December 31, 2008

simple cinema pleasures

I like:

-low angle shots -- Orson once said something like "I just think everything looks better from down there." One of hundreds of things we agree on.

-deep-field shots -- for simple subjects, long shots are best (anything closer than a medium shot should be used only sparingly), but complex subjects and deep focus are better than everything.

-dynamic, fluid rhythm -- I love a subject, a camera, and (most importantly) an idea in motion; a film ought to ride the wind.

-understatement -- especially in story and character; instead of swelling music, instead of a bold, romantic skyline, instead of a long, impassioned declaration of love, the characters ought to kiss quickly and get on with their lives. One (overstated) example, I could name thousands more.

-a comic sensibility -- when you can comprehend all the suffering and nothingness of humanity, finding something to smile about can be the most difficult challenge of all. Perhaps it is the only worthy challenge of art.

December 29, 2008

Worthless update

I feel obliged to write something, although I have nothing to write about.

I have become more involved with my new viewing project than I had originally expected. Most people write lengthy reviews and opinions while doing something like this, but in my growing distaste for writing and taste I have adopted a no-opinion rule. Doesn't seem that important. So no new writings will come from there, I suppose.

I might try to write something about city films to help me with my project for next semester. Still have quite a bit of research to do.

Otherwise I will continue searching for something to write about. Or a reason to write at all.

December 17, 2008

Esfir Shub

by Aleksandr Rodchenko (?)

December 10, 2008

Scene from "The Dawn Patrol" (1930)

(Testing out Blogger's video upload capabilities; hope it works.)
Scene: A WWI squadron; 7 planes on patrol, 3 of them with men for whom it was their first time going over. 2 of those 3 would never return. The 3rd is tremendously shaken. Leave it to the veterans to cheer him up...

Verses are:

We meet 'neath the sounding rafters,
The walls all around us are bare;
They echo the peals of laughter;
It seems that the dead are there.

So stand by your glasses steady,
This world is a world of lies.
Here's a toast to the dead already;
Hurrah for the next man who dies.

Cut off from the land that bore us,
Betrayed by the land that we find,
The good have gone before us,
And only the dull left behind.
Apparently this was really sung by RFC pilots.

December 07, 2008

A brief complaint against Borzage

My last post might suggest I have nothing but praise for Borzage's films, but that's not true. To be fair to myself, I want to complain about something that bugs me about Borzage: religion.

Because he was working in Hollywood and making movies for a mass audience, his films had to be secular to ensure a profitable run. That's one of the nice things about Hollywood and something I have seen few people comment on. Occasionally, however, Borzage's religious feeling slips through and I can't help at times but feel alienated, frustrated, and offended.

There are minor religious moments that I can overlook--Chico's frivolous re-acceptance of God because of his survival in Seventh Heaven (1927), for instance, or much of the thematic symbolism in A Farewell to Arms (1932). But Strange Cargo (1940) is nearly a sermon on faith that hits enough false notes of enlightenment to make the film an enormous wince in my memory; and The Mortal Storm (1940)... well, these are the lines that close the film: "I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year, 'Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.' And he replied, 'Go into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than any known way!' "

The whole of The Mortal Storm is about the persecution a family faces under Nazi Germany, and it ends with a heavy, tragic note. It is a bitter plea for life and tolerance, but that final quote subverts the entirety of the film's message. The Nazis are no more than people of blind faith, believing their leader to be the way to power and enlightenment--after attacking this blind faith for an hour and half, the film openly suggests to adopt another blind faith.

The rest of the film is wonderful, and had the ending suggested "Be a light unto yourself" instead of the blind faith nonsense, I would be drooling over it today. But as it stands, the ending is something of a betrayal, and it makes me deeply uncomfortable.

Undoubtedly it is Borzage's faith that gives him the refined sensibility I spoke of. I can overlook it, perhaps, because that sensibility is not exclusively reliant on faith. In fact, I more often associate faith with a radically different and terrifying sensibility, so it is refreshing to see one who is more genuine than his religious peers. It is when Borzage openly suggests faith that he seems to me his least consistent, betraying his thematic interests, even if he is sincere in this faith.

I must say that I am thankful for a secular Hollywood.

Frank Borzage through "Little Man, What Now?"

The first exchange of dialogue in Little Man, What Now? (1934) is what caught my attention and immediately drew me into the film. It is raining, and camera moves in on Pinneberg, the protagonist, as he waits in front of the office of a gynecologist. On the street, a man is giving an impassioned speech for a small and ambivalent group. A stranger approaches Pinneberg:

Stranger: You like the soapbox orator, young man?
Pinneberg: I can't even hear what he's saying.
Stranger: Ah, just as well. I heard him. He said that the rich are too rich and the poor are too poor. And he's going to change things--he's going to make the rich too poor and the poor too rich. He's going to change God's work!

In its opening minute, the film captures the problems of the outside world and the social conditions of our couple and dismisses it all. "Nothing much wrong happens to the peaceful man," the stranger says in the office shortly afterwards. Although the rest of the film is driven by the problems posed by tough social times, bitterness and aggression are not responsible solutions--social hardship is not important. What is important?:

Love, of course. This romantic solipsism is what so powerfully draws me to Borzage's work and what he is famous for. It is by love that man conquers the world, not by hate. But fostering love is difficult when the world conspires against it--this is the prototypical Borzage theme and wonderfully exemplified in Little Man. Our couple struggles to rise above the social tragedies they face; when Pinneberg is being interviewed for a job, he says this to his potential employer as he pleas for a position:

Pinneberg: I don't want to walk the streets, Herr Lehman.
Lehman: Many are walking the streets these days.
Pinneberg: Yes, I know. I'm afraid of the streets.
Lehman: The streets? Or of yourself?

Poverty breeds hate and malice. It is not poverty Pinneberg fears but the feelings that come with it; he values his love and peace and fears that he will become a man of anger and resentment. This is Borzage's central conflict. Love is our triumph, however low the world may bring us (be it to sewers or shanties). Borzage's world is thus not just a proclamation of love, but a deep understanding of social dilemma and a philosophy of progress. The handling of social issues is something I greatly admire in Little Man. There is a clear sense of morality and tolerance. My favorite touch is the socialist character Heilbutt, who not only gives a passionate and awesomely concise speech in favor of his fellow workers, but who also becomes the savior of our couple at the end as they are simultaneously within their brightest and darkest hour.

Perhaps what most attracts me to Little Man, What Now?, and to Borzage's work, is the sincerity of the characters. Generally, the more characters proclaim their love with words, the less I believe and understand that love, but there is a balance of words and action and an understatement of conflict (perhaps because of the theme of personal triumph) that makes a Borzage love wholly sincere. When Pinneberg and Lammchen are in the woods, or at the carousel, or in the park, there is an overwhelming sense of honesty, a feeling that the conflict, however minor, is real, a liberating knowledge that the connection between them is genuine.

It is innocence. This sincerity is true of minor characters, too; a character's motivation does not need to be continually questioned or assessed. They are straightforward and simple and clear. This is also true of Borzage's filmmaking, and I love it. Borzage's is a rare and delicate sensibility, one that truly believes in love's powers. It is not cynical, it is not ignorant, it is not doubtful, it is not arrogant, it is not overstated, it is not defeated--it is sincere. It is wonderful.

[Borzage box in several days! I will have to wait a few weeks before I can get my hands on it, but having exhausted most of what is available on home video I am ecstatic for this set.]

December 04, 2008

First Live-Blog

OK Lauren. I'm doing a liveblog after your example. It is a very cold afternoon and I have nothing better to do than watch several movies hanging around my comp. I know I should do more with this, but it'll just be a rather dull running commentary on movies nobody is ever going to watch. Useless. But maybe fun.

1. British Sounds (1970)
This will obviously be like all the other Vertov Group agit-prop I have swallowed: long periods of boredom and a drifting mind interspersed with a few moments of wild curiosity, all in a very small, very pretentious package. Let me have it, Godard. Maybe liveblogging will give me something to do while I am bored.

It is a bit past 3 PM. Start.

3:09. Credits. Fist punches through the British flag which has the title (British -Images- Sounds). I am amused.

3:12. Car assembly line. Slow tracking shot. Loud work noises occasionally competing with a narrator spouting Communist lines about workers and the bourgeois. Already bored.

3:18. Some well-expressed thoughts on the worker and communism. But the original shot is still going.

3:21. I wonder if Godard considers himself a worker in the same way the people on this assembly line are workers...

3:24. Oh, I hate it when Godard does this: multiple sound tracks for revolutionary narrators. Guh. But there is a naked woman wandering on-screen now. Hmm... but perhaps the assembly line was more interesting.

3:26. Proletariat vs. Bourgeois eroticism.

3:32. The Pro-Capitalist reporter with the gap in his teeth is quite an artless touch.

3:40. FORD USA = FOR US. Interesting.

3:42. What are these guys talking about? I've been watching them for awhile now. Impossible to concentrate. I suppose that's the point.

3:45. The workers on the car assembly line can't afford the cars they make. These guys are cool, I see.

3:50. Students writing a song about Mao. Hopefully I'll never sink so low.

3:54. 'If a million copies of a Marxist/Leninist film is made, it becomes Gone with the Wind.' Lots of stuff on bourgeois and militant aesthetics. Why all these proclamations about society and cinema? It seems to me if Godard wanted real change, he could've been doing something much more productive...

3:56. ...Instead of singing about communism... I wonder what these students are like now.

3:57. "It doesn't mean bringing films to the people; it means making films from and through the people." There it is, the whole ideology behind the Dziga Vertov Group. I am still not sure what they expected to accomplish aside from self-righteousness (a vile quality!).

4:00. A bloody arm sliding through the earth. Is this symbolic of something? Oh, it's grabbing a red flag.

4:01. Two dozen fists. Two dozen British flags. Two dozen holes. "Mao!"

Self-righteousness is dangerous. The film shows why this is true of the bourgeois. It doesn't much consider that this is true for the workers. Hmm... Workers have it bad. Minorities have it bad. War is bad. The bourgeois like it this way. The workers have to fight the rich. POINT TAKEN. At least it was short.
2. The Moon's Our Home (1936)
Margaret Sullavan and ex-hubby Henry Fonda in a screwball comedy? How awesome is this going to be? Eh, maybe not so great, but should be the perfect palette cleanser to that last viewing.

4:21. Credits. I wish there were some supporting players I liked...

4:24. A picture about pictures. Oh no! "I won't, I won't, I won't!" Is Margaret playing a diva? A brat?

4:25. Nope. Awesome as ever.

4:32. "Anthony Amberton," stealing Cherry's show. Yes, it's Fonda. Romance better start on this train.

4:36. Dual image, back-to-back, Margaret and Hank are whipping on each other to their private helpers, although they have yet to meet. I think this is the first time I've seen this particular technique this early. I like it.

4:38. Aw, brushing each other's teeth right in each other's faces. When will that wall vanish?

4:42. "Movie marshmallow;" I love that term.

4:47. Ah, a respectable-marriage plot. Bring back Henry.

4:54. Fine way to be introduced. More carriages should carry Margarets. Fonda's not too bad, either.

5:04. A snowy countryside. What could be more romantic? "Did Cherry Elope?" Oh, it's a snowy December day in real life, too. I suppose there's romance in that (maybe I should go do something...).

5:10. Sledding is an art. Like piggy-backing? This sort of moment is a romantic comedy staple, certainly.

5:17. How many more times will Margaret get a face full of snow? Lots, I hope.

5:21. Old people sex? My imagination says Yes!

5:27. A skiing lesson; I know what's coming for Margaret...

5:29. ...And Henry's just made it a lot more interesting.

5:32. Best wedding scene. But now where will the story go? A conflict over her identity?

5:36. What kind of wedding night is this? You know, Sullavan and Fonda make a great couple. I wonder what they were like in real life... Uh oh, perfume. Explosion imminent.

5:44. Strange predicament. Absolutely perfect for those comic gods of Fate. Yes, here's the impossible and awesome hand of Comedy. The final scene is set...

5:57. "I'm tired of having my own arms around me." Silly ending, not nearly as satisfying as it ought to be, but the romantic in me is hyped nonetheless.

I had nearly thought my Old Hollywood phase was over, but no, this is exactly what I need. Romantic comic fluff is necessary for my cinematic diet. Love it!
3. On purge bebe (1931)
Renoir's first sound film. I expect it to be a comedy in the manner of La Chienne and Boudu. I'm going to have to rely on my French for this, so I won't understand what is going on. All this considered, I am still excited for it.

7:00. Credits. Michel Simon.

7:02. I see: a stuffy man working who refuses to interrupt his work. He questions the maid(?), confuses her, and then complains about her lack of intelligence as she leaves...

7:05. A woman--his wife?--enters and begins haranguing/teasing him (did she just ask about another woman?). Action is centering around the bucket... yes, I see what kind of comedy this is. I think I'll shut up for awhile.

7:19. Film seems to be keeping a theatrical structure. I suppose reading the play ought to help my understanding. Michel Simon just appeared. Back to being quiet.

7:28. Are those chamber pots these men are throwing? They are made of porcelain. 100 francs a piece? I am greatly amused and curious. I need to learn more.

7:33. Is it the kid that's constipated? I think so. At first I thought it was the wife. I bet Renoir had fun directing these actors.

7:51....Two men purged.

Odd little film. I am going to go research it now.
Yes, those are chamber pots being thrown. Yes, it is the kid who is constipated (the mother is just obsessed with it). Fascinating. Renoir's test to prove his commercial viability and he passed.
End of liveblog. I am proud to have accomplished so little with it.

November 25, 2008

Thoughts about Adapting Theater

Separated from the society that created them, most classic plays can be judged now only by their literary merit rather than by any one production. I find this cinematically attractive. I once generally bought into the critical notion that filming theater was a bad thing, but it strikes me now as a worthy challenge, something to truly question the bonds of art.

Theater is compressed in space and time. It is the immediacy of the actors and sets that give the stage a powerful attraction; this is denied in pictures. In film the immediacy is within the image, and a stationary camera and verbose actor are oppressive.

Expository dialogue is the spring for plot and action in the confined space of the stage, and a truly marvelous actor can shatter an audience with a well-delivered speech. Through speech, an actor carves emotions into his or her audience. I once read a fair acclaim of Shakespeare's soliloquies--that they define what it means to be human. Such is the power of expository dialogue in theater.

Cinema still uses expository dialogue heavily, but the primary force of pictures is in action. The emotions one needed to shout to a theater audience can be displayed in a simple close-up--action moves pictures.

Mistakes are made in filming theater:
-giving importance to expository dialogue (this is a mistake in most narrative cinema, not just filmed theater)
-giving importance to strong performances (also another mistake of plain narrative cinema, although a "strong" performance usually just means playing a radical character (uh, like mentally handicapped characters))
-confining space and time the same way theater does it--a flat, lazy camera, sparse and poor editing, etc.
-staying true to characters and plot-points and overarching themes; this is the literary sin of cinema.

Plays, however, are still uniquely desirable cinematic subjects. In some ways they are condensed and concentrated, and in others they are bloated and overly drawn; it is the power of cinema to expand the concentrated and concentrate the expanded. If you haven't seen this coming, Chimes at Midnight (1965) is my model for the challenges of filming theater. Four plays are simultaneously condensed and expanded, rearranged, rewritten, developed and critiqued, all within a cinematically engrossing whole. Only film can do this, and only theater can provide such opportunity.

Films like Major Barbara (1941) and His Girl Friday (1940) have helped me fight my snobbery against filmed theater, too. Each is faithful to its source, but both achieve a rhythm and power that the stage could never possibly imagine. I won't analyze any of these just now, but they represent just how awesome the challenge of filming theater can be. Such adaptations say more about the nature of film and the stage than a writer ever could.

To finish off these notes, a couple of plays I dream of filming:
The Frogs by Aristophanes
Heartbreak House by Bernard Shaw
-something by Moliere-
I am keeping watch for plays that might be given an excellent modern and thoroughly cinematic reworking if given to an adept filmmaker (not many around these days...). Any suggestions?

November 02, 2008


I wonder what I can say about plot just now...

Not too long ago I found dismissing plot a simple matter. Who cares what twists and emotions a story can wrench up? Nothing but minor variations on humanity-old obsessions; all felt before to greater and lesser degrees; meaningless pondering.

But plot has occupied my thoughts a lot recently. Last weekend I watched The Dawn Patrol (1930), found it immensely satisfying, and have been shuffling it into my perception of Hawks. I even tried to write about post about it, considering that it was Hawks's lack of affectation that distinguished his films from pretension-riddled Hollywood (but I have doubts about that thesis now).

I was able to see The 39 Steps (1935) theatrically last night, the program notes reminding me that Hitchcock said "In the documentary the basic material has been created by God, whereas in the fiction film the director is the god; he must create life." The early Powell film The Phantom Light (1935) has me thinking about the differences between a plot that is tight and quick-paced and a plot that is meandering and slow. An argument for Bresson discusses how his lack of on-screen action and emotion allow the viewer to empty their personal emotions into the film rather than the other way around.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, Orson is laughing and occasionally discussing the audience and the sins of boredom and verbosity.

I don't even know what plot is. I may dismiss it to justify my own boredom with stories that don't interest me, done in styles that I find unappealing; but this is a case of plot dismissing me rather than the other way around. I may enthusiastically support the unpretentious and straightforward narratives of Hawks or Hitchcock or quota-quickie Powell; and I may violently oppose the total abstraction of Bresson, quoting Welles to argue that a person must have something to attach to before any emotion can be invested; but such thoughts, even if I were to make them coherent and consistent, would be empty--idle opinion-making.

My dismissing plot was a mistake. My praising it would be a mistake. Uh, this post is a mistake (watch it unravel even further). My fault is in still treating film as though it ought to be justified, as though whether or not it interests me is of any consequence to my growth as a person. Have I not forsaken this habit yet?

Hmm... It is with plot as with--wait, that's not the quote; "It is with words as with sunbeams, the more they are condensed the deeper they burn." Love that quote. This one, too: "Simplicity is beauty; simplicity is power." Maybe one day I shall abide them.
[As an after thought, I can definitively say this for plot: I hate epics.]

October 26, 2008

My Superfilm

"Before we start you out on this multi-million dollar production, Mr. Rawlings, we would like to learn more about this film you are going to make. Can you tell us all about it?"
Of course! I have long dreamed about this opportunity, my superfilm.

OK, we open up on a foggy and battle-scarred landscape. Shell holes and bits of debris are visible as far into the mist as you can see. A town. Shots of exploded buildings. Artillery sits unmanned. Everything is quiet.

Oh, and this film is all in black and white; real high contrast black and white, and it won't be very wide--maybe something like 1.75, I am thinking, but not wider. I want to be able to use widescreen shots when they work and tighter shots for close-ups and such; morph the screen to my needs, the way Eisenstein wrote about it in "The Dinamic Square."

And then a line of feet walking through the mud. The bottoms of dresses cling to the feet, muddy and wet. The camera rises and we see the faces of women--some are old, some are young, but all of them are very tired-looking, with wrinkles and dirt covering their faces--everything has to be dirty--and they look frightened. Escorting them, only barely visible in the fog, are soldiers. The camera roams and looks at some of the faces. And then it focuses on one face, the face of a middle-aged woman, and then zooms in on her eye, into her pupil, exactly the way Unfaithfully Yours (1948) does it to introduce the separate fantasies.

And then we are looking at the face of a child. The woman as a young girl. A voice calls from somewhere off-screen. The girl hollers back. It's a call-response game, and the editing will be very playful, quick cuts that counter-point extreme visuals--I am imagining here a visual tone in the vein of A Summer to Remember (1960). In fact, I am ripping much of that film off for this section. The other voice is that of a young boy. These two are outside, in some woods, on a summer evening.

The kids decide to go exploring and play somewhere else. They wander around through the woods. This whole section of the film will be very quiet, with very little dialog, and when the kids do speak they say things that only they understand, which is very much what childhood is like anyway. They come to a clearing and a knoll and run around it a bit. Then they are tired and lie down next to one another on the crest of the knoll and they begin to listen. A shot of their ears--the sounds around them erupt. Shots of the grass swaying. Shots of birds playing. Shots of bugs chirping. Shots of trees. Shots of sky. A long shot shows them in the foreground and their city in the background (I have a clear image here of Canterbury in the distance in A Canterbury Tale (1944)). Suddenly the sounds of music are heard, very far in the distance. The boy rises and helps the girl up, and then they run off back into the woods towards home (the town).

From here until the end of this section, I am stealing from Marie, a Hungarian Legend (1932). The two kids are walking with adults (we don't see the faces of the adults)--night has begun to settle in. The kids have changed into nicer clothes (very adult-like). They are fussing and playing with each other. The boy will be doing something boyish--maybe he's playing with rocks. The music we heard cutting from the last sequence is much louder, and as we follow the kids we see that they are attending a local dance. It's outdoors with streamers and a small band and lots of people and tables--but of those people and tables, all we ever see are the legs. The camera does some more visual playing as the kids chase each other around--they have become bored with dancing, which they tried at the behest of their chaperons. The boy finally steals some candy, and the two end up on the road adjacent to the dance, eating.

The boy has walked the girl home (presumably just a few houses away, as the music can still be clearly heard). She walks into the yard and stands behind the fence. The girl asks for candy. The boy begins to foolishly play around--all of this is exactly like in Marie, except without the rape. After this mime-playing, the girl mimes that she wants to be kissed on the cheek. The boy looks disgusted. She mimes it again, more forcefully. The boy turns away indignant, almost haughty (should look hilarious in his mock-formal clothing), and then stomps off in the direction of his house. The girl looks after him, an odd mix of pouting and longing. The camera zooms back into her pupil.

We are now looking again on the woman. She is digging. The camera tracks back and then pans to reveal that all the women are digging. It's a trench of some sort. Or is it? As the camera pans across the women, a soldier crosses in the foreground. Another is patrolling the background, the shadow of his gun ominous in the fog. The camera stops and focuses in on another woman, quite a bit older than the last. Pupil zoom.

Now a girl of about 20 is before us. She puts on a hat and dives into Paris. This section is going to be a city film, something rather like Nogent (1929) and In Spring (1929) and A propos de Nice (1930) and the like; we follow the girl around on the day she spent living it up in Paris and diverge into free-form documentary. Shots of the Champs-Elysees. Shots of various people along the boulevard. Portraits of neighborhoods--everybody will be clamoring to see Montmarte. Oh, and this section will be shot as a silent, so it will have the only score of the entire film... I am thinking a playful concertina, something lively and truly Parisian. And the setting is spring, so there has to be some shots of blossoming flowers and blossoming love.

Night comes. Shots of city lights. Things become more exciting. Pace gets quicker. We see Parisian night-life. Cabarets. Champagne. Everywhere flesh and decadence. One automatically thinks of the club sequence in So This is Paris (1926). Indeed, this IS Paris. The rhythm steadily quickens. It will be modeled after the rhythm of The Man with a Movie Camera (1929), become more alive and more dense until things feel like they will explode. Champagne. Laughter. Legs. Then suddenly a shot of dawn over the city. Things are all at once slow. The night revellers are returning home. The morning life is awakening. We watch the woman as she stumbles jubilantly home. She collapses into bad, fully dressed. She stares up at the ceiling, euphoric (drunk). Pupil zoom.

Back to the woman shovelling. The soldiers order the group to line up in front of the hole they have dug. The soldiers are still (always) shadows in the foreground and mist. The women begin climbing out of the dirt, muddy as ever. Some have trouble. The camera pans across as they climb. It focuses on one particularly young girl as she uses her shovel as a crutch. Perhaps she is very beautiful, but it's hard to tell under the dirt. Pupil zoom.

Now we are looking at the same girl, clean and all made up, laughing, looking her youthful age, and very, very pretty. She is with her beau, a strapping young lad who I imagine to be something like Douglass Montgomery. The two are in a city park, merrily whispering love promises to one another as they stroll. It is winter and thick, romantic snow is falling. This is going to be an Impressionistic Romantic Comedy--imagine a fluffy, light-hearted Menilmontant (1926). And with sound. There is going to be a lot of visual and audio disjunction; Woody Allen dialogue over a camera roaming in search of psychological externalities; also lots of philosophical non-sequiters ala Godard.

But back to the plot: the couple's happiness is destroyed when they learn that war has been declared (perhaps through a nice "It's War!" sign in the snowy city). The boy is determined to enlist, but the girl decides to do all she can to keep him from going. She hatches frivolous schemes to keep him from enlisting; perhaps a kidnapping plot, and maybe a plot that will land him in jail and make him unqualified, and she might even desperately try to break his kneecaps, arguing to him all the while why it is better for him to stay. Finally she threatens to drown herself if he enlists. The boy finally relents and promises to stay. The two embrace. Air raid sirens blare, and within moments explosions are licking the air on the horizon. The two faces stare in horror, their features highlighted by the light of the nearing blasts, the increasing brightness and sound indicating their proximity. The boy breaks the embrace and tries to get the girl to run with him, but she is frozen. She can't look away. Pupil zoom.

Back to the girl, considerably more tired and dirty, watching the women struggle out of the hole. The soldiers yell and get them to line up. The sobbing of several women, quiet through the beginning, becomes noticeable. The camera pans across the faces of the now-aligned women, their backs to the trench. A few of them can barely stand. We stop on a middle-aged woman, looking stout and proud. Pupil zoom.

It is the same woman, wearing an army nurse's outfit. She is staring out on the horizon where a large group of soldiers is marching towards the town. The troops arrive; she asks about a particular soldier. She searches the town for him and finally finds him. He his her husband. The two have a brief night to catch up in the midst of duties before an attack breaks out in the early morning hours. The rest of the sequence follows their course in the battle, the man desperately fighting and the woman desperately healing.

It is easiest to think of a Band of Brothers (2001) episode, but I would like it to be much more Russian-rooted. I am thinking very bold visual flourishes in the vein of Kalatozov; The Cranes are Flying (1957) is my primary model, but certainly there are many instances from The Unmailed Letter (1959) and Nail in the Boot (1931) that I can steal. Commissar (1967) was the whole inspiration for this segment, so expect some of the visual flairs found there. Ah, and I would be insane not to be influenced by Welles for this bit; imagine what he might have done with a modern war scene! That battle in Chimes at Midnight (1967) is modern enough and quite an interesting model. Come to that, Shakespeare is not a bad influence either. I might drench the segment with Shakespearean dialogue. Haha, I will even have one of the husband's dying comrades jokingly exclaim to him, "O Harry, thou hast robbed me of my youth!" (Eh, but Godard has already done this.) Oh, but I am getting too excited. It's just that this is the centerpiece of the film, and in it I will pour all my greatest cinematic influences: Welles and Kalatozov, older Soviet formalists like Dovzhenko and Pudovkin, with bits of Powell and Pressburger to slow the narrative and give the acting a spiritual physicality, and maybe even humble, light, and comic moments in the spirit of Borzage--all updated to my own modern sensibilities, of course. This is meant to be a reinvention of the older forms I love.

And then the battle is over. The town is destroyed. The wounded are dying, the dead are rotting. The landscape is bleak; the end of autumn, bare and war-scarred. The husband and wife have survived. The man's troops assemble and are to go off again. The sounds of war reach them from distant places. The couple parts; he assembles in his troop; the troop marches off towards the distant thunder; as they march, they begin to sing an old, native (anti-)war song (think of Ford's cavalry singing as they ride (except the song will be Russian)). Shot of the woman as she watches her man go, his song echoing in her ears. Pupil zoom.

As we ease out from her eye, we hear her burst out into the song her husband's troops were singing. The reflection of a gun is briefly visible in her eye. The camera eases back to a normal close up and then slowly pans down the line, across the faces of the other women. Others have begun to sing, the sobbing has begun to stop. The farther we pan, the louder the song becomes. The camera stops on an older woman who was crying but is now trying to sing. She is still tearful. We begin the pupil zoom, but as we near her we see her eye juxtaposed with the barrel of a rifle, exactly as Vorkapich does it in his montage for Crime Without Passion (1934). The voices swell and reach a high note; the barrel explodes.

Black screen.

Lights come up. The end.
"What a film! As your imaginary producers, we would like to tell you that this is the greatest motion picture we have ever produced. Oh boy!"
*handshakes all around*

October 12, 2008

Lammchen on my mind...

...the world around is quiet.

October 01, 2008

Lonesome and Rhythm

A section from Lonesome (1928), directed by Paul Fejos:

I wish Fejos's The Last Moment (1928) were still around. That would have been a marvelous study of visual rhythm.

September 30, 2008

Orson and Rhythm

Excerpt from an interview published in the Autumn issue of Sight and Sound, 1966--Juan Cobos and Miguel Rubio are interviewing Welles about Chimes at Midnight (1965):

"You edit very dramatically, breaking up your long takes with constant movement. Is that because you are apprehensive about boring the public?

Welles: Because I am so easily bored, I think the public probably is. You people who love the cinema are not as easily bored by it as I am. In other words, if I had to make films only for people who fundamentally love the movies, then I could be longer. But I would be false in it.... I believe that films should be able to tell a story quicker than any other medium....

I do not like verbosity; I don't like wasted time. I like concentration in every art. And although I know that I lose, that the public loses, a great deal because of the concentration, I also hope that somebody will see one thing and somebody else will see another...."

Love that man.

September 27, 2008

Acting, II

Still coming down after The Small Back Room (1949)...

Odd because the acting was more traditional, but piercing because it offered some insight into what I wrote earlier, although I think I will ignore that entirely. Immediately I thought this served as a great parallel and counter-point to Gone to Earth (1950). The Small Back Room is darker in tone but lighter in principle while Gone to Earth is just the opposite, both offering startling moments.

The opening scenes of The Small Back Room had me thinking this would be a film of action, something like 49th Parallel (1941) or One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942), where personal drama is entirely forgotten under pressure of danger, the "Here we are; What do we do now?" situation. But it quickly becomes personal drama. Adult personal drama. Something along mainstream lines... yet still unmistakably P+P.

I began thinking about acting the way I usually think about it: as a minor part of an integral whole. How could I have tried to convince myself differently? Actors only have as much power as you give them, and perhaps this is what impresses me about Powell's direction and Pressburger's writing. Impressive not in that they abuse their power but that the actors do not need it. Usually. The Small Back Room gives a surprising amount of power to the actors, let's Farrar be dark and moody, but their is still that touch of Powell I have to address.

It's in screen psychology. Rather than giving characters monologues and emotional explosions, their psychology is expressed in the cinematic universe around them. In the obvious, it is the expressionistic sequence in which Rice is tortured by the bottle and clock. More subtly, it is the way we see Rice leave the key in the lock or hear his reactions through the voice of a nervous secretary operating the wire. It is this that keeps much of a character's psychology internal, this that allows for stoicism.

If The Small Back Room is so grown-up, perhaps it is because of the acting. Not that the story or characters by themselves are mature, but that the filmmakers take so mature an approach to the material. No, the actors have no power, but they are needed.

Acting, I

I want to sort out some thoughts on acting before going into The Small Back Room (1949) tonight. There is something about British acting during the 1930s and 40s, and in Michael Powell's films specifically, that I cannot explain but which has integrally changed many of my perspectives.

Maybe it is just the accent they use--always awesome. Maybe it is just called "Britishness." It is a stoicism that highlights the dignity of humanity. Most acting schools highlight emotional expression and in doing so deviate widely from reality; few of us are ever in the grips of erudite and uncontrollable emotion--in fact it is better to say never. Feelings are internal and we are forever brooding and mixing emotions in our own minds, separate from the world. We keep a straight face and try to continue life as though we were unaffected by personal tragedies and triumphs (although we always know differently). The candid eloquence (verbal and physical) with which actors express themselves on-screen is unnatural--it is also expected. How else are we to know how they feel?

My admiration for Powell-British acting is two-fold: First, although we try to keep a straight face in reality without revealing our inner emotions, we always fail. We are continually acting and reacting within our environment and always doing so without thought, by instinct, and we are guided emotionally in these reactionary choices. Our emotions are revealed through our actions, many of them very simple: a quick smile, a heavy breath, a blink. And when the actions we do have real consequences, small emotions become compounded in the real world. We leave our traces on existence; where we have been is marked by how we have acted.

What I really mean to say is: Emotional action is given by spontaneity. And in film, it is not just how the character is acting but also by how he or she is to react. In Powell and Pressburger's films, instead of being caught in an emotional universe where we have one emotional course to voyage through, the world is spontaneous and the characters are continually having to adjust/react to the changes presented to them, doing so with equal spontaneity and with emotional action rather than thought. In The Spy in Black (1939), when Cpt. Hardt discovers that he has been found-out and is being sabotaged from his sabotage, there are no words, no grand emotional gestures, no eloquence. Only stoicism. Only action. The situation is anxious and tense and terrific beyond imagination, but his emotional and intellectual processes are displayed through what he does rather than how he does it, as they would be in reality. Perhaps I will be able to better express this with more thought...

Second, stoicism allows the audience to impress their emotions on the character rather than vice versa. Buster taught me this. When something happens to a character in a film, we all have our own emotional reaction to what is happening; most of the time the actor is trying to capture this emotion and tell us what we are feeling through the character, trying to navigate us through the complex world of feeling, but when that guidance is removed we are left simply with our own emotions which we are to impress upon the character. As the on-screen universe changes and more complexities are thrown our way, the actions of the character become all the more surprising as we are continually forced to position ourselves in relation to their actions, each action revealing to us a new dimension of their psyche within ourselves. <-Okay, that was a bad sentence.

I shall meditate on these points and perhaps write more after I have watched The Small Back Room.

September 24, 2008

Compromised Endings

Watching One Way Passage (1932) the other night has caught me at an impressionable stage, just as my love for the romantic has really blossomed with discovering Borzage; classical comedy and romance (and romantic comedy) are structured to end happily and to resolve all the conflicts that have driven the narrative to the final point, but many such endings are too painfully contrived and disobey the logic of the narrative to obey the logic of comedy. Must this be so?

Classical comedy must end with triumph or else the tragic will out-play the comic. Most comedies end with miraculous solutions, everything coming together in harmonic support of the leading players (in romance, everything comes together for the couple). But do such miraculous events need to happen for triumph?

Two of my recent loves have made me question this: Lonesome (1928) and Little Man, What Now? (1934). Both end in miracles for the couples that ensure a happily-ever-after, but both seem to recognize that such an end is necessary only to their cinematic universe. In Lonesome the end is almost a deserved respite after such great anxiety; in Little Man, What Now? the ending is a gift to everyday saints who have accepted fatalism. I couldn't help but feel relief at both these endings, but in my mind I knew they were unnecessary. Why should one fear letting the tragic consume the romantic? Or: Why can't a tragic ending be triumphant?

It was Marie, legende hongroise (1932) and One Way Passage that really told me the miracle need not be so. Of course Marie is tragic throughout, but it plays lightly (which makes it all the more wonderful in my eyes) and the ending subverts the tragic into something triumphant, while One Way Passage can end only in tragedy, but again subverts the tragic and preserves the romantic tone of the rest of the film. The triumph is this: the human spirit. The world does not conform to your dreams--it continues to beat you and hurt you and keep you mortal--but your dreams still survive and it is the very survival of those dreams that makes life so beautiful. This is the romantic-comic ending that wins out. This is why I love comedy so dearly.

In this absurd and impossible universe, we are still driven by a uniquely human will. Comedy is the preservation of this will, the recognition of its nobility (or ignobility) in the face of absurdity.

Hmm... I still have much to think about before further formulating my classical romantic-comedy outlook.

September 01, 2008

Documentary Movement

[9/1 Entry:]

Sometimes I need reminding Jennings was not the only star of the British Documentary.
Granton Trawler (1934)
Night Mail (1936)

August 31, 2008


[8/31 Entry:]
Watched these today:

Little Man, What Now? (1934)

Man's Castle (1933)

Seventh Heaven (1927)

I am growing fond of Frank Borzage's work, in spite of some religious weavings. Little Man especially impressed me. (The very pathos of the title stirs something in me.)

August 24, 2008

Daybreak Express

Daybreak Express (1953)--D.A. Pennebaker's first amateur documentary short. Consider me surprised.

August 09, 2008


What am I doing? What have I done?

August 02, 2008


A sonnet from Shakespeare:

Full many a glorious morning have I seen
Flatter the mountain tops with sovereign eye,
Kissing with golden face the meadows green,
Gliding pale streams with heavenly alchemy;
Anon permit the basest clouds to ride
With ugly rack on his celestial face,
And from the forlorn world his visage hide,
Stealing unseen to west with this disgrace.
Even so my sun one early morn did shine,
With all triumphant splendor on my brow;
But out alack, he was but one hour mine,
The region cloud hath masked him from me now.
Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth;
Suns of the world may stain when heaven's sun staineth.

July 24, 2008

Renoir and Hepburn

I love this photo. I love these people.

July 17, 2008

A poem from Richard Polwhele

"O! since my gaudier hopes no more avail,
Here shelter'd, may I heave a few fond sighs;
And, as the wounded dove o'er hill and dale
To her own nest on flagging pinion flies,
Languish amidst domestic sympathies;
Sooth'd by these shades! Here, after many a blast
Darkening the pale horizons of my skies--
Here, o'er my head the wintry harrows past,
Be mine, in this still pause, at home to breathe my last."

June 03, 2008

On Vacation

I have taken down all of my posts while I figure out exactly what I would like to do with this little blog. I want to do something different, but I don't know what yet. Something simple. For now, I vacation.

*sips apple juice*