Saturday, January 30, 2010

Some pictures of (and Tag Gallagher on) John Ford

Here is how Tag Gallagher begins his book on John Ford:
"John Ford's career — from 1914 to 1970 — spanned almost the entire history of the motion picture industry, and for most of that time he was recognized as America's finest moviemaker. His movies told good stories, had vivid characters, provoked thought, kindled down-home charms; and his own personality was apparent in them. His compositional eloquence made dialogue virtually unnecessary — scarcely for dearth of scripted richness, but because literary structure was only a single aspect of the intricate formal beauty and intelligence of his cinema.

It is this immense intelligence that critics have largely ignored. Ford's apologists laud his instincts and emotions, as though he were an artist unconsciously, unintentionally. His detractors decry his sentiment and slapstick, label him racist, militarist and reactionary, ignoring the subtleties between extremes, the double leveled discourses, the oeuvre’s obsessive plea for tolerance."

The images are from "home movies" on the DVD of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

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Thursday, October 01, 2009

Roberto Rossellini's "Blaise Pascal" (1971)

"The vacuum, the void, is the face of the infinite. If I seek the void in nature, it's to discover its mirror in the heart of man" declares Rossellini's Blaise Pascal... He also talks about "la mesure infinie du vide", "the infinite measure of the void"...

This is possibly Rossellini's darkest film. Let's hear what Tag Gallagher says:
"Thus Blaise Pascal is a horror movie, like Dreyer's Dies irae (Day of Wrath) (1943). Everything is drenched in suffering, torture, fear, superstition, blood and penance, masses of black, white and scarlet; everyone is writhing in desperate faith, self-mortification and pain. "

The void Pascal Blaise is looking for in nature, is consistently with him, and with others. Everybody seems to have their souls vacuumed out. People talk about joy, but we never see any of it. I think this sense of the void is the key to the film. But there are also many other levels at work...

It's a film where everything is a ritual (even waking up, even death). The trial scenes summarizes all the injustices in the world (and how there are always people who rationalize other people's sufferings). The cause-consequence in the universe is one of the main subjects.

Using Tag Gallagher's words, Blaise Pascal is "a direct experience."

In his wonderful blog post, Dennis Grunes writes that
Blaise Pascal "begins matter-of-factly, in the middle of a conversation in the street, and ends on the threshold of eternity." And he describes Pascal’s death scene as "a sober, stunning, luminous passage."

Tag on Rossellini's late period (which is, for me, the greatest period of the greatest filmmaker):
"To say, as many have, that these movies lack acting, psychoanalysis, Murnau-like expressionism, overwhelming emotions and the richest possible cinematic art is like closing one's eyes at high noon and claiming the sun no longer exists."

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Friday, September 11, 2009

Howard Hawks' "I Was a Male War Bride" (1951)

Describing a Howard Hawks movie with stills is truly impossible. Every one of his films are odes to movement, whether it is the movements of humans, animals, or vehicles. And there is the always-attentive camera, slightly following each movement, emphasizing every happening within (and without) the frame.

All the great writers-on-film (I hate the word "critic"!) underline Hawks' dance with biology. Perhaps the main key to appreciating Hawks is watching, carefully, the very tiny, and partly improvised, camera moves... Almost invisible, sometimes to a little left, and a little to the right, etc. reacting to the movements of the characters. Some movements can't be noticed without paying attention to the borders of the frame. And great stuff always happen at the very corners...

It is true that all these moves always refer back to things that happen in the frame, so re-direct our attention to the movements of the main characters. But this does not mean that someone who wants to get the highest pleasures should stay unaware of what is happening. What Tag Gallagher wrote about the so-called "invisible cuts" is also true about "invisible movements":

"One is certainly not less involved with music by being conscious of the rhythm, the meter, the phrase structures, the harmonic motion, the contrapuntal lines, which instrument is playing, how the instrumentalist chooses to phrase and articulate. Quite the contrary, the more we are consciously aware of these elements, the more we shall become engulfed in the emotions, in the world, of the music.

So too with movies. Not being aware of cuts is just being oblivious, cutting oneself off from actual sensual contact with cinema. It's a denial of pleasure, of experience. It's stupid.

I don't think it's true that things affect us without our being aware of it. Experiencing art is not like being etherized for an operation. It's above all a physical and emotional awareness. If you're not intelligent, you're not aware."

If you really want to see Hawks, pay attention to the tiniest camera moves. I would say his camera moves are not so far below Stan Brakhage's methods in training our eyes to see more, and more.

Here is one great example, which, by definition, might look inconsequential until one knows everything that happens before (or after, for that matter) in the sublime film called I Was a Male War Bride.

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Monday, August 31, 2009

Roberto Rossellini's "Viva L'Italia" (1961)

In 1964, Rossellini exclaimed: "Of all my films, I'm proudest of Viva L'Italia."

About one and a half hours into the film, a singer meets Garibaldi and expresses his joy as follows, describing perfectly Rossellini's own cinema (French translation of the Italian original):
"Devant toutes ces beautés rares, je suis venu ici, et ce soir je veux chanter quantité des chansons. Des chants sans apprêts, écrits comme ils venaient, sans style, ni prétention, qui font parler le coeur."

My English translation:
"Before all these rare beauties, I came here, and tonight I want to sing many songs. Songs without preparations, written as they came, without style, or pretension... Songs which make the heart speak."

In his book, Tag Gallagher writes the following about the war scenes in Viva L'Italia, where the camera constantly zooms in and out, pans around, telling the story of the battle with extraordinary precision, and beauty: "... a new era in cinema: never before has a camera done anything like this, never before have we seen anything so vast." And later in the book: "... Viva L'Italia erupts into a crescendo of liberation across an ever-expending space."

Zach Campbell also wrote beautifully about the war scenes in his own blog.

Talking about Viva L'Italia, Andrew Sarris mentions Rossellini's camera that "keeps its cosmic distance." And later in the same paragraph, he states: "Where Buñuel's ideas sometimes transcend his images, and where Chaplin's images sometimes transcend his ideas, there is in Rossellini little or no separation between style and substance. If there be such a thing as a cinematographic language, and I firmly believe there is, Rossellini requires the least translation..."

One of the things I like the most about the film is its courage to emphatize with history, and its characters (notwithstanding the "cosmic distance" that Sarris talks about). The chants and hymns on the soundtrack or the ideological exclamations might feel naive to many but Rossellini only makes movies about the things he feels, and by feeling Garibaldi's followers, he makes us understand a very important point in recent history: the formation of nation-states. As Tag Gallagher says, what interests Rossellini "is always the moment when one cycle of history is dying, another is born." At the very beginning of Viva L'Italia there's an important emphasis on telegrams, and later, on mass printing of newspapers. Without the changes in mass communication, history would have happened very differently. Rossellini allows determinism, understands the forces that drive history, but also embraces the human beings who drove it, Rosa being a great and heroic example.

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Friday, May 15, 2009

Howard Hawks' "Monkey Business" (1952)

In a post to a_film_by on August 2003, Tag Gallagher, talking about Howard Hawks, asked: "Is sanity truly a goal or even a desideratum in Bringing Up Baby, The Big Sky, Red River... ?"

And in another post, the same day:
"I'm not sure that people are trying to cling to sanity, but I suspect that sanity is an illusion in Hawks, and that biology rules all, and from a male point of view (Hawks's) that's the power of women. Sanity may be a possibility, but it's irrelevant ultimately."

I think these statements go to the very heart of Monkey Business, which I saw countless times by now.

Here is a dialogue from the film:
Barnaby: Hello, Griffith Park Zoo, Snake Department. Sssshhh!
Oliver Oxley: Hello? Hello? What is this?
Barnaby: What do you want?
Oliver Oxley: This is Mr Oxley.
Barnaby: I'll see if he's here.
Oliver Oxley: No, I said *this* is Oxley!
Barnaby: Who is?
Oliver Oxley: I am, speaking!
Barnaby: Oh, you're Mr. Speaking...
Oliver Oxley: This is Mr. Oxley speaking!
Barnaby: Oxley Speaking? Any relation to Oxley?
Oliver Oxley: Barnaby Fulton is that you?
Barnaby: Who's calling?
Oliver Oxley: I am, Barnaby!
Barnaby: Oh, no, you're not Barnaby. I am Barnaby! I ought to know who I am.
Oliver Oxley: This is Oxley speaking, Barnaby!
Barnaby: No, that's ridiculous! You can't be all three. Figure out which one you are and call me back!

Not only it is one of the funniest films ever made, it also has THE most romantic kiss scene ever (the first one, when they're staying home from the Everett Winston party).

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Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Kenji Mizoguchi's "Gion bayashi" (1953)

English titles: A Geisha, Gion Festival Music

Tag Gallagher on Kenji Mizoguchi's use of space:
"Virtually every relationship in Mizoguchi is humiliating, hierarchal, enslaving, with space expressing the power of one person, the nullity of another: endless bowing and kowtowing and scraping across floors in self-abasement. And despite all these shots of people walking in rooms and passageways, we get no sense from Mizoguchi of what it is like to be in these houses, because these are sets, designs, formed of rectangles, cubes, lines and blocks, and their space is fictive, part of the nightmare of power. The grace of the architecture, the clear lines of buildings, the comforting sensation of a storybook Zen order radiated by structures, all are geometric forces of imprisonment and oppression, (...)"

You can read the full article, called Mizoguchi and freedom, here.

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Monday, February 02, 2009

John Ford's "Fort Apache" (1948)

'Two of the most beautiful things in the world," Ford was fond of reminding his scenarists, "are a horse running and a couple waltzing." (...) "With Ford," said Flora Robson, one of the 7 Women, "the actor is continually conscious of the fact that he is making a motion picture and that it must move, move, move. His scenes are never static or dominated by the dialogue." "When movies are best," said Ford, "the action's long and the talk's short. When a film tells its story and reveals its characters to us in a suite of simple, beautiful and animated shots, that's a movie.'
from Tag Gallagher's book on Ford.

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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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Saturday, November 01, 2008

Did Chuck Jones see "Mogambo"?

In Chuck Jones' Duck Amuck, Daffy Duck says: "What a way to run a railroad!" to complain about the absurdity of the situation. Daffy doesn't know this but he's talking to Bugs Bunny.

In John Ford's Mogambo, Kelly says to Victor (played by Clark Gable): "It's a fine way to run a railroad buster!", again to express absurdity.

Creators of Bugs Bunny (Chuck Jones & co.) were influenced by Clark Gable.

Both Duck Amuck and Mogambo were made in the same year, in 1953. I don't know which one was finished first.

I realize it was a common phrase at the time but still, it seems quite possible to me that Chuck Jones had seen Mogambo, which, according to Tag Gallagher's book on Ford, was a popular movie at the time ("Mogambo holds the record for first-year grosses of all Ford’s pictures."). And if my guess is correct, the fact that he stole a line of dialogue from the film hints that he probably enjoyed it too. At least, I'd like to think that way.

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