Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Edge of the Art Form

***This post contains spoilers, but only of the first third of the film.***

Thank God for Movie Bloggers. If there's one thing you can count on with Movie Bloggers it's screengrabs. Lots of 'em! And I don't mean that flippantly, I'm being perfectly serious. Before we bloggers came along you got the same old pics from the same old movies all the time. There was Gone With The Wind. You know, the double profile pic of Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh. There was Casablanca. Again with the double profile pic. There was Citizen Kane, one of the most abundant sources for jaw dropping stills in the history of film and what would you get, again and again? Kane in front of his huge campaign poster at the political rally. Every time.

Then we bloggers came into the picture and changed all that. Do a search on a classic film now and you're likely to strike gold with different shots and vantage points and if you click on a pic, chances are it will be located at an address supported by Blogger, Wordpress, Blogsome or some other blogging server.

In fact, this blog wouldn't have the look it has without them. If I couldn't pop in a DVD to get just the right screengrab for a new banner design or find a great screengrab on the net then, well, I wouldn't be changing my banners every other day. And dammit, I like changing my banners every other day. I'm too much of a photoshop geek and a bad pun addict to ever stop. I've done so many of them that if I didn't change them every other day I'd never get them all up in ten years. I put up one the other day which can be seen at the top of this post. It's a screengrab from Amarcord, watercolored in Photoshop and subtitled "Some artists paint with film."

After I put it up I started thinking about that very idea, the fact that many great directors and cinematographers really do create beautiful art on film. My wife is an artist* and has even done a series of drawings based on John Huston's opening shots of the poor and downtrodden in Fat City. There they are, in a desolate urban environment, hunched over in doorways and cradled against chainlink fences. Most people see this as a series of establishing shots (although they probably wouldn't think about it that specifically) but cinephiles and artists see the beauty that a great director and cinematographer (Conrad Hall was DP on Fat City) bring to every frame of a well thought out film.

Many film bloggers have used screengrabs for shot by shot posts as well as for a variety of other purposes (like my banners for instance) and I'm no exception. One of the first posts I ever did here at Cinema Styles was a shot by shot look at Sol Nazerman's (Rod Steiger) first substantial Holocaust flashback in The Pawnbroker. Without screengrabs I wouldn't have been able to relate the feeling of that scene nearly as well.

I haven't done much with screengrabs since doing those posts months ago but I'd like to start it up again, and for me, there's no one better to start with than Michael Powell.

Of course, I could do all the big, colorful beautiful Powell's; The Red Shoes, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Black Narcissus, Peeping Tom. But instead I'd like to highlight an earlier black and white Powell, The Edge of the World, made in 1937. His cinematographers were Monty Berman, Skeets Kelly and Ernest Palmer. Each had different jobs on the film operating cameras in different locations whether it be cliffside, ocean or interior. Powell himself set up the shots.

Unlike later Powell efforts, in which artificiality is part of the storytelling template, The Edge of the World employs realism in it's settings (almost everything is filmed outside and on location) but true to Powell the manipulation of those settings photographically foreshadows his later efforts in which the placement of the camera and the choice of lenses used give the story new meaning.

As an example of this I'd like to use three pivotal scenes early in the film that set the story for the final clash of families and island tragedy in motion.

On a tiny Shetland island the fishing community there is threatened by the trawlers and commercialized fishing of the mainland taking away their livlihood. Two men, Robbie Manson and Andrew Gray argue over evacuating the island or staying on. Their argument, before the village's fisherman, takes place outside on of the grand sloping cliffsides.

First, a long shot of the group gathered on slope.

Then Powell brings us in close to listen to the group. Throughout the scene the perspective shifts. Here we see an elder, Peter Manson, standing in the center, defiantly against any ideas of leaving the village. His son, Robbie, is seated on the rock to the right.

But dissent is sown by his own son. When this happens the camera goes into a closeup on Manson who eyes his son with contempt.

As his son speaks we see him alone, to the side, but then...

... his father confronts his views and comes directly into the shot standing over him.

Robbie does not back down and the perspective shifts. Robbie is now on the right. Notice the man with one leg on the rock and where he was in the first close shot to orient how the perspective has shifted.

As Robbie pleads his case, for leaving the island, the camera goes into him, giving him a solitary closeup.

As he speaks his father recedes into the background. Note the direction the men are looking as they listen to Robbie. He is once again on the right, the perspective having shifted again.

Finally, a decision is made to have a contest to settle the matter. Robbie and Andrew Gray, who is to marry Robbie's sister and supports staying, will race to the top of a cliff. The first one there will decide whether the village is abandoned. The father no longer has a say. The perspective now shifts with the camera on the seaside looking inland. Robbie's father stands alone on a ledge, looking into the distance.

The shifting perspectives mirror the shifting attitudes and arguments of the group. Like a classical actor using mannerism and inflection to help the audience understand the Elizabethan dialect, Powell uses his camera to make visual the debate at hand.

Once the race to the top of the cliff has begun Powell again shifts perspectives throughout. Two men race up opposite sides of a cliff. The outcome to determine an either/or situation. The perspectives shift from left to right to illustrate this.

The local priest watches from his window, to the left.

Townswomen observe the action as well, looking to the right.

Robbie's sister and Andrew's fiancee, looks upward.

And finally, when Robbie falls to his death, the grandmother stares straight ahead, then looks up to the right.

This scene is followed by one of the most beautiful and moving funeral scenes ever shot. Despite the crisp and natual outdoor photography of the rest of the film, the funeral scene is shot in the style of silent films. It employs irises and gels on the lens to create a surreal look and mood as Robbie Manson is laid to rest. In keeping with the silent movie device, no dialogue is heard, simply a plaintiff and beautiful hymn, heard over the action. Watch the clip of the funeral below to see how an artist truly can paint with film. Watch the whole movie to see a filmmaking genius early in his career showing the first signs of greatness that would later define him as an artist.



*In case anyone's wondering, the oil painting on the sidebar, "Blue Lady on the Sea," is one of my favorites of her works.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Anecdotal Review: A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

I was a theatre major in college at the Catholic University of America, not because I was Catholic but because they have a highly touted Drama Department. At the Drama Department on campus was an area we students called "The Fishbowl." It was a lobby area with two offices on either side, one with a receptionist's window and on the far side glass walls with a glass door leading out to the courtyard. When you sat in there you were in full view of the receptionist sitting at the window and anyone in front in the courtyard, or just passing by in the hall, hence the name "The Fishbowl."

The Fishbowl was a place to congregate, talk about class, discuss new plays, smoke and relax. It was also an area to observe fellow students going into the office of the Chairman of the Drama Department, Dr. William Graham, who had one of those offices on the side. Students would discuss plays, acting or class schedules with Dr. Graham, a gracious yet gruff man. He was large and imposing with grey hair and a voice that was booming even when he whispered. If you want to get a good visual representation of him in your head for this story, simply cross Brian Dennehy with Jackie Gleason, or just choose one or the other to be your visual representation of Dr. Graham.

Dr. Graham was a determined man who never (it seemed at least) went anywhere or did anything without a purpose. He had no time to dilly dally, as it were. One phrase of his that lives on in my household, and probably in the household of anyone who went to college with me, is "walk with me." If you saw Dr. Graham leaving his office and needed to ask him something he would not stop for you. He would say, "walk with me." Forcefully. Not scarily, although to new students he was quite intimidating, but forcefully. "Walk with me." It meant, "I'm not stopping but if you can get your question out and I can answer it before I reach my destination I'll oblige you." And so you walked with him. And you walked quickly.

I had the pleasure of having Dr. Graham as an acting instructor in my senior year and it is the best acting and one of the best learning experiences I have ever received. He taught Classical Acting and he was a master. First, we watched videos of actors at the Old Vic telling stories of past performances and demonstrating how to properly do soliloquies and scenes in Shakespeare. Among those present in the video were Ben Kingsley, David Suchet, Judy Dench, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. Those videos alone were worth going to class for. Then we did soliloquies and scenes from Shakespeare and Johnson and were guided by Dr. Graham as to how to best capture the moment in each reading.

He did something invaluable for we students as actors. He told all of us that if the very first reading of our soliloquy was not absolutely one hundred percent over the top he wouldn't even pay attention. Odd, you may think, but the point he was making was that too many actors attempt to hone their performance from the get go and Dr. Graham knew that you must first explore wild abandon and then, and only then, start to edit and refine and pull yourself back in. What was amazing was that when we would watch the videotapes (he recorded us) none of us were nearly as over the top as we thought we were. When you grow up in an age of naturalistic acting you quickly lose the beauty of the classical acting art form. You don't understand it. The classical actor needs to play his role differently than the naturalistic actor. The classical actor is reciting lines that in many cases are completely unfamiliar to the average theatre goer if they are to simply read them. So the classical actor must make greater use of emotion and mannerism to convey what the words mean to the audience.

During one of those classes I was front and center doing a soliloquy in which I had to show anger. I do not now recall the piece now or even what play it was from. I simply remember the emotional experience. I performed my piece for the class and naturally, to my mind, thought I did a splendid job of hitting just the right notes of fury with my reading. Dr. Graham was not impressed. He got up and walked over to me. He knew that the first step was feeling the emotion. As a trained actor you are not supposed to feel it every time (that would necessitate a lack of control), instead you should recall the emotion for your performance later, but to recall it you need to first feel it. Dr. Graham was not one to employ tricks on actors where one goads them into doing something by deceiving them as many lesser directors feel it necessary to do. No, not Dr. Graham. But he did understand that simulating an emotion sometimes required a physical act to set it on its course. He held his hands out in front of him and told me to slap them as hard as I could as I read the piece. I chuckled at this, thinking it overly simplistic. He insisted. I started slapping. Hard. He told me I wasn't slapping hard enough and to start over. I began again and was shouting my lines at this point. He would shout back (much louder than me) "No good! Start again!" I would start again. I would get into a rhythm. He would stop me. "Harder! Start again!" This went on two or three more times. As I said at the beginning of this paragraph I do not recall the piece now, all I remember is this: By the end of my exercise with Dr. Graham, I - WAS - ENRAGED! Veins were popping out of my forehead, my body was shaking, I was sweating. And Dr. Graham? He was at ease, collected. "Excellent. Sit down."

So now you should have a pretty good picture of Dr. Graham. To use the old cliche, he was a man of bold strokes, not gentle flourishes. He believed in speaking one's mind, in strength of character and actively pursuing one's own purposes. He was a great teacher and mentor and an admirable role model. Which brings us back to that fishbowl that started this whole story off in the first place.

There we were, myself and my theatre student compatriots, huddled around as always, smoking cigarettes (back in the day when you could smoke indoors) and talking. Fellow student Patrick walked into the fishbowl and towards Dr. Graham's office. He needed to talk to him about points being taken off a paper because it had been turned in late. As best as I can recall he had what he felt to be a suitable reason for turning it in late. He wanted to get the points back and was there to argue his case with Dr. Graham. Once in his office we heard nothing as the office was fairly soundproof with it's concrete walls and two-ton wooden door. But whenever that door was open Dr. Graham could be heard. Always.

Inside Patrick argued his case to Dr. Graham. As we soon found out Dr. Graham was not impressed with his reason and stood by the docking of points. Dejected and defeated Patrick emerged from the office, hand on door knob to close the door behind him.

And then, at that moment, an extraordinary act of fate occurred.

Patrick stumbled and lunged forward. He held onto the knob to keep from going face down which resulted in the door slamming as hard as any door has ever slammed in the history of door slams. It practically shook the building.

Immediately Patrick went into a panic. "Oh my god, " Patrick said to we huddlers, "he's going to think I slammed the door because I was angry with him for not taking my side."

Being sympathetic twenty-something college students, we laughed. It was just too beautiful a conundrum not to. He asked us if he should knock, open the door and explain what happened. "Sure why not," we said, "if it'll make you feel better," but honestly we didn't care. Patrick hemmed and hawed for a few seconds then gently knocked on the door, opened it and explained what had happened. He apologized profusely and said it was wholly unintentional.

And then... then there was silence. For Patrick, an unbearable silence. One second passed, two, three, four seconds until finally Dr. Graham spoke. The door was open. We all heard that familiar booming voice:

"You should have left it with the slammed door. It made more of a statement."


This has been a Cinema Styles Anecdotal Film Review of Artificial Intelligence, directed by Steven Spielberg.

Monday, April 7, 2008

I Felt a Little Like a Dying Clown

It's Monday and I'm here to provide some updates. I've been doing this more often recently and I like the idea of using a grab bag post to work through thoughts and ideas in an attempt to organize them. Mainly, it gives me an opportunity to understand the nature of blogging more completely. And the nature of blogging is what this is about, in a roundabout way. A few of you may have noticed that Synchfish and Toys of Desperation are gone. Well, I know at the very least that Brian and Rick noticed because they asked me about it in my comment section. Yes, they're gone. I deleted them yesterday along with a lot of other things.

I went through a bit of a crisis yesterday in which I, as is often the case, questioned whether I should be doing this at all. I do it because of a love of writing about film and a love of interacting with film enthusiasts on a range of topics. But personal issues take center stage sometimes and since this is not my job it always seems like the first thing that should go.

First of all, some background. I blog a lot. I have had at any given time multiple blogs or websites but Cinema Styles is the big one, the one that I love. I sold photographic art on Etsy as well under a different name and I record music and make short films under a third. I say "I sold" in the past tense because I deleted my Etsy account yesterday too. And except for putting some stuff up on YouTube, I've never made any serious attempt to get any film work in the public eye. But I keep coming back here, to Cinema Styles, which by the way, almost disappeared too. I got as far as the "are you sure" question for deleting Cinema Styles, which after a few seconds of thought, I decided against and hit "No." Obviously, or you wouldn't be reading this.

I've mentioned the "different works under the different names" thing before here and on other blogs in their comment sections but I don't think it's fully clear. Some time ago on Brian Doan's blog, Bubblegum-Aesthetics, I mentioned it again in a discussion Brian, Larry Aydlette and I were having on Blogger identities. The question was, from Larry specifically, which name was mine. The short answer is "They all are." The long answer's a bit more complicated.

I have a job at a high-profile institution in Washington, D.C. It is internationally recognized and often the subject of media attention. And much of the time I'm at work I am (ahem) blogging. And commenting - a lot - on other blogs. You might say I'm addicted to it. And blogging and surfing on the job are definite no-no's. If anyone at work were to discover I was spending valuable time on the job commenting about which actors belong to the Kelly School and which actors belong to the Astaire school I'd most likely be shown the door. And with my current financial situation and a family to support that would be devastating. So why am I even taking the chance? Well, for one thing I am fortunate to be in a position that deals with confidential information. As a result, no one is allowed to access or monitor my computer without my permission. There's even an icon that changes color if anyone has accessed my hard drive. Very convenient for blogging on the sly. Still, it's foolhardy and I should make an attempt to pull back a bit. There's plenty of time to blog at night. And I plan to make such a change, in fact, I already have. I don't like the idea of doing something I shouldn't and given the ample breaks I get at work there's plenty of time to blog and comment then. Some of you may have even noticed a more conspicuous absence by me in the comment sections on your blogs recently. That's why. Personal responsibility always reels me back in and this is no exception.

Which leads us to the name thing. I've written short stories over the years and even had a few small things published, but in no big venues, mainly local paper kind of stuff. I have a pen name that I took from a character I created years ago that I use for my writing. And since blogging is writing... well, you get the point.

So am I Jonathan Lapper? Yes, I am. I also have two other names but I am only one person. And I assure you, I am Jonathan through and through. The name may not be the one my parents gave me, but the man with the name is no different than the one you read here. So what's in a name? I don't know, I just know that I have used different names my whole life. Maybe it came from my love of classic movies and the knowledge that so many stars did not use the names they were born with. Maybe I wanted to emulate that. I don't know. I do know this: If you Google "Jonathan Lapper" you will be flooded with links to posts here and comments, thousands of comments, I have left at other blogs, all dated and time-stamped. I can't afford to have my employer Google my work name and discover the same thing.

So why not go the "handle" route? You know, adopt a handle as so many do. Larry Aydlette used to be "The Shamus." The Siren goes by Campaspe on her great blog The Self Styled Siren, her real name unknown. And Arbogast is a published critic who prefers anonymity while blogging. So why didn't I adopt "Movie Guy" or "Charlie Kane" or some other clever handle. Because I have used the name "Jonathan Lapper" for so long in connection with myself that it feels like me. It is me. It feels like I'm not using a pen name at all. And that was important to me. I wanted to feel a connection between my readers and myself and between other writers and myself on their blogs. Nothing against using a handle you understand. I have no problem with it at all, so please, for all those who use them I'm not implying anything negative whatsoever. It's just that already having a pen name that I was familiar with and that was close to my heart gave me another option.

So I hope that makes things a little clearer on the name front. I'd mentioned it before but got the distinct feeling it had gone largely unnoticed and I didn't want anyone to think I was trying to hide it. As Samuel Clemens made no attempt to deceive anyone with the name "Mark Twain" I make none myself with "Jonathan Lapper" (and dear lord don't think I'm egotistically comparing myself to him - just the name part). Larry Aydlette began an e-mail exchange with me after the discussion at Bubblegum-Aesthetics and he now knows my name as well. I told him because quite frankly I don't care who knows it, I just don't want it coming up on a search in connection with this blog.

As for the deleting of blogs and websites that's a different story. I may yet again (if fact, I know I will) have other blogs that I post to but for now I just want one. This one. Events occurred yesterday that made me feel powerless and out of control with what I want to do artistically in my life and I felt that the only way to get the feeling of control back was to streamline things. Simplify. So I did. I don't think many people were stopping by Synchfish anyway to tell you the truth but for anyone who found my useless commentary on YouTube clips and old pictures of The Rat Pack invaluable, I apologize. I tried to make it into a catch-all pop culture blog but didn't have the time or talent to succeed at it like Larry and Brian. I think Welcome to L.A. and Bubblegum-Aesthetics are two of the best pop culture blogs in existence and I just wasn't talented enough to play on the same stage. It was becoming a place for quips and jokes and nonsense commentary and the thrill of it all had gone away. As the song says, I felt a little like a dying clown. And if you know the song that comes from you know why I chose it for the title of this post. Now let's just hope I don't start throwing punches around and preaching from my chair.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Bette Davis at 100: The Courage to be Wrong

Bette Davis on April 5, 1941, the occasion of her 33rd birthday.

Many of you (or at least some) may have noticed I don't really do tributes here at Cinema Styles. When it's someone's birthday or an important figure in film history dies Cinema Styles usually comes up empty. Come looking for a birthday remembrance or an obituary and you'll likely wander into a barren landscape of curiously absent posts on the subject. It's certainly not because I don't have immense respect for artists like Jules Dassin or Richard Widmark, the two most recent important film figures to leave us. It's because, more often than not, I feel inadequate to the task. Except for some very specific figures I never feel that I'm a big enough fan or historian of the given artist's career to do them the proper justice. Along with this comes the knowledge that many very good writers will be giving their impressions and saying far more, and more eloquently, than I ever could. Having read some of the tributes to Richard Widmark I knew it was best that I stay out of it. There was nothing for me to say that so many others hadn't already said, and said so well. Add on to that the fact that when I hear of someone's death it's usually halfway through the day, I've got projects due at work and a family I want to share my time with at home and the last thing I want to do is slap together an insincere rush job.

But birthdays are a little different. At least with those, you know they're coming. You can prepare something with a little more care than an obituary (unless you're a major media outlet that prepares obits in advance). Still, I don't really do birthdays either. I did one, once, for Alfred Hitchcock and I enjoyed it (it was a sampling of Hitchcock's superlatives such as Best Location, Best Chase, etc.) but I haven't done one since.

Until now.

And I'm having the same problem. Bette Davis turns 100 years old today and she is, in my opinion, a figure in film history that cannot be ignored. When she hits a milestone like 100 (even if obviously she's not here to celebrate it with us) it has to be acknowledged. But I know that the other cinephiles out there will have much more to say about her than I do. With a figure like Davis it's difficult because so many of the stories about her, like storming off the set of The Letter only to return shortly thereafter out of respect for William Wyler, are already so well known. What can one say other than give personal remembrances? And my personal remembrances are not unique. Like so many others I was amazed at an early age by how utterly unappealing she was willing to make herself look on the screen, time and time again, if it fit the character. When I listen to people talk with reverential awe about Robert de Niro gaining weight to play Jake LaMotta or Charlize Theron uglying herself up to play Aileen Wuornos I think (with all due respect to DeNiro and Theron), "Davis did that every other movie."

Like others I found her personal appearances to be a mixture of fascination and hilarity. I remember watching her on David Letterman in the eighties (tried to find it online but couldn't) and she mentioned how difficult Faye Dunaway was to work with and Letterman said, "Well we've got a little surprise for you Bette. Faye, come on out here." Bette immediately tensed up and her eyes bulged. Letterman then said, "I was just joking, she's not really here" and Bette replied (I'm doing this all from memory so it's not exact), "I know that David, I'm not an idiot!" The audience burst into laughter and applause. It was clear she had been fooled by Letterman but something about her steadfast refusal to admit it, and admonish him at the same time, made her seem like a giant. Odd, because with anyone else that would probably make them appear smaller.

Then there was the 59th Annual Oscars Ceremony which I only remember because of Bette going on about Robert Wise, who was accepting the Best Actor Oscar for Paul Newman. That one is online here if you'd like to watch it. All Wise wanted to do was say "thanks" for Newman and exit the stage but Davis was going to make sure she sung his praises first. She's old and very fragile in appearance but someway, somehow she's the strongest and boldest person in the building. Again she stands her ground and again the audience loves it. There's something satisfying about watching someone who has no illusions about their dominance, but not in a bad way. Not at the expense or pain of others. Just knowing they're strong and not shying away from that fact.

But strength is often misconstrued with something else. More than once Bette was called "bitchy," "difficult," or just a plain old "pain in the ass." But for every story about an on set incident there are two or three stories about graciousness the give lie to the reputation. As I said when I started this post others say things better than I do when it comes to tributes so I think it best to let Olivia DeHavilland have the last word here.

In a TCM Documentary I watched last year on Errol Flynn, De Havilland was talking about making The Private Lives of Elizabeth of Essex. Anyone who knows Davis knows the stories of how she couldn't stand working with Errol Flynn on the film. She thought he had a lazy approach to acting and did not find the shoot rewarding. Years later, at a birthday party for Davis in which her friend Olivia De Havilland was attending, Davis decided that they should all watch Elizabeth of Essex. De Havilland thought it was an odd choice and was worried that things would be awkward afterwards if someone mentioned Flynn's performance. They all sat and watched the movie and enjoyed it. As the movie finished and De Havilland started to worry about what might happen, Davis stood up and announced loudly, "Damn he was good! I was wrong, he was brilliant!"

Happy Birthday to Bette Davis, 100 years old today.