Archive for Martin Scorsese

Early Nothing

Posted in FILM, Painting with tags , , , , , , , on June 30, 2015 by dcairns

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A conversation with a friend years ago comes back to me. We debated the strange blandness of the interiors in Fritz lang’s American films. Strange because his German films were known for their elaborate, stylised and striking production design. When he returned to his homeland in the fifties, his Indian duology and to some extent his final Mabuse movie returned to the elaborate sets of the pre-war era. He had trained to be an architect, and gave us the first city of the future. But those American films have a distinct, flat, bleak quality to their look. In THE BIG HEAT, Gloria Graham even comes up with an aperçu to describe the decor: “Early nothing.”

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Looking more closely — frame-grabbing, in fact (a new critical weapon which not much has been written about) — I find that, firstly, you have to make an exception for the films with period or foreign settings, where the art direction works hard to create the required exoticism. Secondly, the design isn’t really all that flat. Even a film like WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS, which has a kind of pulpy, comic-book quality to it anyway, isn’t afraid of letting the sets make a splashy statement from time to time.

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I think it has more to do with Lang’s shooting style. The distance between the actors is one factor. Lang’s readiness to shoot actors from behind, which you see again and again. His willingness to pull way back and show the characters frozen in longshot, those aforementioned gulfs between them. It turns out Cinemascope isn’t just good for snakes and funerals, it can suck the warmth out of a scene and turn movie stars into distant planetoids signalling to each other in Jodrell Bank bleeps. There are quite a few shots, especially in SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR, which just show empty rooms, abandoned by any visible characters. Lang will flatten the set by shooting it straight on, or creating a crisp geometry even when the angle is more oblique. The very care of his composition, which certainly hasn’t slackened off from the German films, has a cold, clinical quality. The sense of America as a frosty, unwelcoming place, makes the country feel as it might to an exile.

As if al that weren’t enough (it IS enough — it’s too much — STOP!) Lang subdivides the frame, using architectural features, doors, windows, corners, to box his characters into their own little cubicles. Like prisoners in adjacent cells (for obvious genre reasons, cells recur) they can talk to each other but they’re still in solitary. The world is in solitary.

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(Lang’s German films were opulent, and so was his home — African masks on the walls, modern art, and all kinds of glamorous, slightly decadent stuff. No wonder he didn’t want to leave, and supposedly hung around almost long enough to be adopted by the Nazis as an official filmmaker — though Lang’s well-practiced anecdote about that may be a convenient fiction.)

Scorsese speaks of the way Lang’s tracking shots make his characters seem fated, in lock-step with their destinies — as if the very nature of the means by which the camera moved made existence a train track towards death. Meanwhile, Lang plotted out the actors’ movements like dance steps, measuring out their paces himself, though Lilli Palmer complained he made no allowance for their difference in stride. So with minute care the figures in his puppet theatre are slid from mark to mark, framed and reframed, staring at each other with longing as they are shuffled like playing cards.

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The classic Lang space is the corridor or stairway. All his rooms aspire to the status of interstitial spaces. Comfortless, more empty than full, propitious rooms for murders to happen in. Crime scenes in waiting.

Pics: THE BIG HEAT, YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE, WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS, MINISTRY OF FEAR, THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW, SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR.

 

Couldn’t escape if I wanted to

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on June 22, 2015 by dcairns

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Hey, it was the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo on Thursday, so the Edinburgh International Film Festival decided to show Sergei Bondarchuk’s remarkable epic WATERLOO in 35mm anamorphic, with a certain amount of side-trumpery from the Royal Scots Dragoon Guard (well, some of them) and an introduction from an affable, well-informed and frightfully posh retired brigadier.

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My only real prior knowledge of this movie was an anecdote recounted in the 1978 Scorsese profile documentary MOVIES ARE MY LIFE. Although Ennio Morricone is quoted as saying “Brian DePalma never smiles,” and that ties in with Fiona’s experience of the Great Man, the DePalma who appears onscreen to talk about his friend is a giggling, rolly-polly figure, just coming out of his improv comedy phase, I guess. DePalma the wacky funster. And he launches into a “hilarious” anecdotes about seeing WATERLOO with Scorsese on a double date, where Marty’s girl became distressed at the tripwired horses onscreen tumbling head over hooves in the dust. The tripping of horses is now outlawed as its very dangerous. As you see in old westerns, most tripped horses get up, but some can’t. They don’t show you that.

“So Marty’s telling her to shut up and she won’t and so he starts hitting her and because of that we miss the whole reason Napoleon lost the battle,” concludes the chortling Brian. Which tells you a lot about his sense of humour. One likes to think the story is at least heavily exaggerated. I discussed it with a friend.

“Well, hopefully Scorsese couldn’t really hurt anyone, he’s small and frail.”

“But energetic,” my friend replied grimly.

Disturbing that in 1978 that story could go into a documentary and nobody apparently worried about it. The past is a nightmare.

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WATERLOO shows some of that aspect of history.

The battle scenes, deploying 16,000 soldiers from the Russian army (plus some actual dragoons) are astonishing, of course. “Impressive” is too weak a word. But director Sergei Bondarchuk excels before then with his staging of TALK — he’s obviously in love with Rod Steiger’s performance as Napoleon, jumping in on the beady eyes or the obscenely wriggling sausagey little fingers. I’m not sure he’s RIGHT to be in love with the performance, which is very tricksy and big and elaborate, but having accepted the Steiger challenge, Total Commitment is the only option that makes sense. So sit back and enjoy the ham.

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And so generously sliced! The movie also sports Orson Welles (puffing his cheeks for two scenes), Jack Hawkins, a veritable shooting gallery of Toby Jugs. Christopher Plummer is a splendid Wellington — the lady next to me remarked afterwards, “I felt Wellington suffered from his dialogue consisting of every famous thing Wellington ever said. A man who speaks entirely in aphorisms.” And it’s true, he does come across as a sort of battlefield Oscar Wilde. But this is a kind of gigantic historical pageant, so it’s kind of appropriate.

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Shot in the Ukraine, apparently. Well, it was probably good practice.

REALLY impressed by the editing by Richard C. Meyer, who had just moved to the bigtime with BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID after years on smaller films like the superb MEN IN WAR. But let’s give Bondarchuk credit too — he stages dialogue and action alike in long takes abruptly broken by short, aggressive cuts, faces, eyes, flickering flags. We get the grand sweep but we’re also kept on our toes. This is one epic that doesn’t lumber. Admittedly, the blasting and roaring and bellowing can exhaust the ability to appreciate — and I saw the damn thing with a hangover, for God’s sake — but if one overlooks the rather shoehorned antiwar moment (maybe a soldier really did freak out on the battlefield and run about shouting “Why must we kill each other?”, his blond locks waving in the breeze poetically, in which case I’m an idiot and forget I said it), this is true cinema. It just happens to be writ very, very large.

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Of all the movies I’ve seen at the Fest so far, this is the only one where I was struck by the size of people’s heads. Rod Steiger’s head was twice my height. I expect it was in life, too. But in the movie I saw right before, in the same auditorium, the people’s heads, though frequently framed in extreme closeup. seemed no larger than a chihuahua’s. Charisma, people!

Public Anomie

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 29, 2014 by dcairns

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“You’ve got to have a good beginning,” Roger Corman told Scorsese as he prepared to shoot BOXCAR BERTHA, “because the audience wants to know what it’s about, and you’ve got to have a good ending, because they want to know how it all turned out. Nothing in between really matters.”

Scorsese would later call this, “The best sense I ever heard in pictures,” but at that time he was only able to fulfil the latter half of the success formula. BB opens with a really pathetic biplane crash (obviously an AIP feature could afford to crash a plane for real, so Scorsese cuts to horrified onlookers – he would make up for this in THE AVIATOR), but it ends with a cattle car crucifixion and a really dynamic shotgun massacre which has clearly been storyboarded and then executed faithfully – the wildest shot is the trackback POV of a guy who’s just been blasted off his feet by the shotgun. Compared to the bloodbath that climaxes TAXI DRIVER, it’s very cartoony, but effective. (And during the shoot, Barbara Hershey gave him a copy of Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ.)

Scorsese’s struggle to maintain quality in his low-budget period romp is interesting to bear in mind when watching DILLINGER, which proved to be the best John Milius film I’ve ever seen. It never feels like they didn’t have enough time or money to do what they wanted to do, there are spectacular sequences (gun battles to beat HEAT) and beautiful shots, and not a bad performance in it – a considerable feet for a movie with scores of speaking parts, an inexperienced director, and a limited budget.

The very first shot (top) made Fiona cheer, and packs in more excitement and movie-star charisma than the whole ninety hours of Michael Mann’s PUBLIC ENEMIES – and it’s all done with Warren Oates’ expressive kisser and impactful comicbook composition. The Oates countenance: a kind of tapioca mudslide, like the bags under his eyes decided to strike out and form a face of their own. Everything is yielding to gravity, as if only loosely fastened to the crumbly skull beneath, and yet there’s a contradictory sense of hardness and permanence that stops you from thinking he’s about to disintegrate and pool on the floor this instant. The impression is of a real tough guy who can kill everyone in the joint between cigar puffs, but who carries his own eventual dissolution wrapped up inside that bullish carcass.vlcsnap-2014-04-29-00h04m44s149

Milius/Oates’ Dillinger is amoral, charming and forceful, just as he should be. I did feel the lack of a real love story — what’s missing is an intro scene to the relationship with Billie Frechette (Michelle Philips — the plain one from the Mamas and the Papas — who has a great rake-thin 1930s shape and a great 1970s slouch) — Milius admitted not being too great at writing women, I believe. Here the couple just slap each other and he tears her dress off, and it’s rather hard to read this as the beginning of a great love story or anything other than plain brutality. As with most Milius films, there’s greater interest in bromance.

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The real passion is between Dillinger and Melvin Purvis (Ben Johnson), the G-man who was sworn to smoke a cigar over his bullet-ridden corpse. The balance between twin protagonists — a device Milius tried again in THE WIND AND THE LION — works well here because it helps stop the story being purely a glorification of Dillinger. Despite the horror of the shoot-outs, JM probably IS in love with his outlaw protag (going on his form elsewhere) but we get to opt out if we want. It’s necessary, I think, to like Conan, but it’s not necessary to like Dillinger — you can get away with just finding him interesting, a compelling problem for society to solve.

In one nice, mythic scene, Melvin Purvis fails to impress a small boy at a shoeshine, demonstrating that being a G-man is nowhere near as cool (or lucrative) as being an outlaw. Especially if the outlaw is called Dillinger and the G-man is called Melvin Purves. This isn’t enough to motivate the man’s later suicide, but it’s one note of unease more than Michael Mann thought to supply — in his movie, it’s a complete mystery why he chose to disclose this fact about Purves (a very minor nonentity in his film).

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Bonus Richard Dreyfuss, Harry Dean Stanton, Geoffrey Lewis (that moustache actually normalizes his weird Hanna-Barbera head!), Cloris Leachman.

Kurosawa influence (see also CONAN) very much in view — Johnson walks into a house where a bandit is staked out, we hear screams and shots, and the bloodied perp staggers out and dies — NOT in slomo, however. Milius evidently felt there was a limit to what he could steal. That’s what makes him different from his hero, I guess.

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