Archive for Scorsese

Three-Dimensional Chess

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 6, 2020 by dcairns

I read Walter Tevis’s The Queen’s Gambit years ago and loved it. His other filmed books, The Hustler and The Man Who Fell to Earth are great too, and made good movies but the books are still worthy of investigation. The Color of Money doesn’t really have anything much in common with Scorsese’s film and you can see why they chose a different story (“but the book had a very good love story,” said Scorsese in Edinburgh, which was nice of him to note). And there’s an unfilmed sci-fi novel, Mockingbird, which is really beautiful.

I’ve also been impressed with Scott Frank’s stuff — he adapted Elmer Leonard for Soderbergh (OUT OF SIGHT — still maybe SS’s best movie) and from the audio commentary on that one you could tell he was going to direct, and probably be really good at it. And THE LOOKOUT, his first film, was terrific. Like all the promising middlebrow genre filmmakers of his generation, he did time in the Marvel salt mines but the one he wrote, LOGAN, is said to be GOOD. I wasn’t paying attention and thought A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES was just some Liam Neeson movie so I skipped that but now I have bought a DVD of it for 50p because WOW Scott Frank’s miniseries of The Queen’s Gambit is a beautiful thing.

From my memory of the book I can affirm that the CGI visualisations of chessboards are pretty much what Tevis wrote. It’s very faithful though some melodrama early on is removed, which I came to accept as a good call. Though maybe Tevis gains something by making his heroine more damaged.

I can’t recall the clothes in the book — I had a vague impression that Anya Taylor-Joy is more glamorous than the Beth Harmon who Tevis gave us, but I’m probably misremembering. But boy, ATJ is a magnificent screen presence. Her glamour is increasingly weird and witchy so she’s a credible outsider. In fact, everyone in this is terrific, down to the smallest roles — each minor player defeated by ATJ, for instance, is a little one-scene cameo and they’re all uniquely human and different.

Photography, design, music, cutting, are all weapons-grade delicious, and as the story moves through the sixties Scott allows himself a subtly evolving stylistic palette that reflects developing film language of the period without ever becoming pastiche. You don’t see more surefooted choices than this. He could maybe have taken some of them even further, but his caution is probably part of the reason why he hits absolutely everything he aims at.

Nothing negative to say about this show at all, it may be the best American film or “film” of the year.

A bit of a character

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 23, 2019 by dcairns

I showed a bit of PERFORMANCE to my students last week as part of a class on filming dialogue — I wanted to show them how interesting and experimental they can get.

The clip got a lot of laughs! The performances do go right to the edge of caricature, but Roeg & Cammell’s framing and cutting are so eccentric that they also invite a knowing response.

The coverage starts off almost conventionally in the establishing shot. There are some freeze-frames, though, accompanying a stills photographer’s flashbulbs — looks like Scorsese picked up on this. Certainly Paul Schrader has cited PERFORMANCE as a particularly good movie to steal from, and a back-to-back viewing with MISHIMA will confirm this.

James Fox’s Chas gets told off by his boss, with accompanying yes-men, while Anthony Valentine, his erstwhile victim, gloats. (Really appreciated Valentine’s work in TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER and THE MONSTER CLUB when we podcasted about those).

Once we start seeing closer angles, though, things get weird. There’s an in-your-face quality that’s nightmarish — the lens is wide and the actors are uncomfortably close. It does have an alcoholic quality — that moment when you’ve had a few and you suddenly notice how funny everything looks and feels.

As the scene progresses, the shots and cutting both get more fragmented: Roeg’s framing cuts off parts of faces in a most odd way, reducing characters to mouths or eyes:

When we see Chas, the angles are closer, more centred, lower. The effect is to isolate him from his surroundings. Close-ups and low angles can be used to confer strength, but not here:

Chas breaks into a sweat, and his eyes dart around the room.

Now, Cammell attested that in collaborating with Roeg, he took charge of the actors and Roeg handled the camerawork, and this worked very smoothly. My first geuss about the scene was that maybe the two filmmakers were diverging in their intentions, resulting in the shots feeling really wacky.

But James Fox’s eye movements convince me this is quite false: the crazy angles are actually a subjective rendering of what he’s experiencing, a sort of panic attack, coupled with a dissociation from reality, and a kind of ADHD distracted hyperfocus. Chas is seeing things very clearly, but only in a jumble of bits.

At one point, Cammell and Roeg surprise us by cutting to a b&w photo of a limbo-dancing violinist, then zoom out to catch Anthony Morton in profile. Throughout the scene, Morton freaks us, and Chas, out, but delivering his lines either right down the barrel of the lens, or off into the void.

A similar dissociating effect occurs earlier when everything fades into bluish monochrome and seems to go far away:

Quite scary, in fact. With a change of lens, some experimental colour grading, and rearranging the furniture in the office, the filmmakers have turned the room into one of REPULSION’s distorted nightmare spaces.

That photo on the wall is probably one of the filmmakers’ little connections — tying us to the idea of performance, which is mentioned in the scene (Chas, who “puts the frighteners on flash little twerps,” is a performer whose role is to terrify) — anticipating the musician character we’ll meet later — it also ties up with the photographer and his flashes, and with the b&w subjective imagery from the office scene. The sudden cut to the photo also makes us think a new scene has begun, before the zoom-out reveals that we’re still trapped in this one.

The lesson is, Be bold!

Youthification without Youth

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on November 22, 2019 by dcairns

I really really like THE IRISHMAN and want to see it again.

Consider the trilogy, now — GOODFELLAS (youth); CASINO (middle age); THE IRISHMAN (old age).

Consider the peculiar mix of brilliance and craziness in Scorsese’s use of the de-aging technology, or what he calls “youthification,” and its effects.

It certainly wouldn’t be the same film with a younger actor wearing old-age make-up for the older scenes. First, there’s the history of De Niro on the screen and our relationship with his image, and his relationship with Scorsese and our memories of their previous collaborations.

Casting an older actor and making him younger tells us what the film’s priorities are: having a 100% real old De Niro is more important than having a 100% real young De Niro.

After half an hour I stopped paying attention to what they had done digitally to the leads. I was always slightly conscious of it, I suppose, but it in no sense distracted me. One of the advantages of having a long film.

Since this tech is evolving, I wondered if this pioneering example will come to look embarrassing in a few years. I sort of suspect that even if we see more perfect de-agings in future, our reactions to this one will be fairly consistent… we’ll notice that something has been done, and then we’ll get used to it as the film goes on.

They haven’t recreated the young DeNiro of TAXI DRIVER or even GOODFELLAS. They have removed some lines from De Niro’s big, twenty-tens face, creating a whole different appearance. I guess they wanted him to look as much like his current self as possible, only a good bit younger. Our noses and ears grow as we age, De Niro has put on some weight, gravity has pulled at that weight. The effects people don’t mess with any of that, they just remove the obvious marks of aging. I *think* that’s a less distracting choice than recreating a specific De Niro or set of De Niro’s from the past. If we suddenly saw Travis Bickle or James Conway or Max Cady’s face, I think it would be startling, distracting, TOO MUCH of a callback to the actor and filmmaker’s shared history.

And certainly this is an amazing advance comparing it to the Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher fails in ROGUE ONE and most of the other stuff I’ve seen which attempts comparable tricks. And De Niro can act through it.

Some have pointed out that they can’t make De Niro move like a young man. Apparently, they had a movement coach on set all the time to help with that. But a guy in his seventies doesn’t move that way out of choice, it comes naturally. Some people retain youthful movement, some do not, and I would think it’s a very hard thing to assume once it’s gone. But, though De Niro’s walk does not put you in mind of a younger man, it didn’t seem to me impossible that a forty-year-old or whatever might walk like that. The guy’s a truck driver, I’m not expecting Fred Astaire. So I noted it for what it was and didn’t let it bother me.

So, what’s been done with De Niro and Pesci (magnificent), then, makes complete sense, allowing us most access to them, with least visual interference, when they’re old.

In a way, what’s been done with Al Pacino makes no sense at all. And yet I can’t complain.

Pacino never plays Jimmy Hoffa in his seventies — the man disappeared (and we learn a convincing version of what may have happened to him) in his early sixties.

Of course Pacino isn’t Hoffa’s German/Irish-American mix any more than De Niro is an Irishman. And they haven’t tried to digitally make Pacino look like Hoffa. The lines in the movie about how Hoffa isn’t really remembered too much anymore are the filmmakers’ “out” letting them ignore the character’s historical appearance. Again, he’s a de-aged version of the actor who doesn’t look like Pacino did in his forties, fifties or sixties.

While we may bemoan the supposition that Scorsese could only get this movie made via Netflix, it’s a remarkable testimony to his influence that he could get ANYONE to sign off on this extremely expensive and untested approach whereby an actor who is too old for the part will be altered to fit, when casting a younger man would self-evidently be easier, cheaper, more natural, safer, and more likely to assure commercial success (though of course the combo of Pacino + Scorsese + De Niro is more marketable than Pacino is by himself). It’s a piece of casting that flies in the face of everything — and Pacino is the most entertaining actor in the film (with Stephen Graham as his main foil a close second) and you wouldn’t ever want to see anyone else in the part.

In fact, just as Pacino brings a blast of energy into the film when he arrives (and his tendency to explode if very well used here, no complaints about overacting from me), the effect of his departure is equally striking — a lot of the life goes out of the film, De Niro gets even more muted — his phone call to the widow is one of the greatest things he’s ever done — and there’s nothing left but the slow, inexorable slide towards senescence and death.

Catherine Scorsese to her son from her hospital bed: “Well, we were put here to suffer.”