Archive for Roman Polanski

Mail Anxiety

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 10, 2018 by dcairns

There’s this really interesting dream sequence in THE MARRYING KIND. Your basic anxiety dream, easy to interpret. Disgruntled postal worker Aldo Ray swept some loose ball bearings out of sight at work rather than clearing them up properly, and he’s worried they’ll cause an accident. Under the influence of too many cocktails, he feels his bed turn into a post office conveyor belt bearing him from his bedroom to the post office, which turns out to be an adjoining space —

   

That’s the best bit. The many ball-bearings that come scooting out to meet him are cute, but Cukor’s use of a single shot to travel from reality into dream, and the evocation of that weird spacial dislocation unique to the dream state (see also, Welles’ THE TRIAL, where the back entrance of the artist’s garret opens onto the law court offices; “That seems to surprise you,” lisps the artist, staring glassily).

It’s almost as good as the bed that becomes a car in Pierre Etaix’s LE GRAND AMOUR. Though our dreams typically see us leaving our bedrooms far behind with no hint of how way found ourselves elsewhere, movie dreams seem to benefit from keeping the idea of the bedroom in play — hence all those movies where the hero is in his pajamas to create surrealistic contrast with whatever scenario he finds himself wrestling with, and hence also Polanski’s use of bedroom sounds — breathing, the alarm clock’s tinny tick — to accompany his own uncanny dream sequences.

“If I ever had to do hell in a film,” Cukor told Gavin Lambert, “– no, not quite hell, let’s say purgatory — the New York post office would be the perfect setting.”

Cukor didn’t get to do many dreams, alas. He wasn’t likely to get many films noir, being a prestigious as he was, and the other genre associated with dreams, the musical, just didn’t lead him that way, unless you count his brief involvement with THE WIZARD OF OZ. A DOUBLE LIFE is his other hallucinatory one.

I really like that THE MARRYING KIND is a realistic comedy with a dream sequence. People in realist movies so seldom dream, and yet in ACTUAL reality, we all dream a lot. That’s why I like LOS OLVIDADOS better than anything by Ken Loach, even though it’s more depressing. Bunuel’s poor people still dream, though their dreams, as shown, are even more upsetting that Aldo Ray’s ball bearings.

Oh, maybe worth making a comparison to another Columbia picture —

   

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The Scottish Play

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , on May 12, 2018 by dcairns

I borrowed William Packard’s book The Art of Screenwriting from the college library to see if it was worthwhile. Interesting passage where he takes the first scene of Macbeth, the witches’ meeting, and fleshes it out into screenplay form. A worthwhile exercise.

The scene looks like this in the original play.

ACT I  SCENE I  A desert place.
[Thunder and lightning. Enter three Witches]
First Witch When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
Second Witch When the hurlyburly’s done,
When the battle’s lost and won.
Third Witch That will be ere the set of sun. 5
First Witch Where the place?
Second Witch Upon the heath.
Third Witch There to meet with Macbeth.
First Witch I come, graymalkin!
Second Witch Paddock calls. 10
Third Witch Anon!
ALL Fair is foul, and foul is fair:
Hover through the fog and filthy air.
[Exeunt]

Packard does things like adding EXTERIOR, though oddly he doesn’t give a full slugline (EXT. HEATH – DAY or should it be NIGHT?) and adds some scene-setting description. He sets the action in the aftermath of the big battle{“broken swords, armor pieces litter the ground”), which seems to me to fly in the face of strong textual evidence that the witches are meeting before the battle, or anyway before it’s finished. But some kind of addition is necessary since Shakespeare doesn’t give us any scenic description — even the sparse exits and entrances provided in the text were added by other hands (so, sadly, we can’t credit the Bard with “Exit, pursued by a bear.”)

Then Packard adds parentheses to each of the first lines ~

First Witch (cries out) When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
Second Witch (quickly) When the hurlyburly’s done,
When the battle’s lost and won.
Third Witch (knowing) That will be ere the set of sun.

I don’t really see the point of that (and I normally LOVE parentheses) and you shouldn’t really add so many hints to the actors. Leave the director something to do.

Other action seems under-described. Shakespeare has his witches crying to their offstage familiar spirits, Graymalkin and Paddock, which are presumably meant to make some sound, but Packard doesn’t mention this. Maybe the spirits’ sounds are only audible to their respective witches, but that seems to me missing a trick.

At the end, he has the witches “vanish into nowhere,” but I feel here he’s leaving too much room for interpretation. There are a lot of ways of vanishing into nowhere.

Packard notes that the scene being short, it’s unnecessary to trim it, but *I* note that didn’t stop Polanski and Kenneth Tynan, who couldn’t resist ending the scene on the hero’s name, thus cueing the main title. Welles also ends the scene on his character’s name, as well as trimming the lines “Where the place?” and “Upon the heath,” which unfortunately makes “There to meet with…” less sensible. But changing plays into films often involves lopping off entrances and exits, since these can to make things seem stagey: Polanski allows his weird women to wander off, stressing their mundanity as he did with the Satanists in ROSEMARY’S BABY, whereas Welles just ends the scene on the clay homunculus — a touch of voodoo — birthed from the boiling cauldron (his witches are evidently flame-retardant, which must come in handy for them).

I thought I’d have my own stab at it scripting this scene,

EXT. CAVE MOUTH, MOUNTAINS – DAWN

A barren expanse of rocky mountains. Thick fog rolls across the peaks. In the foreground, a cliff ledge juts out.

On this outcrop, a small fire smolders at a cavern mouth  Round it huddle three ragged, withered old women. One of them gets to her feet.

FIRST WITCH: When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning, or in rain?

Another looks into the fire.

SECOND WITCH: When the hurlyburly’s done, when the battle’s lost and won.

The third woman throws handfuls of dirt onto the fire and extinguishes it.

THIRD WITCH: That will be ere the set of sun.

The seated witches stand.

FIRST WITCH: Where the place?

The other witches are wandering away separately along the mountain ledge.

SECOND WITCH: Upon the heath.

THIRD WITCH: There to meet with Macbeth.

An uncanny feline noise echoes across the mountains, catching the First Witch’s attention.

FIRST WITCH: I come, graymalkin!

As she disappears into the fog, her silhouetted figure is abruptly snatched upwards, like a rag doll, rising into the mist until she vanishes.

A bizarrely loud frog croak echoes from the other direction.

SECOND WITCH: Paddock calls.

Her shape is likewise snatched up from view.

THIRD WITCH: Anon!

She vanishes the same way, as if yanked on a string from above. We follow her into the fog bank, swirling clouds billowing past us.

ALL (V.O.): Fair is foul and foul is fair, hover through the fog and filthy air.

And then maybe we could break through the clouds and soar down over a battlefield or something as the title appears. Hopefully, this is a scene the reader can visualise, with drama and cinematic interest. I haven’t done anything original with the witches’ appearance, as Polanski did, but I think the manner of their exit suggests something spooky and interesting about their relationship with “graymalkin” and “paddock.” But I’d be interested in any suggestions readers may have.

Unmastered

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on May 2, 2018 by dcairns

How does he do it? In the book Cut to the Chase, Polanski’s editor Sam O’Steen talks about Polanski’s tendency to not always shoot masters. The master shot is the wide shot that covers the entire scene and establishes the space and where everybody is. There are filmmakers who ONLY shoot masters — Polanski has been known to play out entire scenes in single shots. And there are directors who tend not to shoot masters. Even though he made ROPE as an experiment in long takes, Hitchcock was famed for his “damned jigsaw cutting,” assembling his scenes from fragments that don’t cover the whole action. Close-up of one actor saying one line, close-up of someone else reacting, a hand, a landscape, a POV.


Polanski does something that seems even riskier. I flashed on the opening scenes of CHINATOWN, neither of which offers a true establishing shot or a master. Polanski doesn’t prove to us that Curly (Burt Young) and Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) are inhabiting the same space in scene 1, even when JN passes BY a whisky. He relies on eyelines and dialogue overlaps, plus there’s some movement of the curtains behind Gittes that suggests the distressed Curly has gone from trying to eat the Venetian blinds (just installed Wednesday) to clutching the drapes.

Polanski MAY have shot something showing the two men in one frame, but he cut it out, jumping ahead to Curly’s exit from the outer office, which finally shows both characters together. Then Gittes gets the news that “Evelyn Mulwray” (actually Ida Sessions, an impostor played by Diane Ladd) is waiting for him in another office.AGAIN, Polanski cuts his master-shot in two — making it no master at all.

As you’d expect, the scene begins with Gittes entering — but Polanski doesn’t show this at all. We hear it, and Sessions and the operative she’ been talking to look up. That’s it.Then we see Gittes in a separate shot, with another op behind him. These guys are chosen to contrast with Gittes and thus help characterise him. One is oldish, to emphasise Gittes’ youth, the other is a crass gum-chewer, to point up Gittes’ slickness. Incidentally, this guy is standing as Nicholson enters, for no reason at all — except to allow us to see him in a shot that’s framed to show a standing man. The height of the camera position is midway between Gittes and Sessions, so it looks down on her and up at her, and this helps tie the shots together. Not much else will.

At this point, there’s a pleasing mirroring, with Gittes screen left, Sessions screen right, and the ops positioned opposite.Now, as Sessions spins her tale about her husband cheating, Gittes and his op each cross the screen, the op going behind his desk, Gittes heading for a chair. Polanski had to stage all this carefully because O’Steen has to cut for key dialogue and reactions, but also to keep track of the men’s movements, otherwise you get an INCENSE FOR THE DAMNED teleportation situation.When Gittes pulls up a chair, the camera descends to sitting level, pulling in until Nicholson’s head almost hits the lens, and settling into an unusual composition: Gittes gets little nose-room, and his op is now positioned behind him. When we cut back to Sessions, the camera is lower and closer to match Gittes’ shot, a change so subtle it’s almost unnoticeable, but essential to create a sense of matching. And now we have the shot/reverse shot pattern that will prevail for the rest of the scene. Sessions’ close-up is a little bigger, and her op is screen right, just like Gittes’, which means she has all the nose-room she could wish for, and even space to wave a gloved hand with a long cigarette holder.And that’s IT for this scene. Polanski never shows the two main characters together in one shot. He never establishes the office in a wide (perhaps because that would tend to make it look like a set). He never gives Sessions’ op a shot where he’s in focus. (Gittes being slightly further from the lens, mostly, means his op can be acceptably sharp when he gets his one line.) We tie the separate images together in our mind’s eye and it feels like a coherent space and scene.

The right way to shoot a scene (or *A* right way) is generally the most economical. Not just because time is money, but because in a scene shot with economy, the audience senses that everything they’re shown has a purpose. Polanski has just covered a long, talkie scene involving four characters with just three set-ups, one of them involving a small camera move. (It’s always possible that the two Sessions angles were once joined together by a small move two, which would make the scene two set-ups long, but I’m certain this wasn’t the case. Polanski knew he would be on Nicholson for that reframing.) In its quiet, no-nonsense way, the result is radically different from the standard master-and-two-singles approach often used as a cookie-cutter by unimaginative directors.

Now, imagine this scene in a big Hollywood film today.