2001 (1968, Kubrick)

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2001 Transition Edit
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Doing research has been one of the most enjoyable parts of writing this blog; you never know what nugget you’ll stumble upon.  I really got a kick when I happened upon the material for today’s post which is technically 2 shots.  Well, I guess it’s 4 shots, because not only am I serving up Kubrick’s stunning editorial truncation of millions of years of human evolution, but I’m also serving Kubrick.  Oh, yes, he’s been served.  The second shot (or 2 shots) is what Kubrick stole from.  But no worries.  As Oscar Wilde quipped, “Talent imitates, genius steals.”  While I don’t believe Kubrick ever commented on or admitted to this, as far as I could find, it’s hard to believe he didn’t get the idea here, consciously or unconsciously.
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Kubrick steals from the best

Now, everyone is super familiar with the famous, brilliant, awesome, mind-blowingly simple yet profound, etc, match cut transition in 2001 from the pre-historic primate’s bone-throw to the space ship millions of years later.  But not many probably know the shot from Powell/Pressburger’s A Cantebury Tale (1944) — including myself, until I stumbled upon it doing research for the recent post on Deliverance, of all things.  This must have inspired Kubrick’s master stroke.
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Cantebury Transition Edit
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In the 1944 application of the technique, we leap  centuries in one edit.  Check out how cool and ahead of its time this cut is – a falcon turns into an airplane.  Military technology jumps 600 years.  Pretty bold and cool.  It’s in the youtube video at 3:17.
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As cool as that is, Kubrick was able to give the same technique an even deeper resonance.  Instead of centuries, it’s millions of years, and the entire evolution of mankind is expressed in one-twenty-fourth of a second by way of a single edit.  Doesn’t get more efficient than that, does it?  That’s what a director is always striving for, to communicate the most information in the simplest way, with the greatest story impact. Earth to Kubrick, mission accomplished.
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TO DIE FOR (1995, Van Sant)

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I’m a little obsessed with this movie at the moment.  One part Citizen Kane, one part Goodfellas with a healthy dose of super-smart zany — Gus Van Sant delivers a film as profound and as brilliantly crafted as anything the auteur makers of the first 2 films I mentioned ever managed.

There are innumerable moments to blog about from this film, it’s written, directed and acted to such perfection.  But there was one shot that I found particularly inventive both for its visual pizazz as for its fun play on theme.

Nicole Kidman plays Suzanne Stone, a frighteningly dim but determined woman hell-bent on becoming a famous television news personality.  She seduces a high school student (played to perfection by Joaquin Phoenix) and manipulates him to kill her husband played by Matt Dillon.  (Interestingly, the role was reportedly offered to Meg Ryan for $5 million.  Kidman would get $2M…and a BAFTA and Golden Globe.)

More than one character recounts Suzanne’s life philosophy, which sums up the main theme of the whole film, too:

Suzanne used to say that you’re not really anybody in America… unless you’re on Tv. ‘Cause what’s the point of doing anything worth while… if there’s nobody watching? So when people are watching, it makes you a better person.”

Gus Van Sant’s Art imitating Life

Well, suffice it to say, in this dark comedy, as in the real life story it was loosely based on, things do not turn out well for our heroes.  And after all the shit has hit the fan, the remaining family members find themselves, where else, in front of the TV cameras on a daytime talk show.  Van Sant (and writer Buck Henry) sprinkle this setting brilliantly throughout the film, allowing its thematic relevance seep into your sub-conscious.  (It was quite a while into the film before the scenes’ relevance hit me, as we’re so saturated with this talk-show setting in real life we don’t even think twice about it – one of many salient points the film makes so beautifully.)

In the first shot of this youtube clip you’ll see a great depiction of the line being blurred between real life and television, fact and fiction, news and entertainment — in addition to being just plain visual fun.  As added bonuses, the clip goes on to show the dynamic writing and cutting style of the film (it leaps and doubles back with gorgeously fun agility – very Citizen Kaney), and the always-wonderful Illeana Douglas.

ROME (2005, Farino)

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Michael-Apted-Julian-Farino

This is my first post of a TV show, but seeing that it’s from HBO, it’s practically a feature in quality. (Later in the post I’ll get into one of the reasons why I think that is, aside from the important obvious: the writing.) Currently I’m completely engrossed in another HBO show of impeccable quality, Boardwalk Empire – what a rewarding show – but a few years ago, for me it was the meticulously recreated ancient world of Rome. I’ve actually seen it all the way through twice now, and it’s just as entertaining and enthralling each time.

It’s no wonder Rome is cinematic to its roots, as its pilot and first few episodes were directed by feature helmer (and charming fellow) Michael Apted, who is also the director of the amazing, on-going “(insert age here) Up” documentary series, incidentally.

Today’s shot, directed by Julian Farino, the first director to take the helm from Apted on the series, is from the first-season episode Stealing from Saturn and is deceptively simple-looking. A lot is happening in this shot, on numerous levels (first off, it’s a whole scene!), the political machinations, the character revelations, the subtextual cat-and-mouse, the sense of over-hearing a secret moment, the photographic depth, the impressionistic use of extras – all in one shot, with each character’s turn to the lens perfect for its dramatic beat. (And how about Roger Hammond‘s impeccably nuanced performance as the rotund Chief Augur who is being bribed?!) I would guess that this scene played so strongly on the page that, in the director’s mind, there was no doubt it would play as is. (Though I wonder if he was running out of time at the end of his day, as in these posts on Willy Wonka and Hard Pill.)

Little set-up: that’s Cerian Hinds as Caeser, realizing he must bribe Chief Augur in order that the religious leaders approve Caeser’s becoming leader of Rome.

Directing Commercial versus Premium Television

Something that feature film and pay-TV directors don’t have to worry about as much as their commercial TV counter-parts is the exactitude of an episode’s running time. In features and premium fare, it’s not that much of a problem if a program or film runs over a couple minutes, as long as it serves story. But on commercial TV, those extra moments are ad space, god forbid, and therefore every second is accounted for – even at the expense of story.

While limitations can often push an artist to greater heights, I think most of the time in this context we pay in quality of story telling – whether it be in the loss of story-enriching character or plot beats, or in the dumbing down of the actual direction. Committing to an imaginative and effective single shot and staging such as this can be especially risky (maybe even impossible) if you know you’re eventually going to be forced to cut minutes off your running time. Suddenly every scene is shot in water-downed coverage that removes all sense of artistry but allows for maximum timing variations. The intentions shift from service of the story to enslavement to the time allotment.

So that’s one of the reasons why when watching television I get especially excited with a bold and engaging blocking such as this. Another reason, and the main one: though it looks really easy, no matter which medium you’re working in — features, paid or commercial TV — this kind of eloquent work is incredibly difficult.  Kudos to Farino for making it look so effortless.

P.S. Hammond’s breathless revelation when he says “Her birthday,” realizing he’s about to get a big pay off, is just the bee’s knees, if you ask me.