Archive for Mean Streets

Opening and Closing

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 19, 2019 by dcairns

When I first saw THE WOLF OF WALL STREET I remember thinking that the closing shot (above) was like the reverse angle of the last shot of THE KING OF COMEDY (also above). And then I thought, after seeing THE IRISHMAN/I HEARD YOU PAINT HOUSES, that I’d like to see what other connections I could make.

Of course I don’t have a copy of THE IRISHMAN yet so I can’t include that one.

I’ve sometimes said that only two images make an end shot — the reaction shot (Chaplin in CITY LIGHTS) and the walks-off-into-sunrise (Chaplin in MODERN TIMES). But there’s a third category — everything else. Scorsese’s films tend to end squarely in this misc. category,

Three crosses. The flickering light in BOXCAR BERTHA is low sunlight coming through gaps in the train, in THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST it’s caused by the film running out (Mark Cousins, interviewing Scorsese, flat-out refused to believe that was an actual thing that happened on the day) and in SILENCE the light is an annihiliating fire.

CAPE FEAR, BRINGING OUT THE DEAD and GANGS OF NEW YORK all echo TAXI DRIVER (top) in their first shots after the titles (CAPE FEAR ends on the same image), and BOXCAR BERTHA prefigures it.

This is the only opener Scorsese has really harped on. His films are about bearing witness.

BOTD’s shot actually comes in BEFORE Scorsese’s director credit but it’s the first live-action shot of the film and it’s more suited to this post than the following image, a jittery tilt from ambulance headlights to the flashing roof lights —

— so let’s pair that one with the start of GOODFELLAS.

I always think of GOODFELLAS ending with Joe Pesci firing a pistol at the camera, which should be paired with Edwin S Porter’s THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, but we actually cut back to Ray Liotta as he enters his home and shuts the door. So that makes a nice tie-in with CASINO. One door closes and another one opens.

THE IRISHMAN has something to do with this also.

What I remember about CASINO’s opening is DeNiro’s car exploding, leading to the Saul Bass title sequence, but he has to get to the car first and this is the building he comes out of.

This is how AGE OF INNOCENCE ends —

Harvey Keitel walks off at the end of WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR? which has the same vibe, albeit with a different angle. And then the last shot of MEAN STREETS (below) — Catherine Scorsese closing her blinds — might supply the reverse angle. Does Catherine see Harvey Keitel, in another movie, trudging away defeatedly?

I just now realized what a big debt this one owes to the ending of Fellini’s I VITELLONI, previously discussed.

These kind of endings are the closest Scorsese gets to a walks-off-into-the-sunset motif. Apart from ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE, which has certain self-conscious genre elements, and so ends in a fairly traditional way — the forties studio opening is echoed by the seventies location ending, each as comfortingly familiar as the other.

ALICE’s title establishing time and place, or the kind saying that this has some relationship to a true story, are also familiar Scorsese devices, sometimes preceding his opening shot, though —

THE DEPARTED, SHUTTER ISLAND, NEW YORK, NEW YORK, THE AGE OF INNOCENCE.

AFTER HOURS opens with the camera dashing through an office in a hurry to get to our protagonist (and at the end the camera flies off and leaves him behind in the same office). The movie was made while THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST had been fully prepped and then shut down. When he Scorsese got it going again, he used an opening shot that’s doing something quite similar —

Only this time we’re flying through the treetops on our way to meet the Messiah.

KING OF COMEDY and WOLF OF WALL STREET also have some similarity in their beginnings. One is a promo video for a financial services company, the other is a TV show opening.

I put the end of BRINGING OUT THE DEAD next to the start of THE AVIATOR just because they’re both so very Robert Richardson. And have a religious feeling. Nic Cage is basically staging a pieta with his head comfortably pillowed by Patricia Arquette.

Tabletops are also a thing —

Opening shot of WHO’S THAT KNOCKING, closing shot of RAGING BULL, opening shot of THE COLOR OF MONEY.

New York looms large, as do other cities and places.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK ends with a kind of phantom ride, advancing down a rainy street — not precisely anyone’s POV. It’s haunting. And the credits start, one of those cases, as with TAXI DRIVER, where there’s no clear divide between film and titles. There’s no last shot, really.

I do not like the rat in THE DEPARTED.

The lighthouse in SHUTTER ISLAND is great. It has an ominous meaning established earlier and its appearance here is really grim.

KUNDUN’s similar first and last shots only reveal their poetry when placed together. The mountain seems merely an establishing shot at the start of the film: Tibet. At the end, we recognize it’s the closest view our protagonist can get of his homeland from his exile, through a telescope.

RAGING BULL is different from everything else — is it the film’s opening, or just a title sequence? Of course it’s fantastic.

TAXI DRIVER, SHUTTER ISLAND and SILENCE. Things emerging from fog are always good.

HUGO begins with cogs.

And then there are sunglasses.

“Hey, I’m BACK,” says Paul Newman, which was unquestionably Scorsese’s message to Hollywood after a dry spell. DeNiro takes of his shades and gives us The Look. Which takes us back to the top.

The ending of THE IRISHMAN does not resemble any of these. But it is very beautiful, and very sad.

Oh, here’s another Look —

But there’s more!

MEAN STREETS. Harvey Keitel wakes up, evidently from a bad dream. Like several other Scorsese characters, he then goes to the mirror… but what does he see?

“The future…”

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.

Like clockwork, like magic

Posted in Comics, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 12, 2011 by dcairns

HUGO is a film about books, movies, magic and clockwork. And work — life’s work.

It’s my new favourite use of 3D. It revives the 2-strip Technicolor look that was the best thing about THE AVIATOR, and returns to the long take aesthetic which informed Scorsese’s work before the rock ‘n’ roll fast-cutting of THE DEPARTED and SHINE A LIGHT. It’s set in a giant artificial period world like GANGS OF NEW YORK, and is at times more in love with that world than with its own story, just like the earlier film, but at least in this case the foreground story intrigues for the great bulk of the film.

Ben Kingsley returns from SHUTTER ISLAND, Ray Winstone returns from THE DEPARTED, and Jude Law returns from THE AVIATOR, none of which was my favourite Scorsese by a long way, but they’re good here, and Kingsley is T-riffic. The kids, Asa Butterfield and Chloe Moretz, are wonderful.

Old-timers! Christopher Lee, Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour. Frances was big on British TV in the seventies, starring alongside Leonard Rossiter (BARRY LYNDON) in a seminal sitcom called Rising Damp. Then she vanished. I presume she’s just changed her agent, because suddenly she’s in Tim Burton and Scorsese films. The business with the supporting players is lightly charming but not quite effective… they inhabit little REAR WINDOW scenarios of their own, but aren’t tied to the hero’s POV enough so they don’t seem germane. Although I like Kristin Thompson’s theory here that the sub-plots’ simplicity recalls early films of the Melies era.

Midway, Chloe M’s character sums up the plot: “It’s a terribly long story with a great many circumlocutions.” She’s right! Not everybody enjoys that, especially when the plot motor and pay-off are kind of slight. Fiona saw the film with our friends the Browns and Marvelous Mary, who really hated it. Since the Browns work in the film biz, I think their anger was focussed on huge resources being lavished on a movie with such a slight spine. Imagine little Asa Butterfield wearing a giant Transformers robot armature. They had similar doubts about GANGS OF NEW YORK, which has a really rotten plot and a similarly sumptuous environment (had Scorsese been allowed to follow the path of FELLINI SATYRICON and dispensed with narrative, what  amovie that could have been!). Fiona enjoyed the visuals, completely, but complained of the script.

She’s basically right, I have to admit. The dialogue is mostly flat — there are no memorable lines except those that actors invigorate with a lot of effort (Chloe Moretz is especially good at this and Kingsley is compelling as always) The plot is thin and the happy pay-off arrives for no entirely convincing reason. Scorsese has never been a fan of plot, preferring the loose, baggy structure of MEAN STREETS or the purely character-driven narratives of TAXI DRIVER and RAGING BULL. But those latter films are extremely tight, with everything happening because of who the people are — there’s no chance or contrivance or hidden revelations to provide artificial twists or accelerations. The apparent messiness of MEAN STREETS is in keeping with its imitation of messy, unstructured life. This is Scorsese’s first mystery, and the questions intrigue, but not every question has a satisfactory answer — I kind of expected some news about the hero’s father and uncle, but it turns out they weren’t part of the mystery. Spectacular dream sequences add pyrotechnics but don’t advance the story, which seems to be building to something bigger… and Logan really isn’t very good at building gags or action sequence, so things like the clock-hanging sequence tend to just fizzle out rather than building to a thrilling climax with developments and reversals and all that good stuff…

But 90% of the time, the plot had a fascinating effect on the children in the audience — the narrative purpose of a scene could be very slight, but as long as it was there, they sat hypnotized. You instantly got fidgeting when the scene turned out to be just about some kind of character moment. But they sat there for two hours and the fidgeting only happened for about four instances of ten seconds apiece. I contrasted this with the kid at TINTIN who tried to climb over the seat backs in front of her. There’s a revelation here about pacing and children — children’s movies have been hyperkinetic for ages, and crammed in all the stuff they assume kids like — farting and monsters and pop music — and it turns out that an effect of intense concentration by the filmmaker can produce the same thing in a young audience. Scorsese may have saved a generation of parents from ever having to suffer through ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS: CHIPWRECKED. If more filmmakers learn from the rhythms of HUGO, things could be very different.

As the Self-Styled Siren says in her loving review, this is glorious 3D, and likely to win over even those who generally dislike it. What excites me is that we’re actually learning more about how to use the gimmick, something that barely happened in the 50s. In HUGO, 3D discovers the power of the close-up. Seemingly, TANGLED achieves some of this, but I’ve only seen it flat, on BluRay (it’s GOOD). Here, there’s a shot of Sacha Baron Cohen leaning slowly in, filmed from a low angle, which has a funny and ominous and freaky effect. A track-in on Ben Kingsley near the end is magisterial. Those faces hover there, giant and blimplike, eerie in the way the Kingdom of Shadows was eerie to the earliest cinema-goers. The reference to the first audience’s panicked reaction to the Lumiere’s TRAIN ARRIVING AT A STATION ties it all together neatly. 3D isn’t an add-on, here, it’s part of the story, part of the film’s essence. And the drifting snowflakes and cinders are beautiful, the aerial perspectives of the station are spectacular, and every frame seems to bristle with potential discoveries. Robert Richardson’s partnership with Scorsese as DoP is something to be grateful for for two reasons: his luminous lensing enhances Scorsese’s films, and it keeps him out of the clutches of Oliver Stone.

I recalled a line from Our Town: “Oh, I can’t look at everything hard enough!”