TO DIE FOR (1995, Van Sant)

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Nicole-Kidman-Kurtwood-Smith-Illeana-Douglas-Buck-Henry

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.

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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.

EUROPA EUROPA (1990, Holland)

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Agnieszka-Holland

Here’s a fantastic shot from Agnieszka Holland‘s beautifully realized Europa, Europa, one of my favorite films.  Holland was a friend of the late Krysztoph Kieslowski, another of my all time favorite directors, and they shared a lot of collaborators.  On this film, Holland uses Kieslowski’s go-to composer Zbigniew Preisner (who wrote the unforgettable scores for  Kieslowski’s Double Life of Veronique, Blue, and Red, among many others – check this out) as well as a very young Julie Delpy, who would later star in Kieslowski’s White (the one film of the Three Color trilogy that nobody seems to care for.)

But back to this stunning scene.  This moment has more to do with performance and editorial choice than camera work, but it’s no less powerful.  As set up, Marco Hoffschneider plays Solly, a jewish teen in WWII Germany who is forced to pretend he’s a non-jewish German, which winds him up in a Hitler Youth school (the film’s based on the true life story of Solomon Perel).  At the school, he’s constantly at risk of being discovered (for one, he’s circumcised) and in this scene, we are sure the jig is up.  It’s an incredible shot of a heart-breaking performance, and it really speaks to the whole tension of the film – Solly’s fear of being discovered which resonates constantly across this innocent boy’s sweet, though worry-worn face.  Holland is expert in letting tension bubble up through vividly authentic character moments.

Agnieszka Holland lets it play

In this scene, the teacher is lecturing on how to recognize a jew, and demonstrates how to measure skull and facial features to prove racial purity, when he calls our hero up as example – but of what we don’t know.  Director Holland maximizes the suspense — and the heart-wrenching terror of this young man realizing that his life is probably over — by showing only his face for a prolonged period as the horror grows more and more evident in his eyes, and then turns into the saddest resignation.  Devastating.  Note the fantastic sound design of the clanking instruments off-screen after each measurement.  Brilliant.

The shot begins at 3:00, but you really must watch the whole scene.

As a bonus here is a great video interview with director Agnieszka Holland which she did for the DGA (Directors Guild of America)’s visual archive project (of the three, it’s the one on the far right).  She has some fascinating things to say about the structure of Europa, Europa, and how trimming 45 minutes helped increase the film’s comic energy (which certainly applies to the above scene’s button) and improved the dramatic power and pacing.

SEVEN SAMURAI part 2 (1954, Kurosawa)

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Slow Motion

This post would have come a lot sooner had I not been locked in mortal combat with YouTube; it’s getting harder to find clips I can comment on or post without being blocked.  (I’ve appealed and hopefully “fair use” will prevail.)  Nonetheless, where there’s a will, there’s a way!

I love this sequence in Akira Kurosawa‘s Seven Samurai because it accomplishes so much, while also containing my all time favorite shot from the movie.  I will never forget seeing this scene, and this shot, for the first time – it was so shocking to me.

I’ve read that this sequence gave birth to the convention of introducing the hero by way of an action event that is outside the main story to come. That is, in Seven Samurai, the kidnapped baby has nothing to do with the farmers that we’ll be spending the rest of the film with. Apparently this was the first time it was done, one of many influences this great movie has had.

As set up, I’ll explain: Our main samurai played by Kurosawa-regular Takashi Shimura, comes to the aid of a village where a desperate criminal holds a small child at sword point in a small shack.

In preparing for his attack, Shimura shocks the villagers by cutting off his topknot, a great symbol of honor for samurai, so that he can convincingly disguise himself as a monk. This tells us so much about his character; I’m ready to follow this guy anywhere.

(In lieu of video, here are captioned images…)

Our hero, whom we’re just meeting, approaches the shack disguised as a monk offering rice balls for the hungry child and bandit.

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The angry bandit screams belligerently for Shimura’s character to throw them to him.  Mind you, all we can hear is wind, the screaming bandit and the crying baby. (In that great, 50’s, mono soundtrack kinda way.)

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He throws them. This whole time we have only our vivid imaginations of what’s happening off screen in that dark shack.  A baby held at blade-point, rice cakes landing at the bandit’s feet, his guard momentarily down to pick up the food…

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The samurai leaps into action…

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The crowd, and the movie-viewing audience, leans forward, desperate to see what’s happening…

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The empty doorway… what could be going down in there?!  We rely on our ears … the baby cries, violent grunts under gusts of wind. (So begins the shot which is the star of today’s post.)

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Finally, someone smashes through the doorway.  The bandit.  Shockingly in SLOW MOTION…

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Spectators stand, hold their breath, like watching an accident in slow motion…

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Still in slow motion, the bandit teeters…

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The crowd takes in every little moment, watching in slow motion as the fates of this bandit and the child are revealed…

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And then he falls dead.  The woman and child cry off camera under the sounds of the violent wind.

Kurosawa’s Samurai Skills

After seeing this moment, as a viewer I now think this samurai is a GOD – his actions so skillful, elegant, and effective. (Which mirrors how I feel about Kurosawa at this moment, by the way). Also, very importantly, this sequence speaks to the themes of the whole film – that in a world where might makes right, brains and elegance are more mighty than brute strength.

What’s the most thrilling to me is how unexpected the moment is – both the fact that we’re not shown the actual act of violence, always more powerful, and that time has slowed for this crucial moment, like holding your breath and seeing glass fly in slow motion in a car accident.

That’s to me what great direction is – presenting a moment, capturing it vividly in a single shot or sequence, in such an unexpected, cinematically unique way.  A subjective way, a daring way that jolts the audience and illuminates what’s happening thematically.  It lets us viscerally experience it, and understand or take it in on a deep, emotional, primal level. As an art form, that’s what cinema’s best at.

My bellwether of if I’m on the right track designing a shot (and I’ve got a long way to go on pushing myself on this front) is if it starts to make me a little nervous, I know I’m on the right track. Because bold moments are what it takes to find these truths, and for the really bold moments there’s sometimes no safety net – you’re really committing to shooting it in a unique, even weird way. And that’s when it can work the best sometimes. But like with any reward, there’s risk; it could fall flat, or worst of all, be perceived as “pretentious.” But as Orson Welles said when asked if it was all worth it, he replied, “It is when it works.” (He was talking about raising money for his films, but I think it applies in this context, too.)

So, for me, this shot is a good reminder to push that envelope, because what we’re really after is instilling a kind of authentic, poetic shock. That’s what gets us to the truth of the moment, and this shot from Seven Samurai I think certainly achieves that.

THE KING OF COMEDY (1982, Scorsese)

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Martin-Scorsese

I love the ending to Scorsese’s hilarious dark comedy The King of Comedy.  The film is a fascinating, entertaining, and hilarious examination of a man’s obsessive ambition to be a famous comedian, even though he doesn’t nearly have the chops to pull it off — on talent alone, that is.

Robert DeNiro’s Rupert Pupkin eventually succeeds in a way that seems purely American: through determination, inappropriate actions, and the help of a whorish news cycle that rockets him to fame.  DeNiro and Martin Scorsese are pitch-perfect in this movie, jumping between humor, drama and pathos beautifully.  (Sandra Bernhard and Jerry Lewis are perfectly utilized, too.)

The last shot of the film effortlessly oozes irony, humor, tons of heart and a fantastic use of pure cinema.  It just leaves us with our thoughts, allowing us to digest everything that has come before and the surreal, yet all too real, place it’s landed our anti-hero.

Scorsese does much more with less

If you don’t know the film, or remember the shot, I’d say skip this and watch the movie!  For me, the last shot, ie the ending of the film, comes as such a surprise; you don’t realize you’ve been given this gift until after that shot’s faded out and you suddenly realize it’s the end of the film.  It’s an elegant, simple, thematically perfect and light-handed summation of everything that has come before.  And it’s a bit haunting.  Below at 1:15, but watching the whole short sequence is a must!

VERTIGO (1958, Hitchcock)

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Shot4Shot-Hitchcock-Vertigo

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!

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.

Screen Shot 2015-05-16 at 8.38.01 PM

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.

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