Friday, February 29, 2008

I Don't Remember, I Don't Recall

Once again, those filmic gurus at The House Next Door got me to thinking (damn their eyes, I do so try to avoid thinking) about film viewership among cinephiles by linking to this post by Kevin Lee on a rather embarrassing article written by Mick LaSalle. I'm not familiar with LaSalle myself and after reading Kevin's post I feel thankful for my lack of familiarity. But all the talk about canons and holes in viewership among cinephiles got me to thinking about holes in viewership for myself, albeit from a different perspective.

Although I have several films in the history of cinema to go before I've seen them all (oh probably around 487,593) I have seen most of the BIG ones; that is, the ones you're expected to have seen as a card carrying cinephile. I've seen all the films on the various Sight and Sound Polls over the years save a couple here and there, all the Best Pictures save one (Chicago - and I still can't bring myself to put it in the queue) and most of the nominees, the AFI top 100, at least two thirds of the Top Foreign list done this year on Ed Copeland's site (It's here I have my biggest gaps in viewing) and the completest assortment of classic Hollywood and Foreign films. I feel confident I can hold my own in a conversation on film with any acknowledged expert but still feel intimidated by many writers and bloggers out there. I have an unfounded suspicion (perhaps we all do) that they have seen much more than me. Whether this is true or not I do know there are certain bloggers who have seen very different sets of films than I have seen and I visit their blogs for ideas on what to see or just to vicariously experience the film in question through their words.

But as I get older I have noticed unique cinephiliac problems arising with age: Namely, I don't remember half the films I saw between the ages of 10 and 25. Oh I remember seeing them alright, or I should say I remember that I have seen them, but I don't remember much else. This problem is compounded by the fact that movies I did see in my youth that I thought were excellent were seen again in my late thirties and found to be lacking. Other films I thought were overrated bores upon first viewing at 19 were seen again later in life and found to be wonderful.

So I have many gaps to fill but at the same time keep telling myself, "I really have to see that again. I remember not liking it but everyone thinks it's great and I don't remember much about it now." Do I see the foreign classic I've yet to see (Earrings of Madame De) or revisit the foreign classic I did see (Last Year at Marienbad) but frankly can't really remember now? For the record I was nineteen when I saw Marienbad and that is now more than... uh... um... well, it was a long time ago.

There is no set answer and more often than not I will end up revisiting a film over seeking out an unseen one. I'm not sure why. I do know that life experience greatly affects how one looks at a movie, book or painting and that explains my changing opinions on films with twenty year gaps in between viewings. I also now understand that what I thought was complete "life experience" at 20 or 25 was not. And I think I understand now that in my fifties and sixties and seventies I will look back upon my opinions now with some bemusement and perhaps even a little embarrassment mixed in for good measure.

And will I need to revisit films I have seen recently? Will they too become distant, foggy memories? If my experience so far is any indication, the answer is a resounding "Yes!" Which makes me feel better, believe it or not. It means viewing film, experiencing art or reading great literature is not a "once and done" proposition. It is an ongoing cycle that must be renewed regularly. To see a great film but once and never return to it is to turn one's back on the artistic experience. The experience of art is in part the re-experience of art. When I was in college studying theatre we had one line drilled into our heads again and again: Art is an act of communication. The artist, be (s)he filmmaker, painter, writer, architect, musician, choreographer, etc. is communicating an idea to the recipient of the art. That idea, in the best art, is not set in stone and dogmatically applied but malleable and open to interpretation. That is when the recipient begins their part of the communication process. Through interpretation; and through life experience, re-interpretation; the recipient is now in communication with the artist. It may be the reason I return to a film seen but forgotten over a film not yet seen: I want to continue the dialogue. And to have dialogue with someone removed from you by decades or even centuries is one of life's most enriching experiences.

And it can be comforting as well as helpful to solidifying, or at least understanding, a viewpoint. Many people (most?) have had occasion to converse with the same person on the same topic again and again. It is often preferable to striking up a conversation with a new person on an unfamiliar topic. When I first saw 2001: A Space Odyssey I was a teenager. I had read all about it in film books for years before finally getting the opportunity to see it. When I saw it, I watched with a deadly earnestness, studying, analyzing. I watched it again several times on cable and videotape, and each time with the same analytical eye of the cinephile. After several conversations with the film I felt I had experienced it. I was wrong.

In 1990, the Uptown Cinema in Washington, D.C., one of the few remaining movie palaces of the CinemaScope era, showed 2001: A Space Odyssey. I went and saw it with my roommate. We'd each seen it several times but this was the first time for both of us on the big screen with an audience. It was then I realized the conversation was just beginning. Obviously the visuals had a completely different impact than they had on the small screen but that wasn't the biggest difference. What I had missed in my solemn seriousness as an analytical cinephile was Kubrick's humor. There are, I discovered, several parts of the movie that are (gasp) funny. The "Dawn of Man" has a few, the space station a few more and finally, the showdown between Dave and HAL was a revelation. Kubrick understood the humor of someone who is arrogant losing the upper hand. HAL has no time for Dave when Dave is stuck outside. He is dismissive, even, in his monotone serenity, cocky. He ends the conversation. Then Dave figures out how to get in. Now HAL won't shut up. "We need to talk, Dave." "I think you need to take a stress pill." He even does the desperate boyfriend routine about how, sure, he knows he made some mistakes but it will be different this time, really. Members of the audience were chuckling, not laughing heartily, but chuckling at the absurdity of it all (HAL has murdered the entire crew and he's trying to convince Dave that he's learned his lesson, like he forgot to take out the trash). And I chuckled too, for the first time. Then as Dave enters HAL's memory banks and dismantles him there is silence as the humor is turned around and now we feel sympathy with HAL's pleading. When HAL starts singing (singing!) he suddenly feels like a small child who lost his way. And I had missed almost all of this in my previous viewings. In my deadly earnestness I had forgotten to experience the movie, to communicate with it.

Questions of the future are always enticing because there is no way to know the answer without going there. Films that are praised upon release are rarely outright panned in retrospect but what happens more often is that films that received lukewarm receptions grow in stature as time moves ahead. Or perhaps a praised film takes on the mantle of masterpiece as the decades go by. Will cinephiles in 2100 find our conversations about No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood amusing because Zodiac will have cemented a reputation as one of the greatest films of all time, leaving them to wonder how we all missed it so badly even though we all thought it was excellent? Will some other film that none of us has discussed become a giant in film history? Will a movie that was panned gain a reputation for being ahead of its time? I don't know. I do know that the only way to understand any of it is to keep having the conversation. For me that includes rekindling conversations long forgotten (Last Year at Marienbad) and striking up new ones (Earrings of Madame De). And I look forward to many more years of great dialogue with great directors, great movies and great art. Art is an act of communication. Let the conversation begin.

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Kelly Astaire Paradigm

There I said it. I used the word "paradigm." I vowed I never would but I did. It simply fits for the discussion. And what's the discussion? Acting.


A little history first. When I first starting doing this blog in July of 2007 (that means everyone still has four months to pick out a nice one year anniversary gift for me) I didn't exactly break the site meter dial for daily hits. I pulled in Oscar posts that I had done on another blog to fill up the first part of the month and then starting posting new material. My first widely read post was in this second batch in July. It was linked to by Kim at MSN Movies Filter and people finally started showing up and looking around. It was on acting. To be more specific, ham acting. You see, as I explained in the post, as an actor myself I fully appreciate the subtlety and nuance of a great understated performance. But sometimes I really love a great over the top hammed up performance.

I was quick to explain that a bad ham actor (the kind most people think of) is a bad actor period, someone who overplays, overemotes and overinflects every move, tear and shout. They're bad, they don't know how to do anything else. But a great ham actor is also a great actor who is in possession of so much skill and talent they know when to go over the top and how far to take it. The example that I gave of a truly skilled ham, a great actor who relished in overplaying a role, was Charles Laughton and I stand by it. He was a great actor and one who knew the "whens" and "how fars" of ham acting.

So what does this have to with Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire? Well, recently with the passing of Roy Scheider there have been multiple tributes from various bloggers and commenters and almost all saying the same thing: Scheider was a great understated actor, an actor who embodied a role but never made it showy. In a post at the Siren's place, there was a discussion/comparison of Roy Scheider and Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man and while reading and engaging in the discussion I kept thinking, "Kelly and Astaire."

It's been said that Fred Astaire made dancing look easy and Gene Kelly made it look hard. Both were skilled and both shared similar gifts. Astaire could tap his way through a room full of mousetraps without setting one off and Kelly could do graceful ballets with his co-stars where not a shoe was tapped. But they were known for just the opposite. Astaire worked and rehearsed tirelessly to make his dancing appear graceful, elegant and effortless. Kelly worked and rehearsed tirelessly to make his dancing appear athletic, vigorous and difficult. Both have their supporters and detractors and yet neither has ever fully taken the lead in the "who's better" game. There's room for both.

And so we're back to acting: Gene Kelly actors and Fred Astaire actors. Not necessarily hammy and understated as in that July post. No, no. More, a performance or performer that is athletic and another that is graceful. Vigorous versus Elegant. The obvious starting point for me with this is Dustin Hoffman and Roy Scheider. Hoffman attended the Kelly school, Scheider the Astaire school. And I probably prefer the Astaire school but I get a big kick out of many of the Kelly school graduates too.

I'm still in the process of thinking this through; that is, who fits where, who attended which school? So for now I'll throw out some names of actors (excluding silent actors because that's a style all its own) for each and you tell me if you agree or not, or who should be on the list.

The Kelly School:

Dustin Hoffman

Meryl Streep

Paul Muni

Bette Davis

Burt Lancaster

Jack Nicholson

Susan Hayward

The Astaire School:

Roy Scheider

Greer Garson

Spencer Tracy

Irene Dunne

Laura Linney

Deborah Kerr

Cary Grant

That's my initial "off the top of my head" list. Some actors, like Katherine Hepburn, I feel attended one school and then transferred halfway through their term. They can be either. Others, like James Cagney, I can't place at all. He had an intensity to his portrayals, and yet he felt very natural at the same time. So that's the list for now but the Spring Semester starts soon and we've got to get these kids enrolled. Someone else take over the schedule from here. I've got to work on my syllabus.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

What's It Going to be then, eh? A Clockwork Orange: Book to Film

Viddy this well O my brothers (and with appy polly loggys to Anthony Burgess - my sisters as well). For this Sinny Styles edition of Book to Film I will be doing Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange. Previously I had done The Shining by Stephen King, adapted to the screen by Stanley Kubrick. I could have gone with another choice I suppose rather than load up on Kubrick adaptations, but I pulled the book off the shelf and the dvd from the cabinet and figured, "What the hell, it's not like I'm getting any pretty polly for this cal," so I plopped down on my sharries and decided to write it up, real horrorshow like.

The book and the film are both admirable pieces of work in their respective forms and offer insights into the characters that complement each other well. There are minor differences between the two (in the book the rape of the writer's wife is more extensive and cruel and Alex reflects on it later that night (wishing he'd hurt them more); the girls he takes home from the record store are ten years old but much older in the film; Alex himself and his droogs are a couple of years younger in the book as well). However, on the whole, the film pretty much trods the same path as the book with one jarring, glaring momentous difference: The movie ends one chapter short of where the book ends. Unless you've got the wrong edition that is. If you have a Ballantine published edition prior to 1986, you have a copy of The Clockwork Orange that is twenty chapters long. The original British edition is twenty one chapters long. The American publishers felt the last chapter softened the impact of the story and excised it. Burgess was furious. When Kubrick started writing his screenplay he didn't even know there was a twenty-first chapter.

So how can we compare the two if Kubrick didn't even know? Because he found out before finishing the screenplay and decided he liked the American version better. He found the original version too staid, too dull.

Ahem... I beg to differ.

The original end to the book may not be as exciting and jawdropping as the end to Chapter Twenty or the film but it completes the story in a way the film cannot hope to do. Kubrick should have taken the story all the way.

For those familiar with either the American published version of the book or the film the ending is the same in both and quite spectacular. Alex has been "cured" of his violent tendencies in prison through a special program that causes him to grow violently ill at even the thought of violence. He has been programmed by the state to be a peaceful citizen. As the film (and American book version) ends Alex is recovering in a hospital after his attempted suicide. This was brought on by the torture inflicted upon him by the writer whose wife he raped and killed. Since he could not defend himself lest he grow violently ill, he opted for suicide instead. But the attempted suicide changed him. The illness no longer occurs when he hears Beethoven's Ninth Symphony (a side effect of the treatment) and he imagines himself "carving the whole litso of the creeching world with my cutthroat britva." That is, cutting the whole face of the screaming world with his razor. Rather than use this quote in the film, he instead imagines himself raping a woman in front of a cheering crowd. Either way, it's clear: He no longer gets sick when he hears the music or thinks violent thoughts. And then in both book (Chapter Twenty) and movie he delivers the final ominous/hilarious line, "I was cured all right."

It's a clever wink and a nod to the reader/viewer about the state no longer having control over Alex, no longer able to supress his free will. But Burgess' ending is far more meaningful and, yes, far more defeatist. Defeatist, but honest.

Chapter Twenty One begins the same way Chapter One (and each of the books three parts) begins: "What's it going to be then, eh?" Alex says this at different times to his droogs, himself, and the reader. It is his general question, his statement of free will. At the end, Alex is addressing his new droogs; Len, Rick, and Bully. His new droogs are two to three years younger than he is and look up to him as their leader. They are in a familiar setting, the Korova Milkbar. Alex narrates:

Suddenly I felt both very very tired and also full of tingly energy, and I said:
'Out out out out out.'
'Where to?' said Rick, who had a litso like a frog's.
'Oh, just to viddy what's doing in the great outside,' I said. But somehow, my brothers, I felt very bored and a bit hopeless, and I had been feeling that a lot these days.

Alex is bored with the ultra-violent lifestyle and when his droogs tell him of a setup they have for that night he tells them to go on without him. They don't understand.

'Where to, then?' asked Rick.'That know I not,' I said. 'Just to be on like my own and sort things out.' You could viddy the old baboochkas were real puzzled at me going out like that... "

He's older and restless. He works at the National Gramodisc Archives and even enjoys it for the music he gets there plus the money. As he wanders he meets up with one of his old droogs, Pete who is now married. He tells Alex that Georgie's dead and Dim is still a brutal cop. Pete's wife comments on how funny Alex's speech is and asks Pete if he used to talk like that too. They leave and Alex is left pondering his future. He envisions he may settle down and marry. And then comes this passage in which we get from Burgess his true intent of the novel and its title:

Yes yes yes, there it was. Youth must go, ah yes. But youth is only being in a way like it might be an animal. No, it is not just being an animal so much as being like one of these malenky toys you viddy being sold in the streets, like little chellovecks made out of tin and with a spring inside and then a winding handle on the outside and you wind it up grrr grrr grrr and off it itties, like walking, O my brothers. But it itties in a straight line and bangs straight into things bang bang and it cannot help what it is doing. Being young is like being like one of these malenky machines.

My son, my son. When I had my son I would explain all that to him when he was starry enough to like understand. But then I knew he would not understand or would not want to understand at all and would do all the veshches I had done, yes perhaps even killing some poor starry forella surrounded with mewing kots and koshkas, and I would not be able to really stop him. And nor would he be able to stop his own son, brothers. And so it would itty on to like the end of the world, round and round and round, like some bolshy gigantic like chelloveck, like old Bog Himself (by courtesy of Korova Milkbar) turning and turning and turning a vonny grahzny orange in his gigantic rookers.

It is youth that is the clockwork orange, not the peaceful Alex programmed by the State. By ending the novel and film at Chapter Twenty the point is lost. Burgess was not making the point that the State takes away our free will but that in youth we have no control over it. Take away this final chapter and you have fundamentally altered the meaning and purpose of the book. No wonder Burgess was furious.

Both the film version and the American published version of the book offer a scathing commentary on comtemporary society and State control and I think it can be said that they both do it well. It is not that the film version is a bad film at all. For what it chooses to tell it is quite good. It is simply that by omitting the last act, comparing the two becomes a case of apples and (no pun intended) oranges. In a way, it's the best of both worlds. We now have a film version offering us a telling satire of State control over the individuals free will as it programs him to become a clockwork orange. And it's ending affirms that the individual can overcome this.

The book on the other hand tells us we already are clockwork oranges until life experience expands our minds and then ends by reminding us there is nothing we possess in our power that can change this. It is decidedly a downer, more defeatist, more of a hit in the gut. It is odd that one of Kubrick's complaints about Chapter Twenty One was that it gave the book an "optimistic" ending. That, I think, is a misreading. Burgess did not consider it optimistic nor do I. But I don't consider it despairing either, just honest. No one ever wants to hear that they have much less control over their life than they think they do.

As Alex wanders off in his thoughts he bids his farewell to the reader:

But where I itty now, O my brothers, is all on my oddy knocky, where you cannot go... And so farewell from your little droog. And to all others in this story profound shooms of lip-music brrrrr. And they can kiss my sharries. But you, O my brothers, remember sometimes thy little Alex that was. Amen. And all that cal.

Alex can now finally exercise his free will. Age has granted him that. He's moved beyond the clockwork mechanisms of his youth and must now deal with it (youth) from the other side. But at least he understands that. I guess he was cured after all.



Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Storyboarding Taxi Driver

From Scorsese on Scorsese by Martin Scorsese (edited by David Thompson and Ian Christie, London: Faber and Faber, 1989.).

"Travis really has the best of intentions; he believes he's doing right, just like St Paul. He wants to clean up life, clean up the mind, clean up the soul. He is very spiritual, but in a sense Charles Manson was spiritual, which doesn't mean that it's good. It's the power of the spirit on the wrong road. The key to the picture is the idea of being brave enough to admit having these feelings, and then act them out. I instinctively showed that the acting out was not the way to go, and this created even more ironic twists to what was going on. " p 62.

Below are the original storyboards for the shootout at the brothel as drawn by Martin Scorsese (pages 55-59). On the whole, the finished film follows them very closely with only minor changes as noted. I have highlighted one frame from each storyboard to compare with the corresponding shot in the completed film.

Upon hearing the gunfire Iris appears to be lifting only her head from the bed in the storyboard but in the film she sits up completely.

The shooter's gun is about two feet from Bickle's arm in the storyboard and his torso completely within the frame. In the film, he shoots from point blank range and only his arm is visible. When Travis fires back it appears in the storyboard that Scorsese planned to have his victim shot in the eye(?) but it's difficult to tell. He is shot in the forehead in the film.

Two reverses from the storyboard: In the first shot, Iris is on the left side of the room but in the storyboard she is on the right. In the second, Bickle puts his "gun" to his head with his left hand in the film, his right hand on the storyboard.

Scorsese does not elaborate in the book on the reason for any minor changes. Minor changes from storyboard to completed film occur regularly during the shooting process and many directors have been known to draw up a new storyboard during the shooting. Most of these changes probably occurred from necessity more than anything else. For instance, in the story board Scorsese has the shooter with glasses shot in the eye. Perhaps that is why he gave him glasses, to conceal the squib that would go off but it proved more difficult than thought so his forehead was used instead. When Bickle sits on the sofa in the film his right arm is bunched up against the corpse of one of his victims and so going with his left hand was probably just easier. And yet it created an iconic image: I cannot imagine Bickle's right hand at his head, it has to be the left.

Scorsese's storyboards confirm the importance of the director to the visual result of the film. True, a good cinematographer must still set up the shot, properly light it and make it work. But a good director has already shot the movie in his head and on paper before the camera ever rolls. Think of Orson Welles two masterpieces Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. They each had a different cinematographer (Gregg Tolland on Kane and Stanley Cortez on Ambersons) and yet have remarkable visual similarities as well as visual flourishes not found in other Tolland or Cortez shot films. However, a director can have all the visual ideas in the world and without the right cinematographer those ideas may end up unrealized. Tolland and Cortez were brilliant cinematographers and had the talent to give Welles what he wanted. Just as Scorsese had Michael Chapman (Invasion of the Body Snatchers 78 and Raging Bull 80) help him create one of the most stunning climaxes to any film of the seventies. It was a final brutal entry into the world of Travis Bickle but without Scorsese's storyboards and Michael Chapman's camera work, it might have been just another shootout.