subtitles for it, and Fiona and I just watched it.

Charmant! Annabella is lovely as ever and her then-husband Jean Murat essays a totally convincing English accent throughout. Scenic views of the Riviera. All very fuzzy, with an intermittent sound problem that makes everyone like they’re snorting helium at the bottom of a well while wrapped in vinyl sheets.

The movie is nothing remarkable, except that the early sound musicals are full of invention, even when the stories are souffle-light and not particularly memorable. This one ends, for instance, with the two comedy relief idiots hanging off a tree over a cliff on the Riviera, with the jealous Spaniard (José Noguéro) biting the buffoonish accountant (Frédéric Duvallès) on the bottom. It’s not exactly LE REGLE DE JEUX.

More big thick matte lines for us to enjoy, though! Tricky to be making a romcom road movie a year before the Translux scene was gifted to the film industry by its inventor, Yves Le Prieur, making rear-projection a vastly more effective technique, and making KING KONG possible. If the film had been silent, May could have filmed the car stuff for real, but a talkie needed to be filmed in the studio, so we get Jean Murat and Annabella haloed with wavering jagged white outlines that keep biting off portions of their heads you would not think they could do without. Excellent stuff. Even if the film were not as charming as it is, that kind of thing could make it endlessly diverting. Elsewhere May rapidly cuts together real car POV shots with our heroes outlined against a perfectly blank whiteness, as if driving into Jimmy Stewart’s nightmare limbo in VERTIGO.

Teahouse of the Rising Sun

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 28, 2021 by dcairns

The great Max Ophuls’ career was not only itinerant — Germany, France, Italy, the US, and back to France — it was very variable in quality. LIEBELEI is a masterpiece, but most of his first European films are either flawed or minor. Then he makes mostly masterpieces in Hollywood and returns to Europe to make four more.

I saw the first twenty minutes of YOSHIWARA, a French pic from 1937, at Edinburgh International Film Festival in 2000, but I had to leave early. Shane Danielsen, curator of the retrospective, warned us beforehand that we’d probably never get a chance to see this film again. Times have changed — Gaumont have released the film on Blu-ray.

The film, based on a French novel, creates a fantasy of Japan in the lead-up to the Russo-Japanese war — intended by the Tsar as “a short, victorious war” to boost his popularity and trumped up for no good reason, it turned into a fiasco which hastened his downfall. This movie presents a fanciful theory of how faulty intelligence led to that outcome. There’s a romantic triangle — rickshaw driver and artist Sessue Hayakawa is hopelessly in love with geisha girl, formerly daughter of a noble house, Michiko Tanaka, and she’s in love with Russian naval officer Pierre Richard-Willm, who’s basically a spy. The Japanese secret service forces Hayakawa to spy on his rival, thus endangering his sweetheart.

A kind of whiplash is introduced by the fact that Hayakawa and Tanaka are real Japanese people and the other locals are played by very gallic impostors. The Russians are all French, and I’m pretty sure Hayakawa is dubbed, unless his French was fantastically better than his English as heard later in BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI.

The set and costume design is fabulous, the social observation less so: geishas are synonymous with prostitutes in this vision of the east, as a for-instance. Yoshiwara exists behind an unscalable wall with a huge gate, almost like Skull Island (and Kurosawa would import that design, which apparently never existed in real feudal Japan, for the forts in his films such as THRONE OF BLOOD.

Michiko Tanaka was never really a movie star outside of this one film, but she’s startlingly beautiful. Sessue Hayakawa is pretty impressive too, and Willm is striking — I should see LE ROMAN DE WERTHER, his other Ophuls, a sort of farrago of Goethe which Ophuls rather regretted — he died with a copy of The Sorrows of Young Werther by his bedside.

The melodrama is slushy — an imaginary trip to the opera looks forward to the phantom ride of LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN, but is embarrassingly gushy and frenetic — but the visual direction is gorgeous. Watching it alongside THE RECKLESS MOMENT brought out all sorts of similarities, including the way the director will follow actors up flights of stairs and along catwalks in unbroken shots. A dynamic chase is staged in a hectic flurry of incredibly precise movements, filmed through swathes of occluding foliage. It’s almost frustrating — Ophuls regularly brought genius to the staging of stories carpentered together with little talent. But I guess it does mean that by the time he got good scripts, he was more than ready.

Dynamation Emotion

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 28, 2021 by dcairns

Yesterday was spent, much of it, at the Scottish Museum of Modern Art, strolling through the extensive Ray Harryhausen, Titan of Animation exhibition. Which was basically heaven. Of course I’m going to criticise it a but because I’m an ingrate, but —

The silhouettes are animated. A really nice effect.

I’d seen a few of Harryhausen’s models in the flesh (or fur and steel and latex) at various times. Once, at the late, lamented Lumiere Cinema at the Scottish National Museum, there was the magical moment when he produced a skeleton, complete with miniature travel coffin, and within an instant every child in the auditorium teleported down to the edge of the stage to get closer to it, each perhaps imagining that Ray would hand over the precious figurine for them to play with, or perhaps make a very short movie with.

And Berlin’s fantastic film museum had several of the creatures on display (we don’t call them monsters).

But this was much more extensive and just better. The addition of drawings and home movies elevated it.

I really wanted to see the planned WAR OF THE WORLDS. The tiny bit of test footage is mouth-watering. I suppose we’d have to trade it off — George Pal’s beautifully-mounted version couldn’t exist in the same version as Ray’s — but we’d have tripods and tentacled Martians and, I submit, it would be worth it.

The exhibition features several specially-made bits of animation which show sketches coming to life, and so on, and this is nice, but it really needed more video. I think galleries generally are not very good at dealing with film. I remember a Saul Bass exhibition in London which presented pan-and-scanned versions of all the widescreen title sequences, on tiny little screens.

Today, pan-and-scan is happily dead, but we have the opposite problem. So here’s a clip from KING KONG in 16:9 (and of course it’s the Empire State sequence, the most vertical thing in the film). That wasn’t a very promising start.

The Harryhausen films are much better presented, WHEN they’re presented. There just wasn’t enough — it was up to me, every room would have a screen showing reasonably long clips of each of the creatures represented by drawings or armatures or full figures in that room. Because when you see the Medusa, it’s absolutely wonderful but you want to see her MOVE too.

The solution, of course, was to dash home and watch one of the movies, which we did.

Maybe the Gallery had a philosophical question it never quite resolved about this exhibition. As a sketch artist, Harryhausen wasn’t good enough to merit a show in anybody’s national gallery, even though his drawings are delightful. But the sketches were a means to an end, and they were absolutely good enough to get him there. The puppets or figures or whatever you want to call them are marvelous, but they’re not intended to be consumed the same way as stationary statues. Again, they’re a means to an end.

Mighty Joe and friend.

The end, of course, is the film. And the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art doesn’t really do film. What the exhibition doesn’t QUITE do fully — even though it helpfully explains and illustrates stop motion animation and rear screen projection and glass paintings — is show the sequences alongside the ephemera (we get Ray’s copy of his chum Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and revealing behind-the-scenes photos, and so on) and the drawings and the models so that the REAL art — the art of animation, literally imbuing with life, is foremost in the spectator’s mind.

But this is high-flown quibbling. The exhibition is a carnival of wonders and we were very, very lucky to get to see it.