Archive for Martin Scorsese

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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Through the ceiling

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on August 11, 2018 by dcairns

Last of my short series on moments in TAXI DRIVER.

After the big shoot-out/massacre, Travis slouches onto the couch with a gaping hole in his neck and greets the first responders by putting a blood-dripping finger to his head and miming blowing his brains out —

 

— and Scorsese retreats to directly overhead, looking down through a slit cut in the floor or the rooms above (the building was condemned, fortunately), tracking away from Travis, across the mayhem left around him, and out the door.

We get surprising and unfamiliar views of a ceiling lamp and a doorway from above. I showed this to a friend one-time who was unimpressed, feeling that since these angles are eccentrically removed from anything we ever experience in life, they were tricksy and essentially ineffective. I disagree with this demand for Fordian austerity, for the following reasons —

It’s fun to see things from unusual angles! Admittedly, “fun” might be a peculiar sensation to be experiencing in this scene of horror, but visual pleasure complicates the emotions and makes the horror sing out.

It feels like an OOBE — an Out Of Body Experience, as if Travis’s consciousness has left his body and is drifting away. Now, that’s not literally what’s happening — unless it is, and the rest of the film is a dream Travis entertains himself with after death, which isn’t likely to be anybody’s FIRST interpretation of what’s going on in those strange scenes. But the feeling of projecting out of the body remains, and seems to be the main thing motivating the camera movement, at first, anyway. It turns into an exploratory move as the scene develops, retracing Travis’s bloody path into the building.

(Fiona points out that you don’t have to be dying to have an OOBE — you can just be so dissociated it just happens. Trauma — like having a chunk blown out of your neck – cn do it. And Travis is already having trouble staying in the moment, as seen in that shot where his POV descends into a glass of Alka-Seltzer.)

You could also relate it to a Hitchcockian God’s-eye-view, a frequent Scorsese trope — these overhead views are present when Travis first gets his job, recur in the boxing ring in RAGING BULL, return in force in THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST and are back in unheard-of abundance in SILENCE, suggesting that they do have something to do with religious feeling, the idea of a superior, observing force, superior even to us in the audience.

Tonally, the sequence is a kind of numbed lull, a respite from the trauma even while the brain matter is still oozing down the walls. So withdrawing from the scene, which we’ve been almost subjectively involved in, makes sense. Scorsese has found the most distant way possible of filming the action in this relatively confined space.

One other thing adds a kind of resonance. In the following sequence, as the camera continues drifting about Travis’s apartment, picking up items pinned to the walls, we see a newspaper report on the shooting incident, in which an artist has mapped out the scene with an overhead view exactly like Scorsese’s tracking shot, only stationary. They could be storyboard, or production designer’s plans.

The next clipping on the wall, btw, is the obligatory Catherine & Charles Scorsese cameo, as we see a still of Marty’s parents — playing Jodie Foster’s parents — watching the news. (The IMDb cat list, “verified as complete,” doesn’t tell us who voices Foster’s dad in this scene’s narration. I don’t think it’s Mr. S.)

Zero is the Loneliest Number

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 7, 2018 by dcairns

I love the weird diminishing array of phones. And the lack of nose room for DeNiro — it creates an imbalance that eventually helps justify the camera taking off on its own, tracking right in a way completely unmotivated by onscreen movement, a move which “corrects” the composition — and then keeps going, like an automaton, into nothingness.

If you’ll forgive me, I’m going to keep delving into TAXI DRIVER.

When Martin Scorsese came to o a Q&A in Edinburgh, preceding the release of THE COLOR OF MONEY in 1986, the teenage me, who had only recently discovered his work, was in attendance, and my hand shot up when the call went out for questions from the floor. There’s usually an awkward pause when such a request is made, so if you sit at the front (desirable for movies, essential for personal appearances), and you DO have a question, this is the time to ask it.

Scorsese had been talking frankly about his career, the current scene in Hollywood (“The studios like to be able to look out their office windows and see what’s going on, and their offices are in San Francisco, so if the films can be set in San Francisco, they like that. Like the new STAR TREK is set in San Francisco. Really. They go back in time. And they save the whales. No, really!”) and the recent collapse of the original planned version of THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (“Aidan Quinn was already losing weight for it…”)

I asked about Travis’s phone call to Betsy in TAXI DRIVER, and you can read most of Scorsese’s answer in Scorsese on Scorsese ~

“That was the first shot I thought of for the film, and it was the last I filmed. I liked it because I sensed that it added to the loneliness of the whole thing, but I guess you can see the hand behind the camera there.”

I had mentioned in my question that some critics had objected to the shot — as I recall, Kael was one — on those grounds. I had found the shot mysterious, since tracking away from your subject and staring at an empty space seems counter-intuitive. It reminds me now of Mike Hodges’ reasoning for pulling away from a tragic moment in THE TERMINAL MAN. “It’s too painful!” He tries to give the character some privacy. And “the Americans,” he says, couldn’t understand this at all. The Hollywood system is to push in on the emotion. That’s why Kael flinched at it, and why teenage me found it mysterious.

But Hodges’ approach, and even more so Scorsese’s, produces the appropriate emotion in an indirect, discreet way. What’s more lonely than Travis on the phone to Betsy, hopelessly failing to get through to her on a clear line? That empty corridor leading out into night and the city, which he will finally walk down.