Saturday, October 17, 2009

A Bit of Spotty Bother - 1896 style

I spotted something really bizarre in the short film "A Nightmare"/"Le Cauchemar" from 1896 by Georges Méliès. You can read a summary of this very short film here or here, or watch it on one of the great Georges Méliès DVDs. (I watched it on this one.)

The crazy thing I found is, in the final scene, when we cut back to the original bedroom, Méliès' groin area is hand-blacked out by spotty marks. I am not trying to be a wise guy. You can see it in the last screen grab in this rotten tomatoes review. Here is the photo for convenience:

(click to enlarge)

But it is even more evident when you watch it on DVD, especially if your DVD player has a zoom feature, because the black dots are clearly hand-drawn on every frame—they hop around erratically (almost like they're animated...!). In the prior scene, this character had jumped around acrobatically, and possibly this is where some piece of fabric came loose. They had to do a camera stop where the actor (Georges Méliès himself) froze in position on the bed while the set is changed around him. In the finished film it is jump-cut together so that the background disappears instantly and he is awakened from his nightmare, back in his bedroom.

He is wearing sleeping underclothes, and maybe one of these two scenarios occurred: 1) Out of propriety, an exhibitor from way back when, or someone who owned the film print at some point in history, blacked it out because maybe there was a bulge they found offensive 2) Méliès (or his team) blacked it out on all prints (or the negative) because his flap had accidentally fallen open, leaving him exposed.

If it's the latter, you may ask, why wouldn't they reshoot? If you look at how exactly the match cut is of his body position between these scenes, perhaps this was the preferred solution (the screen grabs here don't show this—you have to watch the film). This is 1896, and Méliès is discovering and mastering new film techniques, and my guess is that replicating this special effect cut may have been daunting compared with simply blacking out the offending region. He had to freeze himself in a very awkward position (legs in the air) in the bed while his crew rearranged the set, until they turned the camera back on.

It was apparently quite hurried because you can see the remnant of the prior "nightmare" set on the right of screen which has not been properly covered up by the new set. Compare the before and after shots below. The bed (looks like a wheelbarrow) is in the exact same position in the frame, and the remnant of the first set is visible on the right side in the second frame grab.

Some film historian should be put to work to answer this important question! For instance, if all the existing film prints have this blacking out, then it likely originates in the negative. But if there is a "clean" print out there, then we can look at what was blacked out and make a guess as to why.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Il generale della Rovere (1959, Rossellini) - review

(Don't be scared off by the drab cover art. The film is lighter, more fun and engaging than this serious-looking cover belies.)

Roberto Rossellini can be newly appreciated these days thanks to the appearance of a wide variety of his films on DVD—including several that I think were not available on VHS. He seems to have lagged behind other major directors in getting his work represented on DVD—and still many of his most significant works are not available. I find myself in the position of having neglected him in favor of other directors, such as those of the Nouvelle Vague and the other Italian directors.

One of the films that I can now evaluate is Il generale della Rovere from 1959. This film makes me question what is it that defines art? Because when I compare it to other films by Rossellini, it is much less "overtly artistic", and far more of a traditional narrative. Certainly there can be traditional narratives that are great works of art, but what is it that gives them that special ingredient that rises to the level of art? I am not attempting to answer the question here, just raising it, but I think it has something to do with the high level of craftsmanship of the writer and director primarily, and then I would compare it to what makes great novels rise to the level of art, even when they are traditional narratives, such as Madame Bovary or The Red and the Black. There is a long history of artists reaching a level of communication and beauty in their artistry in every medium, and why should cinema be any different? But it is interesting when you watch a director who is usually more overtly artistic make a film that is a traditional mainstream narrative.

I think here Rossellini shows, to my surprise and confusion, that he can ably direct a normal studio film. I just kept wondering why he was doing it. (You can find the backstory on how he came to direct the film elsewhere.) The subject matter is certainly above average, and from what I've read, was breaking some new ground in terms of representations of World War II subject matter for Italian audiences. It almost rises to the level of art, but I think because Rossellini is so comfortable in a different type of filmmaking (looser in his earlier days, more experimentally minimalist in his later days), the film does not rise to the high level of art one expects, as if he can't quite reach those heights when taking an approach to the medium that is not in his blood.

It should not be a surprise that he can direct a traditional studio narrative, since he directed several before, including Dov'è la Libertà...? in 1954. And if The White Ship, from 1942, is any indication, he was as much of a studio-trained insider as any of the other Italian directors of his generation. (This is another reason I find myself asking, since he already does know how to direct a traditional studio picture, why he made this film.) As studio-type pictures go, I enjoyed Rossellini's Dov'è la Libertà...? more than Il generale. For characters heading towards the gallows, Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux was far more moving. Chaplin from '47 is surely a far leap from an Italian film from '59, but certain parts where Verdoux is in his cell with his white hair and de Sica is in his cell with his white hair made it hard to suppress comparisons, despite the ridiculously different aims and subjects of the films! But they do both share what is intended as a powerfully moving ending in the same dramatic setting of a prison execution. Perhaps if I had not seen Verdoux, which I considered greatly moving, I would have been more moved by Il generale's ending. Il generale is also similar to other films that I had seen prior, such as Kurosawa's Kagemusha (1980), which was made later, but which I had seen first. (Credit to Isabella Rossellini for pointing out that connection in a video interview.)

I suppose by saying "less overtly artistic," I am comparing Il generale to Viaggio in Italia (1954) most of all. Unlike Godard, Rossellini doesn't call attention to the medium of film itself, so I think I was wrong when I said that earlier. But Viaggio in Italia has a very different feeling to it, one that dispenses with normal plot machinations in favor of the philosophical journey the characters are undergoing, and into which the inquisitive viewer gets deeply drawn and (hopefully) reciprocates with his or her own contemplation on the ideas presented and discussed by the characters. Il generale has entirely traditional plot machinations (not that Rossellini hasn't done this before more than once), but that doesn't mean I can just toss it away as worthless. What is it that can make it great cinema?

If it is reaching heights of poetry that make great cinema—even a dark poetry as is often the case with Rossellini—then Il generale is a lighter success than usual for him. Its ending is moving and perhaps poetic (or maybe one would just call it political or philosophical), but the ending of Germany Year Zero (1948) reaches a height that moves at least this viewer far more deeply. There's something about not fully understanding why a character does something (such as suicide to end that film) that begs to put it in the category of poetry, whereas a moving success of solid storytelling and performance seems to fit into a category more akin to that of great traditional literature or the dramatic arts. I think the difference is made when we fully understand the reasons for the character's heartbreaking demise all along, and we are gut-wrenchingly following them on their journey Those who are more artistically-minded instead tend to praise those films with a poetic angle, where things are only understood either through deeper contemplation, or from a realization of a non-literal reason, or a subtextual reason.

De Sica's own Umberto D. (1952)—let's categorize it as a traditional narrative—moves the viewer to tears with its bittersweet ending. But when a traditional narrative film is able to elicit an extreme height of emotion ,as Umberto does (sometimes this is subjective based on the viewer's state of mind upon entering the cinema), the intellectual/poetic viewer and the traditional narrative/dramatic emotional viewer may meet and enjoy the film at the same level. Perhaps the poetic-minded viewer feels the nuance of emotion has culminated to such a high level that it achieves poetry, and the dramatic emotional viewer is moved emotionally to the heights they demand in what they consider the greatest cinema. (There are probably stronger examples than Umberto D. but I'm blanking now in my haste to write.) But what if, even in Umberto D., there is something in the subtext that elicits that emotion from the poetic/intellectual viewer? I haven't seen it recently enough, so I wonder, because it is a slower film that I think allows time for contemplation of more subtextual issues than the normal traditional narrative film. Perhaps these two types of viewers are enthusiasts of the arts for different reasons, and never do meet. That might explain why some people can sit through the most horrible Hollywood weepy trash and think it is brilliant while others find it false and manipulative because there is no subtlety—only the overt contrived dramatic/emotional machinations draped over a paint-by-numbers traditional plot.

Back to this movie, one of the reasons Il generale della Rovere is worth watching and is an artistic success (if not a staggering one) is because of the very solid treatment of the lead character played by Vittorio de Sica. Both he, the writers, and the director have created a very compelling character, one whose progress we become deeply interested in, and whose transformation at the end is invigorating. We are so deeply pulled into this character's world and he is such a realistic concoction that our interest is completely captured. A comparison to Umberto D. in that regard is not unfounded. After this, I look forward to the drier experimental historical films of Rossellini (experimental in their matter-of-factness of presentation I have heard?) which luckily are also available on DVD, even if his other great works such as Viaggio in Italia, Paisan, Europa '51 and many others still aren't.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Empire of Passion (1978, Oshima) - Review

This was not a great Oshima film. It is a straightforward story and only has brief moments that begin to approach “transcendent madness.” It is not long enough or weird enough to invite deep thought about anything besides the basic story, a disappointment in an art film. (Or I could consider it a success if I was hanging on every subtle beat of the unfolding story and performances, as with great novelistic films.) The movie seems to invite deeper contemplation when Seki bites Toyoji's hand and things get slightly weird, but it then seems to leave that aside and not explore pain/sex in the way Oshima has before (in In the Realm of the Senses (1976) and a little bit in The Pleasures of the Flesh (1965)). It then moves along to the conclusion in a fully engaging way, but it doesn't have a big emotional or intellectual payoff. It's a nicely done, slightly poetic end to the story.

Probably some digging into symbols, like Seki being blinded, may lead somewhere, but I'm not sure. It crossed my mind that possibly the film is a fantastical realization of what Oshima or the writer think is happening psychologically when two lovers cuckold a woman's husband. But there are too many stories where the lovers actually do kill the husband (and in real life) for it to bear fruit as a cinematic realization of subconscious underpinnings. If it was intended as a beautiful and extravagant fantasy of love, intense sexual love, or doomed lovers, it's too restrained to flower into something truly moving, and compared to In the Realm of the Senses, the intensity level is low. Another metaphor that could bear investigation is the well, which I also thought about as an external narrative depiction of internal confrontations—as if when you cheat you toss the lover down the well and are constantly trying to forget him, but then you have to keep tossing leaves down there to cover him up, and find yourself periodically drawn back to the well. Even as I say it, it sounds silly, so I'm skeptical that this was their intention. (The film's basic scenario—and not anything in the filming itself—has very similar elements to Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" and James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice.)

I wish I had seen In the Realm of the Senses more recently, but my memory is that it was a deeply engaging shock of a movie, where you were fully enveloped in the mad, explorative passion of the two lovers, which culminates in its disturbing climax. Even though my memory is vague, I think Empire of Passion suffers in comparison, especially since it treads on some similar subject matter—as if Oshima was in the Hollywood studio system, being forced to do a sequel. A quick perusal of his filmography on IMDB shows that he was stuck (if I may presume) in television for about six years before the breakout success of In the Realm of the Senses. Perhaps he was desperate to stay in the theatrical filmmaking game, regardless of how similar the narrative territory was. I believe the older, pre-Criterion DVD was titled In the Realm of Passion, and a look at the Japanese words show that this is probably the more accurate title. (I will have to investigate Oshima's TV period because he may have been there willingly, like Rossellini.)

I find myself favoring early Oshima (first five or seven years perhaps), having had a similar lukewarm response to Taboo (1999) when it came out. His earlier films seem more radical in content and form. As horror or fantasy featuring ghostly apparitions (at least of the Japanese variety), this film does not bear up well in comparison to Kaidan (1964, Kobayashi), for example.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Thunder Over the Plains (1953, de Toth) - A Dreary Western

Thunder Over the Plains (1953) is a truly dreary western from the usually estimable André de Toth. It features immaculate John Alton-like lighting from Bert Glennon who seems to bring a noir sensibility to Westerns (he did similar things in Felix Feist's Man Behind the Gun), and Citizen Kane-like framings which I'll attribute to de Toth.

The dreary comes from the very un-engrossing plot and, while the characters are developed moderately well, it is just a motley crew ripe for delivering boredom. None is given quite enough of a drive or a reason, and the conflict is lacking, making the whole film dull. I think a Screenwriting 101 teacher ought to have a field day with this one. A pretty great director directs the pants off this weak script but the problems must have been there on the page and should have been addressed before shooting.

The weakness starts right from the beginning, with an omniscient narrator and ostensibly tense scenes that unfurl before us with characters we don't yet care about. This is not an uncommon problem in omniscient narrator films, and this one has a historical bent which probably adds to the stodginess. The most important problem is Ben Westman, the character played by Charles McGraw. McGraw can't do much here—his character has no passion. He's supposed to be the Robin Hood fighting against the evil carpetbaggers, and Randolph Scott is the "hero" supposed to bring him in. On paper it might seem like a great struggle between two conflicted characters, but McGraw's raison d'être is thinly drawn.

I wonder if there was any McCarthy angle to this one that might explain its dreariness-- if there was an ulterior motive behind the picture that put traditional plot clashes on the back burner. In any case, the result is not fun to watch.

I've rarely watched a film so beautifully lit, directed (and to some extent acted) that was so painfully unwatchable. A lesson that just beautiful images alone can't carry a movie. This also reminds me that something must be going on in seemingly plotless masterpieces like Last Year at Marienbad to hold our attention that could be worth analyzing (for film or screenwriting students at least).
(This boring picture helps illustrate how boring the movie is. Screen grab courtesy of DVD Beaver review.)

Note: Originally written 07/10/09 but delayed posting due to procrastination of rewriting! This is a pretty messy draft but now the movie is too faded from memory to refine this.

Nagisa Oshima Re-emerging (Slowly)

Nagisa Oshima is one of many under-represented filmmakers on U.S. DVD. Criterion throws us a little help by releasing In the Realm of the Senses and Empire of Passion, but where are the other masterworks by this giant of cinema? As Godard (or Truffaut perhaps) is to the French New Wave, so Nagisa Oshima is to the Japanese New Wave. I had the good fortune to see several of his films via other-region DVDs and Los Angeles-area screenings and sorely wish all his films were easier to see.

(These three pictures from Night and Fog in Japan (1960) should serve as a hint as to where distributors should start!!)

Note: Originally written 03/11/09 but delayed posting due to procrastination of plans to elaborate the entry!