Archive for Sullivan’s Travels

Legit Video Essayist

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

This is the complete-to-date heap of discs I’ve contributed video essays to, for Criterion, Masters of Cinema, Arrow and Kino (just the one, on Zulawski’s COSMOS). More are on the way and then there’s some that are purely online, notable the Anatomy of a Gag series for Criterion, which there will be more of soon.

I was quite anxious when I made my first piece for Arrow’s release of Roger Corman’s THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER. I wanted the thing to have a style of its own and not to be just a text essay read out flatly with images from the movie run under it. But I wasn’t sure how to make sure it was more than that. I tried whispering the VO but the producer kindly told me the effect was ridiculous. I had two ideas for all-visual sequences, one where we cut together all the mood scenes where Corman’s camera wanders around the house, and one where we dissolved all the exterior matte paintings of the house together to create a kind of time-lapse image of the mansion by day, by night, in fog, on fire, and finally crumbling into the tarn. And I read in bits of Poe’s source story. The rest of the time it was basically a text essay read over film clips, though they were at least edited to make them appropriate to what was being said.

A HARD DAY’S NIGHT gave me a wealth of material to work from — the film, lots of stills, behind-the-scenes footage shot by the BBC, film of the premiere, clips from later Richard Lester films, and then an audio interview with Mr. Lester which had to be cut in a couple of weeks before the deadline. Having additional material helped turn the piece into a mini-documentary, and the feedback from producer Kim Hendrickson was always helpful, but it was something Lester said that solved my worries about the form. He advised me not to directly illustrate what was being said, but to aim for oblique connections. Or maybe he was just talking about his own preferred approach. But I think it gave him a physical pain whenever I matched an image directly to a word. And I should have known better.

One that’s pretty direct that I still like is when the VO, spoken by Rita Tushingham, explains that Lester never used a shot list or storyboard, he just carried the film in his head, and I accompanied this with a rear view from the BBC footage of Lester operating a hand-held camera, the magazine beside his cranium. That’s pretty close to an illustration — it has FILM and HEAD in it — but I like it because it accompanies an image you can’t literally show photo-realistically, of a man holding the thought of a sequence in his mind.

A good review from the film dept. technician at college.

From then on, I started writing my VOs without regard to what the images would be. If you assume there will be a suitable image, you can always find one. Or maybe you end up cutting a sentence or two. But the editor’s code states, as I understand it, that there will always be a solution to any editing problem. You just need to look hard enough. So an account of C.T. Dreyer’s childhood for the forthcoming Blu-ray of MICHAEL gets illustrated with one of the film’s few urban exteriors (connecting pretty flatly to the word “Copenhagen” even though the shot is probably a wintry Berlin), a face at a window (played in reverse) and a pan across an array of dolls. An anecdote about HB Warner playing Jesus Christ for Cecil B DeMille which I decided was useful for my piece on THE APARTMENT started life with a series of stills from the movie, but when MGM nixed that idea we used a shot from the movie in which a guy dressed as Santa Claus appeared right on cue when the messiah was mentioned. I liked the effect.

I think literal connection is better than no connection at all, but the human mind is always making connections, so the real danger is not a lack of connection but the confusion of false connections. After the new year we’ll be returning to a work in progress where a line about an actor’s early, unsuccessful work needs changing so it doesn’t play over a later, successful one, even though there’s a nice metaphorical link between the image and the sentence.

I showed a bit of the Vertov set (bottom left) to students, and one said, “Is this, like, a legit DVD extra?” in an impressed voice.

Sometimes the VO deals with biographical info and background, if I know it or can research it. That’s sometimes the most fun, because you end up cheekily matching images from the film at hand with facts only abstractly connected to them. Close analysis of the film-making technique presents a different challenge, because often what I say takes longer than the clip at hand, or jumps about in time. Often my long-suffering editors Timo Langer and Stephen C. Horne do the hard work here, subtly changing the timing of the sequence to make it fit the VO, or else we might blatantly rewind, speed up or slow down the footage to make it overt.

I always like to bring in a director’s other work, if we can do it by fair use, or public domain works, or other films the distributor owns. Combined with stills, this can get you closer to the feeling of a true documentary, it enhances the production values.

My pieces for talkies are usually longer than the ones on silents because I drop in lines of dialogue from the movie. This is maybe too much like a TV clip-show, and maybe it can get illustrative again. I’m a little wary of it, but at the same time it can be amusing and I enjoy finding lines to take out of context and give fresh undertones to. What I need to remind myself to do is use wordless clips from silent films in a similar way. I’ve also added sound effects into silent movies, a technique I would generally disapprove of if it were done to the movie itself but which I give myself permission for in video essays. DER MUDE TOD has guttering candles, CALIGARI has creaking hinges. And I got Timo, who’s German, to read a couple lines in for that one also. I got Fiona to narrate DIARY OF A LOST GIRL. I should have got her to do DER MUDE TOD too: her voice sounds more serious than mine.

With CARNIVAL OF SOULS we had a whole array of public domain industrial films made by director Herk Harvey’s company. The trick was to use them amusingly but not condescend to the material too much, not make fun of the filmmaker. I also recorded audio interviews with critic and novelist Anne Billson, cartoonist Steve Bissette, and Fiona again, in her capacity as horror screenwriter. These had to be recorded over Skype, so we alibi’d the audio quality by cutting to radios and jukeboxes from the movie whenever these voices were going to come in. We did the same with Groucho biographer Steve Stoliar for Arrow’s Marx Bros at Paramount box set.

Finally, for a forthcoming piece with Randall William Cook, we worked it so that we both had recording devices going on opposite sides of the Atlantic so both halves of our conversation were recorded well, and just had to be synched up. But then I cut all my lines anyway.

With Bill Forsyth things were technically easier: I was able to record him in the same room for Criterion’s SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, and then Stephen actually filmed some original material indirectly illustrating a story about recording the movie off the TV on audio tape in the days before video. We’ve filmed a few more things since then.

For Masters of Cinema’s forthcoming release of Nobuhiko Obayashi’s HOUSE, I made an animated main title. I haven’t done any animation in twenty years, but I was inspired by a story about Obayashi’s beginnings as a filmmaker. Actually, I just traced the hand-drawn title in different colours with different patterns, and Stephen scanned the pages, flipped them into negative and we cut them together in time with the movie’s soundtrack. I really enjoyed that and I want to do more of it.

But another part of the operation has been Danny Carr, who made titles echoing Lester’s graphics to accompany the A HARD DAY’S NIGHT piece. Then he created an amazing animated title for the SULLIVAN’S piece, ANTS IN YOUR PLANTS OF 1941, in the style of a 1941 cartoon. Since then, I’ve had him disassemble the graphic grids of Ozu’s GOOD MORNING so that the pastel panels slide off the screen like, well, like sliding screens. We’re working on something else now…

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Hopalonging

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on September 15, 2017 by dcairns

“If you pandered to the public you’d still be living in the horse age.”

“You think we’re not? Look at Hopalong Cassidy.”

“YOU look at him.”

You probably know this one, if I know you. SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS. Joel McCrea (centre) is arguing with his bosses about the new picture he wants to make, O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? He has the first line and last line quoted, and Porter Hall (right) has the middle one.

The OTHER producer (left) is Robert Warwick, pictured below IN a Hopalong Cassidy picture. Sturges was hving a laugh, as was not unusual for him.

Ad you may have noticed, I’ve been watching a lot of trailers lately, otherwise I might never have discovered this in-jokery. I’ve never seen a Hopalong cassidy film (though I’ve seen a couple starring William Boyd, who played him). My dad, as an excited schoolboy, got to MEET Hopalong.

Warwick had an interesting life. Apart from being in the first HOPALONG CASSIDY, he had been a silent film star and for-real ran his own distribution company. As a jobbing actor in talkies, he would do literal walk-ons for Sturges as well as playing more substantial roles. In NIGHT LIFE OF THE GODS he plays Neptune in a toga and we discover that, My God, Robert Warwick is Really Buff.

The truth, the whole truth, and nothing like the truth

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 29, 2017 by dcairns

Why did it take us so long to watch TRUE CONFESSION? Maybe, being a part-time auteurist, I let it sink down the viewing pile on account of director Wesley Ruggles not being a Big Name, but he’s talented, certainly in terms of creating a comic rhythm and marshalling marvelous performances. Screenwriter Claude Binyon was involved in numerous W.C. Fields films, which helps explain the shaggy dog feeling we get.

Carole Lombard is a pathological liar married to a painfully honest lawyer, Fred MacMurray. Who keeps believing her, despite her having the world’s greatest poker tell (her tongue thrusts compulsively into her cheek as her eyes open wide with sudden inspiration). And despite the fact that he pretty much always finds out she’s lied. How long have they been married? What attracted them? They’re a bit like Burgess Meredith and Mrs. Meredith in that Twilight Zone episode. The only thing they have in common is complete opposition.

Of course, we’re meant to recognise that MacMurray’s refusal to defend guilty clients (like Herbert Marshall’s in THE GOOD FAIRY) is madness, idiocy, worse than Lombard’s mythomania. It’s part of the subversive nature of screwball that the hero’s goal is usually misguided, like Joel McCrea’s terrible invention in THE PALM BEACH STORY or his terrible film in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS or, most awful of all, Dick Powell’s coffee slogan in CHRISTMAS IN JULY. So we’re kind of rooting for the hero to succeed at something that deserves to fail.

Lombard ends up a murder suspect due to circumstances beyond everyone’s control. The detective at the scene, by some cruel cinematic fate, is Edgar Kennedy, the very worst possible person to have to deal with Lombard. No man was more prone to exasperation. Within seconds of meeting her he’s resorting to trademark gestures, wiping the sweat of his bald head with his pudgy hand or slapping it into his face and holding it there as if trying to shut out the mad, bad world and the mad, bad woman. At the crime scene, he’s apoplectic, and even Carole’s friend, Una Merkel, the one sane person in the film, is driving him crazy, because she’s trying to make him recognize reality. And reality is the craziest thing of all.

At the station house, Lombard drives him crazier still, as they run through various scenarios which might explain why she killed this guy. He’s seriously proposing explanations, but really he’s just trying to find something they can agree to so that the wheels of justice can roll on. She’s just trying out scenarios — she’s an unpublished author (but Merkel says nobody can believe any of her stories because the characters are all crazy). Finally, they hit on a simultaneous confession/defence which can see her walk free if the trial goes well — she was defending her honour. Carole likes this one just as Roxie Hart does.

Now Fred re-enters and persuades Carole that a guilty plea is the only way out of this. He’s waiting to be convinced it’s the truth, so she obligingly confirms it. Now this innocent woman is on trial for a murder she didn’t commit, to which she’s confessed. And presumably the real killer is still at large.

When we see Edgar Kennedy again, at the trial, the poor man is in shreds. Having to go through his encounters with Carole again in the witness box is bringing it all back. It’s like he has post-traumatic stress just from conversing with her. Being in a screwball comedy is a never-ending nightmare to him.

We also get, for sheer gratuitous pleasure, the testimony of the coroner (Irving Bacon), who can’t seem to sort out his words. “I entered and saw the defendant… I mean the deceased, lying on the floor… I mean the rug. I examined the rug… I mean the deceased, and found two bullet wounds in the leg… I mean the head…” And Porter Hall (a Sturges favourite) as the prosecutor, who grips the bar of the jury box and bobs up and down in a frenzy when reaching one of his many climaxes.

There’s also John Barrymore. But at this point we don’t even know why. He keeps turning up, arguing with his bartender (Lynne Overman, one of a number of players with delightfully cracked voices, Merkel being another) or taunting Lombard in her cell, but his purpose in the film remains mysterious until the end. Barrymore was enjoying a new career in screwball (TWENTIETH CENTURY, MIDNIGHT) and his final decline comes in conjunction with that genre’s fade-out in the forties. We can also say that in the screwballs, Barrymore is in command of the joke, though it’s a tough struggle, and in PLAYMATES (1941) the joke is on him (picture it squatting on his chest as he expires, like the imp in Fuselli’s nightmare). He’s playing a disreputable drunk in this one, and there’s certainly an uncomfortable lack of distance between actor and role — stubble further softens the disintegrating Great Profile, a too-tight white jacket makes a gunnysack of his torso — but the eccentricities are so designed, we know there’s still a working mind organising all this. The high-pitched giggle, the rising inflection on the mantra “She’ll fry,” the echoes of Mr. Hyde in the glances to the side and the wafting claws…

This all got Fiona & I feeling like we’d missed out on some good screwballs. So welcome to Screwball Week on Shadowplay — I’ll be interrupting it on Monday to bring you the latest installment of THE PHANTOM EMPIRE, but otherwise, at least seven days in a world of drag, madness, irresponsibility, corruption and romance.