Hollywood


[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

“Matching the labyrinthine machinery of the plot is an equally complex cinematography. Shot by Hungarian emigré Ernest Laszlo, Kiss Me Deadly employs a camera choreography that rivals those of Orson Welles and Max Ophüls, as do the low-angle, deep space compositions. A three-minute scene of Hammer questioning a contact at a boxing gym is filmed in a single shot. It includes a conversation about a champion boxer in the ring without even a glimpse of the ring. Another three-minute shot, dominated by horizontal camera movements, finds Hammer grilling a soprano in a cramped hotel room. Aldrich varies his sequence construction from scene to scene, and the film remains as unpredictable on the visual level as on its narrative level.

The single most accomplished element of the film, though, is its multi-layered sound design that imparts complementary values to everything we see. This principle is evident from the credits sequence onwards, in which Nat King Cole’s I’d Rather Have the Blues is overlaid with the sound of heavy breathing of the girl in Hammer’s car—we know something is off right away. Throughout, Aldrich mixes in ambient noise—the buzz of the boxing gym, the sound of the sea, street traffic—in a way that expands the world we see on screen. At times, he superposes contradictory sound elements running against the grain of the image. So you have chamber music playing as a voice threatens Hammer on the phone. Or Schubert’s Eighth Symphony over the detective’s interrogation of a witness. In one stylized action sequence, Hammer’s escape is scored simultaneously to a piece of generic music, the sound of the ocean and sports commentary.”

 

[Full article at Firstpost]

  • A pre-code sex comedy is just as outrageous as it sounds. But Lubitsch’s sense of suggestion is so subtle and delicate that it suffuses the whole film, colouring ordinary lines and sequences with sexual charge. In another musical, the morning-after breakfast song, “Magic in the Muffin”, might pass largely without a guffaw. Every object becomes a sexual symbol, its value predicated on the fact that the connection isn’t made concrete. The whole movie talks about only one thing—the perils of testicular thought—without actually talking about it.
  • The scene between Colbert and Hopkins is a masterpiece of subversive feminism later reprised by Monroe and Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. It’s a bedroom scene in which two young women fight, reconcile and drool over descriptions of their common lover in various stages of undress. They don’t discuss anything but the man, their need for the man, about the sort of song to sing for the man, the kind of lingerie they should wear to please the man. (And it turns out that the man needs nothing more.) And through these rather anti-Bechdel exchanges, they arrive at the film’s most memorable, moving relationship based on recognition of mutual desires and vulnerabilities. Both actors reproduce lines and gestures conceived by men, but their comic genius consists of owning it and making them their own. The scene simply collapses without their intelligence.
  • There’s hardly a funny line in the script, but the film is hysterical. All the comedy derives from the acting (Chevalier alone carries a ridiculous French accent while others speak American), line delivery, découpage and cutting. Seventy-four shots feature opening or closing doors (and countless others have doors and doorways as the backdrop)—every fourth or fifth shot of the film. Besides tying into Lubitsch’s obsession with what goes on behind closed doors, it performs a musical function here. Equally distributed as clusters of 3-6 shots through the film—but never happening during the song sequences, which unfold mostly in single shots—they lend a snappy, dance-like rhythm to the script and impart the viewer a feeling of constant movement.
  • The doors are also a brilliant means to sendup Old World mores, whose chambers of secrets barely conceal a neurotic obsession with sex. (The principle is the same in Polanski’s new film, but the object of obsession there are Jews.) Having spent a decade in America, Lubitsch is evidently taken by the cultural and intellectual directness of his new homeland (a fact that reflects in the stylistic sobriety of his Hollywood pictures). A sense of liberation is palpable in the way he ridicules pre-war European pretensions. The king of a tiny country in Mitteleuropa rues bourgeois power (“A thousand years ago they were even smaller than we. It’s only the last 700 years they’ve got anywhere.”) while his daughter threatens that she’ll marry an American if her wishes aren’t granted. But it’s a double-edged satire, directed as much at American puritanism (the hero is a slacker, womanizer, cheat and a decadent—this is established in the first minute) as European ritual.

[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

“And yet, Moonrise makes an appeal for Danny. There’s a Christian charity at work in the film, no doubt part of Borzage’s temperament. Borzage, the most affirmatively Catholic of filmmakers in Hollywood along with John Ford and Frank Capra, shares the perspectives of Mose, Gilly and the sheriff. The church is present only at the margins of the story, but its fundamental spirit of forbearance suffuses the film. There’s a relentless seriousness about Moonrise that Borzage, unlike Ford and Capra, refuses to dilute with comic relief. There’s no irony or scepticism to be found in Borzage’s work, which embodies a sincerity almost pre-modern.

On the other hand, Moonrise signals a shift away from the director’s established style of soft, top lighting and diffusion filters. Working with fledgling cinematographer John Russell, freshly off Orson Welles’ Macbeth (1948), Borzage goes for an expressionistic style of high chiaroscuro. The framing is deep, the edges sharp and the shadows dark. The fisticuff between Danny and Jerry is as rough as anything in Fritz Lang, as is the manic frenzy of a key scene involving a Ferris wheel. The focus on hands, as in the extended shot that opens a conversation between Danny and Gilly or the shot where the sheriff tries to trap an insect on a table, brings in a materialist, hard-boiled texture to the images, far from the ethereal aesthetic characteristic of Borzage, where human beings often vanish into pure concepts.

It isn’t wholly unlikely that this change in style was influenced by the production company, Republic Pictures, one of the smaller Hollywood studios. Modesty of means often calls for invention, as is evident in a sequence at a railway station. The whole scene consists of shots of five people waiting on a platform bench. We never get a reverse shot of the approaching train or its passengers. This displaces the scene’s focus from the new stranger entering town to the reaction of Danny and the townsfolk to his arrival.”

 

[Full article at Firstpost]

[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

“This double signification of Abe as a greenhorn as well as a master rhetorician also manifests in the figure of Henry Fonda, who excelled at conveying good-to-the-bone innocence without making it seem boyish. His blank stares often serve as a clean slate on which viewers project their own emotions. Fonda is self-effacing in several sequences of the film. For most part of the final trial scene, his Abe is merely a dark silhouette seen from behind. He sits on the floor, refers to books at the corner of the courtroom, and stands at the judge’s desk with his head buried in his hands. It is not until he wins the case, when the familiar figure in a top hat walks transfixed towards cheering, off-screen crowds, that his character assumes a mythical aura, that his Abe finally becomes Lincoln.

Henry Fonda was a tall man, 187 centimetres in height, six less than the real Lincoln. Few directors understood as well as Ford that he was a great actor of the legs. The filmmaker accentuates Abraham’s clumsiness by focusing on Fonda’s long legs, which seem even longer the way he wears his trousers up over his navel. When we first see Fonda, he’s on a chair, with his legs crossed over a barrel. This horizontal position—made iconic in Fonda’s later collaboration with Ford, My Darling Clementine (1946)—will appear several times in the film, most strikingly in the final courtroom scene. When Abe is reading a book in the woods, his head rests on a log and his legs are posed against a tree. He then sits up, leans against the tree and works the log with his left leg. He scratches his right shin as he mulls over the words of the law. When Ann shows up shortly on the other side of a fence, he approaches her and hops over the high rail with an ungainly leap. Ford captures the actor in many such unflattering poses, making the legendary statesman feel more human, one among the people.”

 

[Full article at Firstpost]

Stavisky… (1974, Alain Resnais)


Inglourious Basterds (2009, Quentin Tarantino)

[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

 

“Wilder’s images in the film are dynamic, with an emphasis on the diagonal throughout. The recurring shot of Chuck peering at Leo through a gap in the rocks has a straight line slashing across the screen, producing a sense of both instability and claustrophobia. A scene of Chuck corrupting the sheriff by promising him a re-election is shot in a tight space to conjure an atmosphere of twisted intimacy. Wilder makes the lighting progressively dramatic, and the shots are increasingly invaded by shadows as the film advances. He films Chuck from a slightly low angle all through, the compositions taking his character from assertive to threatening to positively malevolent.  

             Central to the composition is the figure of Kirk Douglas himself. An emblem of classical, rugged masculinity, Douglas had a face that was uncertain in its signification. While his wavy locks and genial smile gave him an air of a Greek god, his cleft chin, like those of Robert Mitchum and Cary Grant, and protruding jaw line bestowed a slightly sinister aura. Douglas plays with this ambivalence in Ace in the Hole. His characteristic head tilt combines with his leaning posture to accentuate the diagonality of the shots. Douglas peppers his performance with fleeting but eye-catching gestures—a matchstick dragged over a typewriter, the flip of a bottle, a snap of the suspenders, a spectacular drop of his cigarette into a glass of water after persuading the sheriff—to suggest a master rhetorician at work.  

            Chuck is a New York man, a master of the universe for whom a job at a small-town press is just a sojourn. Douglas conveys this sense of superiority in the fable-like first scene in which he strolls, unannounced and unflappably, into the newspaper office to sell himself. His tone and gesture paint him as a man who stands tall over the poor chumps of Albuquerque. But he becomes restless when he finds himself stuck with his $60/week job even after a year. In a remarkable scene filmed in a single shot, he paces about the news room, delivering a begrudging paean to New York life, evoking both nostalgia and desperation. His zing returns when he smells a breakthrough story, and he plays up his east coast exceptionalism by rough-housing a deputy sheriff.”

 

[Full article at Firstpost]

[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

“There’s a starkly new style of acting afoot in Vidor’s film, no doubt informed by the nature of the material at hand. Unusually for a Hollywood hero, Roark is not someone the viewer identifies with. Vidor’s direction divorces our perspective from that of Roark, whom we get to know only through information supplied by other characters. In the opening volley of exchanges, Roark stands as a silhouette at the edge of the frame, as his varying interlocutors describe his personality by way of cautionary advice: stubborn, uncompromising, visionary, individualistic, too idealist for this business. Throughout the film, we hear about the brilliance of Roark’s Frank Lloyd Wright-like designs, but we’re never told why they are so.

Cooper, in turn, dials down his already minimalist style and turns the character into a near-mythical figure. Many shots present him from the back, his obscured profile lending him a larger-than-life presence. Rand’s story constantly compares buildings to people and locates the integrity or inauthenticity of architects in the designs they produce. Roark, like his creations, is solemn, impassive, upright, impenetrable and flawless. Cooper is really playing a slab of marble here. He stands tall, hardly moves and performs very few actions. Except for a pair of gestures involving his fingers, his hands always remain close to his body or in his pockets. Whatever reactions he has, he conveys using microscopically calibrated facial expressions. His general unflappability becomes a moral quality, set against the neurotic body language of characters like his frazzled, covering peer Keating (Kent Smith). This idea of laconic speech and reduced physical movement conveying a superiority of character was already present in Cooper’s role in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), and it’s taken to its philosophical extreme in The Fountainhead, thanks in no small part to Rand’s scenario.”

 

[Full article at Firstpost]

It only takes two minutes for Sam Mendes’ WWI saga 1917 to set up its premise. A pair of lance corporals (George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) are entrusted by the General (Colin Firth) no less to courier a message to another battalion camping nine miles away. Failure to convey the message before dawn will result in the sure death of 1,600 soldiers. Its implausibility aside, this is an extremely cinematic setup, allowing the story to follow a pair of characters from point A to B. But Mendes chooses to film the entire two-hour narrative in an apparently single take, in the process snuffing out the rich possibilities of the premise.

            Like Dunkirk, 1917 is an experiment in film narrative. And like Nolan’s film, it is a failure that’s instructive in the way it fails. The director of Dunkirk had interwoven not just three timelines, which is standard practice, but three timescales: unfolding over a week, a day and an hour but sharing the same screen time. But in popular cinematic grammar, multiple closely intercut narrative threads evoke a sense of simultaneity. Failing that, a thematic correlation as is the case with films like Cloud Atlas or Wonderstruck. Nolan’s consciously anti-grammatical film demands the viewer to actively shift the time markers in their head back and forth, compelling him/her to recognize the various ways war is experienced by its participants despite a unity of mission. Whatever the mechanistic thrills of this formal scheme, the process remains intellectual, far more exigent than the intuitive pleasures offered by the accelerated editing of The Dark Knight series.

            1917 complements the challenge, choosing to preserve the spatial and temporal integrity of the narrative by filming it in a single shot. We understand right away, thanks to the history of war movies, that the corporals are going to make it to their destination no matter what, but we also know that they cannot possibly cover nine miles in two hours of real time, considering that they travel mostly on foot. It’s then immediately clear that Mendes has to fudge his filmmaking for the story to reach its conclusion. While the single shot setup purports to offer a slice of real time, as in Jafar Panahi’s Offside, the narrative itself is telescoped artificially into two hours.

            Mendes conveys a sense of passing distance and time, without it actually happening, by chaining together a series of starkly different landscapes: cramped trenches, marshlands, lush meadows, drab fields, a surreally lit, ruined city, water bodies and trenches once more. The movement of the corporals from one landscape to another serves the same purpose as a fade-out in conventional movies: to evoke a sensation of ellipse in the viewer. What we then have is an edit-less edit, like in those commercials where the actor seamlessly moves from one vastly different environment to another while seeming to simply walk across rooms. The principle is that of video games, where we find the same idea of telescoping longer durations and distances into shorter screen time, even when the player has a feeling of contiguous experience.

            The lack of cuts undermines the effect in another way too. Given that the viewer is planted in the here and the now, there’s no suspense against which the corporals’ action is to be measured. Hitchcock’s theory of suspense involves the revelation of dramatic stakes by a cutaway (to a ticking bomb, for instance). But considering we never know what’s at risk while the corporals are getting delayed, or if they’re getting delayed at all, we don’t share the urgency that the protagonists express time and again. The French film critic and theorist André Bazin championed long take realism, but only insofar as it preserved the spatial tension of a scene. The shot of an Inuit trying to hunt a seal, in Bazin’s example, has more impact presented in a single shot because it reproduces the danger involved as is. In contrast, conceit of 1917 perennially relegates the danger off-screen, rendering every dramatic development merely a shock.  

            “We experience life much closer to one longer continuous shot”, says Mendes in an interview. But do we? Anyone who has ever watched two people converse across a table will realize that we don’t pay attention to the empty space between them as our eyes leap from one speaker to the other. Our cognitive processes don’t track our ocular movement; our brain incessantly edits out insignificant information. Even our eyes constantly shuttle within a scene, causing counterintuitive mental compensations. Classical Hollywood continuity editing, which relies on closely stitching together vital bits of information from a single space, is thus perhaps more truthful to real experience than the long take. Defending classical scene construction over long shot filmmaking, Jean-Luc Godard wrote: “I would even see in that spatial discontinuity occasioned by shot changes, which certain devotees of the ‘ten-minute takes‘ make a point of despising, the reason for the greater part of the truth which this figure of style contains.

            Indeed, the formal schema of 1917 ensures that it lacks the psychological charge that even the most rudimentary war films contain. Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins rightly suppose that their camera must be able to move 360 degrees around the actors to capture their expression. There are even a handful of closeups in the film to underscore dramatically important moments. But these closeups are simply relayed as discrete packets of new information (grief, shock etc.) without actually anticipating them. The viewer’s identification with a protagonist often passes through a combination of an action and the protagonist’s immediate reaction to it. Think of Kirk Douglas walking through the trenches looking at the cowering soldiers in The Paths of Glory. The continuous camera movement of 1917, however, prevents shot-reverse shot constructions. Here, the roving camera introduces a delay between action and reaction, allowing the viewer to get ahead of the protagonists. Or we see the actors’ reaction before the camera pans to what they are reacting to, which makes the reaction only mysterious.

            Finally, the notion of transforming the most horrifying of wars into an awe-inducing spectacle carries a stench of Big Money cynicism. To be sure, the idea is to immerse the audience into a time-space where there’s no time for mourning or contemplation, where the only action allowed is to move on, physically and mentally. “It doesn’t do to dwell on it”, tells a higher-up to one of the corporals after a tragedy. And there are references to the “horrors of war”, to death and destruction. But all of that is wrapped up in a triumphalist narrative closer to a speedrun through a particularly hard third-person shooter than a meditation on war. Deakins and Mendes concoct several visceral, stunning passages, breaking the monotony of the conceit with regular changes in scale, pace and tone. The viewer is perpetually aware of the creation of this spectacle, even when it tries to conceal it. This self-awareness, though, is led nowhere but a dumb submission to technical virtuosity.

Writing about his son’s enthusiastic visit to the offices of a comic book publisher, American critic Robert Warshow reflected on the benefits of disillusionment: “I think Paul’s desire to put himself directly in touch with the processes by which the comic books are produced may be the expression of a fundamental detachment which helps to protect him from them; the comic books are not a ‘universe’ to him, but simply objects produced for his entertainment.” Maybe 1917 is a new kind of war movie, a proto-Brechtian project that produces an illusion of the world even as it induces a doubt as to how that illusion was produced. And maybe that’s a good thing. We’ll know in time.

[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

“Produced by Warner Brothers, the film traces its lineage partly to psychiatrist Robert Lindner’s eponymous book on psychopathy. While its script does offer ample psychoanalysis of its characters, Nicholas Ray isn’t interested as much in offering a study of these wayward youngsters as obliging the viewer to share their viewpoint. Criminal behaviour is evoked, but it remains off-screen, registering simply as symptoms of a more fundamental problem. Classical Hollywood’s poet laureate of youth, Nicholas Ray immerses us into a world in which adults are only powerless spectators. His focus is on young people living through the final hours of a tumultuous period in their lives. The film unfolds in just over a day, a duration in which the teens break with their parents, make friends, experience death, find love and come of their own.

In one famous scene, the school takes its students to the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles for a show on constellations. The youngers’ rivalries and grudges seem positively petty set against the commentator’s remarks on the insignificance of human life on the cosmic scale. On the other hand, the emotions they are living through is a veritable end-of-the-world scenario for them. Jim and his peers are, as it were, “half in love with easeful death”, even though they don’t wholly understand the concept. They engage in a sensational knife fight outside the observatory in a display of one-upmanship. That night, they continue their battle in the form of a “chickie race”, which involves driving stolen cars towards a cliff and jumping off at the last moment. Jim survives, but his rival Buzz (Corey Allen) perishes. As Jim unsuccessfully explains to his parents that he should turn himself in and walks away to the police station, the other youngsters decide to threaten him against it. This leads to a long night of strife in which all the teenagers of the town are out on the streets, the adults relegated to the margins of this failed society. Running away from the mob, Jim, Judy and Plato end up at a deserted mansion near the observatory. They romance, crack jokes and horse around in the dark—a behaviour much removed from the death-stricken panic of the hour before. If the film’s depiction of the youngsters’ amoral power games was a sharp deviation from the clear moral binaries of classical Hollywood, this indifferent response to a fatal incident borders on the scandalous.”

 

[Full article at Firstpost]

[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

“The film is adapted from a short story by Ernest Haycox, but there’s something European, particularly French, about its suspicion of mainstream society. It might have to do with the fact that Stagecoach traces its lineage partly to Guy de Maupassant’s short story “Boule de Suif”. Ford’s cinema isn’t particularly known for its affection for outsider figures, but Stagecoach exhibits a deep affinity for outcasts and deadbeats, conventionally unsuccessful characters who are “victims of social prejudice”. Perhaps Ford the Catholic saw in Dallas the fallen woman, Ringo the orphan, Boone the drunk and Peacock the unmanly a kingdom of the meek. In contrast, the Law and Order League, the group of society women that kicks Dallas and the doctor out of the town, is presented as a bunch of busybodies scandalized at the smallest gesture of nonconformity. When Dallas and Ringo drive away from the town at the end, the doc cries out, “saved from the blessings of civilization”.

            The critique of an exclusionary community is conveyed primarily through the character of Dallas, who is the heart of the narrative. All through the film, Ford emphasizes her pain of not belonging and her gratefulness at those treating her with dignity. Everyone, except the banker, eventually comes to respect her, yet she can’t become a part of them. Towards the end, when the group reaches its destination, Mrs. Mallory and company are taken indoors by the townsfolk, Dallas left standing at the doorstep. A contemplative moment finds her alone gathering her belongings from the coach. It’s a direct predecessor to the last shot of Ford’s The Searchers (1956) where it’s John Wayne standing alone at the entrance, incapable of taking part in the community.”

 

[Full article at Firstpost]

Next Page »