Archive for The Aviator

The funny thing is, they make such damn good cameras

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

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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.

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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.

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Mondo Kane #2: News! On! The! March!

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Radio, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 5, 2013 by dcairns

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I am blogging my way through CITIZEN KANE, sequence by sequence, as if it was a movie serial or something.

Following the experimental opening sequence, as quirky and unique as Welles could make it, we get the newsreel, as deliberately anonymous as possible, thus providing the most jarring possible contrast with what’s gone before. So it’s the one part of the film not scored by Herrmann, instead using a swill of sources from the RKO library, including cues from Alfred Newman, Max Steiner, Roy Webb and Anthony Collins; and it’s the one part not cut by Robert Wise, since Welles felt nobody could duplicate the crazy-quilt cutting of newsreels, so they got RKO’s own newsreel department to hack the footage together.

Brazen fanfare and the stentorian bellowing of William Alland, whose future career as producer of Universal B-movies is prophesied by his role here as Shrill Mockumentary Man (THE MOLE PEOPLE isn’t a mockumentary, I know, but it does open with a scientist lecturing us. Alland’s pictures often pursued a factual veneer, but he never had the courage to do what Welles did in his radio War of the Worlds).

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LAST YEAR AT XANADU

The RKO newsreel department got a leg up in its craziness by the scenario, since the decision to divide newsreel exposition between VO and intertitles gives it a nicely choppy, arbitrary quality. When William Wyler prepared ROMAN HOLIDAY, he originally planned to open unannounced with a newsreel announcing “Princess Ann’s” visit to Rome — since Audrey Hepburn was an unknown at this point, audiences would have been taken in — Wyler wanted people to think the projectionist had put the wrong reel on by mistake. This was so successful at the special screening for the studio heads that a riot nearly broke out and Wyler reluctantly concluded that the idea was ahead of its time. Welles probably sensed that opening on News on the March would be a step to close to his recent radio controversy, so we get the avant-garde Xanadu bit first…)

The newsreel cobbles together VO, intertitles, stock shots (including a shot from DRUMS OF FU MANCHU), custom-scratched fake stock shots, celebrity impersonations (Roosevelt and Hitler), a mock-up of a Hearst press composograph (the photoshop of its day — as when they printed prison bars over an image of Fatty Arbuckle, a nasty gag later ascribed to Kane in his dealings with Boss Jim W. Geddes), much play with film speeds and jumpy splices, and mocked-up hidden camera footage. Most of these devices seem to be entirely new to motion pictures — when people bang on about the ceilings in earlier movies or Hawks’ use of overlapping dialogue in HIS GIRL FRIDAY, ask them about this. The only precedent I can think of for this is in the assemblages of experimental filmmakers like Joseph Cornell, or Adrian Brunel’s gag film CROSSING THE GREAT SAGRADA, neither of which Welles or his team were that likely to be familiar with.

I’d like to know more about where the stock shots originally appeared. But many of the shots which look as if they might be archive, turn out on closer examination to be specially filmed footage (all those crates labeled “KANE”) — by shooting fast and light, Welles seems to have been able to generate a vast resource of material for this movie, slowing down and employing a totally different aesthetic for the “real” movie.

Just as in OTHELLO, MR ARKADIN and the original cut of THE STRANGER, Welles begins by revealing all the “surprises” of the story, thus enhancing the sense of tragic inevitability, if you like, or perversely cutting off dramatic tension at the ankles if you don’t like. In fact, knowing the ending is no barrier to involvement, as anyone who’s watched the same film twice can tell you, so the effect is really to let the audience feel the emotion unencumbered by anticipation — we won’t be wondering what happens to the characters, will we? Even though Leland and Bernstein don’t appear in the newsreel so they should be spoiler-free, when we meet them we immediately see that one is in an old folks home and the other is chairman of the board, so that kind of suspense is out the window.

Welles was very young, but his considerable experience staging the classics had clearly taught him that foreknowledge is no barrier to feeling.

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“1941’s biggest, strangest funeral” takes place at the church from the beginning of RKO’s THE BODY SNATCHER, which is meant to be in Edinburgh and not in Xanadu at all. My assumption is the church set must have been constructed for some previous production, but I haven’t identified it. THE LITTLE MINISTER and MARY OF SCOTLAND, both RKO films with Scottish settings, would make sense, but the set appears in neither. Probably a movie closer to KANE in time would make more sense. LITTLE WOMEN?

Welles’ youth is carefully concealed in this newsreel — Kane appears only in middle and old age, since he was presumably not important enough to be filmed in his hot youth, and anyway movies were only beginning then. This allows us to feel that Welles only “really” appears during the Thatcher’s memoir sequence, where we see him young (wearing more makeup, Welles liked to claim, than when he’s aged to eighty). But there’s one brief dialogue scene where we see Kane the old duffer joshing stiffly with one of his own pressmen, kidding around and self-mythologising shamelessly (“We asked them quicker than that when I was a reporter,” — Kane was never a reporter.)

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The newsreel is as much about Xanadu as it is about Kane — he’s even introduced as “Xanadu’s Landlord” — as if the big house was what the public mainly cared about. But the Xanadu seen in the newsreel only sometimes resembles the  matte shot opening sequence. Like Kane’s life, the version seen here is a patchwork of different pieces of footage, some recognizable as specific buildings (eg Eastern Military Academy). Since KANE serves as a sort of prediction of the rest of Welles’ career, it’s easy to see this sequence as laying the foundations for OTHELLO and THE TRIAL, which owe much of their dreamlike, fragmentary atmosphere to Welles’ habit of joining together geographically separate locations by editing. Kuleshov would do a spit-take. Milk would come out of Kuleshov’s nose. The Xanadu that we actually see Charles and Susan Alexander living in is never suggested by the newsreel — assembled not from archive footage but from spare pieces from the RKO scene dock, it is a very different kind of dream composograph. My blog will have more to say about this later.

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“…a private mountain was commissioned and successfully built.” And if it had been unsuccessful? What does an unsuccessful mountain look like?

The brazen fanfare, so insulting to the ear when it’s first heard after Herrmann’s moody overture, is even more offensive crashing in as a response to “as it must to all men, DEATH came to Charles Foster Kane.” But while we’re still sputtering like Erskine Sanford in response to that outrage, Welles and Robert Wise teleport us out of the screen and into an RKO screening room with a series of giddy-making cuts, the first one being one of my three or four favourite cuts in all cinema, an 80º yank clockwise and to the right that repositions News on the March in perspective, rather like the No Trespassing sign  that began the film. There are a few, less-striking edits like this in the film — this one seems to suggest that we’ve telepathically skipped from the POV of an observer middle row centre to one front row far left of the screen. Movies can do visually what novels can do psychically — convey the point of view of one character then another, as if the author literally had the ability to drift like an invasive ghost into other people’s heads. Since KANE will show the life of a man from a variety of perspectives, this technique is oddly apt.

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And now we have our first proper dialogue scene, but Welles isn’t prepared to slacken the reins yet, so he keeps his entire cast mainly in the shadows. Crowding most of his principal actors (including Cotten and himself) into the cramped auditorium, he challenges us not to recognise them, capitalising on the fact that most of them aren’t familiar to movie audiences yet. Time has sabotaged this trick (played partly from necessity, as Welles shot the scene pretending it was a “test,” thus jumping the gun on his schedule and tricking RKO into greenlighting production before they’d had a chance to second-guess themselves) — Cotten’s braying southern rasp (“Rosebud!” — he just can’t get over the effeminacy of the thing) is much more familiar to us now. Robert Wise, called in to help grade the DVD, helped muck it up too, brightening the whole film “so we can see more.” And the Blu-ray, by dint of its very definition, reveals details previously obscure, so the joke is revealed. Deal with it.

Welles’ use of overlapping dialogue strikes me as more natural, more chaotic and less orchestrated than Hawks’ — not as anarchic as Altman’s (Welles didn’t have multiple mics and a portable mixer to draw upon) — there are places where he’s happy to have sheer hubbub, others where he knows he needs certain lines to be completely clear. The Hawks and Sturges approach merely allows actors to step on each others’ lines for maximum pace of delivery, whereas Welles is aiming for the real-life effect where not every word is audible all the time, adding verisimilitude as well as energy. Welles, of course, is no realist, and so his adaptations of reality end up commingling with surreal and expressionistic devices to create that curious nightmare effect we call Wellesian.

In the first group shot, Philip Van Zandt is so dimly lit that it’s only his incessant big cat pacing that let’s us know who’s speaking.

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Then he gets the God shot, borrowed by Scorsese for THE AVIATOR the light blasted by Toland from the projection booth into the smoky interior seems to crucify him. It’s a crazy vision of a screening room with no light switch, illumined by the glare of a projector with no film, bouncing off the empty screen, filtering through a fug of lung cancer. Those newsmen are all going to keel over at fifty facedown in their steak dinners.

Since almost everybody is a silhouette, the fact that Thompson, our bespectacled knight-errant, is barely visible and generally in three-quarter back view, doesn’t pop out as strange, and so it doesn’t strike us as odd when he stays that way for the whole movie. In William Alland, Welles had found an actor characterful enough to occupy a space on the screen, but bland enough not to take over too much of the audience’s consciousness. Alland felt the audience wondered if this unseen investigator was hiding something — why can’t we see his face? — is HE Rosebud? — but I never had the least curiosity about Thompson. He’s sarcastic enough to be good company (passive-aggressively needling a snooty librarian), professionally sympathetic when dealing with a drunk, and he asks the kind of ordinary questions Welles would spend a lifetime patiently fielding. That is all.

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Philip Van Zandt as newsreel producer Mr Rawlston is the first of the movie’s underappreciated stars, a sly, peppy and commanding Dutchman. Other Van Zandt roles you may have seen: in wartime, a bunch of Nazi soldiers, exemplified by the role of Thirsty German Soldier in COMMANDOS STRIKE AT DAWN; the important part of Undetermined Secondary Role (scenes deleted) in TARZAN’S DESERT MYSTERY; Muller, one of the few non-monster characters in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN; a Cartel Member in GILDA; for Welles again, Policeman/Thug in LADY FROM SHANGHAI; various roles for John Farrow who evidently liked him a lot; various Arabs, including one in HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE; Mr Jones (scenes deleted) in THE BIG COMBO, presumably exploiting his experience lurking in the shadows — maybe he strayed too far into the dark and vanished from the emulsion altogether; The Adventures of Dr Fu Manchu on television, apt, given Rawlston’s sampling of THE DRUMS OF FU MANCHU for his newsreel; Radio Program Director in THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS; The High Mucky Muck in Three Stooges short OUTER SPACE JITTERS.

Are you weeping yet? As Welles said to Leslie Megahey, “It’s no way to live a life.”

(If you want true tragedy, consider that the Australian actor impersonating Roosevelt died in January 1941, meaning he almost certainly never got the chance to see the finished movie.)

Rawlston shuns the light and vanishes from the film after just one scene, sitting in offscreen on a phone cal or two but otherwise troubling us no more. But let us doff our snap-brim fedoras at this unsung backroom bigshot — like James Bond’s M and Austin Powers’ Basil Exposition, he has served to kickstart our narrative — he has given us a Quest.

“It’ll probably turn out to be a very simple thing.”

Next Week: El Rancho

Like clockwork, like magic

Posted in Comics, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 12, 2011 by dcairns

HUGO is a film about books, movies, magic and clockwork. And work — life’s work.

It’s my new favourite use of 3D. It revives the 2-strip Technicolor look that was the best thing about THE AVIATOR, and returns to the long take aesthetic which informed Scorsese’s work before the rock ‘n’ roll fast-cutting of THE DEPARTED and SHINE A LIGHT. It’s set in a giant artificial period world like GANGS OF NEW YORK, and is at times more in love with that world than with its own story, just like the earlier film, but at least in this case the foreground story intrigues for the great bulk of the film.

Ben Kingsley returns from SHUTTER ISLAND, Ray Winstone returns from THE DEPARTED, and Jude Law returns from THE AVIATOR, none of which was my favourite Scorsese by a long way, but they’re good here, and Kingsley is T-riffic. The kids, Asa Butterfield and Chloe Moretz, are wonderful.

Old-timers! Christopher Lee, Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour. Frances was big on British TV in the seventies, starring alongside Leonard Rossiter (BARRY LYNDON) in a seminal sitcom called Rising Damp. Then she vanished. I presume she’s just changed her agent, because suddenly she’s in Tim Burton and Scorsese films. The business with the supporting players is lightly charming but not quite effective… they inhabit little REAR WINDOW scenarios of their own, but aren’t tied to the hero’s POV enough so they don’t seem germane. Although I like Kristin Thompson’s theory here that the sub-plots’ simplicity recalls early films of the Melies era.

Midway, Chloe M’s character sums up the plot: “It’s a terribly long story with a great many circumlocutions.” She’s right! Not everybody enjoys that, especially when the plot motor and pay-off are kind of slight. Fiona saw the film with our friends the Browns and Marvelous Mary, who really hated it. Since the Browns work in the film biz, I think their anger was focussed on huge resources being lavished on a movie with such a slight spine. Imagine little Asa Butterfield wearing a giant Transformers robot armature. They had similar doubts about GANGS OF NEW YORK, which has a really rotten plot and a similarly sumptuous environment (had Scorsese been allowed to follow the path of FELLINI SATYRICON and dispensed with narrative, what  amovie that could have been!). Fiona enjoyed the visuals, completely, but complained of the script.

She’s basically right, I have to admit. The dialogue is mostly flat — there are no memorable lines except those that actors invigorate with a lot of effort (Chloe Moretz is especially good at this and Kingsley is compelling as always) The plot is thin and the happy pay-off arrives for no entirely convincing reason. Scorsese has never been a fan of plot, preferring the loose, baggy structure of MEAN STREETS or the purely character-driven narratives of TAXI DRIVER and RAGING BULL. But those latter films are extremely tight, with everything happening because of who the people are — there’s no chance or contrivance or hidden revelations to provide artificial twists or accelerations. The apparent messiness of MEAN STREETS is in keeping with its imitation of messy, unstructured life. This is Scorsese’s first mystery, and the questions intrigue, but not every question has a satisfactory answer — I kind of expected some news about the hero’s father and uncle, but it turns out they weren’t part of the mystery. Spectacular dream sequences add pyrotechnics but don’t advance the story, which seems to be building to something bigger… and Logan really isn’t very good at building gags or action sequence, so things like the clock-hanging sequence tend to just fizzle out rather than building to a thrilling climax with developments and reversals and all that good stuff…

But 90% of the time, the plot had a fascinating effect on the children in the audience — the narrative purpose of a scene could be very slight, but as long as it was there, they sat hypnotized. You instantly got fidgeting when the scene turned out to be just about some kind of character moment. But they sat there for two hours and the fidgeting only happened for about four instances of ten seconds apiece. I contrasted this with the kid at TINTIN who tried to climb over the seat backs in front of her. There’s a revelation here about pacing and children — children’s movies have been hyperkinetic for ages, and crammed in all the stuff they assume kids like — farting and monsters and pop music — and it turns out that an effect of intense concentration by the filmmaker can produce the same thing in a young audience. Scorsese may have saved a generation of parents from ever having to suffer through ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS: CHIPWRECKED. If more filmmakers learn from the rhythms of HUGO, things could be very different.

As the Self-Styled Siren says in her loving review, this is glorious 3D, and likely to win over even those who generally dislike it. What excites me is that we’re actually learning more about how to use the gimmick, something that barely happened in the 50s. In HUGO, 3D discovers the power of the close-up. Seemingly, TANGLED achieves some of this, but I’ve only seen it flat, on BluRay (it’s GOOD). Here, there’s a shot of Sacha Baron Cohen leaning slowly in, filmed from a low angle, which has a funny and ominous and freaky effect. A track-in on Ben Kingsley near the end is magisterial. Those faces hover there, giant and blimplike, eerie in the way the Kingdom of Shadows was eerie to the earliest cinema-goers. The reference to the first audience’s panicked reaction to the Lumiere’s TRAIN ARRIVING AT A STATION ties it all together neatly. 3D isn’t an add-on, here, it’s part of the story, part of the film’s essence. And the drifting snowflakes and cinders are beautiful, the aerial perspectives of the station are spectacular, and every frame seems to bristle with potential discoveries. Robert Richardson’s partnership with Scorsese as DoP is something to be grateful for for two reasons: his luminous lensing enhances Scorsese’s films, and it keeps him out of the clutches of Oliver Stone.

I recalled a line from Our Town: “Oh, I can’t look at everything hard enough!”