Archive for Kino

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…

Retail Opportunities

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on December 28, 2016 by dcairns

Two arrivals which harken back to The Late Show —


Andrzej Zulawski’s last film, COSMOS, from Kino.


Marlon Brando’s first and last film as director, ONE-EYED JACKS, from Criterion.

Assisted by the intrepid Stephen Horne, editor, I made video essays for both discs.

Coffee optional.

The Sunday Intertitle: Steamboat’s Round the Bend

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on October 3, 2010 by dcairns

Nice font! Upgraded my copy of STEAMBOAT BILL JNR, but still very curious to see the alternate version, made from different takes, recently unearthed and released by Kino.

The copy I obtained, sourced from God knows where, includes a “stunt analysis” by David Robinson, the formidable silent comedy expert and Chaplin biographer. The trouble with this is, I’m not sure if Robinson’s analysis is always correct — it’s mixed with conjecture in a way that’s not always clear.

Mind you, Robinson did set me straight on this shot, which I’d always assumed was achieved with a drop miniature in the foreground ~

The hurricane causes the entire hospital to lift skywards like Dorothy Gale’s place.

In fact, I think I “learned” about this special effect in the excellent documentary A Hard Act to Follow, by Lifetime Achievement Academy Award Winner Kevin Brownlow. Anyhow, when Robinson claimed the hospital was yanked away full-sized by a 100 ft crane, I was highly skeptical. Lord knows, Keaton was capable of insanely elaborate and gigantic stunts, but this seemed excessive, even for him.

Then I noticed that there’s a visible incision at ground level in front of the building, noticeable in the preceding shot. And then I noticed the building’s shadow, which lifts off Keaton just as the building does. That’s a full-scale hospital interior with Keaton in his bed, so if anything’s casting a shadow, it must be full-scale too.

Point One to Robinson.

But here I think I can add to Robinson’s interp. In arguably the most iconic and celebrated visual joke of the silent era, Keaton stands before a collapsing building, which passes harmlessly around him, with a maximum of 3 inches of clearance, as he happens to be standing directly under a narrow window. Keaton’s cameraman had to look the other way while filming this. Buster himself, his marriage and career in crisis, reported not particularly caring if he lived or died at that moment. It’d be quite a way to go!

Robinson remarks that Keaton had nails driven into the ground to mark his position (the only real safety precaution taken). He then says that the nails are visible in the above shot, and that you can see Keaton touching them as he stands up, ensuring that his feet are correctly placed. But I don’t see the nails: there’s all kind of debris on the ground, so some of that COULD be nail-heads, I guess, but it’s highly uncertain. And anyway, Keaton’s hands never pass over the area where his flap shoes end up.

Furthermore, this is a different shot from the one where the building collapses, so the nails don’t absolutely need to be present, and certainly shouldn’t be visible.

This got me wondering whether the above shot might have been taken simultaneously with the famous master shot, using two cameras. But no — Robinson makes the point that no wind machine was used for the building drop, since the aircraft engines Keaton was using might have caused the facade to shift and hit him (and it was a solid frontage, too — if it had been built lightweight, it might likewise have twisted and struck Keaton).

But in the closer view, we can clearly see leaves and other debris moving about. So this shot was definitely taken separately from the action of the main stunt.

Robinson’s observation about there being no wind in the wide shot is a very good one, though — it led me to spot the waving tree branches at left of frame, and realise that they’re being waved by a hidden rope, in order to keep up the illusion of a hurricane. Other trees, further in the distance, are actually stationary, but the artificially shaken branches produce an effective illusion.

On the whole, Robinson’s comments do more to elucidate than obfuscate, and I wind up impressed by the light he’s shed on this much-analysed sequence, and impressed all over again by how much artistry and artifice is crammed into it.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. [Blu-ray]