Archive for Robert Redford

Ski Bums

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on March 21, 2015 by dcairns


After enjoying SMILE so much, I resolved to watch more Michael Ritchie movies — he seemed kind of like a benign Altman. It took me a while, but I finally ran DOWNHILL RACER (1969), a movie I remember being on TV when I was a kid. I could never get into it then, and it’s obvious why when I look at it now. It’s mostly non-verbal; it doesn’t reinforce its visual moments with talk; the characters emerge very slowly; hardly anything is stated overtly; none of the characters is ingratiating. These aren’t narrative tactics calculated to appeal to a kid. Plus it was about sport, and I hate sport. But I now take the view that what a film is about, its surface subject, is irrelevant to its quality, so I watch war films and sports films if they seem interesting, despite my distaste for those particular forms of competitive activity.

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I also remember an interview where Bill Forsyth said that all stars have their self-imposed limitations, and the example he used was Robert Redford, who had never played an unsympathetic part. Well, I frequently find Redford unsympathetic but I realize I’m not meant to. But I would hold DOWNHILL RACER up as an example of RR playing a character mostly defined by negative qualities: he’s arrogant, anti-social, a dangerous driver, not a team player. He’s not a villain or even an anti-hero, he’s just a protagonist with few attractive qualities. The movie succeeds in fairly minimalist ways — we are minimally bothered about whether Redford’s pompous skier will take home the gold, but we’re sort of intrigued about what sort of a journey he’ll go on as a person, since there’s no shortage of pressure on him to reform his ways.

The lack of talk is really striking — much of what’s said is just chatter, especially that engaged in by sports commentators and journalists. The skiers exchange meaningless pleasantries. Redford fails to bond. It’s over an hour before anyone makes an actual speech. The honour falls to coach Gene Hackman. Via the DVD extras we learn that editor Richard A. Harris deliberately included some of Hackman’s slight line flubs, to emphasise the character’s emotion and to maintain the documentary realism achieved elsewhere by Ritchie in the ski footage.

The skiing is great — it is actually one of the sports I find less offensive. It happens amid pleasant scenery and it doesn’t make a lot of horrible noise, though the commentators do. Almost every other sport occurs in a horrible environment or is very loud, often both. Here, they’ve dispensed with the shonky rear projection which plagued such sequences in older movies (and some later ones, shamefully) and they have the kind of spectacular crashes which you often see on TV sports coverage but which rarely figure in movies, because movies can’t afford to break too many legs. Here, Ritchie filmed the actual races, and whenever there was a particularly painful and flamboyant tumble, they would make sure they costumed one of their actors in matching duds so they could work the sprawling athlete into their narrative.

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Ritchie understands that each skiing sequence needs to be different (as each fight is subtly different in RAGING BULL) to avoid ennui. He holds back on the amazing POV shots (wide-angle lens footage taken by their lead skier, tips of his skis in shot, snow rushing past at such velocity that by the time an ordinary mortal like you or I have taken in an onrushing bump, or a snowman, or a tree, or a small child, we would have skied right through it.

Harris cuts together really snazzy montages of preparation, too, giant closeups of tiny fastenings being adjusted, and the sound design has all these tinny tink, pting, klick sounds, which, spread apart with very soft wind underneath, create a kind of abstract, low-key suspense that’s somehow more deeply worrying than the bombastic kind (Harris also cut for James Cameron up to TITANIC).

Really nice work — pure cinema, seventies style, before the seventies had actually started. I guess in that decade, things might have ended more darkly, but the WAY in which Redford achieves his inevitable victory is really neat, and pretty dark too.

Sacred Spaces

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 1, 2014 by dcairns

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Bologna — have relocated to the city centre, and am averaging five screenings a day. Met Kristin Thompson, David Bordwell, Jonathan Rosenbaum and Kevin Brownlow. Life is good!

Report from Edinburgh:

CATHEDRALS OF CULTURE is subtitled A 3D FILM PROJECT ABOUT ARCHITECTURE or something, a weirdly prissy title (is a “film project” different from/better than a “film”) and what it is, is a series of half hour portraits of important buildings by an international group of filmmakers. Since there are six half hour pieces, it’s quite long, and like all compendium films it’s a mixed bag, but none of the films are boring and there is one real stand-out.

Rather unfortunately, several of the filmmakers have had the same idea, writing a voice-over for the buildings so they can narrate their own stories. It’s a cute idea, done once. Michael Glawogger breaks the pattern by assembling a collage of Russian literary extracts; Redford uses a series of audio interviews, new and archival. Dispensing with talk altogether might have been a welcome innovation for somebody.

Despite this being Wim Wenders’ second work in 3D, after PINA, he continually tracks forward through the Berlin Philharmonic (a genuinely grand, innovative and consistently surprising structure), which weirdly cancels out the effect of being in a 3D movie. Forward tracking shots look like 3D already. Lateral ones, diagonal ones, and indeed stationary ones are more suited to exploiting the stereoscopic effect. Still, the space is stunning and about half of Wenders shots do it justice.

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Robert Redford struggles to find enough angles on the Salk Institute, which offers only one real vista, a challenge to legendary cinematographer Ed Lachman’s inventiveness. Margreth Olin has the benefit of dance performances to shoot at the Oslo Opera House, but her constant freeze frames and shifts into black and white mar rather than enhance the experience.

Michael Glawogger’s camera drifts through a vast library, recalling Resnais, and finding a few striking effects with the curving aisles of books and flickering fluorescent lights. But visits to the Pompidou Centre and other noble institutions risk being purely celebratory, a difficult attitude to sustain with interest for three hours.

The filmmaker who understands 3D best here is Michael Madsen (not the actor), perhaps because he’s also a cinematographer. His portrait of a Finnish prison manages to surprise with every fresh angle, the bleak but beautiful whiteness of the structure perfectly captured in crisp, calm frames which nevertheless brim with unspoken tension. By choosing the least overtly “cultural” building, Madsen also avoids preciousness, a slight concern elsewhere. The voice-over, recorded by the prison’s psychologist, adopts the viewpoint of various sections of the institution: the perimeter wall, the chapel, the cottage for conjugal visits, and most disturbingly, the isolation wing.

In Hazard

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on January 3, 2014 by dcairns

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In Telluride, I had two contrasting experiences of Robert Redford — one was seeing him in an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour programmed by Pierre Rissient — the barely-formed Redford on display was subtly out-of-whack, not yet blandly handsome, but actually odd-looking, with tiny slitty eyes — but he gave an excellent performance — the other encounter was actually brushing shoulders with the Great Man himself at a brunch in the mountains. Suddenly seeing him up close was startling — the distractingly youthful hair and the post-handsome famous heaped incongruously underneath it.

But in ALL IS LOST, the oddities of Redford’s appearance totally work, and he looks spectacular, rugged and rumpled and defiant. He’s the only actor onscreen apart from one stray body part I shouldn’t spoil for you, he’s the only voice we hear apart from a very brief snatch of radio talk in a foreign language and a song in the end credits, but he barely speaks during the whole movie — I guess about a dozen words, max. He doesn’t even have a character name: the credits, which are full of quirky details and worth staying for, helpfully let us know that he’s called “Our Man.”

Our Man is on a yacht somewhere off Sumatra (odd, how you spend ages not hearing about Sumatra and then two references come along in 24hrs — Mark Gatiss’s episode of Sherlock the previous night referenced The Giant Rat of Sumatra, that favourite unwritten Holmes adventure) which gets punctured by a huge floating metal container full of sneakers (oddly, the title of a 1992 Redford film). The rest of the film is Our Man fighting leaks, electrical short-outs, inclement weather (forgive the understatement) and possibly an angry God. By being so minimalist — J.C. Chandor, who made the acclaimed MARGIN CALL, doesn’t even use music for the first long chunk of the action — the movie positively invites allegorical readings of this kind, but smartly holds off on tips which might lead us one way or another. Is Our Man a symbol of America, masculinity, mankind — is the film about mortality, and is ALL really LOST?

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The Arri Alexa Raw is unforgiving at close range and we become intimate with every crack and blemish in the ancient mariner’s once blank and beamish face — and that landscape, nudged around from within by the subtle thoughts and concerns animating the actor’s mind, becomes an engrossing spectacle as fascinating as the blue depths full of gleaming fish that arc beneath his ruptured vessel.

Just as the debate around AMERICAN HUSTLE and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET takes the unproductive form of “Which is the better Scorsese film, the one by Scorsese or the other one?”, ALL IS LOST gets paired with GRAVITY, and different people find each film more thrilling. I was definitely more excited by the thrill-ride of GRAVITY, but I did get a visceral, tactile response to ALL IS LOST (the film sports plenty of visual effects, which I couldn’t tell from reality, but there’s plenty of real ocean too — whereas essentially nothing in GRAVITY is photographically real except the actors’ faces, and there’s room for doubt with those) — as the storm whipped up, I felt the need to put on the jumper I’d just taken off because I was too warm. Now, it could be that some wily cinema manager has the air conditioning timed to the film’s plotline, but I prefer the more psychological explanation in this case — and that Skywalker sound, with every raindrop distinct, really does get under your skin.

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