Saturday, January 30, 2016

La Glace à Trois Faces (The Three-Sided Mirror, Jean Epstein 1927)

I watched this remarkable 1927 Jean Epstein silent film to learn something about French Impressionism, an avant-garde film movement that developed in France in the 1920s and had great influence on later European cinema. I tried to look at it with humility and curiosity, but without letting its stature as a Highly Significant Silent Movie interfere in any way with my enjoyment of it.

What struck me most was the wide variety of techniques employed, which I will attempt to illustrate in the following, and by the attention to eyes and gazes. A scene at a park focusing on the interplay of looks between two love rivals and the woman they compete for had me totally spellbound. Eyes are also essential to immerse the viewer into the characters' psychology, which is the main focus of most Impressionist films.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

"He gave the audience absolutely nothing": Umberto D (Vittorio De Sica, 1952)

Recent years have seen a proliferation of films centering on elderly people and their struggle to be happy in spite of health problems and low life expectancy. Mainstream cinema has not failed to recognize the potential of stories about old people engaging in passionate and sometimes exotic love (It's Complicated, Marigold Hotel), overcoming social and ethnic barriers (The Bucket List), or pursuing artistic and personal fulfillment in the face of illness and weakness (Quartet). 

A common denominator of such productions seems to be the underlying message that it's never too late for anything, no matter how hard the clinical picture. Moreover, these movies often play with common beliefs about elderly people, who are not supposed to behave and feel the way young people do. We have become accustomed mainly to two stereotypes: the grumpy old man who comes out of his shell and commits to love (Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets) and the adorable old lady who occasionally turns out to be more easy-going and hedonistic than we would expect from a woman that age (a prototype could be Ruth Gordon's character in Harold and Maude). From variations on these two character types originates much of the geriatric comedy we see in film today.

All these stories somewhat exorcize and offer us a consolation from a not-so-enticing prospect that, in the best case, awaits us in the future. But it's not my intention to make fun of those who enjoy this type of entertainment. If you ask me, I'm simply terrified by the idea of one day finding myself decrepit, ill, alone in this world, and financially incapable of even procure myself a mercy killing in a more civilized country than mine. Death is nothing in comparison to this. Unfortunately, watching senescent people preparing weed cakes or engaging in wild sex gives me depression rather than consolation, and I usually tend to prefer movies that maintain a certain level of honesty about the matter.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The sound that wasn't there: Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia

As always, David Bordwell's observations on very specific aspects of film art prompt us to search through our mental movie database for instances of particular cinematic techniques. Thinking about the movies we watch in a "transversal" way is an efficient test for checking how much attention we pay to film style, and trying to recall films featuring a particular framing, cut, camera movement, mise-en-scene etc. can actually turn out to be a surprisingly difficult and not always fruitful operation.

A recent entry in Bordwell's blog is dedicated to the use of sound in Nightmare Alley, a 1947 film featuring the downfall of an unscrupulous man working as a barker in a traveling carnival. In particular, Bordwell analyzes a scene in which a police siren is heard, but we can't clearly determine whether this sound is subjective (like an auditory hallucination), objective (probably coming from an off-screen police car), or whether it eludes both categories. He then contextualizes the scene within the overall film, showing that ambiguous sound cues form a motif and in certain cases represent a sort of commentary on the action. I invite you to read his astonishingly detailed, insanely entertaining analysis.

Nightmare Alley merits our attention because it employs sound in unusual ways. In fact, most 1940s films conform to the stylistic palette available at the time, choosing unambiguously between objective and subjective sound and abiding by well-established conventions (for instance, subjective sound is typically signaled by a rather close shot of the character hearing that sound). Nightmare Alley instead challenges those norms, and encourages us to think about things we normally take for granted in movies.

It seems natural at this point to ask whether Nightmare Alley's innovative use of sound is a one-off instance, or if more examples exist. Can you think of a film in which a particular sound doesn't strictly respect the objective/subjective distinction? Note that here we are not taking into consideration the diegetic/nondiegetic categories applied to music. I came up with just one example, Sam Peckinpah's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974). Spoilers galore!

Sunday, September 20, 2015

How to prevent a carnage: Diplomacy (Volker Schlöndorff, 2014)

Diplomacy is the kind of movie you might expect to find in the film schedule of one of those invaluable government-funded cultural organizations like the Alliance Française or the Goethe Institut that foster international education programs, promoting tolerance, peace and intercultural dialogue. A Franco-German co-production dedicated to the memory of American diplomat Richard Holbrooke, also a friend and former collaborator of the director, Volker Schlöndorff's latest is amongst other things a celebration of humanitarianism and transnational cooperation over belligerence and blind obedience. The film  whose original title itself is cross-boundary, "Diplomatie" being both a French and a German word  is a fictionalized account of how the destruction of Paris ordered by Hitler in 1944 was warded off thanks to intensive negotiations conducted over the course of a single night by the Nazi-appointed military governor of Paris Dietrich von Choltitz (played by Niels Arestrup) and the Swedish consul-general Raoul Nordling (André Dussolier).

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Musical Interludes II: The editor's hell. A few notes on Polanski's The Pianist

In my previous entry I discussed musical performance in Letter From An Unknown Woman, Max Ophüls's 1948 classic about a woman's life-long obsession for a mediocre pianist. In particular, I observed how little realistic the scenes with Louis Jourdan at the piano were  a strange thing indeed, at least to a modern sensibility, for a film where musical talent plays so huge a role in the story. Ophüls replaced Jourdan with a hand double whenever possible, but he couldn't avoid exposing the actor's incompetence at the keyboard in a crucial scene.

Let's jump forward half a century to Roman Polanski's ultra famous 2002 drama The Pianist. Set during WWII, it tells the story of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish-Jewish pianist (played by an emaciated Adrien Brody) who escapes deportation to the extermination camp of Treblinka. Polanski, a Holocaust survivor himself, based the film on Szpilman's own book of memoirs, first published in 1946 and later in 1998.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Musical Interludes I: Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophüls, 1948)

Jakob Gimpel's hands playing Liszt's "Un Sospiro" in Letter from an Unknown Woman.
Every time someone is playing a musical instrument in a movie, I can't help but pay attention to how realistic the performance is. And since I'm an amateur piano player myself (something my neighbors will never stop thanking for) I particularly enjoy scrutinizing finger movements on the piano keyboard when an actor is performing, or pretending to. Do you have the same compulsion?

Monday, April 20, 2015

Jacques Kapralik (1906 - 1960)

Kapralik's illustration for The Philadelphia Story (1940).
Those of you who regularly follow David Bordwell's blog will have already caught up with his latest
post about an unidentified artist who during the 1940s made stylish, elaborate tableaux to promote some top MGM productions. These peculiar works are made with cutout figures of the actors involved and 3D objects as well, creating a nice contrast between the flatness of the formers and the depth of the latters. 

Given that the artist's signature is a "K", I guess we are dealing with the work of Jacques Kapralik, a well-known Romanian caricaturist born in Bucharest in 1906 and emigrated to the US in 1936. In the internet you can find excellent material on the subject; film critic Leonard Maltin even dedicated an article to Kapralik's artistry and career. (Since a copyright infringement is last on my list of priorities, the image above comes straight from Bordwell's blog; it is a scan from an edition of the Hollywood Reporter.)

Friday, April 3, 2015

Chromatic shocks, or the unexpected virtue of black-and-white inserts

What do Disney's 1951 extravagant rendition of Alice in Wonderland and Quentin Tarantino's martial-arts flick Kill Bill have in common? As you'll have guessed, it involves a particular use of black and white. To my knowledge, no other movie has employed it this way  if you know more examples, please let me know. So let's see what it is and why it is so peculiar.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Adieu au Langage: A shamelessly self-celebratory update

Well, apparently I'm not talking nonsense all the time: writer/translator/director Ted Fendt has updated his in-progress list of works cited in Jean-Luc Godard's Adieu au Langage on his MUBI page, adding my conjecture about the now-famous movie's epigraph, "Those lacking in imagination take refuge in reality".

My guess is that the phrase may have been suggested to Godard by an article from "Le Monde" written by French author Marie Darrieussecq. Here you can find my original post on the film, and here is (*Serious-Film-Critic Alert*) Ted's film blog.

Monday, March 9, 2015

A most innocuous enfant terrible: Mommy (Xavier Dolan, 2014)

Like a big Chekhov's gun with the price tag still attached inevitably destined to go off in the final act  no real spoiler here  a sci-fi premise opens Xavier Dolan's latest film: in the year 2015, a superimposed text informs, a Canadian law is enacted that allows parents of mentally ill children to give them in full and irreversible custody to the state's health care system. This not only gives us a rather precise idea about where the story is going to end, but also speaks volumes about how superficial is going to be Dolan's approach to mental illness. Because how blinkered you have to be to ignore how inadequately, to put it mildly, institutions have treated and still treat psychiatric disorders in most societies, and to even make a futuristic preamble out of a burning social problem. The longstanding issue of whether psychiatric patients should be taken care of by the government or the family has no simple solution; involuntary seclusion, and I'm not complaining, is still applied when they threaten other people's safety or their own, with great sadness on the part of the families and those involved. By just setting his movie in the present day Mr. Dolan would have had as much tragedy as he liked.