Archive for Movie Speak

Page 17, #18

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 21, 2020 by dcairns

Resisting the slow touch of a frozen finger tracing out my spine, I showed him how that this figure must be a deception of his sense of sight, and how that figures, originating in disease of the delicate nerves that minister to the functions of the eye, were known to have often troubled patients, some of whom had becomes conscious of the nature of their affliction, and had even proved it by experiments upon themselves. ‘As to an imaginary cry,’ said I, ‘do but listen for a moment to the wind in this unnatural valley while we speak so low, and to the wild harp int makes of the telegraph wires.’

Evelyn crouched on the window seat, elbows on the sill, her hands cupped to the curve of her cheeks, their pressure making it easy to smile. Softly, she sang. It was strange to hear for she did not know music; she did not read and had not been told of music. But there were birds, there was the bassoon of wind in the eaves sometimes; there were the calls and cooings of small creatures in that part of the wood which was hers, and, distantly, from that part which was not. Her singing was made of these things, with strange and effortless fluctuations from an instrument unbound by the diatonic scale, freely phrased.

As the last fold was unrolled something hard and loud-sounding bumped out of it and trundled along the nursery floor. All the children scrambled for it, and Cyril got it. He took it to the gas. It was shaped like an egg, very yellow and shiny, half-transparent, and it had an odd sort of light in it that changed as you held it in different ways. It was as though it was an egg with a yolk of pale fire that just showed through the stone.

This was the time of a botanical renaissance, brought about by the classification of plants by the Swede Linnaeus and more especially by the voyage to the South Seas by Sir Joseph Banks and Captain Cook, killed in Hawaii in 1779. Cook carried back to Europe not only fantastic landscapes and images, from the ice world of the Antarctic to the gigantic heads of Easter Island, but a treasury of plants: three thousand species, one thousand of them unknown to botany. The world was alive with news of itself.

Elizabeth Taylor, the last of the old-style Hollywood actresses, has retained her hold on the popular imagination in the two decades since this piece was written, a quality she shares (no thanks to myself) with almost all the public figures in this book – Marilyn Monroe, Reagan, Jackie Kennedy among others. A unique collection of private and public fantasy took place in the 1960s, and may have to wait some years to be repeated, if ever. The public dream of Hollywood for the first time merged with the private imagination of the hyper-stimulated 60s TV viewer. People have sometimes asked me to do a follow-up to The Atrocity Exhibition, but our perception of the famous has changed – I can’t imagine writing about Meryl Streep or Princess Di, and Margaret Thatcher’s undoubted mystery seems to reflect design faults in her own self-constructed persona. One can mechanically spin sexual fantasies around all three, but the imagination soon flags. Unlike Taylor, they radiate no light.

Again, Apollo’s destruction of the Python at Delphi seems to record the Achaeans’ capture of the Cretan Earth-goddess’s shrine; so does his attempted rape of Daphne, whom Hera thereupon metamorphosed into a laurel. This myth has been quoted by Freudian psychologists as symbolizing a girl’s instinctive horror of the sexual act; yet Daphne was anything but a frightened virgin. Her name is a contraction of Daphoene, ‘the bloody one’, the goddess in orgiastic mood, whose priestesses, the Maenads, chewed laurel-leaves as an intoxicant and periodically rushed out at the full moon, assaulting unwary travellers, and tore children or young animals in pieces; laurel contains cyanide of potassium. These Maenad colleges were suppressed by the Hellenes, and only the laurel grove testified to Daphone’s former occupancy of the shrines; the chewing of laurel by anyone except the prophetic Pythian Priestess, whom Apollo retained in his service at Delphi, was tabooed in Greece until Roman times.

Meanwhile, every actor secretly dreads the surprise announcement of “Reload!” as the crews’ eyes roll up and the director’s roll down and their fellow actors’ eyes turn somewhere away. Then they have to get themselves back together to start again or – worse for many actors – pick up where they left off. In particularly emotional scenes, actors often never quite get back to their pre-reload intensity. (Of course, it can be argued that the pressure imposed by a running camera leads to an intensity and concentration that mere rehearsal cannot accomplish, but not many actors would agree with that claim. I’d submit that there’s certainly enough pressure to perform without that added by the celluloid whizzing through the camera.)

Back by unpopular demand (mine)! Seven extracts from seven page seventeens from seven books I’ve randomly picked up. I wasn’t going to do anymore, or I was going to switch to video, but I missed them…

The Signalman, by Charles Dickens, collected in The Penguin Book of English Short Stories; The Phoenix and the Carpet, by E. Nesbit; More Than Human, by Theodore Sturgeon; The Billion Year Spree, by Brian W. Aldiss; The Atrocity Exhibition (introduction), by J.G. Ballard; The Greek Myths: 1, by Robert Graves; Movie Speak: How to Talk like You Belong on a Film Set, by Tony Bill

Dress to camera

Posted in FILM, literature, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 11, 2020 by dcairns

I have this neat little book by filmmaker Tony Bills called Movie Speak — it’s a guide to the language used on film sets, stuff I often don’t know because I hardly ever get to be on a film set. “Dress to camera” means to arrange a prop or person to see it best, usually by moving it into frame. The word “cheat” is also used a lot for this, that’s the one I know. You have a perfect composition of a guy leaning on a desk but you want to see the telephone, but it’s not visible, so you get the props guy to slide it into view, a deliberate continuity error which you’re confident you can get away with because the angle is so different from the wide shot, or because you haven’t established the position of the phone yet.

Walter Murch says some good stuff somewhere about hieroglyphs, or anywat about ancient Egyptian figure drawing. People look kind of odd in these things, and he says it’s because they arranged the body parts into their most recognizable aspect. The body and limbs are frontal so you can see the shape and the number of limbs, but the feet sideways so you can see how the feet stick out. The hands are turned in a way that’s not impossible but not exactly natural, so you can distinguish the fingers. The heads are sideways so you can see what a nose is.

Murch says that the way editing fragments space and people is arguable a means of achieving the same goal: showing everything in its most recognisable, or maybe most dramatic aspect.

The most extreme example of this might be Edgar Ulmer’s description of the German expressionists building a whole different set for every camera angle — something I doubt they ever did, at least not consistently. But, given unlimited resources, for that kind of look it might make sense.

Josef Von Sternberg writes in his memoir that when he was an assistant, his director told him to never arrange a chair onscreen in such a way that one leg was behind another, because it would look like it had three legs and some idiot in the audience would get distracted waiting for it to fall over. He seems to take this notion pretty seriously. I think it should be taken seriously but not literally — it’s not primarily a lesson about chair photography, it can apply to everything. Dress to camera.

And this leads me to Murnau’s important advice to Hitchcock: “Remember, it doesn’t matter what’s on set, only what the camera sees.” And my cinematographer friend Scott Ward’s dictum, “Nothing in film is any good unless you can photograph it.” That’s not wholly true, it ignores sound, and the things which can be suggested or inferred. But he said it in the context of a TV show where someone had proposed having four characters wear shiny helmets which would have reflected the entire crew and everything behind the camera, so I think he was definitely onto something.