BIG NIGHT (1996, Tucci/Scott)

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Big Night is a lovely ‘play’ of a movie – small, contained, self-aware and full of charming and nuanced performances.  Ian Holm is spastically delightful, and the comic moments from the whole cast often play quietly and powerfully.  Two of the actors in the film, Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott, direct, and they have a particular love for the long master shot – letting the actors deliver the story in a way that Stanley Donen would let Gene Kelly deliver the dance moves, from head-to-toe and uninterrupted.  Hurray!

The movie is about the artistry of fine food as it’s both undermined and defended from crass commercialism.  It’s interesting that the staging and the photography of the cooking and the banquet tables are shot with such classic artistry.  (Compare that to the near verite craziness of the base and successful eatery across the street, Ian Holm’s joint.)

Tucci & Scott’s silent movie moment

So that brings us to the simplicity of the final shot.  The two brothers, played by Tucci and Tony Shalhoub, have always been joined at the hip, and their dreams of a fine restaurant have crumbled, as has, perhaps, their unhealthy co-dependance on each other.  Even though the last time we saw them they were embroiled in a violent and heated argument (though even the violence was funny), the two are incapable of having anything less than affection for each other.  And this scene brings them back together, though changed, in the one place they are truly meant to be – in the kitchen with food (though the menu has been hugely simplified, a nice metaphor).  What makes this scene so beautiful is its loaded silence and that it unfolds so naturally in real time.  (That’s Marc Anthony, playing more or less the bus boy, sleeping on the counter.)

This is the lovely final scene –


RESERVOIR DOGS (1992, Tarantino)



Quick post today – man, it’s hard to blog when you’re busy!  This is the classic less-is-more shot, famous from Tarantino’s debut film.  I think it’s pretty unique moment from Tarantino, as there’s not a lot of “less-is-more” when it comes to violence in his work, to say the least.  Think the forehead carvings in his thrilling Inglourious Basterds.  (If you can think of any other don’t-show moments from Quentin, please chime in.)

UPDATE – Ah ha, this makes sense – according to my pal Carlos (comment below), and a few internet mentions I can find, such as the BBC‘s “the man who gave the world the X-rated Reservoir Dogs, which featured the now-famous ear-chopping scene,” the ear chop was indeed graphically filmed.  Only when the film received an X rating did Tarantino go back and film (or edit in) the pan-away which I’m sure is far more famous and iconic than the gore effects would have been.  Am I alone in the fact that when the foreheads get carved (which I love, by the way) in Inglourious, all I can think about is that it’s rubber. If anyone can confirm that original ear version with a link, please let me know.

Stuck in the Middle with Tarantino

Not only are such moments often more powerful than if the act of violence was shown, due to the viewers imagination creating far more effective imagery, but these moments are also much cheaper to film (perhaps in this very early part of his career, that was a leading consideration).  Win/win.  Reminds me of the shark in Jaws.  All that money spent on the roboshark that wouldn’t work, and what finally made that movie terrifying and indelible?  Not showing the shark.

Here’s the atypical look-away from the gore in a Tarantino picture at 1:16 –


And of course, let’s not forget the spoof on The Simpsons.

THE GOLD RUSH (1925, Chaplin)

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Okay, just one more Chaplin post!  This is the ur-famous moment from The Gold Rush, a bit so well received that, it is reported, when it first unspooled in Berlin, the applauding opening-night crowd demanded the projectionist rewind the film and show the dance again before they would quiet down and allow the movie to proceed!

Have a look before you read on:


Chaplin makes it look so effortless!  The sheer amount of detail is a big part of what’s so amazing about it as much as his pitch-perfect performance.  Note how he casually will look into the lens here and there (:45); a great touch by Chaplin throughout all his films, that while busy doing something seemingly mundane or involved, the Tramp connects with the audience, communicating ‘this will just take a moment.’  Or perhaps it’s a look that conveys his sincere concentration and what makes it so funny is what he’s concentrating on is the height of lunacy or silliness.  Whatever it conveys, his looking into the lens works beautifully and hysterically.

Chaplin the Perfectionist

This was Chaplin at the height of his powers and popularity and, again, one thing is for certain: this is far from a first take.  You wonder just how many times he worked this out in front of the camera, shooting, reviewing, and tweaking.  Those would be some great outtakes to see.

PAY DAY (1922, Chaplin)



10 years ago, I was possibly, very temporarily, the world’s leading expert on Chaplin’s work.  I was making my silent, 1918-period film War Story, an homage to Chaplin’s oeuvre, though with a modern twist (you can see a clip of it at the end of my reel at Within a month or two, I had watched, at least twice (but in many cases a half dozen times), every film Chaplin had ever made – his Keystones, Mutuals, First Nationals, and right up to the ones for United Artist, the company he co-founded.  I had become friends with the man who restored and owned many of Chaplin’s early work, David Shepard; had spoken to the grandson of Chaplin’s cinematographer Roland H. “Rollie” Totheroh, who knew an amazing amount about his grandfather’s methods; had pitched the project to Chaplin’s estate for their blessing; had hit up Carl Davis to do my score (he’d done the amazing reconstruction and recording of Chaplin’s gorgeous City Lights score – he declined, but what resulted from Mike Petrone was even better, I believe); read all the books, etc, etc.

I mention all this to say that I love Chaplin’s work.  It was an easy obsession for me – from the first film that I studied of his I was hooked on his mix of sharp, always surprising humor and his sense of humanity and pathos.  Bathing in his work helped me create a film that was both steeped in his sensibilities but also uniquely mine, springing freely from my subconscious. It was a beautiful, intense experience, and the appreciation I have for his films will always improve and inform mine, I think.

There are so many moments of Chaplin’s that one could show and write about, but this one has as much to do with the shot as the performer, so I thought it the most appropriate.  By the time Chaplin had risen to fame and signed his unprecedented contract with the First National company, he was the highest paid entertainer in the world.  (He had just come off his series of shorts for the Mutual company, which I think are arguably his sharpest, though certainly not his deepest.)  This meant that he had a lot of power and wiggle room in his craft, enough to really allow him to experiment.

How Chaplin gets it Right

He was known to shoot in the morning, view his dailies at lunch (he had his own film lab), and go back to work in the afternoon re-casting, re-staging, even completely reinventing whole sequences until he would get it just right.  (This is incredibly well documented and presented in the fantastic documentary on his work, Unknown Chaplin – which reconstructs his working methods through the study of a miraculously preserved batch of outtakes, something Chaplin would have always burned, but these were secretly squirreled away by Rollie, if I remember correctly.)

So it’s in that spirit that we see this delightfully clever sequence from Pay Day, in which The Tramp takes a job as a brick layer, and we see just how quick-witted and agile The Tramp is.  One can imagine the amount of experimentation that went into this shot, and one wonders which take # this actually is!

Here it is – watching from the beginning sets up all you need (including the rules of gravity). I think you’ll figure out quickly which shot I’m pointing out today!


EXTRA!  EXTRA!  I thought it would be fun to reverse the reverse – that is, show what Chaplin was doing on set before the film is reversed.  It’s pretty funny.  Here it is here!

THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY (1966, Leone)



Sergio Leono is every bit the master of suspense as Hitchcock.  He’s one of my all-time favorite directors (possibly my very favorite dead director), because of his boldness, funk, imagination and the cinematic weight his work always displays. In today’s shot from what I think is his masterpiece, he draws out suspense in the form of a simple shot of long duration, and I’d even sit through more of it, I find it so compelling.

Leone always did more with less – less sound, less cutting, less dialogue – unless, of course, it was time for the shit to hit the fan and then he could cut as fast as the likes of a Guy Ritchie.

This scene, at the top of the picture, is part of the sequences that introduce each of the titular characters. In this, we are given “The Bad,” though we’re not sure of that yet. But any stranger on the horizon in the world of Leone is enough to cause unease and suspicion. So when the man on the horse appears, causing the kid on the donkey to run inside, we sense no good can come of this.  And Leone of course knows this and takes full advantage.

David Lean via Sergio Leone

Like David Lean did with Omar Sharif‘s entrance in Lawrence, we get the full treatment here. Lee Van Cleef takes his sweet time as he approaches the house, and the audience feels the tension building with every hoof plop.

This is what I love about Leone – he knows what to milk, and just how to milk it, and does so with brazen boldness. Here is the sequence and the shot’s at :36. I mean, who holds a shot that long?  No one anymore, sadly. Either because they’re not allowed, or because they don’t trust the audience’s attention span.

HARD PILL (2005, Baumgartner)



This is a shot from my dogme-styled feature, a oner that was inspired by the lateness of the day and the large number of actors in the scene, like my theory in the previous post on Willy Wonka.  In the scene, our main character, played by Jonathan Slavin, is throwing a birthday dinner party with Susan Slome and Scotch Ellis Loring.  He’s invited sexually-ambigous Matt (Jason Bushman) from his office, determined to make his romantic intentions clear, until a complication arrises.

This scene was shot at one in the morning after an already long shooting day. We had just filmed a lengthly dinner scene (which proceeds this scene in the movie) with this same group, which meant lots of director-brain-energy had been used to get all the right coverage, let alone make sure the 180 line was making sense.  (Incidentally, around this time I had been watching a lot of, of all things, Spielberg’s dinner table scenes in E.T. – great examples of finessing the line with a group at a table which can be very tricky and easily a disaster.)

Once all the actors were on their feet and it was time to block, I realized that if I designed single shot coverage for everybody I was not only going to have to block five actors standing and moving in a room, keep track of the line vis-a-vis who was talking to whom, and take the time to shoot singles for each of the five actors, but that we’d also be there another two to three hours.  And I was running out of steam fast.  But I also had the realization that this was the perfect opportunity for a oner.

So we blocked with the cast and camera (I was running camera, so it made it quicker) and rehearsed over and over till we got the timing down.  I’d say we blocked and rehearsed for 45 minutes, and then shot maybe five takes.  It’s take two that made it into the movie.

I think the shot plays very fluidly and works well with what follows; the next scene is standard coverage at the dinner table, everyone sitting down. This, I think, offers a nice contrasting intro to that scene, while wrapping for the shooting day well before dawn.

Here’s the shot: