VERTIGO (1958, Hitchcock)

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Kim Novak revealed in VERTIGO.

Like the previous post about Scorsese, this shot is staged with great originality and really bares the stamp of the director. Kim Novak’s famous entrance in the film is so simple, restrained, elegant, and full of weight. The placement of the actors, the color design (the colorless extras, the red walls, her vivid dress), the famous music cue, the elegance of the camera movement, all tell you to pay attention, something life-altering is happening to our main character (Jimmy Stewart) – we’re meeting what will become his obsession.

There’s something about this shot that is beyond its design and beyond explanation; simply the effect is greater than the sum of the parts, in my opinion.  Especially when you think of all the millions of ways he could have chosen to reveal her, makes you thankful he picked this way!

The Reveal: One of Hitchcock’s specialties

If I had to pick one thing about a shot that I think is most important, it’s the reveal, ie, the surprise, the beat of the story unexpectedly exposed. This reveal here is so brilliant. How can Hitchcock do this with such restraint and yet so obviously? It really engages the viewer – startles you (or at least it did me) – because you feel like you’re spotting something on your own. This is what great filmmaking does, lets the audience deduce and discover on their own.

As with most great stagings/shots, this one works economically on so many levels: Stewart and Novak’s characters become clear, we see he’s an outsider as we learn what world she inhabits, exudes; he’s spying, so are we; we’re also bathing in the sense of supernatural mystery that surrounds her; get a dose of his foreshadowed feelings for her; and experience the gravity both he’s experiencing and that is sneaking up behind her (or so we are lead to believe).  And let’s not forget the suspense of the shot, which maximizes the reveal’s impact; this is, after all, Hitchcock we’re talking about.  (Thanks to Jeremy Cole for reminding me of this last point in his comment below!)

I’m trying really hard not to swear here to emphasize how much I admire this shot!  The whole rest of the clip is awesome, too.  How about the light that comes up behind Novak’s head when she strikes a pose? No rule says you can’t.  Or the two shots of Stewart, one on his right and one on his left, as she passes him, each conveying a distinctively different moment.  Very fine.  And then the thematic two-of-her as she passes the mirror!  Hitch was into the details.

Behold! Shot starts at :06 –

Next week I’ll do another shot from Vertigo. I wonder if you can guess which one? If you do, I will make the next Vertigo shot the official post of “your name here!

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MAD MEN: AN APPRECIATION

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In honor of, nay, in grieving for, the final episode of MAD MEN, I wanted to post about what the show has meant to me.  As luck would have it (for this blog post, at least), watching the show from beginning to end in preparation to watch the last season, part deux, I came upon a shot that I think sums up my feelings beautifully.  Like many people, I’ve had a deep connection to the show.  Sometimes it’s hard to put my finger on just why.  Often I tell people that the show allows me to both be furious with and forgive the generation that came before me.

The beginning of my life and the end of the show’s era had some real overlap.  So many of the archetypes and mores we see in the show were still very much in play when I landed upon this mortal coil and were still there even by the time I started recording long-term memories.  Indeed, it’s emotionally fitting, and the poetry of it is not lost on me, that the show might end just as I began – in 1971.  In a way, this era and my proclivity toward feeling something for Mad Men was “incepted” into me and many of us (much like the love of Disneyland, if you caught that bug), because it was there in my life at a very young age.  The air thick with dysfunctional tension and cigarette smoke?  Check.  The cardigans worn past their day by the older men whom I grew up around – check.  The pipe smoke and its sweet cherry scent hanging in the house.  The drinking.  The bench seats with no seatbelts.  The metal flake car paints.  All there, lingering in the death throes of the era, before the 80’s finally wiped it away with its own brand of vulgarity.

A few years ago, I remember I surprised myself, sadly so, when I came across a kodakrome slide photo of my being held as a one week-old by my mother.  A sweet photo.  But the first thought that popped to mind was a lament to my mom, “Oh, why’d you do it?”  That gut level reaction speaks volumes, I’m sure, of my early existence, shaped in no small way by That Era.  I believe I’ve gotten past that sad reaction that weighed me down thanks in a small but significant degree to Mad Men.  Again, it allowed me to both forgive and be furious with those elders who raised or plagued me (sometimes they were the same), shaping the world of my early life.  It helped me love them for who they were, in the world in which THEY were born.  Steeping weekly in the dysfunctions and culture of the time period, so viscerally & accurately, forced me to examine and face my baggage, to emotionally relive it, but this time, thankfully, from an adult’s perspective, helping me put it to rest.  That’s how I feel at least.

Which leads us to a shot from the season two episode titled “Three Sundays.”  Watching it, an image came on which made me feel that I’d found the exact epicenter of Matthew Weiner’s motivation and inspiration for the entire show.  Whether or not that’s true I have no idea, but I can say that it’s without a doubt the epicenter of MY appreciation and experience of the show — the lens through which I took the show in, processed it, and benefitted.  In the episode, Don and Betty are fighting, no surprise there, about Don’s absence, and Don for the first time, I think, is physically abusive to his wife, pushing her, even suggestively threatening to “throw her through the window” if he were to share with her what had happened at the office that day.  The weight of the argument, the threat of violence, all rings tragically true and parallels so many of my own memories.  With the 60’s set decoration and wardrobe, it’s a veritable flash back.  I’m there.  And where are Don and Betty’s kids?    Heartbreakingly, they are tiny, little, vulnerable humans, seen way down at the bottom of the stairs, in oppressive, dark shadow, looking up, lost.  Helpless, confused, and indelibly recording it in their minds.

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I see that image of the kids, as their parents come off the rails and threaten violence to each other (have they no damn consideration that the little one’s ears are nearby?), and I see a little Matthew Weiner down at the bottom of the stairs, hurting, and becoming obessed with an era, with a dysfunctional family dynamic, and with parents that never seemed within reach.  Admittedly, that’s projection.  What I really see is myself.  Reflected spot on in a show about advertising in the 60’s.  Of course, the show is about much more than just advertising in the 60’s.  And I’m sure it’s much more than what I’ve interpreted and confessed here.  But to me, for all the cigarettes, mid-century chairs, whiskeys, and extramarital affairs, it all boils down to that feeling of being lost, at the bottom of the steps, while the ones you love the most stand just out of sight at the top of the towering staircase, threatening each other with violence.  Powerless, all you can ask is “Why?”  To me, every week Mad Men asked “Why?” and every week we came up with, or attempted to come up with, our own answers.  And that’s what I will miss, and am incredibly grateful & all the better for.

SPIELBERG ONERS (Zhou, 2014)

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I really enjoy the work that Tony Zhou does with his Every Frame a Painting video essays.  They’re informative, well considered and presented, insightful, and super educational for even the seasoned filmmaker.  Whether you’ve never thought of a particular idea before or you treat it as a refresher, they’re as entertaining as they are illuminating.  I could watch his essay on Kurosawa on repeat play, and his exploration of Edgar Wright’s visual comedy is as fun as it is inspired.  You may not always agree with him, but you’ll have a stimulating and productive time articulating why.

Tony narrates most of the essays, but this one, the clip below, is the exception.  And in this case, I think that’s smart. It’s a compilation of one of my favorite techniques from one of my favorite directors: oners by Spielberg. They’re not the usual suspects necessarily and for that I really dig it. (Though the first one is a go-to, I think, and rightfully so.)

From Bogdanovich to Spielberg

If anything, the compilation is a good reminder that oners can stylistically reside within a wide range: from boldly dynamic to evenly restrained, depending on the content at hand.  As demonstrated in my post on Bogdanovich’s gargantuan and delightful oner in Paper Moon, oners are the ultimate use of intention, and clear intention creates cinematic weight.  And that’s why I love them.

From Spielberg, by way of Tony Zhou’s Every Frame a Painting: