Archive for the ‘Series’ Category

  • Finite Focus: A little bit of seduction in Children Of Paradise

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    In a beautiful poetic film of many diverse and wonderful characters, my favourite moment comes down to pure carnal desire. It’s a simple look and casual statement made by a sleepy-eyed woman to a man. Contrary to what he may think as she stands near a bed, she’s not tired in the least. Her gaze is direct and her smile is anything but coy.

     

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    It’s a wonderful sensual act which isn’t lost on her male companion – especially when it’s followed by the delicate positioning of her fingers on the bed and a deliberate reveal of her long legs.

    It’s sexy as hell.

     

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  • Finite Focus: The Pool Party in Boogie Nights

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    Whether you want to call it homage or straight up borrowing, P.T. Anderson’s great Boogie Nights certainly shows off its influences. Altman and Scorsese figure prominently, but another inspiration is Mikhail Kalatozov and his film I Am Cuba (which also happens to be a big Scorsese favourite too). Aside from being drop-dead gorgeous and a remarkably poetic piece of propaganda, I Am Cuba is known for several incredible long takes that, as it celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, will still take your breath away. One of them starts 2 minutes into the film as a camera roams through a decadent hotel party and bathing beauty contest, moves down several stories, through a crowd of people and into the water of a pool to capture the swimmers under the surface. Anderson states in his commentary on Boogie Nights that they not only wanted to try the same thing, but have the camera come out of the water too.

    It’s a showy scene for sure, but it also ties together numerous threads and characters from the story and emphasizes how these lost souls are all together in this porn “family” – whether as complete avoidance of the real world or as a temporary waystation. We see Buck Swope’s (Don Cheadle) search for an identity continue as well as Maurice TT Rodriguez’s (Luis Guzman) pleading to Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) to be included in one of their films. Midway through the scene, Buck and Maurice go inside the house together as the camera picks up another character, but we reconvene with them a few minutes later in another scene that closes on Amber’s newly discovered fascination with Eddie Adams.

    My favourite part of the party scene, though, is the last part of the clip above and comes right after the first cut that follows the long take into the pool. Eddie (who hasn’t yet become full blown pornstar Dirk Diggler) is asking his new buddy Reed Rothchild if his just completed pike dive into the pool looked awesome. Reed is looking to play a mentor role for the young lad and decides to reign in his confidence a bit. “I’ll show you what you did wrong.” Reed lines up a full flip, but only manages about 75% of it and lands flat on his back. As Eric Burdon and his sexy sounding female vocalist continue to pulse on the soundtrack, there’s a great edit underwater to Reed’s pained expression as he slowly floats to the surface with his back arched. It’s one of the funnier moments in a film teeming with them (as much as it’s also terribly dark at times), but it serves a purpose too – once Reed pops above the surface and Eddie says “You gotta brings your legs all the way around!”, that mentoring relationship has ended. Reed’s final “I know…I know..” comment is a realization and acceptance that he’ll be playing the supporting role to the star that Eddie will become.

    Once we see Amber hoover a line of coke and then gaze intently at Eddie landing a full flip properly (in slow motion of course), we are fully prepped to dive headlong into the downward spirals that lie ahead.

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  • The Story of Film on TCM: Chapter Thirteen

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    This is the story of the end of an era. For 100 years, movies had been shot on this – celluloid. Paper-thin, shiny, perforated. A medium so sensitive it could capture the subtle colors in snow. But in the ’90s, the digital image and Terminator 2 came and reality got less real. In these last days before that happened, as if to stave off the moment when the link between reality and movies would finally be broken, filmmakers around the world made passionate movies about emotions not spaceships or other worlds.

    In this first of two episodes devoted to the 1990s, Cousins highlights the humanist dramas and insistence on realism that characterize a lot of non-American film in the 1990s. According to Cousins’ interview with Robert Osborne, the ’20s and the ’90s are his two favorite eras, because of the great diversity and innovation found there. Of course, he’s talking about anything but mainstream Hollywood cinema in the ’90s, which were, as Robert pointed out, full of remakes and formula films. Instead, this episode will take us to Iran, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Denmark, and France, while Episode 14 will focus on the American independents like Tarantino and the Coen Brothers.

    Chapter 13 is more polemical than most of the episodes in its fierce defense of filmmakers using film (the actual medium) to capture human themes, which Cousins continually contrasts to the digital revolution on the horizon. He is so tied to this theme that it makes for some really weird comparisons, including a repeated offhanded vitriol toward The Lord of the Rings movies. Even though I appreciate the films he’s talking about here and am really interested in seeing many of them, his apparent hatred of hobbits and the fantasy cinema they stand in for makes this episode a little repellant to those of us who rather like some fantasy films mixed in with our human dramas.

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  • The Story of Film on TCM: Chapter Eleven

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    [Turner Classic Movies is airing Mark Cousins' epic documentary The Story of Film, playing one episode a week accompanied by films discussed in that week's episode. I'm writing up my thoughts on each episode. I got behind four weeks ago, but rather than give up, I'm going to just post catch-up posts over the next few days, and I should be up to date for this week's episode.]

    “I have my finger on the pulse of America.” – William Friedkin.
    “These nine words killed the complexity of New Hollywood.” – Cousins.

    After an episode on New Hollywood and one on the national identity-themed films from around the world, you’d think the 1970s would be tapped out, but not so – this is an incredibly diverse and interesting decade in film history, and this episode covers popular cinema of the ’70s with Hong Kong kung fu, Bollywood epics, and the beginnings of the Hollywood blockbuster. It’s a fun episode, filled with action and films most people already know, but with commentary that helps fit them into the overall story of film. Of course, some will accuse Cousins of again being anti-Hollywood in this episode, but I’m not really bothered. In his intro interview with Robert Osborne, he gives mainstream cinema of the ’70s a lot of props for being remarkably innovative, though in the episode he does point out how these innovative films set the stage for several decades of derivative mainstream films.

    First, we go to Hong Kong and flashback to the 1950s, when the Shaw brothers became the first big name in Hong Kong cinema. Under the direction of King Hu, the kung fu film was really born – even if Cousins hadn’t made the connection, it’s pretty hard to miss the influence of A Touch of Zen on Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, with the combination of a historical, romantic story, ethereal mysticism, and beautiful, choreographed floating fight scenes. Then comes Enter the Dragon, with the explosive physicality of Bruce Lee. Cousins points out that Lee’s films are shot with wide angles and long takes, so you can see the fights play out in real time, and then jumps to John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow, which cuts often and uses various focal lengths, showing action and reaction in brief snapshots. So apparently we can blame John Woo for the frenetic editing that plagues action cinema today. I kid. But not really. I’d much prefer the Lee style of shooting for fight scenes.

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  • The Story of Film on TCM: Chapter Ten

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    [Turner Classic Movies is airing Mark Cousins' epic documentary The Story of Film, playing one episode a week accompanied by films discussed in that week's episode. I'm writing up my thoughts on each episode. I got behind four weeks ago, but rather than give up, I'm going to just post catch-up posts over the next few days, and I should be up to date for next week's episode.]

    If I don’t want to be my parents, then who am I?

    With this episode, Cousins again tries to broaden the Story of Film beyond the traditional story, this time with a very specific theme in mind – how filmmakers around the world made films that dealt with national identity in some way. The title makes it sound like a dry dissertation topic, but this is actually a pretty solid episode that doesn’t suffer from being spread too thin quite as much as the New Waves Around the World episode did. He also makes a great effort in this episode (as he has before, don’t get me wrong) to go to the places where each of these filmmakers worked, which gives his film as a whole the remarkably cinematic quality that it has, and gets across the sense of place that is, in this episode especially, incredibly important.

    He goes on a tour of Germany, Italy, Great Britain (and Australia), Japan, Senegal, and Iran. In Germany, he focuses on New German Cinema, which is hardly new territory for the dedicated cinephile, but I have to admit this era in general is a blind spot for me. It’s not like the New Waves episode, where I struggled to keep up with a lot of new names and titles – here I’ve heard of most of the films mentioned, I just haven’t made time to see them yet. New German Cinema strove, in the words of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, to make films that are important, have something to say, and are born out of their own experience – that is, the experience of a generation whose parents were Nazis or lived under Hitler’s regime. Fassbinder loved Hollywood, but sneered at its romantic ideals, making beautiful but less glossy pictures about dark subjects. Cousins also covers Wim Wenders, Margaretha von Trotta, and Werner Herzog. Cousins suggests that these filmmakers all ask the question, “if I don’t want to be my parents, who am I?” – it’s interesting how many different approaches these filmmakers take at that question, making this a movement I very much want to watch more of.

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  • The Story of Film on TCM: Chapter Nine

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    [Turner Classic Movies is airing Mark Cousins' epic documentary The Story of Film, playing one episode a week accompanied by films discussed in that week's episode. I'm writing up my thoughts on each episode. I got behind four weeks ago, but rather than give up, I'm going to just post catch-up posts over the next four days, and I should be up to date for next week's episode.]

    New Hollywood was full of mockery and stylistically bold. Old school laced with new truths.

    We’re back on more familiar ground this week as Cousins moves into the New Hollywood films of the 1970s. After the upheaval of the 1960s and the tragedies that seemed to mark the end of the revolutionary spirit of the decade – the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, etc. – you’d think that the 1970s would be a rather deflated time in American filmmaking, but instead it’s exactly the opposite. The studios were floundering toward the end of the ’60s, desperate to attract a younger crowd of people – their solution was to give bright young film-school trained directors a shot, and the result was New Hollywood, which is considered one of the liveliest and most inventive periods in American movie history.

    New Hollywood directors knew their cinema history, both American and European, and they respected and in many cases loved it, but they wanted to test the waters, to bend and break the rules. Cousins identifies three types of approaches common in American film of the 1970s – satirical, dissident, and assimilationist. I don’t think the distinctions are quite as cut and dried as he implies, but it’s a decent enough set of classifications to start. Satirical films look askance at society, believing that it’s too late to save it, so let’s poke fun at it. Cousins does point out that satire is hardly new to cinema, and gives some great scenes from the Marx Brothers to show it (he skipped them in his 1930s episode, so I guess he figured to sneak them in here), as well as some Frank Tashlin from the 1950s.

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  • The Story of Film on TCM: Chapter Eight

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    Film wasn’t just a window through which you saw characters and stories, it was a language and a way of thinking in itself.

    Just about every episode, I’ve lamented that Cousins had to rush through some things or wished that there had been a whole episode devoted to something he covered well, but briefly. Holy cannoli, this one is the ultimate example of that, at least so far. In the introductory interview, Robert Osborne asked him how you cut this topic down to an hour and still get everything in. Short answer: you don’t. Turns out Cousins’ original cut of this episode was three hours long. I bet even that was pretty hectic. As it stands, this episode is one of the least satisfying so far, simply because you barely get acclimated to each new place/filmmaker/situation before he jets off to the next one. It’s simply information overload, and almost none of it sticks. I will concede that perhaps some of it is my own ignorance of a lot of the cinema covered here – I can’t fill in the gaps mentally like I’ve been able to in some of the earlier chapters.

    After covering the French New Wave and the spread of new wave thinking into Italy last episode, Cousins shows how new waves spread across the world in this one, starting with Eastern Europe. Behind the Iron Curtain, film industries were closely monitored, and making the kind of personal films that the French New Wave advocated was in itself a political statement – many Eastern Bloc filmmakers faced political persecution for their films, which were seen as radical.

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  • The Story of Film on TCM: Chapter Seven

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    Cinema didn’t tell the story, it was the story.

    Two episodes back I said how much I enjoyed the 1940s episode, especially since I love film noir so much. Well, my second favorite movement or faux genre might just be the French New Wave, so I’m definitely biased to enjoy Chapter 7 as well. If the 1950s were a cinematic pressure cooker bursting at the seams, constrained by the studio system and the mores of the time, then the ’60s were the explosion. The world had been in upheaval in the ’50s, but it became even more tumultuous in the ’60s, with the rise of the Berlin Wall, the Cold War, increasing nuclear fears, the hippie generation, free love, revolution, etc. Times were changing, and cinema, somewhat conservative in the ’50s, was now ready to change with them.

    Before getting to the New Wave itself, though, Cousins looks at some of the highly individual directors who laid the groundwork for the more personal cinema that the New Wave celebrated. We’re in well-worn cinephile territory here (and really throughout this episode), with Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson, Jacques Tati, and Federico Fellini, but Cousins still manages to bring out insights into their films and relation to the larger Story of Film that I hadn’t really noticed. These are all directors who started their careers in the 1950s or earlier and thus were an inspiration to New Wave filmmakers, even as they continued their own careers throughout the 1960s and beyond.

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  • The Story of Film on TCM: Chapter Five

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    Movies had to get this raw because life had become this raw.

    I’m running behind, as Chapter Six aired last night on TCM. I’m hoping to get caught up tomorrow.

    The world changed in the 1940s, a world war casting its presence over half the decade and its shadow over the rest. Nothing would ever be the same, and neither would cinema. In his intro interview with Robert Osborne, Marc Cousins states that prior to the 1940s, movies had focused on fantasy and escapism, but in the ’40s, movies darken visually and morally. Obviously, this is an oversimplification (and to some degree Hollywood-centric), but Cousins knows that. In the episode, he gives the escapist cinema of the 1940s a passing mention with a Betty Grable musical, but quickly affirms that the essential cinema of the ’40s is neo-realism and film noir, a claim that’s not particularly unreasonable.

    But before he goes into the development of neo-realism in Italy and film noir in the United States, he goes back to look at the development of deep staging and deep focus in Stagecoach and Citizen Kane. The Hollywood romantic tradition preferred long lenses which threw the background out of focus, drawing attention to and flattering the star. Deep focus democratized the frame, allowing the viewers’ eyes to wander at will, while encouraging deep staging to emphasize spatial relationships between people and things. Cousins shows shots from Stagecoach that use deep focus and deep staging, including a wide shot of a room including ceilings, something that Citizen Kane is often credited with doing first (Robert Osborne even mentioned the ceilings as revolutionary in Citizen Kane in the intro, but Cousins didn’t challenge him).

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  • The Story of Film on TCM: Chapter Four

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    It’s a common understanding among silent film fans that something beautiful and inherently cinematic was lost when sound took over at the end of the 1920s. Silent film had reached great heights of visual splendor, highly complex ways of conveying story, psychology, and mood by visual means, and innovative ways to use the camera, editing, and actors within the frame.

    The coming of sound meant learning how to make cinema all over again. Technological limitations meant that the camera was no longer free to roam about the frame – that would have interfered with the sound recording. Similarly, shooting on location became difficult, because ambient sounds were difficult to avoid, so filming moved back onto studio sets (where they would largely stay for the next twenty to thirty years). Cousins points out things that I’d never really thought of or seen mentioned before in his clip of Bing Crosby singing – a two camera shoot ran live, like live television eventually would, to record the sound unbroken. This meant framing was limited; shots couldn’t be restaged for different angles, nor could lighting be reset for different shots, lending everything a flatness. These were all challenges that filmmakers had to learn to overcome to figure out how to use sound cinematically.

    But creatively thrives on challenges, and as Cousins mentioned in his introductory interview with Robert Osborne, filmmakers quickly learned to use sound creatively, using it to help set mood, or even undercut the visual for ironic purposes. As early as 1932, Rouben Mamoulian used the everyday morning sounds of Paris waking up as a kind of symphonic overture to his film Love Me Tonight, and used tricks like substituting yapping dogs in for society ladies chattering. Sonic trickery becomes possible, and sometimes even more effective than the visual trickery of the silent era. It’s interesting that I tend to forget Mamoulian directed Love Me Tonight, because it reminds me so much of the Lubitsch films of the same era (several of which start Love Me Tonight‘s Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald), but with Cousins’ praise for Mamoulian’s innovation, I’m excited to rewatch it with Mamoulian in mind.

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  • The Story of Film on TCM: Chapter Three

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    It was a time of fantasy cinema and its brilliant alternatives. Movies were on a high. This sublime tension should have lasted forever.

    Chapter 3 of The Story of Film follows pretty closely on the heels of Chapter 2. The way Cousins transitions from one chapter to the next makes the whole thing surprisingly palatable to marathon as one very long documentary, and in this case, Chapters 2 and 3 seem incomplete without each other. In Chapter 2, Cousins laid out the foundations of Hollywood romantic cinema, as codified by the studio system in the 1920s, and began looking at the rebel filmmakers who challenged it. In Chapter 3, we find out that the realist filmmakers he discussed in Chapter 2 were actually the first of eight challenges to romantic cinema. What is a rebel filmmaker? It’s not difficult to figure out from the documentary, but Cousins helpfully defined it in his interview with Robert Osborne before TCM’s airing of Chapter 3. Paraphrasing a bit, a rebel filmmaker is someone who looks at the way we do things and knows there’s another way to do it. They want to annoy people on one level, but they also want to innovate – to explore other ways to use cinema to tell stories.

    Challenges #2-8 to romantic cinema take up the entirety of this episode. First, Ernst Lubitsch. Yep, just Lubitsch all by himself. Lubitsch took the still-Victorian way that sex and love were depicted in the movies and mocked it, making some of the most urbane, witty, and slyly naughty films of the twenties. And the thirties, to be honest. Interestingly, this is maybe the only one of the challenges Cousins identifies that is primarily content-related rather than stylistic. On the other hand, style is content and of course the stylistic things that make up the rest of the challenges also have an ideological element.

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  • The Story of Film on TCM: Chapter Two

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    Turner Classic Movies is airing the US premiere of The Story of Film: An Odyssey one episode per week from September through December, accompanying it with selected films discussed in each week’s episode. It’s a film history eduction in and of itself. I’ll be presenting my thoughts on the documentary and whatever films I have time to watch from TCM’s programming, but I don’t have much time these days, so fair warning, I may be saying “I didn’t have time to see this” a lot.

    In the hills of Los Angeles, the myth of Hollywood had just begun.

    It was a dictatorship, but some say there was genius in it.

    In some ways, though they’re often overlooked by classic film fans now because bridging the gap between sound and silence takes a leap even for us, the 1920s were the true heyday of Hollywood filmmaking. Coming out of World War I, the United States was relatively unburdened financially, while much of Europe was devastated, their film industries languishing while they struggled to recover from the war. This led to Hollywood staking its claim as the center of the international movie industry, a status it has enjoyed to one degree or another ever since.

    But Mark Cousins doesn’t go into the business side of things very much – for that, check out the TCM-produced series Moguls and Movie Stars, which documents the creation and demise of the classic studio system. Instead, Cousins is interested in what the studios produced, and he starts this chapter (entitled “The Triumph of American Film and the First of Its Rebels”) by showing the look and feel of Hollywood films throughout the studio era, from 1920 through the 1950s. Obviously styles changed during that time, but he points out the relatively constant throughline of what he calls “romantic cinema” and how that played out in different studio styles (the prestige of MGM, the vitality of Warner, the opulence of Paramount, etc.).

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