Saturday, January 24, 2009

"Le fond de l'air est rouge" (1977) de Chris Marker

Jim Hoberman writes: "Marker begins by evoking Battleship Potemkin, and although hardly agitprop, A Grin Without a Cat is in that tradition—a montage film with a mass hero. Unlike Eisenstein, however, Marker isn't out to invent historical truth so much as to look for it."

Starting a movie with images and reminiscences from another one... Potemkin was about a failed uprising, a lost battle in a larger struggle. It was a call to action. The purpose of Le fond de l'air is the same, and Marker is very quick to draw the parallel between the Russian soldiers marching and the cops with gas-masks in the late 60s. And similar to Eisenstein, the montage creates a purely intuitive politics of revolt beyond ideologies...

The cumulative effect of seeing millions of people (the "mass hero", as Hoberman calls it) from all over the world, caught in the violent moment or expressing thoughts... And Chris Marker, embracing his subjectivity, is one of them... Makes one more and more conscious of one's own moment.

What Le fond de l'air leaves me with is a sense of a timeless history, a world without arbitrary boundaries, and a sense of a non-decipherable cosmos.

Here is a short piece from Chris Marker's 3-hour masterpiece (It is one of the rare sublime uses of Bach's music in Cinema):

Click here to read something I wrote on Le fond de l'air est rouge in 2002. (It might contain a few factual mistakes.)

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

John Ford's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (1962)

Fred Camper cites it frequently among the great masterpieces of Hollywood. Tag Gallagher says it is "John Ford at its apex" and cites it among the important works in Ford's "Transcendence" period. I can't imagine a better publicity for a movie.

Many things have been said about it so I'll just note a few things I found interesting.

1. Dutton Peabody reciting Henry V

When he notices he hasn't any alcohol left, Dutton Peabody looks at his empty bottle and says "No courage left?". Then he adds, "Have we credit? That is the question, have we credit?" obviously referring to Hamlet. A few moments later, he recites, incorrectly, the last four lines of the following from Shakespeare's Henry V (Act 4, Scene 3).

This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

In his book
, Tag Gallagher writes that if Rossellini made The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance he would have titled it America Year Zero. There is truly the feeling of momenteous historical change happening right in front of our eyes.

2. Two non-invisible cuts

Nothing seems invisible at Ford anymore but there are two cuts that stand out because they clearly break the known rules of Hollywood editing. And it is interesting that these happen in very similar circumstances in the film and within a few minutes of each other.

In both cases, Ranse leaves Hallie and Link alone. Just at the moment Ranse is leaving the frame, Ford cuts to a shot just a little closer. It expresses a strong connection between Link and Hallie (and Pompey, in the second one), a silent communication which doesn't happen when Ranse is around. We have not seen Tom Doniphon yet but all the arrows already point to him, and to his tragic life.

3. About lighting

An example of non-realistic, expressive lighting. When Hallie looks back in anger, her face is lit in darker tones. Tom tells her "you look mighty pretty when she you get mad", we cut back to Hallie again, her face brighter.

4. Words

In his book, Tag Gallagher expresses really well the dichotomy between word & liberty in the film.

The following is an important point because here Ton Doniphon makes his most pompous statement in the film where his shattered ego will become the main drama. Which is partly why Ford needs to reframe the action: Notice the silence that comes after such a statement, it's as if a God has spoken and there is nothing to add to it. I love the little "silent-film" that follows, a great play on depth-of-field.

5. A sense of intuition

Ranse wakes up ans says, "I've got something to do!", before he knows what it is...

6. Fire-light

“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” has beautiful lighting, especially in the alternately mournful, ceremonial, and nightmarish night-time sequences. On the other hand, the lighting during the day is fairly even, but there are many moments when this isn’t so: the passage of the train over a hill with long, monolithic shadows cast across its slope; Hally sadly walking around Stoddard’s empty classroom as particles of light sift in from the windows off-screen right; Doniphon setting afire his cabin in a horrifically immediate sequence where Ford’s camera dissolves the proscenium he’s set up throughout the rest of the film by bringing us into this enclosed, three-dimensional space, a perspectival transition accentuated by Doniphon almost assailing the camera, if I remember correctly.
- Edo Choi on Dave Kehr's blog. (Click here for the specific comment.)

5. The last shot

The last shot: the black "THE END" appears, over the image, slowly. The camera is shaking while the train is moving right and left. This shaky camera goes against the whole style of the film, which is why it works, the feeling it leaves is one of a fragile universe... Very similar to what Ford achieved throughout the whole film by his editing.

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Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Otto Preminger's "Bunny Lake is Missing" (1965)

This is the opening of Preminger's Bunny Lake is Missing. In the first 1 min 53 seconds there are only two cuts. Yet, the camera moves, reacts and reveals... Very much like the film's story slowly revealing itself. In Preminger, the truth is something to be discovered by "an adventure of perception" (using Stan Brakhage's words).

The first shot is 22, the second 38, and the third 53 seconds.

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