Archive for The Criterion Collection

Tish Tash

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on January 19, 2022 by dcairns

Newly forthcoming from Criterion — Frank Tashlin’s rock ‘n’ roll live action cartoon THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT. I was delighted to be asked to celebrated the film’s widescreen colour photography (by Leon Shamroy) in a visual essay edited by Stephen C. Horne.

Bad timing prevented me from including the following passage:

Hired to shoot a test of Janet Gaynor for The Young in Heart, Shamroy was disgruntled to learn that other cinematographers were competing for the job. While the great Karl Struss took twelve hours to light his test, Shamroy knocked his off in twenty minutes, and got the job.
Shamroy was gruff, short-tempered, and had a high opinion of his own skill: “Lee Garmes will never see the day that he’s as good as I am, and that goes for anybody in the motion picture business,” he declared. He only acknowledged one possible superior talent: “God was a great photographer. He’d only gotten one light.”

So here it is for you to enjoy.

The disc streets in April.

Saw some NEW films this week — look out for reactions to THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH and LIQUORICE PIZZA, both of which I substantially dug.

The Oeuvre

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on July 20, 2021 by dcairns

The stack of discs I’ve worked on now comes up to my lower lip.

All my DVD and Blu-ray extras, listed:

Indicator Noir #3 — THE DARK PAST (Rudolphe Maté) — text essay

KOSMOS (Andrzej Zulawski) — Kino Lorber — short video essay

For the Criterion Collection, first the text essays:


DAY FOR NIGHT (Francois Truffaut)

THE 39 STEPS (Alfred Hitchcock)

Pierre Etaix box set (essays on all the films)

Jacques Tati box set (essays on all the films)

THE EXECUTIONER (Luis García Berlanga)

And now the Criterion video essays:

A HARD DAY’S NIGHT (Richard Lester) incorporating interview with Lester

CARNIVAL OF SOULS (Herk Harvey) featuring Fiona, Stephen R. Bissette and Anne Billson


SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS (Preston Sturges) featuring Bill Forsyth

THE LADY EVE (Preston Sturges)

GOOD MORNING (Yasushiro Ozu)

ONE-EYED JACKS (Marlon Brando)


GHOST WORLD (Terry Zwigoff)

and LOCAL HERO (Bill Forsyth) interview with Forsyth

For Arrow Films, text pieces first

RIFIFI (Jules Dassin)

INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (Philip Kaufman) featuring interview with Kaufman


SO DARK THE NIGHT (Joseph H. Lewis)

LOST IN PARIS (Dominique Abel & Fiona Gordon)

The noir box set featuring DARK MIRROR (Robert Siodmak), THE BIG COMBO (Joseph H. Lewis), SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR (Fritz Lang) and FORCE OF EVIL (Abraham Polonsky) features a text essay on the Siodmak, and visual essays on the Lang and Lewis.

on to video essays now:


THE COMEDY OF TERRORS (Jacques Tourneur)



THE APARTMENT (Billy Wilder)

The Marx Bros at Paramount, two video essays, one on the films, one on the brothers


BICYCLE THIEVES (Vittorio De Sica)

THE SHELTERING SKY (Bernardo Bertolucci) with Fiona

MAJOR DUNDEE (Sam Peckinpah)

Weird Wisconsin: The Bill Rebane Collection feature-length documentary WHO IS BILL REBANE?

Jules Dassin: Tales from the Urban Jungle features a unique commentary track on THE NAKED CITY and a video essay on BRUTE FORCE, with Fiona

For Eureka! Masters of Cinema, starting with the text pieces

Dr Mabuse DVD box set (Fritz Lang), short piece about Lang’s toy monkey, Peter

A LETTER TO THREE WIVES (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)

MADAME DUBARRY (Ernst Lubitsch)

Lubitsch in Berlin, two pieces

IF…. (Lindsay Anderson) featuring interview with Brian Pettifer


FEDORA (Billy Wilder)


THE GANG’S ALL HERE (Busby Berkeley)

SECONDS (John Frankenheimer)

I did two video intros, under protest:


TOO LATE BLUES (John Cassavetes)

Video essays for MoC follow:

MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA/Dziga Vertov box set


DIARY OF A LOST GIRL (GW Pabst) narrated by Fiona

Fuller at Fox: video essay on all Sam Fuller’s Fox films (save CHINA GATE, alas), featuring Samantha Fuller




THE FATE OF LEE KHAN (King Hu) with Anne Billson



Buster Keaton Complete Shorts

Buster Keaton 2

Buster Keaton 3

A NEW LEAF (Elaine May)



DER MUDE TOD (Fritz Lang)

HOUSE/HAUSU (Nobuhiko Obayashi)

Early Murnau box set

THE SON OF THE SHEIK (George Fitzmaurice)

KWAIDAN (Masaki Kobayashi) with Fiona

THE GOLEM (Paul Wegener & Carl Boese) with Fiona

THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (Paul Leni) with Fiona



THE HANDS OF ORLAC (Robert Weine) with Fiona

Coming soon: JOHNNY GUITAR (Nicholas Ray) and THE LOVE OF JEANNE NEY (GW Pabst), the latter another collaboration with Fiona.

So, apparently Masters of Cinema have been our most prolific employer and I’ve done more on Fritz Lang than on anyone else.

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…