Super Scenes


A crew of four in search of an island halts in the middle of the sea to check its course. One of the two women gets off the boat for a quick swim. She spots a shark and runs for cover, only to encounter a zombie (under the sea!). She evades them both to get back on the boat and, in the process, ends up pitting the two man-eaters against each other. We have here, cinema reduced to a scientific method. We identify with the woman in the scene (not just because we empathize with her and want her saved, but also because the rewards of horror are sweetest when delayed) and are hence hostile towards both the shark and the zombie. Our emotional investment is the scene comes to an end once the woman gets out of the water and this ensuing fight becomes a pure spectacle to be relished from a safe distance, without taking sides. (This configuration is a regular in horror movies, where the threat is frequently non-thinking, neutral). The woman becomes a catalyst and makes possible reaction between elements otherwise inert and immiscible, a stimulus galvanizing a stable system into instability, a intermediary algebraic variable to be added and subtracted to an equation to make solution easier. Genre cinema at its exploitative best.

Greed

This stunning still from Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924) comes from the first few minutes of the 1999 reconstruction of the film. It’s really tough to pin down the author of this photograph for a number of reasons. Firstly, no one can say if this picture was just a production still or if it was a part of the final film. Moreover, the film has separate credits for a cinematographer, a photographer and a still photographer, any of whom, besides the director, could have composed this. Whatever the case, von Stroheim must have had a hand in putting together this tableau, which seems straight of a Renaissance painting, as is acknowledged by the paintings on the wall behind.

In the scene, Father McTeague is thrashed by one of the visitors at the bar: a spat possibly driven by money or the woman who accompanies him. (It helps recollecting that his son McTeague, himself, turns as violent towards the second half of the film). Although the picture only presents the immediate aftermath of an event, one can feel directly from the sheer physicality of the composition what has just happened. The downward arrangement of faces seems to trace the path of the blow that has landed on Father McTeague’s mug so precisely that one immediately recognizes what occurred and when.

Greed

This is also one of the reasons it invokes Caravaggio, whose paintings, too, exhibit a deep affinity for sinking profiles and dramatic faces turned towards various directions. It recalls, specifically, The Entombment of Christ (1603), where an impassive, fallen Christ is mourned by contrasting, agitated countenances and gestures.

 La Deposizione di Cristo - Caravaggio

The entire setup has an elliptic profile – from the heads of the characters, through the profile of the woman on the left, the barroom table, the curves on Mother McTeague’s clothing to her leftward-bent body – as if presaging the circular structure of the film (McTeague’s fortune, social status and disposition, among other facets, come a full circle) and closing the circle of violence and greed.

Greed

Then there are the hands, startlingly concentrated in a small area of the canvas, forming a a smaller circle at the centre. The man in black forms the void at the heart of the photograph (and a mirror image of Caravaggio’s radiant Christ, who demands our attention). And this confluence of hands seems to be pulling him out of an abyss, preventing him from being sucked in. The two women on either side of him, dressed in brighter colours, appear to be forming two angel wings attaching themselves to this devil of a man, trying to save him from the savage world of men he’s located in.

Greed

Just goes to show how early cinema was deeply influenced by other representational forms: an attempt perhaps to earn credibility among its peers. This is indeed ironic. For long, painting had sought to imitate reality and reproduce it as faithfully as possible. The arrival of photography, as Bazin noted, truly liberated painting from the irrational need to represent reality religiously. What is remarkably ironic is that photography (and cinema) tried to emulate painting with plastic manipulation and conceptual representation, such as the one above. It is well known that cinema is still plagued by the spectre of painting, which is given higher priority and attention – more than forms like music and literature – whenever film aesthetics is discussed. Films are regularly panned for being too literary or theatrical, but never for being too painterly. Even talking about framing and lighting reveals an undying fascination with painterly qualities of an image. (Rohmer, writing about CinemaScope declared: “…no longer will we speak of framing or lighting; instead we will talk about landscape and light”).  I’m reminded of what Kurosawa writes in his autobiography:

What is Cinema? The answer to this question is no easy matter. Long ago the Japanese novelist Shiga Naoya presented an essay written by his grandchild as one of the most remarkable prose pieces of his time. He had it published in a literary magazine. It was entitled “My Dog”, and ran as follows: “My dog resembles a bear; he also resembles a badger; he also resembles a fox…” It proceeded to enumerate the dog’s special characteristics, comparing each one to yet another animal, developing into a full list of the animal kingdom. However, the essay closed with, “But since he’s a dog, he most resembles a dog.”

I remember bursting out laughing when I read this essay, but it makes a serious point. Cinema resembles so many other arts. If cinema has very literary characteristics, it also has theatrical qualities, a philosophical side, attributes of painting and sculpture and musical elements. But cinema is, in the final analysis, cinema.

The scene below, from Budd Boetticher’s seminal Western Seven Men From Now (1956), admittedly the finest the director has ever filmed, pretty much exemplifies what I consider divine filmmaking.

 

 

Check how the actors are directed and how they perform. There is no attempt to ‘express’ feelings or emotions. This is classical acting (miles away from the indulgent Method) where the burden of performance is transferred from physical behaviour of individuals to a pregnant, anxious network of glances. These skewed glances, directed sideways or off-screen, simultaneously perform the task of evoking necessary emotions as well as creating meaning through their association with whom they are directed at.

Check how the actors are positioned and framed. Each of the setups – the close-ups and the two shots – finds its proper place and generates its own tension. The two shots, even though partly the result of a necessity, consist of either Gail Russell and Randalph Scott sitting besides each other or Lee Marvin and Walter Reed, the former perched just behind and above the latter, and forebodes relationships that would become significant from here on.

Check how the whole conversation is edited. Each shot both carries the burden of the previous and prefigures what is to follow. Each one is cut just as a glance is cast and carried to a finish: long enough to register whom it is addressed to and what it means and short enough to avoid ramming down the idea or emotion down our throats. The audience’s gaze, likewise, is transferred from one actor to another in the same fluid movement, with precise vanishing points, as the chain of glances.

It would be a little helpful to know the textual background of the scene in appreciating it better. Ben Stride, an ex-Sheriff in search of a holdup gang, falls in love with Annie Greer (Russell), the wife of farmer John Greer (Reed), who is on his way to California. Bill Masters (Marvin) is a bounty hunter eyeing the money that the bank robbers possess. Stride, Masters and Greer are all antitheses to each other. The righteous, hardboiled and gentlemanly Stride is in sharp contrast to the lewd, trigger-happy and similarly lonesome, yearning Masters – one of the characteristic Boetticher-Kennedy characters of the old West with a classic morality – who scorns at the meek, soft-spoken and ‘unmanly’ nature of outsider Greer.

Consider the segment from 2’28” to 2’52”. (Although such breakdown rarely recapitulates the richness of watching the scene first hand, first time, it is interesting to examine why it works the way it works). It is made up of 5 shots – all close-ups – beginning with Masters reporting in detail how beautiful Greer’s wife is, as he stares into her eyes. Cut to Annie, visibly uncomfortable at the description, glances at her husband sitting on her right and off-screen, hinting him, with a gentle rightward tilt of her head, to intervene. Cut to a distressed John, who quickly ‘delegates’ Annie’s request to Stride, possibly the only person capable of countering Masters in this situation. Stride, though never critical of John’s timidity, is never approving of it either. A true blue Man of the West, he expects a man to speak up for his wife and, consequently, rejects John’s request, resolutely staring back at him. Cut back to John, his lowered gaze realizing what is asked of him, his gritting teeth revealing his inability to do it.

Seven Men From Now

Seven Men From Now

Seven Men From Now

Seven Men From Now

Seven Men From Now

Seven Men From Now

Seven Men From Now

Seven Men From Now

Seven Men From Now

There is nothing in the script that demands such an execution. (There are a million ways to botch up the scene, not least by including great “actors”). True that the writing – and Burt Kennedy’s debut script is as terrific as they come – sets up the characters and their relationships elaborately, but it is this confluence of remarkable performances, cinematography, editing and direction lays bare the entire dynamics of the scenario with a handful of shots with ruthless precision. It is in scenes such as these – the ones between the pages and lines of a script – where Film comes to life. Standing on the shoulders of its script, the film reaches places that the former possibly can’t. To steal from Bazin, it is a question of building a secondary work with the script as foundation. In no sense is the film “comparable” to the script or “worthy” of it. It is a new aesthetic creation, the script, so to speak, multiplied by the cinema.

Death and the Maiden (1994)
English
Roman Polanski

(Spoilers, sort of)

This scene here is the climax of one of Polanski’s very best films, Death and the Maiden (1994). Let me not elaborate on the plot details and just say that Dr. Miranda (Ben Kingsley) is making a certain confession to Paulina (Sigourney Weaver) about his dark past as her husband, Gerardo (Stuart Wilson), watches on. If the whole of Polanski’s filmography is to be summed up in one line, is must be that key quote from Chinatown (1974) – that man is capable of doing anything given the right circumstances. This monologue where Miranda, himself a variant of John Huston’s character from Chinatown, confesses is, arguably, the most important shot in all of Polanski. Death and the Maiden is not a film dealing with the Holocaust per se, but, as it is with most Polanski films, the parallels are striking (it’s kind of like how The Pianist (2002) wasn’t about the Holocaust at all, even when it dealt with it). The film, and particularly this sequence here, is exactly what Holocaust cinema should all be about. There are no painstakingly recreated details of the war here, no tacked up statements about the triumph of the human spirit and, thankfully, no beautification of the horror (a trap that films as latest as Polytechnique and The City of Life and Death (both 2009) fall into) for the sake of creating art. It’s a film that deals with the impact and significance of a holocaust rather than the mishap itself. And, most importantly, it’s a rare film that truly knows, in Peter Rainer’s words, that “it is the artist’s job to show us that the monster is, in fact, a human being”.

This scene here is filmed as a close up and records Miranda, looking slightly towards the left, recollecting the past in fine detail. The composition is noteworthy here. Polanski could have filmed Kingsley head-on, with him staring into the camera, whereby cinema would intimately and truthfully perform its humble, ethical and mandatory function of acknowledging that “the monster is indeed a human”. But, despite its advantages, if it were done so, the image of Ben Kingsley would overwhelm that of Miranda and break the credibility of the diegetic events, thereby going exactly against the purpose of the shot. The casting of Ben Kingsley here as Miranda is remarkable. He is, I believe, one of those stock stars who wouldn’t be as comfortable when cast in roles much different from one another (Brad Pitt, Bill Murray and Jack Nicholson are few others I can think of now). Kingsley excels in indifference. There is something both pitifully innocent and terrifyingly sinister about his introversive image. His voice is flat, nevertheless brimming with pathos. It is simultaneously befitting of the scene’s intent and appalling to realize that this “Gandhi” turns out to be such a “Hitler” and, more importantly, that this Hitler belongs to the same species as Mohandas Gandhi and Itzhak Stern. (It’s the exact kind of casting decision that von Trier made recently when he bestowed Willem Dafoe with the twin distinction of having played both the Christ and the Antichrist). The result is one of Polanski’s finest and a new direction for Holocaust cinema.

The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)

The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)

Pregnant with so many allusions, the shot above from Victor Erice’s masterwork The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) that isn’t just the greatest one in this film, but one of the greatest shots in cinema I’ve ever seen.

In the early part of the film, little Ana (Ana Torrent, astounding) watches James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) in the town hall, only to be obsessed by its images. Later in the film, as she wanders off into the woods after she comes to know that the partisan soldier has been killed, she has this vision of Frankenstein meeting her by the lake – the shot in consideration. Erice captures both of them in profile, composing with perfect symmetry. There are two trees resembling vertical lines that chop of margins from each side of the frame. By using these, Erice creates a frame within the frame – the double framing device – and presents a reference (and a tribute) to a similar shot from Whale’s Frankenstein that Ana watches earlier (screenshot below). The double framing also allows him to distance us from the film and to remind that we are watching only a movie and that we shouldn’t take what we see too seriously – the same message that we are given prior to the screening of the James Whale film. Erice achieves the first kind of reflection by making life (the horror of the Franco regime that Ana discovers) imitate art (the horror film within the film), employing an art form that tries to imitate life. The reflection of the moon on water replaces the projector beam and the darkness of the night replaces that of the cinema hall.

Many times throughout the film, Erice compares Ana to Frankenstein, for they are both marginal beings oblivious to the fascist laws of the beehive – the society – that do not tolerate any form of anomaly, opposition or subversion. By locating Ana and Frankenstein on either side of the frame’s median, Erice brings in one more element of reflection to compare (and contrast) Ana and Frankenstein. Furthermore, the director provides to the shot a third form of reflection by placing the audience in Ana’s shoes. When Ana watches Frankenstein, she asks her sister, during the movie, why Frankenstein kills the little girl and why is he killed by the people. Following this, Erice introduces another Frankenstein figure into the film – the wounded partisan soldier – only to have him killed by the police. With this shot, we are forced to recall why the soldier (whose murder, possibly, brings to life this Frankenstein that Ana sees) was killed and why this little girl is haunted by all these images that she sees – almost the same question that Ana asks her sister in the film. Don’t they say that life imitates art?

Frankenstein (1931)

Frankenstein (1931)

Ratatouille (2007)
English
Brad Bird, Jan Pinkava

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Pixar is the king of the animation industry in Hollywood. Right from its first full length feature Toy Story (1995), Pixar has almost single-handedly charted out the roadmap for the industry and has inspired hundreds to take up a profession in the field of animation. Its movies have been universally identified as witty, funny, amazingly detailed and ultimate fun. But it is the final sequence of Ratatouille that takes them onto a whole new level.

The scene I’m talking about begins just after the hilarious moment where the notorious food critic Anton Ego is reminded of his mother’s cooking right after he tastes the little chef’s masterpiece – Ratatouille. He walks off from the restaurant and delivers a monologue (narrated by the formidable voice of Peter O’Toole) that may just be Pixar’s best piece of writing ever. Here is the transcript followed by the scene itself.

In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations, the new needs friends. Last night, I experienced something new, an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions about fine cooking is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core. In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto: Anyone can cook. But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere. It is difficult to imagine more humble origins than those of the genius now cooking at Gusteau’s, who is, in this critic’s opinion, nothing less than the finest chef in France. I will be returning to Gusteau’s soon, hungry for more.

What Anton says about food criticism is so applicable to film criticism and art criticism, in general.  Anton beautifully expresses how critics assume attitudes and turn down lifelong dreams with the scribble of a pen. He learns to acknowledge the effort behind every piece of work – both the inspiring and the insipid – and learns, in his own words, not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere. He learns to enjoy first and judge later, be open to novelty and ultimately accept every piece of work as it is. And finally when Linguni asks what Anton would like for dinner, the latter glances at Remy and says “Surprise me”. And that is exactly what critics like Roger Ebert seem to be doing – basking in the sheer joy of cinema.

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