Archive for Martin Scorsese

Towards a 3D Aesthetic

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 22, 2022 by dcairns


“The cinema of the future will be in colour and three dimensions, since life is in colour and three dimensions,” said Erich Von Stroheim, probably adding, “and everyone will wear authentic period underwear.” First, let me say that Von’s well-documented knicker fetish may have been in operation when he insisted on his extras wearing the right undies, but the right underclothes affect how the outer clothes appear, and so he wasn’t being crazy or perverse to insist on absolute authenticity. I imagine in 3D it would be even more important. Oh yes, 3D, that’s what I was supposed to be writing about.

In AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER, there’s an action sequence in which one of the youngsters is pursued by an alien shark-thing. What makes it particularly effective is the way our cyanated hero hides amid coral outcrops which the predatory fish tries to bash through. Whenever 3D is particularly effective, it gives us a clue as to what it might be FOR. Here, we have a situation in which at least three visual layers are dramatically activated — the hero’s, the shark-thing’s, and the intervening coral, for starters. The far distance is a passive element but does add immersion. Also, we’re literally immersed, underwater you know — so there’s the possibility for floating particles and smaller fish to decorate the frame and keep our eyeballs excited, And, as the hero swims backwards away from the threat, the camera moves with him and so new coral outcrops come heaving into view, surprising us.

Two things are happening — the concept of DEPTH is important to the action — the distance between blue boy and shark-thing is an actual matter of life and death — and the excitement is enhanced by a lot of foreground and midground activity.

It’s a shame that the talkie scenes in ATWOW are so choppy and random, because it seems to me that at least some of the same principles could be enlisted for dramatic dialogue sequences.

Hitchcock’s DIAL M FOR MURDER tries to keep its long expository scenes lively by enlisting the foreground — there are more shots from behind lamps here than in THE IPCRESS FILE, and with seemingly less reason. TIF was a spy film, so the camera behaved like a spy. DMFM is a filmed play, and so Hitch settles for reminding us of the 3D to get a “you are there” quality, suggesting but not actually recapturing the thrill of live performance. But in the standout scene, the murder attempt on Grace Kelly, again depth becomes almost a character — the would-be strangler lurks behind her, murderous sash in hands, but she’s holding the telephone to her ear and he has to wait until her hand’s out of the way.

I promise this isn’t just a list of cool 3D sequences. It IS that, but each of them is nudging us towards an appreciation of what the form can do. I’m also going to mention some flat scenes that seem like they might work really well with the added dimension.

The AVATAR film has a lot of forwards camera movement. This is pretty effective in a forest, but sideways movement — as I pointed out regarding FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN — can be better. (I tend to suspect the film’s visual pleasures derive more from Antonio Marghertiti than from credited helmer Paul Morrissey.) The thing about forward movement is that it already feels three dimensional, because of the way the perspective changes. An exponential zoom or trombone shot might look really neat though. In Welles’ CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT a sudden lateral tracking shot in a forest sets of a shimmer of captivating motion, because the foreground trees are passing the camera rapidly, the midground ones more slowly, and the far distant ones slower still. The different layers overtaking one another. It’s rapturous. I don’t want upscaling to 3D, but I do want filmmakers to borrow the right kinds of scenes for new 3D movies.

(Welles doesn’t NEED 3D, his films are so lively, dimensional, vigorous in all their pan-focus deep staging, but it’s fascinating to imagine what he might have come up with. The Michael Redgrave curiosity shop in ARKADIN would be momentous in depth.)

The Wim Wenders production CATHEDRALS OF CULTURE dealt with “the soul of buildings” — lots of tracking shots down hallways, none of them very effective — until we got a curved hallway, and then things got interesting. So it seems that straightahead single vanishing-point shots of the Kubrick variety are less effective than oblique, curving approaches. Ophuls would be the guy to look at for inspiration, or the Italians.

“The best inside-a-mouth shot I ever saw was in JAWS 3D,” said Martin Scorsese in Edinburgh, “A shark eating its victim, filmed from the inside, in 3D — a new low in taste!” And I believed him, until a friend told me it was the one effective spot in the film — a diver is swallowed whole and trapped in the shark — if he tries to swim out, he’ll be bitten in two. It puts you on the spot. And apparently Cameron’s seen that one, because he has a protag swim into a whale-thing’s mouth in ATWOW, there to mind-meld with its Day-Glo epiglottis.

My favourite shot in Joe Dante’s THE HOLE is when a kid lies on his back and throws a baseball in the air, catching it, re-throwing it. The camera is overhead, so the ball flies towards us, runs out of momentum, pauses, and drops away again. It provoked a gleeful reaction from the audience. It’s sort of decorative, I guess, but it’s not only permissible but desirable for a filmmaker to explore the visual possibilities of a situation. 3D seems to kick in on the second or third film, once the filmmakers’ have gotten used to it and have worn out the obvious ploys. Dante had shot a stereoscopic funfair ride prior to this one. Other filmmakers who have paid more than one visit to the third dimension are Cameron, Fleischer, Oboler, Arnold, Ridley Scott. Not sure Zemeckis ever improved. One issue is that the medium, if that’s what it is, hasn’t always been in the hands of the most expressive or adventurous filmmakers. William Castle! Lew Landers! Pete Walker! Harry Fucking Essex!

Throwing things at the audience has never really been the best way to get an effect. In CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, the best stuff tends to be slower — the slo-mo explosion at the start is exciting because you have time to appreciate the balletic motion of the rocks tumbling at you through space — it looks forward to the joy of GRAVITY, still the best 3D movie I’ve seen. All the same, I feel sorry for the creature.

(My enjoyment of moving vehicles in ATWOW doesn’t extend to the boat in CREATURE, probably because it’s standing still in front of a rear projection screen — the action feels like a couple of flat layers, something you might see in a toy theatre.)

Alfonso Cuaron’s space epic was the first film I ever saw in 3D that actually made me flinch, whenever bits of tiny space shrapnel zinged past. Interestingly, they got the effect by NOT firing them right at me. I was involuntarily blinking, and having more fun doing so than I ever did in a real life experience. But the movie’s true pleasure was in slower action — when Sandra Bullock, spacewalking, is in danger of losing a vital tool, Fiona actually reached up to grab the astro-spanner or whatever it was before it escaped. One again, space and distance were dramatically in play, and the 3D enhanced the fact.

A sequence that would work magnificently in three dimensions is the attack on the big car in Cuaron’s previous CHILDREN OF MEN. It’s already a (fake) long take, an aesthetic that suits the medium, not for the moving camera aspect so much as for the pleasure of looking at depth photography for long enough to appreciate its visual pleasures. And it’s a moving vehicle interior, something that works magnificently in ATWOW for the few seconds Cameron allows us in his helicopter gunships. It’s slightly mysterious already how Cuaron’s long take seems to enhance the terror of the occupants of the besieged car — maybe it has more to do with the fact that we don’t go outside, so we really feel trapped in the situation. The long take becomes an excuse for an excitingly restricted viewpoint. In 3D, we’d have all kinds of moving parts on different planes, mindblowing overstimulation for the eyeball combined with panicky confinement and a lot of urgency from the cast of actors we’re locked in with.

Scorsese may be the most visually imaginative director to use 3D, perhaps next to Godard (I’ve never had a chance to see ADIEU AU LANGAGE in 3D and get the headache JLG planned for me). I love HUGO — maybe it’s seriously imperfect as a film but it gets value for money from it’s visual depth. Lots of cinders and dust motes in the air — lovely. Two great close-ups, one where Sacha Baron Cohen looms ever closer to us, his nose an accusation, another where we move slowly in on Ben Kinglsey, his face becoming more and more dimensionally solid, hovering before us, enormous, like one of those Easter Island jobs but alive and responsive. You get to experience a very very familiar thing, the human face, in a new way — and seeing things afresh is a big part of what art is about.

It’s possible Scorsese was influenced by the opening of William Camron Menzies’ THE MAZE, in which a female narrator talks to camera while slowly advancing upon us. It gets increasingly freaky but also hilarious. It would be interesting to see more deliberately funny 3D — I wonder what could be done with visual gags. Keaton, Lester and Tati sometimes made comedy about the camera’s INABILITY to correctly judge distance: Buster would make mistakes like jumping on the wrong horse which only make sense from the camera’s position, not from his. I wonder what he might do with a genuine sense of depth?

Height may be the dimension filmmakers forget about. The early desert landscapes of Douglas Sirk’s TAZA, SON OF COCHISE are breathtaking, because they arrange the action in cascading planes / plains. The scene with the lineman up the pylon in Jack Arnold’s IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE are similarly thrilling — Arnold, not normally the most inventive filmmaker, was sensitive enough to keep learning, and he got to make more 3D movies in the 50s than just about anyone. Something about these high angles really works for me — a sense of vertigo, dramatic space, multiple active layers.

I’m still cross I never got to see PINA in 3D — I suppose I could have forgone my snobbery and seen one of those other 3D dancing films. It seems like a good medium for dance, though KISS ME KATE doesn’t prove anything either way. It’d be a great medium for scultpure also, but so far the closest thing to that is Herzog’s CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS, which gets most of its best effects out of the shallow curvature of cave walls, a lovely and counterintuitive exploitation of the medium’s possibilities. In a flat film, camera movement makes sculpture appreciable, but 3D would work very nicely with or in place of tracking shots. Somebody should have done Henry Moore.

The pornographers were not slow to seize upon the form, but without any distinguished results that I’m aware of. It seems possible that 3D could amplify what Billy Wilder called “flesh impact.” The kind of shot that would work would be Ursula Andress emerging from the sea in DR. NO. A variation on the sculptural principle. Just as good with men — Daniel Craig would do well. And the sculptural approach could enhance physiognomic interest, as we see in HUGO. A long examination of an interesting face — Brendan Gleeson would be a gift to the stereographer. Linda Hunt. A few young actors are also interesting, even if their features lack the distinguishing crenellations: Anya Taylor-Joy, Thomas Brodie-Sangster. Or Beany and Cecil?

What this seems to show is that the uses of 3D might be quite specific. I think James Cameron imagines, like Stroheim, that all movies should be 3D movies. But we don’t want to go to the trouble of putting the specs on for just anything (I see they finally invented clip-ons for glasses wearers like me — the medium finally catches up with its audience’s needs, just before it rolls over and dies). I’d say that if a film naturally has a few highlights that really benefit from a 3D approach, it might be worth going that route, and then modifying the script slightly to make sure there are more worthwhile opportunities.

Without getting too silly about it.

Grabbed by the Balsam

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 18, 2022 by dcairns

“I used that in THE EXORCIST. There’s a shot of, uh, well, frankly it’s a shot of a character being grabbed by the scrotum.”

William Friedkin, speaking in PSYCHO extra feature In the Master’s Shadow: Hitchcock’s Legacy, comparing Martin Balsam’s death scene in PSYCHO to a shot in his own shocker. His use of the word “frankly” I find, frankly, hilarious.

But he’s wrong.

This is a passable doc — what’s frustrating is they have people of the calibre of Scorsese, Carpenter, Friedkin, but they have to make room for Eli Roth and the composer of BASIC INSTINCT 2. There’s an assortment of editors and sound designers, and they mainly earn their presence by saying interesting or amusing things.

There’s also a colorized shot from Alfred Hitchcock Presents where they give Hitch a hideously crimson, ready-to-burst head, which looks set momentarily to take flight from his collar and go off to star in an Albert Lamorisse short. Or like somebody’s grabbed him by frankly the scrotum. My photo off the TV screen does not capture the full horror.

Friedkin tells us that he “found out” how Hitchcock filmed Balsam’s topple down the Bates house stairs, and duplicated it by attaching the camera to his scrotum agony man. Which isn’t what Hitch did at all, so I wonder what the “finding out” consisted of.

Hitchcock achieved his shot with rear projection, which most viewers can tell, I think. It looks as if Balsam is attached to the camera because he doesn’t move in relation to it. He’s sitting on a gimbal so he can sway from side to side but nobody seems to have thought of sitting that on a dolly so his distance from the camera can vary. The unreality of the effect is dreamlike, and Friedkin seems to have latched onto this bug and treated it as a feature.

The moving background was shot with what Hitch called “the monorail,” a kind of STAIRLIFT OF TERROR attached to the banister which let the operator slide smoothly down from landing to hallway.

The shot in THE EXORCIST always struck me as a bit of a blunder. It’s the kind of tricksy effect Friedkin normally eschewed in the name of realism. Screenwriter William Peter Blatty stuffed his first draft with fancy effects, and Friedkin tore them all out. A particularly extreme or striking shot should accompany important dramatic moments, I feel. Well, THE EXORCIST is full of traumatic stuff, but it seems to me that a mere ball-crushing, inflicted upon an insignificant character whose testicles play no further role in the story, doesn’t rate this kind of splashy treatment.

The shot goes by really fast, though, so I don’t think it does much harm. I mean, I would say that, they’re not my balls.

Supposing Hitchcock HAD attached a camera to Balsam, though. He’d still have had to devise a way to get his actor to stumble backward downstairs without breaking his neck (or the camera), so he’d still have needed a monorail. But a bigger one. And the resulting movement of the actor would be just as unreal, although I guess he’s have been more IN THE SCENE, instead of the sort of Cocteauesque feeling we get. Which would have been even more of a mismatch for THE EXORCIST, so in a way Friedkin misinterpreting or being misinformed about the PSYCHO shot worked to his benefit.

In the same piece, Scorsese talks about being influenced by the shower scene for the bit in RAGING BULL where Sugar Ray delivers an apocalyptic pounding to Jake LaMotta’s face-bones. And nifty intercutting of the two sequences creates a real sense of connectedness, with many shots appearing like exact analogs of one another. PSYCHO, of course, has no counterpart to the brief shots where DP Michael Chapman attached his camera to Sugar Ray’s arm, so that his boxing glove sits in the foreground, a leathery planetoid, a spherical scrotum agony man locked in position, while Robert DeNiro’s spurting face seems to lunge forward for a violent collision. This kind of FREAK SHOT is, again, a little much, but Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker cut the shots so tight you can’t quite register how odd it is, and it pretty much scuds by as just part of a generalized onslaught. Scorsese had a similar angle in LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, the camera mounted on the arm of the cross as Christ hauls it along, but he didn’t use it. Too wacky. The only comparable angle is the view from the top of the cross as it’s raised into position — which he nicked (honourably) from Nick Ray’s KING OF KINGS.

Of course, LaMotta on the ropes is another Christ-figure, in the classic aeroplane pose.

(In framegrabbing that shot, I realize it’s a very different angle, though with the same crosscam effect, and there’s another shot moments earlier where the camera is attached to a hammer nailing Willem Dafoe or a disposable body double to the crossbeam. Also, arguably, too wacky, but again it’s quick and also we can at least agree that the moment is an important one, worthy of special effort.)

Hammer and Scrooge

Posted in FILM, literature, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 24, 2021 by dcairns

I had fond memories of seeing CASH ON DEMAND as a teenager and thinking it a forgotten treasure. Extremely glad to report that it holds up beautifully. It’s a 1961 thriller from Hammer without any of their customary grue effects (though there is a character called “Gore”) but with a Christmas setting. I don’t know why it hasn’t become a festive favourite — it shows a detestable character being mistreated for most of its running time — it is, in fact, a remake of A Christmas Carol, done as a heist movie.

It joins a substantial stock of Christmas heists — REINDEER GAMES, THE SILENT PARTNER, DIE HARD — our crook even anticipates Alan Rickman’s lovely line, when accused of being a common criminal — “I like to think of myself as an UNcommon criminal.” And it’s true — he walks into the bank with nothing but a commanding attitude and respectable manner, gets the manager alone, and threatens his wife with electrocution if he doesn’t assist in cleaning out the vault. A phone call from the panicked family cinches the deal. (On the Bill Rebane box set I had a part in, you can find a short film he made advising bankers on how to deal with this kind of problem.)

Based on an (evidently very good) play by Kiwi writer Jacques Gillies (born in Gore, New Zealand, he gives the town’s name to his smooth criminal), adapted without needless opening-out by American David T. Chantler and Brit Lewis Greifer, and very skillfully handled by director Quentin Lawrence, this is persistently gripping, first by making you hate the banker, who is mean to his staff for the first fifteen minutes, and then by making you empathise with him as he’s ruthlessly exploited and humiliated by the robber.

The very good news is that the banker is Peter Cushing and the thief is André Morell.

Cushing is a brilliant Scrooge — his usual clipped manner and precise movement is applied to a callous, somewhat OCD character (shades of Richard Sackler in Dopesick), a man you get all excited about loathing, and then have to feel for (unlike Richard Sackler in Dopesick, though the writers and actor Michael Stuhlbarg do imbue him with a certain creepy humanity). The film’s courageously quiet opening sequence gives us the pleasure of just watching Cushing do stuff. Entering his office at the start, he brushes a speck from his coat while hanging it, elaborately folds his scarf over a raised knee, and lovingly drapes it around his hanging coat so that the coat is now wearing the scarf as if it were a person.

This is all done so that for the rest of the film, when he starts coming apart under the strain, you can see it in the way his mannerisms become shaky and twitchy and sloppy. “We admired very much the precision of his movements within the frame,” said Martin Scorsese of his gang’s Times Square grindhouse Hammer experiences, and Cushing is indeed a very controlled, technical actor. But here he also becomes devastatingly moving — his technique is always allied to, and an expression of, genuine emotion.

Turning the screws on Scrooge is Morell, who really should have played more baddies on this evidence. His “Colonel Gore Hepburn” has steely glint and scary jollity, a sense almost of suppressed mania under a tweedy military bearing. Absolutely commanding. I always liked him, and this reminded me why: it may be his best work in movies. He was a smashing Dr. Watson to Cushing’s excitable Holmes in HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (I wish Hammer had made more with that pairing) but villainy liberates him.

And the movie is a proper Christmas film, beginning with a street Santa and dropping in references to the festive season throughout. It snows, too. You should absolutely check it out if you’re looking for unconventional holiday viewing — it even has the required uplift, after putting you through George Bayley type torture for 89 minutes.

CASH ON DEMAND stars Professor Lawrence Van Helsing; Professor Bernard Quatermass; Dr. Hugo Fassbender; and Alderman Poot.