Archive for Taxi Driver

The View

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 21, 2017 by dcairns

When David Leland’s lovely WISH YOU WERE HERE came out, he did a Q&A in Edinburgh and said the main difference he’d found between theatre and film directing was that “In cinema, there’s only one seat in the house, and it always has to be the best one.”

This is cute, glib, somewhat true, but worth unpicking. A director in the theatre has to consider what can be seen and heard by audience members scattered around the auditorium. In cinema, though obviously there ARE lots of seats, the view controlled by the director is that of the camera. The camera, Leland is saying, always has to be in the best position. But what IS the best position?

Looking at creatively directed movies soon demonstrates that the best position is not necessarily the most explicit view. Sometimes the camera withdraws somewhat to aid the emotional effect of the scene. Billy Wilder suggested that a character having an idea, or receiving terrible news, is best filmed from behind, enlisting the audience’s imagination, showing a certain discretion, avoiding cliché (the lightbulb over the head), and maybe saving the filmmaker from the impossible task of showing the unshowable (what should MacDuff’s face do when he’s told his entire family have been killed?)…

In THE PUBLIC ENEMY, and again in THE LIMEY, a massacre occurs inside a building while the camera waits, timorously, outside. Refusing to serve up the usual action shots creates an awe-inspiring sense of something too horrible to be seen. In TAXI DRIVER, Scorsese slides his camera off Travis when he’s on the phone to Betsy, preferring to show us the empty corridor down which Travis will inevitably walk once rejected. Mike Hodges pulled back from George Segal’s breakdown in THE TERMINAL MAN, feeling “It’s too painful,” and wanting to give the character some privacy. The suits couldn’t comprehend this choice, and wanted him to close in, to “show the emotion,” an approach Hodges found pornographic.

Choosing to conceal rather than reveal can be terrifically effective, and always indicates a creative filmmaker at work (unless it indicates pure ineptitude). I can sort of respect the choice even when I don’t think it works. In Peter Brook’s KING LEAR, he includes fairly frequent shots of the backs of people’s heads. He explained that in Shakespeare, there are moments when the words are doing everything and images would detract. (In the continuous longshot of the stage, this is less of an issue, apparently.) Brook didn’t feel he could just cut to black, but he and his cinematographer DID feel they could get away with filling the screen with a centrally-framed, often blurry, rear view of Paul Scofield’s cranium. They were dead wrong, and Brook is no filmmaker if you ask me. But it was certainly an example of creative thought in action.

(Why I don’t think it works: the blank walls of hair and scalp serve as interruptions; they make the audience wonder, futilely, what is going on; they aren’t incorporated into a blocking and cutting pattern; they distract from the words far more than simply holding the shot would have done.)

There’s a particularly great example of directorial discretion in George Stevens’ film A PLACE IN THE SUN. Montgomery Clift arrives hours late at Shelley Winters’ place. He was supposed to spend his birthday with her (his official girlfriend) but instead has been with Elizabeth Taylor. Winters feels miserable about being stood up. Clift feels miserable and guilty for doing it (but would totally do it again).

And Stevens films the whole thing from outside the room.

As the scene develops, the angle comes to seem, in a conventional sense, less and less adequate. When the characters sit, we only have Shelley’s back, a Brooksian lump of hair. By the end of the scene, both characters are almost entirely unreadable, you would think, Shelley still just a blind slab of back, Monty crouching on the floor, hidden behind her with just his hand in shot. Our expensive stars are turned away from the lens AND blocked AND tiny in frame. “Shoot the money” this ain’t. But as the awkwardness and discomfort of the scene mounts continuously, and is obviously the correct emotion, nobody could reasonably say the action isn’t well-covered. Stevens’ bold choice delivers the required feeling. And paradoxically, by showing discretion and averting our eyes from the angst-ridden subjects, he doesn’t protect us from suffering, in a way he elevates the agony. Big close-ups of blubbering faces are often so repellant that you’re prevented from pity by sheer revulsion. Wide empty frames enlist the imagination — in this case, the empty bed forms an accusing plain.

What makes this even more impressive is what we’re told about Stevens’ filming style. “He shoots in a circle,” they said, meaning that Stevens would start aiming north and film a wide shot and singles of different sizes of every character, then arc around the action ninety degrees and shoot from the east, repeating all the shot sizes, and then do the same for the other points of the compass, acquiring a colossal amount of footage, most of it useless as soon as he made his choice in the cutting room about what view he liked best. Incredible to think he began as cinematographer to Laurel & Hardy, who didn’t even rehearse.

In this case, either Stevens made a single bold decision before turning over a frame of film, suggesting that the conventional view of his approach is exaggerated or incomplete, or he went ahead and filmed every possible angle on this scene and, in reviewing the material in the cutting room, noticed that this take worked, sustained interest all the way through, and was better than anything he could get by cutting back and forth between different angles (meaning, presumably, he’d have had to cut the scene together a few different ways to be sure of this). Either explanation is hugely impressive to me.

I once read an article by Arthur Koestler explaining that computers would never be able to play chess. This was written decades before computers learned to play chess. Koestler explained that, since computers were not intelligent (which is still true), they could only attempt to play chess by considering every possible move, even the ones that make no sense and are instant suicide. “This is a very stupid way to play chess,” he argued. Since the number of possible moves increases as you project more and more turns ahead, and quickly becomes astronomical, Koestler argued, reasonably enough, that there would never be enough computing power to pull it off. Well, now there is, and I assume computers still play chess the same way, considering all the choices, but can really consider ALL the choices, so a good chess computer is just about unbeatable.

Stevens seems to have been trying to direct films the way computers play chess. And it IS, usually, a stupid way to direct films. Dump-truck directing tends to look bland, and just filming a wide shot and many many medium and close shots does not even guarantee that you’ve covered the scene. John Frankenheimer found that an ECU of a raindrop hitting a stopwatch was just the shot required to solve a huge storytelling/pace/continuity/weather problem on GRAND PRIX. The kind of thing that can only be attained by imagination, which is a fuzzy and chaotic approach, not a methodical one.

What blows my mind with Stevens is how he frequently got imagination to thrive within what would seem to be a rather arid methodology. Hats off!

Advertisements

The funny thing is, they make such damn good cameras

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , on January 16, 2017 by dcairns

silence-garfield-scorsese

Sorry for the, as usual, flippant title. We really liked Martin Scorsese’s SILENCE. It’s long but engrossing. The shooting choices are unobtrusive but shrewd and imaginative (all the shots from inside the cage!). The performances are marvelous, discounting the now-you-hear-it-now-you-don’t “Portuguese” accents (doesn’t matter). The photography is stunning — ALL photography seems to be stunning nowadays, but the intelligence behind this made it more than just pretty pictures.

It is a long film about apostasy, which not everybody cares about. I mean, religion is all nonsense to me, but I can get behind the issue of suffering for an ideal, whatever it is. (Nagging voice in head while the virtues of the Catholic faith are preached under torture: “Yes, but what about the Spanish Inquisition?”) My favourite Catholic film is THE DEVILS.

So we saw it in the refurbished Cameo 2, which has now been rotated 90 degrees so that instead of a long corridor-shaped room with a tiny screen, it’s a big screen with only three rows of seats. All the seats at the sides will give you a distorted angle, and the front row is too close, so I’d say there’s about ten good seats. The front row was empty (Saturday afternoon). So this one may not have the B.O. appeal of THE WOLF OF WALL STREET.

silence-martin-scorsese-andrew-garfield-adam-driver-liam-neeson-1-22-at-10-34-40-pm

Scorsese was a little perturbed when Sergio Leone told him “It’s your most mature film,” I think after KING OF COMEDY. To Marty and his friends, “mature” was a euphemism for “boring”. But while you could praise WOLF OF, as Fiona did, as being a young man’s film, the equivalent praise for SILENCE would focus on its, yes, maturity. But it’s not boring at all, it’s fascinating. And has a surer grasp of its subject and its world than KUNDUN did. I liked KUNDUN, but I found it a little unclear. Because there’s a lot of “Yes, but” when it comes to making a film about the heroic Dalai Lama, having to do with theocracy and so on, and this is all stuff the film very much doesn’t want to deal with. Like Howard Hughes being a horrible, horrible person — THE AVIATOR should really have been a lot more like THE WOLF OF WALL STREET.

In this case, omitting the church’s more horrendous side is acceptable, I guess, because it’s not part of this story. We might wish Scorsese would make a film about Catholicism’s dark side, a film which would be more current, and we might say how interesting that would be — but it would only work if Scorsese were interested in that story. And I guess he isn’t. Besides, by his aesthetic, you couldn’t make a film about, say, child abuse without showing it. That’s what he does with unacceptable images — he watches them and then forces us to.

SILENCE deserves to be seen — you’ll have a good time, I swear. It’s a top filmmaker at the top of his game, really engaged in what he’s doing. And the overhead shots from TAXI DRIVER and LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST are back (one early on, on the church steps, seems to have been lifted from Preminger’s THE CARDINAL) and this time, for the first time I feel they’re Hitchcockian — God’s POV. He may choose not to speak, mostly, but He’s watching.

The Invaders

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on June 14, 2016 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2016-06-14-10h43m27s610

Like something from a fifties B-movie, the invaders walk the streets of the Big City, cunningly disguised as humans. But they are sheeple, for this is SHAUN THE SHEEP – THE MOVIE.

Really liked this. Particularly impressive was the story’s avoidance of dialogue, with the animals using humanimal baas and barks, the humans communicated in articulated growls, the way they might sound to an animal. The movie references are fun too. Used fairly sparingly, and always with an eye to making it work for both kids and adults. Having a bus conductor look like Blakey from On The Buses is a harmless reference for adults of a certain age, and after all he had to look like something. Here’s one scene that’s very rich in movieness ~

vlcsnap-2016-06-14-10h47m07s591

Shaun has been “contained” by a modern version of the old dogcatcher villain figure, and taken to the Animal Containment Centre, which is portrayed like a prison in a Hollywood movie (harking back to Aardman Animation’s first feature CHICKEN RUN). Good dramatic sheep’s-eye view — the shadows are a nice touch too. Strictly speaking, to get a symmetrical effect, the filmmakers have taken the viewpoint of an empty space between Shaun’s head and the containment guy’s knee, but it’s what works visually.

vlcsnap-2016-06-14-10h47m11s500

This overhead ceiling track, recalling TAXI DRIVER, is included just for added impact — the pattern of light and shadow from the doorway seems to call for it. Then we get a series of trackpasts, simulating the prisoner’s viewpoint, of the various cellmates. SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is an obvious forebear here, but the individual convicts are also movie archetypes.

vlcsnap-2016-06-14-10h47m15s400

The tough guy. This always makes me think of the hissing con in RAISING ARIZONA, but that in itself was probably a reference to something else, even if just to our shared history of prison movie watching. For a little kid watching this movie, that history doesn’t exist — yet — but the moment still fully justifies itself as added suspense to SHaun’s terrible situation.

vlcsnap-2016-06-14-10h47m19s851

Working out. A bone makes a perfect dumbbell. Aardman’s use of props, always a key trademark of strong visual comedy, is extremely inventive, both ludicrous and logical. The choice of a poodle for this touch guy is inspired.

vlcsnap-2016-06-14-10h47m27s250

Hannibal Lector and his Collar of Shame. Oriental cats have a history of diabolical evil in the movies, going back to LADY AND THE TRAMP.

vlcsnap-2016-06-14-10h47m50s569

And somebody always has to play the harmonica. But how to make this reference amusing in its own right? Well, a goldfish playing a wind instrument is always going to be amusing, isn’t it?