Monday, January 31, 2011

Gun Crazy (1950) / Joseph H. Lewis

Gun Crazy could just as easily be known as Car Crazy, or better still, Wheels Crazy, because the two leads, Bart and Laurie spend lesser time in sticking-up than in making a getaway. Lewis expounds on their shared severe infatuation with weaponry – ‘We are together like’, Bart pauses and then pursues, ‘like gun and ammunition.’ It is the only analogy he is capable of. But while both the leads are obviously turned on by the smell of gunpowder, gasoline seems to do the job just as well. They spend most of the film driving, and both of them are darned good drivers, with Laurie having to use her entire tiny frame to propel the steering in a certain direction. Infact, it is only when they are not enclosed within the framework of a vehicle that they begin seeming dreadfully vulnerable – regardless of whether they possess their guns or not. 

Lewis uses the enormous time spent by the narrative in just lingering inside a car to make a major aesthetic departure from how scenes set inside a car were shot back in the day. By mounting the camera atop a jockey saddle in the back of the car, he shoots the occupants of the car from behind, instead of shooting them from the front with rear projection behind them. We see bona-fide American urban scenery through the windshield, the same as the actors do as they take a turn, or navigate through a rush hour – thereby effectively making us accomplices in their criminal spree by placing us in the backseat of the car. A simple jump across the axis elevates us to being adventurers, from being witnesses to an adventure. 

This is how they do it in Third-Person Shooters

Despite its blatantly stated moral dilemmas (the proverbial American indecision between uppity ideals and the extent of their applicability; or how it’s possible to tweak them as per convenience) Gun Crazy is primarily a statement on the nature of urge. 

Both the leads are gun-toting robbers, but Bart’s (John Dall by the way of James Dean) definition of his urge (or craze) is accurate – he shoots guns because he likes to shoot guns, while Laurie (Cummins, firebrand) shoots guns because of the authorial potency they afford her. Therefore, while Bart is satisfied shooting at empty cans, bottles, and circus-balloons, Laurie needs to point them at human beings to consummate their real ability as she understands it. 

Bowling for Columbine (2002) / Michael Moore
Her immoral influence as the corruptor of Bart’s small-town ideals make her a distant cousin of The Woman from the City, played by Margaret Livingstone in Murnau’s Sunrise. While Gun Crazy is clearly a tragedy – it is not one because the leads kill each other in the end (such relentless craze cannot but annihilate everything, in that it ends like Kiss Me Deadly) but because of the things that the annihilation renders incomplete. Their love story, most definitely, but also Laurie’s moral journey – she is a femme-fatale blooming into a heroine when she is shot dead by her own lover. She dies half-virgin, half-whore.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Danny Boyle's dilemma

How did they ever make a movie of this?
I suppose one could direct the story of 127 Hours as one of superhuman fortitude, or as a tragedy (a man forced to pay a premium in order to sustain his intense passion for something), or as one with a great deal of inherent irony. Boyle chooses the third; he had to choose the third: it is the only manner in which 127 Hours can exist as an entertaining feature film and not as an affecting short or a depressing (even sinister) short feature (as it would, if he were to make the first or the second choices). 

Boyle looks for opportunities in Aron Rolston’s tale to evoke in the audience a situation of ironic comparison – between the nature of their own immediate existence (plush, air-conditioned, spacious, pop-corn laden) with the canyoneer’s (confined, unheeded, famished).  And it is safe irony all through – the audience has the privilege of the foreknowledge of a character’s tragedy – they are in on the enormous joke all the time, so even as Rolston is stuck in the canyon, we get to survey the entire National Park through helicopter shots, or as he struggles to move an inch, we can simply lift ourselves out of the canyon on a crane. As he casually strolls to the location of his captivation (the canyon), the film becomes a series of shots that feature his right hand – through which we are reminded of the eventual amputation, and thus, made to smile nervously at the sheer irony of our potency as prophets in the life of our wholly unaware protagonist. Even more viciously, in the very first second of his five-day adventure, as the boulder incarcerates his right hand against the wall of the canyon, a title card is superimposed over the film – ‘127 Hours’ – you know, he doesn’t. Such gratuitous peddling of irony could be a yield of Boyle’s traditional love for superficial entertainment, but also his attendance of the first duty of a filmmaker as he understands it: to tell a good story. Strangely enough, the only factor that acts as a counterpoint to the complete immorality of his method is the audience’s foreknowledge of the character’s eventual escape: cinema often permits its audience to extract cheap thrills from a tragedy if they know that everything turned out well in the end.

However, it is not enough for Boyle to make Rolston feel gratified for his own life pre-tragedy, but wants to induce a similar gratitude in the audience – therefore, it is imperative that he arranges a common set of memories (or desires) for both Rolston and us to counterpoint the claustrophobic scenery of Rolston’s situation – he achieves it through the use of imagery from traditional advertising – imagery that belongs to us all. So Rolston’s memories of his family are substituted by the image of a ‘happy family’ like a cheap American car or board game ad might show it –  family on a sofa shot frontally in a lawn; a montage of images from cola ads proxies in/informs us of his thirst. He even has the average blonde lover to reminisce about – purely by reducing his past to a typical level does Boyle generalize it to the entire audience. 

127 Hours oscillates between these two methods of engagement with its audience: evoking the irony (almost Brechtian) inherent in their foreknowledge of the protagonist’s situation without ever implicating them for it, and somehow also making us ‘feel’ what he is feeling. That is because Boyle is, in varying qualities, a cynical sadist and a hopeful humanist. In the case of this film, unlike in Trainspotting or Slumdog Millionaire, a bit more of the former than the latter.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The 'Other' Type of Director

The Truman Show (1998)/ Peter Weir

"When you put it like that, yes. But I think some part of me is already rejecting it. I like to think each thing I’m finding is fresh. I’m not a stylist, pretty clearly. I’m that other type of director who serves the story, whose personal signature or name is not as important as [it is for] a singular artist whose films are, to a degree, about them: Fellini, obviously, or David Lynch. So I belong in that other group. In fact, if I get something that’s too close to something else [I've done], dealing with similar themes, I’ll reject it. But inevitably I’m dragging with me my own preoccupations and sensibility."

Peter Weir, Interview with Filmmaker Magazine

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Truffaut Letters - II

Truffaut wrote a letter to request Hitchcock's company


                                                                                                                             Paris, 2 June, 1962

Dear Mr.Hitchcock

First of all, allow me to remind you who I am. A few years ago, in late 1954, when I was a film journalist, I came with my friend Claude Chabrol to interview you at the Saint-Maurice studio where you were directing the post-synchronization of To Catch a Thief.  You asked us to go and wait for you in the studio bar, and it was then that,  in the excitement of having watched fifteen times in succession a ‘loop’ showing Brigitte Auber and Cary Graint in a speedboat, Chabrol and I fell into the frozen tank in the studio courtyard.

You very kindly agreed to postpone the interview which was conducted that same evening at your hotel.
 Subsequently, each time you visited Paris, I had the pleasure of meeting you with Odette Ferry, and the following year you even said to me, ‘Whenever I see ice cubes in a glass of whisky I think of you.’ One year after that, you invited me to come to New York for a few days and watch the shooting of The Wrong Man,  but I had to decline the invitation since, a few months after Claude Chabrol, I turned to film-making myself.

I have made three films, the first of which, The Four Hundred Blows, had, I believe, a certain success in Hollywood. The latest, Jules et Jim, is currently showing in New York.

I come now to the point of my letter. In the course of my discussions with foreign journalists and especially in New York, I have come to realize that their conception of your work is often very superficial. Moreover, the kind of propaganda that were responsible for in Cahiers du Cinéma was excellent as far as France was concerened, but inappropriate for America because it was too intellectual.

Since I have become a director myself, my admiration for you has in no way weakened; on the contrary, it has grown stronger and changed in nature. There are many directors with a love for the cinema, but what you possess is a love of celluloid itself and it is that which I would like to talk to you about.

I would like you to grant me a tape-recorded interview which would take about eight days to conduct and would add up to about thirty hours of recordings. The point of this would be to distil not a series of articles but an entire book which would be published simultaneously in New York (I would consider offering it, for example, to Simon and Schuster where I have some friends) and Paris (by Gallimard or Robert Laffont), then, probably later, more or less everywhere in the world.

If the idea were to appeal to you, and you agreed to do it, here is how I think we might proceed : I could come and stay for about ten days wherever it would be most convenient for you. From New York I would bring with me Miss Helen Scott who would be the ideal interpreter; she carries out simultaneous translations at such a speed that we would have the impression of speaking to one another without any intermediary and, working as she is at the French Film Office in New York, she is also completely familiar with the vocabulary of the cinema. She and I would take rooms in the hotel closest to your home or to whichever office you might arrange.

Here is the work schedule,. Just a very detailed interview in chronological order. To start with, some biographical notes, then the first jobs you had before entering the film industry, then your stay in Berlin. This would be followed by:

1.    the British silent films;
2.    the British sound films;
3.    the First American films for Selznick and the spy films;
4.    the Two ‘Translatlantic Pictures’;
5.    the Vistavision period
6.    from The Wrong Man to The Birds

The questions would focus more precisely on:

a)    the circumstances surrounding the inception of each film;
b)    the development and construction of the screenplay;
c)     the stylistic problems peculiar to each film;
d)    the situation of the film in relation to those preceding it;
e)    your own assessment of the artistic and commercial result in relation to your intentions.

There would be questions of a more general nature on : good and bad scripts, different styles of dialogue, the direction of actors, the art of editing, the development of new techniques, special effects and colour. These would be interspaced among the different categories in order to prevent any interruption in chronology.

The body of the work would be preceded by a text which I would write myself and which might be summarised as follows :  if, overnight, the cinema had to do without its soundtrack and become once again a silent art, then many directors would be forced into unemployment, but, among the survivors, there would be Alfred Hitchcock and everyone would realize at last that he is the greatest film director in the world.

If this project interests you, I would ask you to let me know how you would like us to proceed. I imagine that you are in the process of editing The Birds, and perhaps you would prefer to wait a while?

For my part, at the end of this year I am due to make my next film, an adaptation of a novel by Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451, which is why I would prefer the interviews to take place between 15 July and 15 September 1962.

If you were to accept this proposition, I would gather together all the documents I would need to prepare the four or five hundred questions which I wish to ask you, and I would have the Brussels Cinematheque screen for me those films of yours with which I’m least familiar. That would take me about three weeks, which would mean I could be at your disposal from the beginning of July.

A few weeks after our interviews, the transcribed, edited and corrected text would be submitted to you in English so that you might make any corrections that you considered useful, and the book itself would be ready to come out by the end of this year.

Awaiting your reply, I beg you to accept, dear Mr Hitchcock, my profound admiration. I remain
                                                                                                      Yours Sincerely,
                                                                                                  François Truffaut

Friday, January 21, 2011

Peeping Tom

A Director who meets,

An Actor, who stands in front of,
A Camera, which a director can use,
To Photograph, or,
To Direct in a Mid-Shot, or To Cut and,
To Direct in a Close-Up, Or To Edit, and have in his hands,
A Film
Peeping Tom (1960)/ Michael Powell

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Kaneto Shindô: Images of Excess - I

Kaneto Shindô
Shindô’s images are full of glut of the most literal sort. He shoots human bodies as a director of a war film may shoot ammunition: objects that are as vulnerable to destruction as they are capable of it. As such, Shindô separates the purely corporeal nature of a human body from its spiritual one – much like directors of pornography or slashers – and thus, identifies them purely as material articles (and later debris).  Therefore, human bodies in a Shindô film do not belong to (or in Shindô’s case, are controlled by) a human being who initiates/performs an action, but are often, centers of action themselves – as such, much like ammunition in a war film, they are battered, they batter, involved in fornication, destroyed, and in some cases, left to crumble – just like they are caressed, repaired, or manufactured. But through all of these, they can never relinquish their status as first and foremost, things with no greater purpose than mere existence (and whatever they can get in the course of it). In Shindô films, characters eat not to sate hunger, but to feed their bodies and keep the mechanism of the bodies functional. The characters in a Shindô film, ugly and always sweating profusely, look as if they belong to the machine yard – not as the workers who run the machines, but as the machines.

Some Shindo bodies, starting with Children of Hiroshima (1952)

And from Kuroneko (1968),

Also, of course, from Onibaba (1964)

While one may equate his treatment of human bodies as a sly form of objectification or even an aesthetical (perhaps moral) precursor to the torture porn that is peddled as horror in the cinema of today (Hostel and Saw, yes, but also the first six minutes of Saving Pvt. Ryan; gratuitous viscera as spectacle), he shoots faces like living entities. Thriving, blooming and flourishing entities. For Shindô, the cut between a long-shot of a human body and a close-up of a human face is not merely a perfunctory or a liturgical exercise, but almost a complete change of scene – as if the two shots on either side of the cut contain two different entities altogether – as such, the cut from a long-shot to a face does not alter just the camera-subject distance, but Shindô’s entire human approach towards the subjects of the two different shots. For while the long-shot contains the body that Shindô has nothing but vulgar disregard for, the close-up contains the intimidating face of a human being. It is in the long-shot that the ghost in a Shindô film lives; it is in the close-up that it becomes a horror. Fortunately for Shindô, there is at least something that he finds worthy of regard (a human face). Unfortunately for him, he shoots it in a state of eternal suspicion.

Below, some of Shindô’s faces - one from Kuroneko and the rest, Onibaba.

Shindo Face

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Kurosawa's Scope

The Bad Sleep Well (1960)

Kurosawa understood the nature of cinema or a motion picture at its most plastic and molecular level - as an assembly of pieces of film. As a result, a Kurosawa film may often resemble the most basic device of film itself : the film strip. More than anyone else's, it is easy to envision his films as moving 'horizontally' (i.e., the assemblage of the pieces of film, and not the chronology) The horizontal nature of his films is compounded by the infamous usage of the 'horizontal wipe' transition - wherein one image would be pushed into oblivion  another, oncoming one, that would slide in from the right. More than that, however, he lent his film a strictly horizontal quality by composing in the TohoScope - the Japanese comeback to the Cinemascope. 

While the American understanding of the 'Scope was rather businessman-like, and focused  on 'scale' (like Americans often are), Kurosawa's reception of the aspect-ratio was that of the mountaineer faced with a greater height. If the American approach was that of accommodation, his was one of placement. The West took to the Scope as a bigger boat - one that can fit in more people (the method of quantity), directors in the east sought to fit in the same number of people as earlier, but arrange them on the frame area in a manner that created more 'points of action' in the frame - a quality of the Scope that Tati brought to consummation with Playtime.

Following are a few images from one of the earlier Kurosawa works shot on a TohoScope - The Bad Sleep Well.  The final image is that of Mifune standing in the background of the image (the Japanese graphic art is composed often in three planes) on a garbage heap as two characters converse in the fore. Mifune was a beast of a man - one of the few who could suggest more than just the presence of a  human body when placed in a cinematic long-shot - Kurosawa used this quality in all the films he made with Mifune.

 And the 'beast'. 

Maurice Schérer

Eric Rohmer

Eric Rohmer is relentlessly patient with his characters. The entire molecule of his cinema seems to rise from the belief that each human being holds concealed within himself, or herself, one grand truth – the revelation of which can enrich each member of the audience separately. As such, Rohmer is an intense humanist; one who believes, more than any other director of cinema, that the entire purpose of cinema is to survey the massive debris of humanity and manage to somehow salvage a treasure from it. His conviction in the ultimate ‘truth’ is so strong that he elevates its existence to the level of a fact; inarguable and unassailable. The characters in his films are miserable bundles of contradictions, people who are eternally lamenting the condition of the world while attempting simultaneously, as is revealed during the course of the film, to become a part of it.

His approach to fact-finding or the location of the grand ‘truth’ about the lead protagonist is akin to Errol Morris’s detective interrogations of the subjects of his documentaries. The films of both the filmmakers are marked by the belief that if individuals are left to their own accord, and made to engage in a conversation devoid of any specific purpose (and thus, deprived of the opportunity of any pretense), they tend to deposit their words closest to their deepest concern – which in both filmmaker’s films, is the deepest secret they withhold.

As such, much like a documentary film, Rohmer’s framing belongs to the cinema of abandonment - of a single (only him/her and no one else) character abandoned in a lonely medium-close-up, as the only resident of the frame. As bits of sound (questions) are thrown at it from somewhere in the off-screen, it is left alone to fend for itself, and with no visible escape route, forced to locate an answer.

My Night at Maud’s might be considered the prototypical Eric Rohmer film – a lead character incapable of taking his/her own decisions, a continuous discourse between Jansenian pre-destination and determinism, and the eventual results of those decisions which really don’t even matter – it is his much later film, The Green Ray, or La Rayon Vert, that is the most effective example of Rohmer’s cinema of abandonment.

Often in The Green Ray, the lead character Delphine (Marie Rivière) is endlessly moping about the kind of life she laments – she doesn’t eat meat, she runs from tables when people around her talk about going out at night – and generally spends her time making uppity declarations that seem as uninformed as they are vain, but made nonetheless, if they can guarantee her momentary attention from those around her. But while Rohmer is patient with his characters, he is also relentless; and thus, he cannot but hold them accountable for each word they utter. They are asked to elaborate on the meaning of their statements, as much as they are asked to justify and explain them. Scenes around a table (lot of them in Rohmer films) are almost conducted like criminal investigations (like Morris’s work), with the camera representing the detective’s sharp inescapable vision as it attempts to seek out the truth. The occupants of the table are the various suspects lined up, until of course, the camera selects the primary suspect through the application of a close-up. After all, a Rohmer scene does not flow as much as it coagulates into one single medium-close-up. Having made up its mind, the camera then never leaves the primary suspect, making it captive within the edges of the frame. Essentially, as a Rohmer shot-reverse shot scheme progresses further into the scene, we arrive at a shot without a reverse-shot. The character inhabiting the shot then has to answer a barrage of questions, that can tend to sound more like pointed accusations than earnest inquiries (much like the penultimate scene of 400 Blows, which features Doinel with the psychologist). Subjected to such persistent bombardment of interrogation, the ‘subject’ of Rohmer’s inquiry finally yields the grand ‘truth’. Unlike a Morris film, however, where the revelation of the truth implicates the subject, it liberates him/her in a Rohmer film. The ‘escape’ from the frame – from a close-up to a long shot – is often literal – Delphine runs off to the beach, just like Gaspard sails off on a boat in A Summer’s Tale. Incidentally, A Summer’s Tale is Rohmer’s payback of his debt to the Nouvelle Vague (thirty years into his post-Nouvelle Vague career, he was still called, like the others, a French New Wave director). It is easily his most New Wav-ish film, with the lead Jaspard (Melvil Poupaud) created clearly in the image of the eternally lost Jean-Pierre Leaud, who seem to have invented the idea of film acting as ‘behaving like you were on the way to the market and landed up on a film set’.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Truffaut Letters - I


With Truffaut's films, you can often get an impression that like a lot of other great producers of art, he was being prolific not because he found it difficult to suppress a pressing urge to say something relevant, but because he needed to create successful alibis for what he really had to say. Like bodies of work that reek of continuous introspection, and thus, admission; there are others that are full of denial. 400 Blows might be his personal history recalled, but you are never told what Doinel will do after running for a mile to the beach. The final freeze frame is Truffaut's personal electrical fence - that is the point to which you get a free ride, but beyond that lie grounds of enigma, made impenetrable by work that tells you a lot about how films are made, but befuddles you about who makes them.

Truffaut wrote a lot of letters and catalogued them really well. A lot of aspiring screenwriters wrote to him for advise. And he wrote back to them. Two of his replies. The first two in a series of letters written by Truffaut over the years, hopefully.

Paris, 14 December 1960

Dear Monsieur

I have read Les Cloches de Bale (by Louis Aragon), and the story that you have adopted from one of the episodes of the novel might well constitute a film, and even a very good film, but only on condition:

1. that Monsieur Aragon agrees;

2. that a producer acquires the rights of a novel;

3. that the said producer offers the film to me;

4. that I agree to make it;

5. that I choose you to write the adaptation.

As you see, it makes better sense for me to return your manuscript and advise you now to try writing an original screenplay,
With thanks, dear Monsieur, I remain,                                                

Cordially Yours
François Truffaut

                                                                                                                                     cordially yours,






Wednesday, January 5, 2011


James Cagney

Cagney’s film performances usually function on successive levels of nastiness, which in turn might vary from the immaculately composed to the terrifyingly vicious. While Mifune might be a rare example to the contrary, acting for cinema will remain a derivative of the theatre till the time (and only till the time) it is performed in a close-up. It is only in a close-up that an actor can act only for the cinema and not for any other medium. Now, cinema is an art not of replication, but of representation. It is the medium that at its informative best, can only evoke a notion of an object, but never of the object itself. As a director of cinema, one can only suggest a reality, but never really state it. 

Great actors of cinema use their faces like gearboxes – graduating to higher levels of the same emotion, or reducing it to a tiny drawl to the point of obscurity. In close-ups, the status of a certain particular feature suggests which level of intensity (of the singular emotion) they are functioning at. Like De Niro uses the forehead better than anyone else (except, perhaps, Tony Leung), and the way Leaud’s hair falls onto his head will tell you how messed up his character truly is in the event of that scene – most of Cagney’s acting is done through the lower half of his face, with eyes featuring sometimes as backing vocals. 

His is the machismo not of the brash temperamental egoist that people fear, or of the invincible war machine that people just cannot compete with, but of the most supreme kind, that of the ‘kung-fu master’; of the Yoda-type, the old sage whose wisdom everyone can benefit from, but they do not have the foresight to. Unlike a lot of his descendants (Malcolm McDowell or Joe Pesci, actors compared to him often), he is not impatient or abrasive. The characters he plays have grown up on the streets, and thus, can lay a successful claim to exclusive wisdom. One of the rules that the acquired wisdom dictates is that Cagney’s character will never instigate – or initiate a conflict. He will infact exhibit remarkable reserve and composure, even in the face of unwitting incitement. Much like the kung-fu master, he will not lose his calm if the pupil commits stupid errors; rather, he will merely smirk wryly – the luxury of a person who knows better. This is the second gear, the infant stages of the Cagney nastiness.


The Cagney Smirks

Cagney will hope, however, that his patience is not mistaken for coyness. He will not stamp his authority, but he will not allow a violation of it either. It is at the very instant – the unfortunate instant – in which he will realize that he is being taken for a fool, that he will shift to a higher gear, the penultimate level of nastiness. Once he reaches this stage, he will doubtlessly proceed to the next. ‘The revelation’, as one may call it, lasts only for a mini-second, and is akin to the moment when the pin of the grenade is removed. The instant features in the various levels of nastiness, but it is only during this very instant when Cagney realizes that he has been short-changed that he is not nasty. He is distraught and heartbroken. The tragedy of a man who is let down by the world repeatedly.

And then, finally, Cagney reveals his filthy soul. He gets really nasty. 


The only reason White Heat might be the greatest Cagney performance is because in that, people who surround him constantly challenge the authority of his wisdom, and such blatant encroachment of his exclusive position means that Cagney’s pin is removed throughout the film.