WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (1971, Stuart)

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Willy-Wonka-Boat-Wonkatania

So glad to finally get Gene Wilder onto the blog.  There are so many great quotes from this film, and this clip has one of my favorites, as much for the performance as for the line.  But it’s not one of Gene’s… stand by for the big reveal.

And it’s a double treat, as the quote is in one of my favorite shots.  I have a pet theory behind this shot, in fact, which is a rare Oner in this film.  (At least I think it’s rare, maybe there are more that I just haven’t yet noticed.  This movie lulls me into a state of childlike awe that makes me cease my movie analyzing.)

Note when the Wonkatania arrives, that is the boat, and Wonka proclaims “All I need is a tall ship and a star to sail her by.”  That’s the start of the unusual oner – it’s really crisp and fun, all the activity happening – actors, camera, and zingy one-liners – as Charlie Bucket and the golden ticket winners board the ship.

Mel Stuart needs to make his day?

My grasping-at-straws theory is that perhaps this oner was born out of sheer scheduling necessity, as this film was on a notoriously tight budget. (For proof check out the crappy window dressing at the candy store!)  I know I’ve been there (and will soon post just such a schedule-induced oner from my film Hard Pill), so it got me imagining that perhaps this shot was squeezed in on a very tight morning, eg. Lunch was quickly approaching and Mel Stuart was like, “Crap, I don’t want to figure out all this coverage – let’s just do it as one shot.”  I don’t know why else it would be the single such oner in the film.  But it works perfectly.  (Even though it’s so obviously ADR’d, that is the dialogue all replaced in post, due to the nearby “water” fall.)  Bravo, Mr. Stuart.

As for the quote, I can’t tell you how much I love it when Mrs. Teevee (the great Nora ‘Dodo’ Denney) inquires, “She’s tres jolie, but is she seaworthy?”  It so fun to repeat, so hilariously absurd, so musically nifty to say.  Please feel free to share your favorite quotes from this highly quotable movie!  I insist.

Here’s the clip – the shot is at :31.  Sorry for the weird gray first few seconds – no matter how many times I tweaked and uploaded, it would’t go away.  I include the whole boat trip here, because it just didn’t seem right to stop the clip before that.  And how amazingly DARK is this sequence?  Some of those images are just disturbing (like the chicken).  I think allowing true darkness into a film, and especially a kids’ movie, does children a service.  I certainly feel it did me one.  As kids, we want to know what darkness is, to be allowed to experience and try to understand it, in a safe way, such as a movie.  Kids seek darkness out.  I think it’s that edge that gives this film its weight and makes it absolutely indelible and beloved by those who encountered it at a young age.

UPDATE 8/13/11

Just finished the fun read Pure Imagination: The Making Of WWATCF, and my theory still holds, though not completely confirmed!  Turns out the chocolate room was indeed very hard on their schedule, so much so that Stuart laments to producer David Wolper in an Oct. 17, 1970 letter:

“…The incredible size of the [Chocolate Room] set has made every turnaround, even for a close up, a lighting nightmare.  I’m constantly tempted to put the actors up against a wall in order to get a quick lighting job, but I feel the picture would lose a great deal of quality if I do….On top of that, after I finally spent an hour and a half lighting the set for my super master shot, the waterfall conked out for 4 hours on Friday morning.”

So it looks like the inspiration for the boat Oner just might have been a complete lack of time due to the lighting turnarounds that additional angles would have required.  I emailed Mel Stuart about this pressing issue.  More as it develops!  Sad update HERE.

SEVEN SAMURAI (1954, Kurosawa)

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Slow-Motion-Samurai

This film has yielded so much influence, from Lucas’ space operas to Leone’s macaroni westerns (as, fittingly, the Japanese referred to them).  And today’s shot is just one breathtaking moment from the old master, Akira Kurosawa, in a film packed with them.

If you can’t remember this moment, or haven’t seen it yet, it’s best  you watch the clip first.  Mea culpa – the only high-quality youtube I could find is in Italian… but you don’t really need to know what is being said.

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So, wow, right?  The shot, I’m sure you’re onto, is at 3:06, and what a startling and amazing use of slow motion to create a moment of tremendous suspense, surprise, and dramatic weight.   Even today, in a time when slow motion has been used to death, this moment is still utterly original and fresh, in my opinion.

Kurosawa’s Dynamic Samurais

This shot works in no small part due to the amazing sound design.  Less is certainly more here – you could hear a pin drop after that flash of violence.  A flurry of fearsome activity followed by absolute stillness – visually and audibly.  The suspense is so beautiful.  And this shot and scene couldn’t be more dynamic – loud and then silent, fast and then slow, brutal and then graceful – and therefore couldn’t be more compelling.

And what’s more, I don’t even think this is best use of slow motion in the film – there’s one even better – but it’s not on youtube.  I plan on posting it myself, which will give me an excuse for another Seven Samurai post!

THE CAT’S MEOW (2001, Bogdanovich)

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Eddie-Izzard-Kristin-Dunst

I really like this underrated film from Peter Bogdanovich, which seems to have slipped through the cracks since its release.  While I believe its a wonderfully crafted and engaging film, I have to admit I’m biased because I love this whole era, and particularly the work of Chaplin, who’s a main character in it.  This movie has a really great cast, especially the fantastic Edward Herrmann, who kills (in more ways than one) as W.R. Hearst.

The Cat’s Meow is based on rumors and speculation surrounding the very suspicious occurrences aboard W.R. Heart’s yacht in 1924 that may or may not have lead to the death of film mogul Thomas Ince (probably more ‘may’ than ‘may not.”) The leading theory is that Hearst was jealous of Chaplin’s affair with his girlfriend Marion Davies, and accidentally shot Ince when meaning to kill Charlie.  You can read more about the mystery here, scroll down to “Murder and Natural Death debate.”

Today’s youtube clip not only shows Marion Davies (Kristen Dunst) and Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard) in a really beautifully directed scene/shot, but also illuminates some really interesting aspects of this film as it’s a movie clip within the documentary “By Bogdanovich,” which includes a disconcertingly-not-so-animated, yet always interesting, Bogdanovich pontificating on his work.  I love how he can just as easily claim credit for what he knows he’s done well as give kudos where kudos are due while admitting his own short-comings (eg, finding the ending of The Cat’s Meow).

Peter Bogdanovich channels Orson Welles

I know I said no one can block these oners like Welles, but, wow, P.B. sure is giving him a run for his money with this scene – it’s organic, flowing, natural and intense.

Today’s shot from The Cat’s Meow begins at 5:15 – but why not watch the whole excerpt from the documentary? It starts with The-Ascotted-One talking about his work in television, which I found very engaging.

THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980, Lynch)

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John-Hurt-Elephant-Man

Today’s shot is from the most famous scene of David Lynch’s horrifying and heartbreaking Oscar-nominated film The Elephant Man and it demonstrates what I love about a really calculated and restrained use of the Close Up.  It’s often said that holding off on the use of a Close-Up until just the right moment can really magnify the emotional impact of a moment, and this really proves it.

In this harrowing scene, John Hurt‘s character John Merrick, aka the Elephant Man, is trying to make it out of the train station without notice, but a pesky kid foils his escape, and soon a mob is on his heels, as is the shock of pure panic.

David Lynch’s use of Sound and a Close Up

The sound design is such an important part of this climate of terror; David Lynch and Alan Splet (both credited for the film’s sound design) really take full advantage of a train station’s soundscape to ratchet up the anxiety.  Note how the sounds of the trains and a screaming whistle start to really become unhinged just as we finally cut to a CU of that bag that conceals poor Merrick’s head.

Holding off on that CU until this instant of sheer panic really brings into sharp focus the moment of realization that Merrick is suddenly in deep shit, and he knows it (like those poor saps in Deliverance, minus the close-up, though).

This sequence culminates with his being cornered in the restroom by an irate mob which prompts his immortal line about not being an animal and his collapse into a heap next to the urinal, a powerful visual that somehow doesn’t feel too on the nose to me even though, well, he collapses next to a urinal after saying he’s a human being.

Why do you think that last shot of the urinal works or doesn’t work?  It reminds me of Martin Sheen lying naked at the side of his bed, covered in sweat and blood, crying into the lens of Apocalypse Now.  Somehow it works, even though Coppola’s treading an extremely thin line between the dramatic and the absurd. I think Lynch treads that line successfully here, too.

Here’s the moment of the expertly used close-up at 4:20 but I recommend starting with the top of the sequence at 3:10.

A STAR IS BORN (1954, Cukor)

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George-Cukor-A-Star-Is-Born

Okay, this apparently is musicals week (what can I say, Outfest just opened). One of the most remade stories ever is A Star is Born. Just as seismologists warn us we are overdue for a Los Angeles earthquake, likewise, by interpreting past occurrences, we can clearly see we’re way overdue for another A Star is Born:  Janet Gaynor & Frederick March (1937), Judy Garland & James Mason (1954), and Barbra Streisand & Kris Kristopherson (1976).  And there are rumblings of a new version in the works. Casting is not firm, but one thing that seems certain is that Beyonce Knowles will star as the titular character and Clint Eastwood will direct.

But lets go back to perhaps the best incarnation thus far, George Cukor‘s (1954). Conceived to revive Judy Garland’s career, it was a big hit both critically and with audiences, and Garland went on to television specials and her landmark concert in New York. And in today’s samples we can see why. A lot was riding on it; each musical number and dramatic scene was painstakingly crafted.

Case in point. Check out one of the greatest musical Oners ever created.  You got your Judy torch-songing it with something right out of her wheelhouse (and tearing it up); there’s Cukor brilliantly staging and designing a moody, impressionistic vision of a band kicking it up after hours; gorgeous cinemascope compositions that would give David Lean a run for his money; and, below, you got your evidence of just how difficult and hard-won this amazing sequence/shot was to invent.

So first, have a look at the famous scene that appears in the final film, and then check out the bonuses below that chart its evolution. The shot starts at :55 –

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George Cukor & Judy Garland’s Trial and Error

The art direction, the costume design, the blocking weren’t easily discovered as you can see by these 2 completely different versions – stepping stones, if you will – that lead us to the final version. In this first staging, both the costumes and the lighting are very bright. The blocking is not half as inspired and we couldn’t be further from the impressionistic chiaroscuro that would give the final scene so much mood and depth. (Cukor also shot a tighter lens on this version.) Shot starts at :11 –

In the next version, Cukor is much closer to the darkness of the final, but the blocking isn’t quite as magical (how about that poor clarinetist who’s stuck in the shot for so long), the costumes have yet to match the shadows, and the gorgeous impressionistic use of the band has yet to reach its potential.

Pretty fascinating and inspiring to see that even one of the great masters like Cukor had to work hard to figure out what would work.  A really great case study!

FUNNY GIRL (1968, Wyler)

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William-Wyler-Helicopter-Aerial-Shot-Funny-Girl

There are two amazing shots, using the same technique, in this sequence from William Wyler‘s Funny Girl.  But I’m mostly impressed today with the man who actually shot them, Nelson Tyler. Not only did he run the camera but from what I can tell in all my research, he invented the camera mount that allowed for such a smooth and dynamic aerial shot.

Here’s a snippet I found at Resource411:

But it was Nelson Tyler’s invention that finally enabled aerial cinematographers to shoot smooth footage by building a contraption that kept the camera steady. He created a platform on springs that the cameraman sits on inside the helicopter. The body mass and camera weight are floating so when the helicopter shakes, it doesn’t affect the shot.

I think this technology must have been so new and exciting that you just had to cram as many of these shots into your sequence as possible. It’s easy to take this shot for granted, we’ve seen so much aerial photography since this time, including amazingly articulate shots filmed by miniature helicopters. But for sheer scale, iconic imagery and deft movement, these shots from Funny Girl still remain one of the pinnacles of the craft. It’s pretty amazing how they were able to sync the singing, time the shot’s movement, stabilize the camera, and keep the helicopter so precisely next to a speeding vehicle (in both shots).

William Wyler’s giant canvas

The first shot, the one of the train, is full of surprise reveals. You get your David-Lean-grade shot of the speeding train, but then something new (for its time) happens, you find your hero in the window.  And you get closer and closer… and closer.  And she’s singing in sync with the soundtrack.  And then we go even closer, as trees zip by between us, emphasizing just how fast the train is speeding – but we’re able to stay right with our hero in the window.  That must have been shocking to experience for the first time – I mean, it still effects people to this day.

And then in the final shot, it’s pretty breathtaking how close that camera gets to the tugboat; from super wide, to an actual medium-close-up, and then back to high and wide (thanks in part to a hidden zoom that goes in and then back out).  And the timing of the camera move is perfect – right in step with the music – Barbra Streisand hits her last note and the camera pulls out smoothly and majestically – the visual representation of her note.

The shot plays out beautifully intimate and exacting beats on an epic scale. It’s the perfect emotional pitch of both what the character is experiencing and, even more importantly, the high you want to jolt the audience with right before the intermission.

You can see the shots here at at 0:59 and 2:15 – but I give you the whole sequence for your enjoyment.