Archive for King Vidor

The Sunday Intertitle: An Eleven Letter Word

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 3, 2019 by dcairns

What unmentionable word is John Gilbert mentioning here in THE BIG PARADE (1925)? Not BASTARDS, surely. Too many letters. I think it must be BUTTFUCKERS.

You have to remember, it was a different era.

I first knew of this movie through Brownlow & Gill’s Hollywood series, which I saw on first airing some thirty-nine years ago, so it’s pretty bad that it’s taken me this long to catch up with it (and worse that I open my analysis with a sodomy joke). Sometimes the makers of that legendary series would make a film look even better than it was, by careful extraction of the juiciest morsels, and that’s sort of true here. Nearly everything involving the pastoral love affair with Renee Adoree is either a drag, or frankly incredible (not her fault). And then there’s the repulsive Karl Dane as a comic relief buddy out of Nosferatu’s worst nightmares.

But the great bits are indeed great, elevating the whole proposition to well-deserved classic status.

Vidor writes in his book that he took care to always film the advancing US army traveling from screen left to screen right, because on a map, west is left and east is right. An army going from America to Europe and then advancing should have a rightward movement — this will seem subconsciously CORRECT to an audience and if you stick to it, all confusion can be avoided. It’s a beautiful, simple, almost dumb idea.

In fact, Vidor abandons it for his most celebrated sequence, the death march through the forest. I’m not sure why. Much of the scene is purely frontal, but for the really wide shots, the army is moving right to left — maybe because that creates slightly more tension in a western audience comfortable reading text from right to left.

Vidor specified that the scene should be scored with just a slow, solo drum beat — which he had used to choreograph it during filming, his soldiers marching and dying to the rhythm. Carl Davis, rescoring the movie for Thames Silents, can’t bring himself to go THAT stark and simple, but he does allow the steady, deadly percussion to dominate.

The most impressive thing, though, is how Vidor initially keeps Death in the background.

As the men march, we slowly become aware that there are bodies strewn here and there among the fallen leaves. Gilbert has to step over one, which brings them more sharply into our consciousness. Then — BANG! — an out-of-focus figure in the background throws up his rifle and drops.

You can just see him, on his knees by Karl Dane’s elbow on the right.

Then, in a closer shot on Tom O’Brien, another one goes (far right). The closer view makes the casualty seem even more incidental, somehow. Our protagonists seem unaware of what’s happening (an ambiguity of silent cinema: surely they’d hear the gunshots?). By putting the fatalities in the background and out of focus, Vidor somehow emphasises them by refusing to emphasise them. There’s a greater quality of “Look out!” since we can see what the men cannot.

There are a lot more great moments in the film. The POV that follows, tracking towards an enemy position… It feels like this may have influenced the execution scene in PATHS OF GLORY, the hit in the woods in MILLER’S CROSSING, the climax of THE WAY AHEAD…

THE BIG PARADE stars Count Vronsky, Nag Ping, Starbuck, Wolf Larsen and Stupid McDuff.

 

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War & Peace, brought to you by Wrigley’s

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , on January 9, 2019 by dcairns

There’s a great bit in King Vidor on Film Making where he talks about running out of money on WAR AND PEACE. They had a scene where Audrey Hepburn exchanges saucy glances with Vittorio Gassman at the opera. They built several opera boxes so they could film Audrey’s shots in the studio, with enough surrounding context to make it look like she was really there, but their plan for an opera house fell through.

The producers were sending Vidor to every opera house in Italy in hopes he could wrangle a venue for free, and somehow fill it with extras in period dress also for free.

Finally, King decided he wasn’t going to find an opera house, and mobilised his mighty brain. As they say in the military, If you know what your objective is, you’ll know what to do.

KV needed a reverse angle of Gassman in the stalls at the front of the opera house. And he needed a wide shot of the interior to establish it.

Elsewhere in his book, Vidor talks about his strong visual memory. He made a mental picture of what the front of an opera house looks like. What could you actually see from Audrey’s box? The orchestra would be hidden in the pit, save for the head and shoulders of the conductor, and the neck of a bass fiddle.

Vidor wasn’t entirely without resources: he had the use of a studio. They strung the only bit of red velvet they had to make part of the curtain. The audience believes it’s looking at half the curtain, because we know what size a theatre curtain must be. In fact, what we see in shot is all there was.

A row of camera platforms formed that part of the stage front not covered by the curtain. A row of lamps were strung along here to suggest footlights. A red velvet barrier masked the non-existent “orchestra pit” and the conductor was a man in a low chair peeping out over the top, dressed in the top half of a costume, while the broken neck of a bass fiddle was held in view a short distance away. Adding the sound of an orchestra tuning up completed the illusion.

Some rows of chairs were arranged, and Vidor could just barely afford twenty extras in costume. Now for the establishing shot.

Vidor had obtained a large photograph of La Scala. He wondered how much movement he would need to get into it for us to believe it was a live action shot. He sent it to Technicolor in London who were known for doing good special effects and asked them to turn it into a large painting. Then he asked them to affix little pieces of light silver foil to the images of figures in the audience, and position an electric fan where it would cause the foil to move. He advised them that they could obtain suitable foil from Selfridges in Oxford Street, who sold Wrigley’s Doublemint Gum.

The effect Vidor was hoping for was a suggestion of a dozen or so fans flickering in the audience. I don’t quite read it that way — probably the foil should have been tissue paper — but the trick is nevertheless a complete success — we read the opera house as a live action shot populated with real, full-sized three-dimensional people.

The establishing shot is at 1:27:27 in the Youtube video above, and Gassman’s reverse angle starts at 1:28:53.

WAR AND PEACE stars Eliza Dolittle (2) and her real-life husband, Stephen Orlac; with Tom Joad; Brancaleone da Norcia; Chief Insp. Charles Dreyfus; Colonel Stok; Amanda Beatrice Cross; The Stranger (from Venus); Mr. Lundle; Fräulein Schneider; Alfred Dolittle (1); Lola-Lola (2); Sherlock Holmes (1984-94) and his best friend, Sherlock Homes (1970); William Mossop; and the voice of Colossus.

Reflective Value

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , on January 8, 2019 by dcairns

I got a second-hand copy of King Vidor on Film-Making for Christmas. Really, the only two helpful books by filmmakers are the Lumet and Mackendrick ones, though Roger Corman has invaluable insights too. Vidor’s volume is quirky and entertaining, but its value is more anecdotal than educative, and though there are some really good nuggets and first principles, it doesn’t really give you the overview of the whole process it aims for.

But it does have Vidor explaining the process of front-projection, which was introduced years after his retirement and this shows he was keeping up with developments. In light of my discussion of 2001’s opening scenes, I thought it might be worth reproducing here. Of course, I can’t swear that all the details Vidor gives are correct because I’m less technical than him. Footnotes are mine.

“A recent development of the process background shot is done with front projection instead of the usual rear projection. It seems strange that a picture could be projected onto a background screen with actors in front of it and yet not have the background projection scene show on the performers’ faces or bodies. Interestingly enough the discovery of this possibility grew out of the development of an automobile bumper-sticker and a material that would deflect heat from fire-engines.

“The Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company (the 3-M people responsible for much sound-recording tape development and a wide variety of cellophane sticker tapes) had developed a material with such a high reflective value that it seemed to increase the intensity of light projected onto it. Hence it was put to use, as an attention getter on the rear bumpers of automobiles. Then Sherman Fairchild, who developed and built the first automatic camera for the United States Signal Corps, became interested in the material. He collaborated with a Hollywood technician named William Hansard, who had been experimenting with the material because of its adaptability for use in background motion picture photography.

“In the Fairchild-Hansard technique, the lens of the projection machine is placed as near the lens of the camera as possible. Because the extremely high reflective quality of the background screen, the intensity of the projection lamp can be very weak, so weak in fact that the projected image is not perceptible upon the faces or clothes* of the actors. To the eye, the background image seems too faint to photograph and yet when one looks through the camera lens the image appears with startling brilliancy.

“The screen material is made up of one million beads to the square inch and is fifteen hundred times more reflective than the actors**, or objects in the set which absorb the projected image rather than returning it to be recorded by the camera. This extremely high reflective value of the background screen makes possible a sharp focus and rich color registration on the negative film.

“The process was first used in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and Mike Nichols’ CATCH 22.”

*or ape costumes.

**unless you have a very sweaty Rod Steiger.