Archive for the 'film' Category

Eisenstein and Eisenstein

2 August 2011

Chunks of Riga’s new town were built quickly at the height of the gilded age of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the result is a dense concentration of art nouveau architecture. Many of the most flamboyant buildings were built by Mikhail Eisenstein, the Russian architect who graduated from St. Petersburg. At the time Riga was part of Tsarist Russia. The detail is the devil, and the façades of his buildings are full of details, each floor of each house decorated differently.

More unusually, there are more than half a dozen of his buildings in the space of about 500 metres, most of them in one street, Alberta Iela, where he designed five buildings in a row.

He was also the father of the great Soviet film director Sergei, who, it’s said, hated his father’s work. “My father must have had nightmares putting all that detail into his buidings”, he is reputed to have said.

One hardly has to be a Freudian analyst to see signs of the son’s rebellion: instead of deeply decorated buildings for a rich clientele, the son preached the simplicity of the cut and threw himself into the Soviet revolution.

The photographs on this post were taken by Andrew Curry. They are published here under a Creative Commons licence: some rights reserved.

2012, “on the nose”

1 May 2011

I watched 2012 the other day – the remake of Independence Day in which the earth is the bad guy instead of the aliens – and have to say that it was the worst film I’ve seen in years. I’m not going to get into the detail, since there would be far too much to say, but my suspension of disbelief had already been stretched to breaking point by the speed of the earthquakes (just fast enough for a speeding car to stay ahead of), the pyroclastic flow (just slow enough not to catch a speeding camper van) or the size of the tsunami waves out at sea (really, a cruise liner would just bob up and down, as trawlers did during the Japanese tsunami).

It finally snapped as it became clear that a 1500-metre high wave from the Indian Ocean was going to roll across the sub-continent and clear the Himalayas. Neither the maths, nor the physics, stacked up. In fact the only plausible element of the story was that if you did want a big engineering project done at speed, you would ask the Chinese government to run it.

But it could have been worse. I’ll say that again: it could have been worse.

The DVD has an “alternative ending”, expensively filmed, in which the hero’s father is rescued from his aforementioned stricken cruise liner and the main characters then queue up to spell out the various sub-texts we might have been too dumb to spot during all the excitement of the movie. (Click on the image above if you want to check this out for yourself).

The thing is, there’s a screenwriting term for this sort of writing, where you have the characters tell you what they’re thinking instead of showing it to you. It’s called “writing on the nose”. And, if you’d read the script for this alternative ending before you’d filmed it, you could have seen it for what it was straightaway. You didn’t need to film it to find out how bad it was, or how much nose the scene was showing.

Jump cut

22 April 2011

A BBC4 profile of the director David Lean last week had Steven Spielberg talking about Lean’s work, and in particular about the celebrated jump cut early in Lawrence of Arabia, possibly one of the influential films ever made. The trick in the cut, said Spielberg, is that the sound of the match bridges the edit by six frames, or a quarter of a second. Lean worked as an editor – a ‘cutter’, in the pre-war lexicon – before he became an editor, and would have understood the importance of this fraction of time instinctively.

All the President’s Men

3 April 2011

For those of us of a certain age, especially those of us who once worked as journalists, All The President’s Men is an archetypal story: reporters, by good reporting, uncover wrongdoing piece by piece – and the trail goes all the way from a bungled break-in at the Watergate building to the heart of the White House. And watching it again with my family a few weeks ago sent me back to William Goldman’s own account of writing the screenplay. The biggest challenge was that by the time the film was made, everyone knew the ending (spoiler alert: the President did it).

So immediately there was a challenge in telling the story, which is why Goldman hit on the idea of ending at a low point, when Woodward and Bernstein had made a mistake which had let the White House back into the game. Of course, this creates the moment for one of the great Hollywood speeches, as Jason Robards, playing Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, stands out on the lawn in his dressing gown late at night and tells the two reporters:

BEN BRADLEE: You know the results of the latest Gallup Poll? Half the country never even heard of the word Watergate. Nobody gives a shit. You guys are probably pretty tired, right? Well, you should be. Go on home, get a nice hot bath. Rest up… 15 minutes. Then get your asses back in gear. We’re under a lot of pressure, you know, and you put us there. Nothing’s riding on this except the, uh, first amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country. Not that any of that matters, but if you guys fuck up again, I’m going to get mad.

Goldman invented the phrase ‘Follow the money‘, Deep Throat’s advice to Woodward (and if ever there was a truth…), and there is some fine screenwriting elsewhere. “Turn your exposition into argument” runs the advice to tyro screenwriters, and the early scene when Bernstein takes Woodward’s copy and rewrites it tells us lots about their experience, about their relationship, and something about newswriting as well. The film also reminds us – you have to read a little between the lines – that the story would probably never have been broken if it had been left to the political reporters.

Goldman has the screenwriting credit, and won an Oscar for it, but he didn’t have a happy experience working on it. In his memoir Adventures in the Screen Trade he recalls going to a meeting with Redford, who was executive producer as well as c0-star. Bernstein and Nora Ephron (then Bernstein’s girlfriend) put their alternative version of the script on the table.

One scene in the film survives from that script – where Bernstein (Hoffman) tricks the receptionist at the Dade County Sheriff’s Office into leaving her desk so he can slip past in her absence. It’s an amusing scene when it plays in the movie. There was just one problem with it, as Goldman notes:

it didn’t happen – they made it up. It was a phony Hollywood moment. God knows I’ve written enough of them,  – but I never would have dreamed of using it in a movie about the fall of the President of the United States.

The still is from ET Online, and is used with thanks.

Strictly Ballroom

16 February 2011

I’ve been thinking about Strictly Ballroom (1992), Baz Luhrman’s first film, since it was on television at Christmas, and have just realised that it reminded me of an essay by Umberto Eco about Casablanca, which he described as being like a party full of archetypes. Archetypal stories are running wild in Strictly Ballroom too, plucked from different genres, but artfully.

There’s the young gun taking on a corrupt establishment; the migrant family making their way suspiciously in a new world; the tyro who needs to be licked into shape for the big event, in – of course – an impossibly short time; the boy in love with the girl on (literally) the wrong side of the tracks; art-and-love is more important than winning;  and the archetype which shapes the denouement, ‘that the only thing new in the world is the history you didn’t know’, played out in two versions for dramatic effect.

And of course this is a meta-story as well, of the young director announcing himself to the world as one who is going to dance his own steps, and not be overawed by the weight of Australia’s cinema history. And Luhrman knows – because we’ve all watched a lot of films – that we understand the familiar steps and are able to follow him when he mixes them up a bit.

Two of his choices are distinctive. The first is the subject matter, ballroom dancing, a decade before the BBC stole half the name and most of the underlying idea to renovate its own dancing show. It is, let’s face it, the least Australian of sports, a world away from the blood and thunder of Aussie Rules or the green and gold of the rugby teams, or even the lean power of track cycling. (But write what you know; his mother was a teacher of ballroom dance).

The second is the scale, for Strictly Ballroom is an anti-epic, a small world, perfectly formed. It may seem paradoxical, but stories of small worlds – think of Gregory’s Girl, or Cinema Paradiso, or The Full Monty – are often the most universal.

Marketing or art

25 January 2011

I like musicals and I like Stephen Sondheim, so wanted to know what he had to say in an 80th birthday interview in The Guardian just before Christmas.

Certainly there are some observations about the craft of the musical – especially lyric-writing – that intrigue. Hammerstein’s “Oh what a beautiful morning”, from Oklahoma, for example:

“Nothing could be more banal,” Sondheim says. “But that song changed the history of musical theatre.” And it did so through simplicity, clarity and repetition.

And reflecting on this seems to have made him regret his own, later, lyric for ‘Maria‘, in West Side Story, with its famous couplet:

“Say it loud and there’s music playing / Say it soft and it’s almost like praying”

Sondheim thinks that this contributed a “wetness” to the words which persisted throughout the show’s romantic numbers. I think I have to disagree: the whole point of the romantic numbers in West Side Story is to create a difference from the directness and toughness of the streets, to build in our minds the idea that Tony and Maria might be able to escape (“there’s a place for us”) from the world of the gangs and the garment district. Sondheim doesn’t have a lot of time for Bernstein, but here Bernstein understood what he was doing.

But the thing that puzzles the most is his comments on Allegro, a failed musical which Rogers and Hammerstein wrote in the middle of a run of huge success. Sondheim thinks he understands what they should have done, and it comes down to this:

“making clear to an audience why you’ve written what you’ve written, and what it’s about. Then if they like it, great. If they don’t like it, fine. But if they don’t like it because they don’t understand it, that’s bad. That is the writer’s fault. If you write it and it’s clear and they don’t like it, that’s not your fault. That’s what art is about.”

But this isn’t about art, it’s about marketing. The history of our art and culture is full of works which audiences didn’t understand, were confused by, and hated, and had to puzzle out over time, from the impressionists to The Rites of Spring to bebop to Peeping Tom. It’s disappointing that someone whose craft is so rich – after 60 years in the theatre – seems to have such a one-dimensional view of art and its audiences.

The image at the top of this post comes from the Academy of Achievement website, and is used with thanks.

The Lady Eve

22 January 2011

I feel like I’m continuing a mini-series of posts about classic films, but I watched the Preston Sturges’ film The Lady Eve this weekend, and wanted to write something about a couple of the sequences in it. Sturges pushed the screwball comedy into satire in a career that reached its peak in the war years, testing the limits of the Hollywood ‘Hays Code’ censors as he went.

The Lady Eve stars Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda, professional card hustler and unworldly breweries heir respectively, and love, of course, gets in the way of the hustling business. Stanwyck is as sultry as she is in Double Indemnity, but with better intent (watch the clip at the top if you want to see what I mean).

Sturges has many strengths as a writer-director (his scripts always sparkle), and I’ve written about some of these before. From The Lady Eve, there are three distinctive scenes which show his talent.

The first is his inventive use of mise-en-scène, the film word used to describe the way scenes look and film. Early on in The Lady Eve, when Fonda has just joined the liner to sail back to New York, he’s sitting on his own at dinner being watched, it seems, by every unattached woman on the boat. We know this because Barbara Stanwyck is watching the entire room from a mirror – we see it from this as well – and adding a running commentary on the feeble strategies being used by the others, unsuccessfully, to attract his attention. (Eventually, as he leaves, she ‘inadvertently’ trips him, which works just fine.)

Similarly, when Fonda eventually proposes to Stanwyck, the scene’s undercut in two ways; the script has already told us how and where this is going to happen (all part of Stanwyck’s plan), and Fonda’s horse, always in shot, keeps interrupting his speech.

Secondly, he’s adept at building the comic moment. On the boat, Fonda, Stanwyck, and her father are playing poker (this is their livelihood, but Stanwyck has fallen for Fonda and is determined to make sure her father doesn’t clean him out.) Fonda’s $2,000 down, and Stanwyck decides to help him out a bit, by dealing him a decent hand. As the scene unfolds, we see the visual equivalent of ‘see you and raise’, as the card-sharp father improves his hand by a variety of (illegal) means, and Stanwyck undercuts him each time.

And finally, Sturges is a master of ambiguity. We can’t be sure (spoiler alert) until the very last scene that Stanwyck is in love with Fonda rather than simply unfolding the longest of ‘long cons‘, turning down a lucrative legal settlement en route. For the Hays Code censors, who did not permit films to show criminals profiting from their crimes, it must have made for an anxious ninety minutes viewing.

Magic on 34th Street

3 January 2011

Seasonally, I picked up a copy of Miracle on 34th Street in a pile of second-hand DVDs just before Christmas – the 1947 original with Maureen O’Hara and John Payne, not the 1994 version in which Richard Attenborough plays Kris Kringle, or Santa. It has a charm that is lacking in the remake, or come to that in the Santa-on-the-Shopping-Channel version that I stumbled across recently on daytime TV, with Whoopi Goldberg as the doubting sales exec played by O’Hara in 1947.

Looking at the 1947 film from 2010, it’s interesting to see that even then – a decade before the post-war consumer boom really started to accelerate – part of of the rationale for the story was that Christmas had become over-commercialised. But in its original incarnation, Miracle on 34th Street is about the rise of the rational and the decline of magic: Weber versus wizardry, as it were. It is presented as quite reasonable that Doris Walker (O’Hara) should want her daughter (the young Natalie Wood) to grow up without believing in things which are untrue.

Susan, the six-year old, didn’t need to be brattish to move the plot along, and Maureen O’Hara doesn’t need the leaden backstory visited on Whoopi Goldberg to explain why she holds her views. (Come to that, not a line of script is given to explaining why she is a single parent; we could guess, but we don’t need to, and the plot doesn’t need us to either).

No matter how reasonable rationality is, it gets corrupted in the wrong hands. Here, these hands are given to the store’s psychologist, Granville Sawyer. Seven years after Freud’s death, forty years after the work which made his name, Sawyer, unqualified, interprets the pleasure that a young employee gets from playing Santa at his local YMCA as being a psychiatric disorder, rooted (inevitably) in his childhood. When confronted by Kris Kringle, Sawyer uses a mixture of his positional authority and some deception to despatch him to New York’s notorious Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital.

The courtroom scene that follows is a masterpiece, treading a fine line between the processes of the court, the stories we tell ourselves, popular sentiment, and self interest. The judge, nearing re-election, is desperate not to rule that Santa doesn’t exist; the Macy’s store boss is about to say – rationally – that Santa isn’t real, before seeing in his mind’s eye – equally rationally – his Xmas sales slump.

Eventually (spoiler alert) the lawyer who’s believed in Santa all along – a lawyer is the good guy – gets the proof the court needs: a ‘competent authority’ which believes that Kris Kringle is Father Christmas. The moment that makes this possible is a flash of the blue-collar in the sorting office, rarely seen in films. As it happens, Miracle on 34th Street is unusually deft and knowing all the way through about the way that organisations work. The rational world, it turns out, needs a bit of magic to get along.

Goodbye Lenin

30 October 2010

I watched Goodbye Lenin on DVD recently – the German comedy, or perhaps satire, on the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of East German regime. In Germany it outgrossed Harry Potter when it was released in 2003.

The plot in outline, and without spoiling: Christiane Kerner has been a devoted supporter of the East German state since her husband defected to the West 15 years earlier. She collapses into a coma shortly before the Wall comes down. When she comes around, a few months later, her son Alex decides that the shock of learning about reunification would kill her. So he enrols his sister, girlfriend, workmate and neighbours in an elaborate pretence so that his mother doesn’t find out.

Of course, she has her suspicions, for example when a giant Coca-Cola banner is unfurled on the building opposite her apartment. But these are kept in check through an endless supply of fake news bulletins, inventively generated by Alex’s ‘Westie’ video technician workmate Denis.

One of the striking things about the film is the way in which it allows the complaints about the unification process – the dismissals, the loss of savings, the loss of favourite foods – to surface through the story.

The criticism that’s been made of it is that it has nothing to say about the East German Securitate, the Stasi, and its huge apparatus of surveillance and coercion. It’s true that Goodbye Lenin isn’t The Lives of Others. But it doesn’t need to be. Sometimes film can work more subtly, and the theme of deception, of things which are known but concealed, is embedded all the way through the story.

“When does it stop?”, asks Alex’s girlfriend, Lara, the film’s ‘centre of good’. It doesn’t, and as the deception continues, we discover the other deceptions which followed the father’s defection to the West, the stories which families keep from one another. The political, it turns out, is personal.

Melbury Road

29 October 2010

I had to walk down Melbury Road in Kensington today, which always puts a spring in my step, since the great film director Michael Powell lived there for some years, at number 8. The garden of the house, and some interiors, were used for the “home video” sequences in Powell’s late (1960) low-budget horror film Peeping Tom; number 5, now redeveloped, stood in for the house of the film’s killer, Mark Lewis. Peeping Tom, of course, was written by Leo Marks, the former SoE cryptographer, and was reviled on release; it got some of the most hostile reviews seen in British cinema history. It’s now regarded as a revolutionary exploration of the relationship between director, camera, and audience, of the voyeuristic nature of the cinematic gaze. It is both significant and shocking. It was so far ahead of its time that it wasn’t shown on television until 1997, and Powell never worked in the UK again.

The photo is from She Blogged By Night: lots of intriguing photographs of film locations, and is used with thanks.