Archive for Segundo de Chomon

The Sunday Intertitles: Let Slip the Dogs of War

Posted in Dance, FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , on July 9, 2017 by dcairns

Here’s something I enjoyed again in Bologna — it’s a collaboration between director Segundo de Chomon (Spanish FX genius) and producer Giovanni Pastrone, who previously collaborated on CABIRIA, for which SDC constructed the world’s first purpose-built camera dolly.

I take this film a bit more seriously than some. Made during WWI, on the surface, the movie is fairly Boy’s Own Adventure, with clean-limbed massacres and an uncomplicated portrayal of the Italian forces as good and their Austro-Hungarian opponents as bad (minor-key war atrocities: kicking a woman when she’s down). The stop-motion animation set-piece in the middle has dolls coming to life as in TOY STORY and restaging the War as slapstick. The dolls are indestructible and can even disassemble themselves without suffering.

But I think it’s kind of an anti-war film. First, in the framing story, we see a child being traumatised by his father’s letters from the front, to the point where he has a nightmare about it all. He awakens in distress. The depiction of the war itself is one-sided, simplistic and heroic, as it had to be during WWI, but it at least makes the conflict look dangerous and stresses the peril to innocent civilians.

Then comes the fantasy sequence. By interpolating a title that says one doll is decent, clever and noble and the other is stupid, vicious and lazy, Chomon then gets away with making them completely indistinguishable. Since censors, like critics, are usually more susceptible to words than to the narrative assembly of images (they pounce on SPECIFIC images but are frequently tone-deaf to their cumulative effect), they would be quite satisfied by this.

The battles of Trik and Trak don’t really develop much, since neither character can be harmed. They just escalate, until the war takes over a whole miniature landscape. The amazing program of Il Cinema Ritrovato (a fat BOOK bulging with great writing and glossy images) credits Chomon with superimposing flames and smoke, which is correct — he does so at 35.48, but only briefly. Mostly, he simply cuts between animation and live-action puppetry, allowing his pyrotechnics to go off in real time. It’s really seemless and well worth analysing in detail.

Here’s some random notes I found on my phone, scribble-typed during the Fest ~

Lumiere films. Movie was supposed to be about Milanese boatmen but as they rowed past strenuously in the foreground, our eyes were seized by a tiny figure on the distant bank, tumbling and pratfalling crazily to no obvious purpose. The first photobomber?

Also included was a train exiting a tunnel (one of the staples of entertainment circa 1897), but we were spared the obligatory serpentine dance, listed in the program but screened elsewhen instead.

Though later we were treated to a dog doing a serpentine dance, the greatest thing ever. Shown in a program on Colette, who liked dances and dogs. (Yes, some of the program really is that heroically random.)

It wasn’t this film. THERE’S MORE THAN ONE. The Bologna movie was much more epic. The scene opened on a row of wee dogs on little podiums (podia?) lined up along the bottom of the picture. Then the dancing dog (and trainer? If so, I’ve erased him) totters on, arm extensions wafting its diaphanous gown, real front legs jiggling together at chest level within the confines of its robe like the strange, rigid breasts of Pamela Anderson.

Did the dog enjoy its terpsichorean efforts, or was every pawstep an ordeal? We’ll never know for sure.

 

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The Sunday Intertitle: Bava Lava

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 30, 2015 by dcairns

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I’m finally reading Tim Lucas’s magisterial Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark. I can’t fault the scholarship — few filmmakers are lucky enough to get books as exhaustive and considered and respectful as this. It’s all the sweeter since Bava was such an underrated artisan in his lifetime.

I wouldn’t dare to contest Lucas’ unparalleled expertise in this subject, but one little bit where I think he’s not quite right gave me an idea for today’s piece.

The book not only examines Bava’s directorial legacy, it probes into his work as cinematographer, and also provides as full an account of the career of his father, Eugenio Bava, cinematographer and visual effects artist of the silent era. Lucas examines the legendary CABIRIA, whose effects are jointly ascribed to Bava Snr. and the great Segundo de Chomon. Chomon usually gets most of the credit, and Lucas thinks this is probably unfair — he claims Chomon’s effects “were usually rooted in the principles of stop-motion animation.” In fact, I think it’s going to be impossible to make any calls on who did what, other than that we are told Bava Snr. built the model Vesuvius. Chomon’s imitations of Georges Melies’ style saw him performing every kind of trick effect known to the age, to which he added the innovation of stop motion, cunningly integrated into live action sequences. I think it’s fair to say than any of the effects in CABIRIA might have been the work of either man.

Lucas goes on to focus on one spectacular shot of the erupting volcano, a composite in which the bubbling miniature shares screen space with a line of fleeing extras and sheep (do the sheep know they’re fleeing? Perhaps they’re just walking). Lucas notes that smoke pots in the foreground, placed near the extras, waft fumes up across the model volcano, which makes him think the shot could not have been achieved as a matte effect. He deduces that the volcano was filmed through a sheet of angled glass, one corner of which was brightly lit to reflect the extras.

I would suggest that the shot is in fact a pure double exposure, with no mattes. The volcano is dark apart from the bright lava. The shot of the extras is also dark apart from the extras, sheep, and smoke. Double exposed on the same negative, the bright parts register and the black parts stay black. Thus the white smoke can drift up through the frame, appearing transparently over both the darkness and the bubbling Bava-lava.

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More examples of this effect: at the end of Cocteau’s LA BELLE ET LA BETE, two characters fly off into the sky. The highlights on their figures cut through the superimposed cloudscape, but the shadow areas become transparent, phantasmal, in a way I don’t think the filmmakers intended; and in CITIZEN KANE, Welles crossfades slowly into flashback, with Joseph Cotten remaining solidly visible long after his background has disappeared, a trick achieved by fading the lighting down on the set while keeping Cotten brightly lit — no matte was needed, and had Cotten puffed on one of those cigars he was talking about, the smoke could have drifted across the incoming scenery, provided a sidelight picked it out of the darkness.

Lucas’s reflection trick, a kind of Pepper’s Ghost illusion, would have anticipated the more refined Schufftan effect by more than a decade (Eugen Schüfftan used mirrors to combine miniatures with full-scale action within the same, live shot on METROPOLIS) and Lucas suggests that Mario Bava resented this claiming of an invention his father had anticipated, and makes his disapproval known by including a character called Schüftan in his movie KILL, BABY, KILL. Since I don’t believe Eugenio anticipated Eugen in this technique, I think we can say that the use of the name Schüftan for the film’s heroine is more of an affectionate tribute to a great cinematographer, effects artist and a near-namesake of his dad.

Quibbles aside, I repeat: this is an amazing book.

The Sunday Intertitle: Playing War

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , on January 11, 2015 by dcairns

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LA GUERRA E IL SOGNO DI MOMI (1917).

Giovanni Pastrone (CABIRIA) and Segundo de Chomon, the Spanish special effects genius, collaborated on this strange, wondrous and possibly wrongheaded attempt to show the First World War as imagined by a child safe at home while his father is at the front.

Chomon was a pioneer not only of mixing animation with live action, going one better than Melies whose films only SEEM like cartoons, he built the first camera dolly, and this movie features several elegant and beautiful tracking shots, reframing the action and enhancing the emotion.

Pastrone’s battle scenes are exciting and sophisticated in their use of film language (and are all embedded in the action as flashback scenes from a letter home).

The weirdness comes from the juxtaposition of these off elements. The live action war pays lip service to humanism while serving up the typical endangered women and children, ravaging huns, and righteous avengers who put everything right in the end. This was seems to have no real costs.

The animated was is sheer spectacle too, though we’re told that it’s the product of a child’s imagination after he’s been distressed by vivid accounts of warfare, The mass destruction IS kind of disturbing in spite of the funny puppets and Thunderbirds explosions, though. Robbed of the expressivity of human beings, these toy soldiers behave like automata, “only following orders,” their faces masklike and set in inappropriate dopey smiles. I guess the overall effect is as conflicted as you could hope for in a movie made while the war was still stuck in bloody stalemate. It can’t be anti-war because it adopts a simple goodies and baddies perspective, but it manages to avoid being overly enthusiastic about violence.

Its noblest aspect is that it fails as propaganda.