Archive for Scorsese

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.”

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…”