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Archive for February, 2012

Robert Bresson on Pickpocket (1959)

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

This 1959 French television interview with Robert Bresson on his then-just-released masterpiece  Pickpocket is interesting for a number of reasons.

Compare this to his interview on L’Argent, made in 1983, roughly a quarter of a century later. Here, Bresson is relaxed, basking in the glow of admiration his film has justifiably received, but also in the fact that the new critics of the period at the influential journal Cahiers du Cinéma have singled out Bresson as one of the few “old school” directors worthy of continued critical attention, along with Jean Renoir, Jean Cocteau, Jean-Pierre Melville and a few others.

Bresson here is at the top of his game, and he knows it; the questions are cold, hard, almost prosecutorial, but Bresson is more than up to the task of responding. He is beyond attacks now, consecrated by the New Wave as one of the few filmmakers that matter. The interviewers take his work seriously, and their roles as critics seriously, in sharp contrast to the “happy talk” interviews that predominate today, when someone comes on television to “plug” their latest film.

Bresson here has nothing to prove, and he knows that no one will contradict him; his reputation and his work speak for themselves, but more — the surrounding culture also respects his work, and he is entirely in tune with the cinema of his era. By 1983, cinema has changed so much that it’s mostly escapist genre fare, something that Bresson deplores; in 1984, François Truffaut, the leader of the Cahiers critics, and later a brilliant filmmaker in his own right, will die, and the world of cinema he championed will begin to expire with him.

But for now, all is in order, and the right priorities are being addressed; listen to what Bresson has to say about film, his work, and his guiding precepts.

Jean Cocteau on Cinema, Art, and Immortality

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to see a documentary on Jean Cocteau.

It should come as no shock to readers of this blog that Jean Cocteau, the multi-talented French artist — filmmaker, poet, novelist, sculptor, muralist, librettist, painter, playwright, memoirist — is one of my favorite cinéastes. Here’s the first part of an excellent documentary on his life and work, which you can easily follow by clicking on the other links that present themselves after the first section. Cocteau is, as always, simultaneously quixotic and absolutely transparent in his various pronouncements, and his opening declaration that he “detests” frivolity and fantasy might seem at odds with much of this work, but then again, perhaps not — as one can easily see, Cocteau was absolutely serious about everything he did, as he makes manifestly clear in this film.

Robert Bresson: “Art Cannot Exist Without Surprise”

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

Here’s a rare interview with director Robert Bresson for French television on the making of his last film, L’Argent (Money, 1983).

Bresson discusses his unique manner of working — no sets, all real locations, no professional actors, making up a deatiled storyboard and then essentially throwing it away, having no idea from one to day to the next where he’ll be shooting, or even why, and embracing the element of chance and spontaneity in all his films — with candor and a certain brusqueness that is probably a result of age, his general contempt for the publicity process, and a sense that time is running out.

As the interviewer notes in his opening comments, even when the film was screened at Cannes, Bresson consented to a press conference that lasted only a few minutes, before walking out; earlier in his career, in an interview on his masterful film Pickpocket, Bresson seems much more relaxed and less combative. But now, in the early 1980s, he sees the values of cinema rapidly shifting towards cookie cutter entertainment of an utterly predictacle nature, and he isn’t pleased by the prospect, as he makes perfectly clear.

This is fascinating viewing, and a rare look at someone who is a genuine artist of the cinema, who made his films entirely according to his own idiosyncratic rules, which is what makes them so timeless, and also, as Bresson points out, so perishable.

Digital vs. Film — Cinematographers Weigh In

Sunday, February 19th, 2012

Martin Scorsese on the set of Hugo.

In today’s Los Angeles Times, Mark Olsen has a fascinating piece on the differences between digital cinematography and working with conventional 35mm film, as discussed by some people who really know what they’re talking about; the 2012 Oscar nominees for cinematography.

As Olsen writes, “This year’s Oscar nominees for cinematography present a particularly varied cross-section of contemporary filmmaking at a time when the very infrastructure of how movies are made and seen is in transition. Consider: 35-millimeter film prints are being phased out in favor of digital projection. Consumer still cameras can be used to shoot high-definition digital video. Video on demand is becoming a popular viewing option. Even the venerable Eastman Kodak, which produces the film stock on which many movies are made, recently filed for bankruptcy protection.

The Scandinavian-modern The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was shot with digital cameras; the World War I-set War Horse was shot on film. Hugo was shot in digital 3-D to portray 1931 Paris, while The Artist was shot on color film, then transferred to black-and-white to evoke the end of the silent film era in Hollywood. The Tree of Life used footage shot both on film and digital and integrates nature photography into its storytelling. (That three-on-film, two-on-digital split is likely an approximation of Hollywood production overall, though changes are evolving rapidly.) As this moment of transition challenges distributors, exhibitors and even audiences, cinematographers are on the front lines of those responding to the changes. Many of them recognize just what a unique window this particular time presents.”

You can read the entire article here; a remarkable meeting of the minds. And as cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, the DP on The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, notes, “In all fairness, we’re at the infancy stage of digital cinema.”

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on “A Man Escaped”

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

In issue 62 of Senses of Cinema, Gwendolyn Audrey Foster offers a compelling essay on Robert Bresson’s brilliant drama of survival in prison, A Man Escaped, noting that; “For Bresson, the images are everything, along with the unerring precision with which they are edited together to create a world that is hermetically sealed, and unsparingly distanced from the viewer. As always, Bresson’s camera movement is a model of economy and precision; in many instances, the camera lingers on an image for what seems an eternity, to accentuate the tedium and endless waiting of prison life. But what is perhaps most striking about A Man Escaped is that it manages to create an atmosphere of almost unbearable suspense despite the fact that the title gives the basic narrative arc of the film away; the title character of the film does indeed escape his imprisonment, but the means by which he accomplishes this are tortuous indeed.

Based on the memoirs of André Devigny, who escaped from Fort Montlucin Lyonin 1943, during World War II, A Man Escaped tells the story of Fontaine (François Leterrier), a member of the French Resistance who is imprisoned by the Nazis in Montluc prison after an unsuccessful escape attempt. The prison is a forbidding, inhuman structure; indeed, the opening shot of the film shows us a plaque memorialising the 7000 men who died within the prison’s walls during the war. Thus, the basic situation of the film is set up from the outset; for the next 99 minutes, we will be witnesses – in every sense of the word – to one man’s fight for survival against almost insurmountable odds. Fontaine is thrown into a prison cell, and almost immediately begins to strategise an escape plan, despite the enormous risks involved.  His plans are deliberate and methodical, but the risks are enormous.

Another prisoner, Orsini (Jacques Ertaud) tries his own escape attempt but fails, and the consequences are severe; a brutal beating and a death sentence. Despite the tedium and monotony of prison life, Fontaine continues in his methodical preparations for escape, only to be told at the last minute that he has been sentenced to death for his Resistance activities. Returned to his cell, Fontaine discovers he has a new companion, François Jost (Charles Le Clainche) a 16-year-old soldier who is supposedly sympathetic to the Nazis. Now Fontaine has a new problem; his escape is nearly imminent, and he has to decide whether to take Jost with him, or to kill him. At length, and after much deliberation, Fontaine decides to trust Jost with the details of his plan. The film ends with their successful escape over the rooftop of the prison, and the two men slip away silently into the night, as A Man Escaped comes to its predestined conclusion.”

You can read the entire essay by clicking here, or at the image at the top of this page.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster

The Future of Cinema?

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

As David S. Cohen writes in Variety, “Last week must have been surreal for Douglas Trumbull. On the one hand, he was showered with accolades — the George Melies Award from the Visual Effects Society, honoring his pioneering vfx work; and the Sawyer Award, an Oscar statuette, from the Academy for his work across a wide range of technological and creative fronts — but while he was being feted by the industry’s movers and shakers, he’s still seeking financial backing for those innovations.

Working on a stage on his property in Massachusetts, Trumbull is combining high frame rates and 3D on the production side with advanced projection tech and curved screens that get brightness up to 30 foot Lamberts — more than a full stop above the current standard of 14 foot Lamberts for standard 2D projection, and several stops above the typical brightness at multiplexes for 3D.

“No one in the industry has seen a 3D movie at 30 foot Lamberts at 120 frames per second,” he said. “What happens when you get into this hyper-real realm of a movie, that seems to be a window onto reality, is that the entire cinematic language begins to change.” He wants to make a movie using Hypercinema and move away from the master shots, two-shots, over-the-shoulder shots and close-ups we’ve all seen thousands of times, to create “an experience of tremendous participation in an alternate world, which I think people will crave and are ready to pay for.”

You can read the entire article here; fascinating stuff.

Draftee Daffy (1945) by Robert Clampett and Rod Scribner

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

Daffy Duck tries to evade the draft in Draftee Daffy.

It’s World War II, and everyone is signing up; everyone, that is, except Daffy Duck, who espouses patriotism in the opening moments of Draftee Daffy, but once summoned by the Draft Board, changes his tune to “it had to be me.” Brilliantly animated by Rod Scribner, and directed by Robert Clampett, Draftee Daffy is an insidiously subversive commentary on mid 1940s social values, which finds Daffy trying every means possible to kill “the little man from the draft board” who keeps attempting to deliver Daffy’s induction notice.

When I spoke with animator John Kricfalusi — the creator of Ren and Stimpy — years ago for an interview, we bonded immediately over our shared admiration for Clampett and Scribner as an “unbeatable team” when it came to classical Hollywood studio animation; the plastic possibilities of the medium are clearly pushed to their limits in this 7 minute cartoon.

Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell wrote a great essay on Clampett’s work, which you can see by clicking here, which deconstructs this classic Warner Bros. cartoon in detail, along with other examples of Clampett’s contribution to the history of animation. I’m struck by the freedom of imagination that this cartoon, and other Clampett/Scribner collaborations, demonstrate — an anarchic vision that seems to be almost complete absent from the hyperrealist motion capture 3-D style now in vogue in the Pixar films and related projects.

For myself, this is a much more interesting and freewheeling approach the possibilities of the medium; see what you think by clicking on the image above.

An Inspector Calls (1954)

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to see some clips from An Inspector Calls.

Personal responsibility. It’s hard to figure out sometimes, and harder still to know the consequences of one’s actions. But for one upper class British family, their shortcomings as human beings and members of society are about to become readily apparent in this 1954 Guy Hamilton film of J.B. Priestley’s 1945 play, An Inspector Calls.

The Birlings are an upper class industrial family, circa 1912, happily gathered around the dinner table to announce the betrothal of their daughter, Sheila, to Gerald Croft. Sheila’s younger brother, Eric, is drinking too much, and seems desperately unhappy about something, but Arthur and Sybil Birling, heads of the household, refuse to let anything spoil the festivities.

Until, that is, one Inspector Goole — in the film he is known as Poole — comes calling, with most distressing news; a young, lower class woman, one Eva Smith, aka Daisy Renton, whom all the family have mistreated in one fashion or another in the past two years, has just committed suicide by drinking a bottle of disinfectant. The Inspector, who clearly knows much more than he lets on at first, has some very definite questions for all the members of the dinner party. Questions that they won’t want to answer; questions that will shake the very foundations of their supposedly serene, blameless middle class existence.

As events unspool, in remarkably economical fashion — the complete film is only 77 minutes long — it becomes clear that each of the Birlings, and Gerald Croft, have contributed to the circumstances that led to Eva/Daisy’s death in a direct fashion. I won’t detail the specifics here, but suffice it to say that the word “hypocrisy” barely begins to cover the Birlings’ behavior towards the young woman. Sheila and Eric seem to take something of value away from the Inspector’s interrogation, but Gerald and the elder Birlings seem quite content to continue as they are, until events take a series of unexpected twists at the end of the film, which put everything in a distinctly different light.

Composed mostly of straight cuts, even in the flashback sequences — which are frequent, and have a distinct Rashomon characteristic, in that each member of the family, in recounting their interactions with the late young woman, have a different view of how they behaved, and how Daisy/Eva behaved — Guy Hamilton’s direction of An Inspector Calls is razor sharp, using the same spare technique he would employ on his later films, most notably the James Bond film Goldfinger (1964). As Eric, future director Bryan Forbes is both weak and sympathetic, but it is Alastair Sim, as the Inspector, who dominates the film from first frame to last, in a portrayal that is at once sinister and sympathetic, and climaxes with a series of genuine shocks.

First performed as a play in the Soviet Union in 1945, where the cultural authorities of the Stalinist regime were all too happy to present a stringent document detailing the shortcomings of the British class system, the play received a West End run in London in 1946, with Sir Ralph Richardson as the omniscient — in every sense of the word — Inspector. In 1947, the play crossed the Atlantic for a successful Broadway run, and was acclaimed as both a brilliant dramatic work, but also as a scathing indictment of the evils of the British class system.

I’d have loved to have seen the play on stage, but since we don’t have a time machine, and can’t go back to 1945, 1946, or 1947, this 1954 version, which is superb, more than suffices to bring Priestley’s timeless message home to us. Whether we want to hear it or not; we are all responsible for each other, and if we forget this simple fact, we do so at our peril. The film is available on DVD, but only in a Region 2 British version, which is a shame. An Inspector Calls deserves the widest audience possible, and is just as timely today as when it was written, if not more so.

Frame by Frame: Classical Movie Posters

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

Just up; a new video in the Frame by Frame series, directed and edited by Curt Bright, covering movie posters from the classical era of the Hollywood studio system.

Click here, or on the image above, to see the video now.

Howard Hawks’ Air Force (1943)

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

John Garfield and John Ridgely in Howard Hawks’ Air Force (1943); click here, or on the image above, to watch the trailer for this film.

There’s no question that Air Force is sheer propaganda — we were in the midst of fighting World War II, a war we couldn’t afford to lose, not only for ourselves, but for the world as a whole — and so the film is brutal, racist, and full of the anger and violence of combat. But it’s also a compelling document of a nation at war, ready to fight to the finish, and of the Hawksian ethos of personal responsibility, professionalism, comradeship, and shared sacrifice. The film’s plot mirrors the beginning of the war: the Mary Ann, a B-17 Flying Fortress, takes off from California for Hawaii on a routine training flight on December 6, 1941. En route, they learn of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Subsequently the crew mans the Mary Ann through action at Wake Island, the Philippines, and the Battle of the Coral Sea.

Impeccably photographed mixing nearly undetectable — for the period — miniature work with actual combat photography, Air Force is, along with Lloyd Bacon, Raoul Walsh and Byron Haskin’s wartime submarine drama Action in the North Atlantic (also 1943) — one of the greatest films to come out World War II from Hollywood, and one that, even today, in the naturalistic performances of John Garfield, John Ridgely (usually cast as a second lead), Harry Carey, Gig Young and the other players, holds both one’s attention, and remains a compelling drama of exactly what it takes to win a war — blood, sweat, and tears. There are some sentimental moments, and the entire film is shot through with flag waving moments that may make some uncomfortable, but as a document of the time and the era, it remains unmatched, and is yet another example of Hawks’ superb craftsmanship as a director, no matter what the genre.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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