Monday, February 20, 2012

SUNRISE, One of the True Essentials

I recently wrote up The Essentials webpage on Sunrise, which airs on March 31st on Turner Classic Movies at 8 p.m. as a part of the new season of The Essentials hosted by Robert Osborne and Drew Barrymore.  Writing up an Essentials post is an opportunity to get to know a movie inside and out, given the voluminous amounts of research to be done and information to impart.  I was thankful to be assigned Sunrise as I have always found it a beautiful and poetic film.  Included in my piece is the passage below, reprinted from the TCM page.  Writing this passage that details the opening four minutes gave me the chance to look at the opening moment by moment if not frame by frame.  It gave me a real appreciation for the genius and artistry of F.W.Murnau and I encourage anyone who hasn't seen it to tune in on the 31st to experience this masterwork of cinema.

From TCM's The Essentials:

From the first frames, Murnau begins his work. A poster of a train station advertising “Summertime” as “vacation time” dissolves into the train station itself, only this is no ordinary station. The trains in the foreground are miniatures, overlaying a station platform below, bustling with passengers, which looks out via a glass wall to the world outside, also alive and moving, as far the eye can see. Suddenly, we see a train race across the countryside, to the right, while another shoots up from a tunnel as if rocketing towards the sky, to the left. Murnau then contrasts this with a second shot of the vacationers themselves, at the crowded public beaches on the right with a shot of a ship, presumably a luxury cruise liner, to the left, overlayed upon a cityscape. Next, the screen fades to black and opens to a point-of-view shot from the stern of a ferry leisurely making its way across a scenic lake, filled with sailboats and dinghies. Aboard the ferry are urban dwellers, signaled by their tweed vests, walking sticks and boaters, heading for the shoreline where greeters await amongst the farms and cottages. Importantly, there are no optical overlays here. The countryside is presented as is. Murnau has taken the viewer on a journey from one place to another but also from one state of mind to another, all in less than two minutes of screen time.

After that extraordinary setup, the movie informs the viewer by way of inter-title that a woman from the city has lingered long after all the other vacationers have retreated to their urban lives. When we fade in on her rented room in a cottage, her clothes are strewn about, a pair of high-heeled shoes rest atop a trunk and she bounces into the room sporting a bob and lighting a cigarette from the candle on a desk. From this slovenly room we cut to the owners of the cottage, downstairs in the simple, clean and bare dining room, eating their soup until the woman comes in, stares at the lady of the house, then at her shoe until the lady of the house leaves her dinner to polish the city woman’s shoes. Finally, we cut to the outside as Murnau now takes the final step in this masterpiece of exposition. From the frenetic, multi-cut, multi-layered shots of the city, to the un-layered yet still multi-cut scenes of the lake, we now follow the woman walking from the cottage down the road, past some villagers to a small farmhouse, all in one, steady, uncut tracking shot. Murnau has wound everything down to this moment, both literally and figuratively, when the woman calls on the attentions of the man with whom she is having an affair and sets everything the story will reveal in motion. In all, from train station to farmhouse, about four minutes of screen time have been used and yet, in that four minutes, Murnau has accomplished more than most film makers do in their entire careers.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Please, Sir, I Want No More.

Maybe it's just me (in fact, almost assuredly, it is) but I find my generation of film enthusiasts a bit too hung up on the whole pop art aspect of cinema.  I like the popular cinema, I do, really I do.  But I also like film as an art form and as I watch more and more of it, that's the cinema I lean towards.  I understand that as a business, film as a whole can't strut around displaying one Playtime, Persona or Repulsion after another and remain a viable enterprise.  I understand the need for the blending of art and commerce, the kind made so popular and so successful by the likes of Steven Spielberg and I also understand films like Melancholia or Tree of Life don't fire up the imagination of the general citizenry like a good Raiders of the Lost Ark or Jaws (or even Warhorse or Tintin).  I understand that and to take it a step further, I even appreciate the skill and talent behind Raiders and Jaws to the extent that I not only cannot imagine a cinematic universe without them, I wouldn't want to.

But can we stop talking about it?  Or them?  Or just Spielberg?

It's not that I hate Spielberg (I don't and not even Armond White's hyperbolic elevations of Spielberg or his crude put downs of anyone who doesn't like him can totally turn me off of Spielberg - although sometimes White comes close) it's that he is the most popular film maker of the last forty years.  If I never read another thing about him and I live to be 125, I'll never suffer from a lack of analysis of the man and his works.  And that popularity provides the very reason we should move on.

This isn't about Spielberg, it's about the thousands of films still to be discussed, still to be dissected.  It's about the myriad directors whose works are still woefully under-known and undebated.  And I'm not talking about the average, dull film goer.  I'm talking about the goddamn cinephiles that populate my world.  So when I see another piece on the brilliance of, oh I don't know, just pick one... say, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, I can't help but think, "Okay, yeah, great, got it!  Can we talk about something else now?"

Sorry, but I just don't care to rehash the same goddamn "oohs" and "aahs" that I've been rehashing for forty years now.  I see one fucking article or essay or video salute or list after another about Spielberg and his films and the last one was so fucking inane the guy doing it didn't even seem to comprehend that A.I. Artificial Intelligence was a terrific piece of science fiction.

Or how about someone discuss 1941 for a change?  How about that?  It's a step, at least.  It's a gesture.    Discussing what is perceived to be a director's failure is often much more illuminating than discussing a success.  And the miniatures used in that one are amazing pieces of craft work. But, in all honesty, I'd probably hate that, too.

Look, I'm not here to suggest films or tell anyone we should all start discussing underground Lithuanian cinema from the sixties, I just want to move on from Spielberg.  It is my great misfortune to find him rather dull despite the fact that I admire his talent.  This is my misfortune because, lately, online, I've seen him and his films discussed everywhere.

And I'm not talking about Warhorse or Tintin because those are new films and haven't had years and years of discussion yet.  Want to discuss them? Fine.  But don't give me another breakdown of E.T. the Extraterrestrial, please.

I'll shut up now.  It's been inside me for a while.  I have nothing to say to the argument, "But we should be discussing any film maker we want and you're free to discuss someone else, pal, so go ahead and stop your moaning!"  I have nothing to say to that because it's true.  Nothing I've written above (or very little, at least) can be supported by any form of logical argument that cannot be instantly dismissed with a simple, "Oh, so you're saying we shouldn't discuss one of the most critically and commercially successful film makers ever.  Check [rolls eyes]."   Yeah, I know, it's a rant ripe for ridicule.  But it's a bitter piece of bile that made its way down to my asshole years ago and I just finally had to shit it out.  Thanks for listening.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

"Because of death."

"Then one day it could all be gone.  One big puff of smoke and a ball of fire... all that out there... the stars, the planets, all just an empty void."

Eros, you always cheer me up.  Keep preaching, my brother.  Jeff Trent and all his kind are idiots, don't let them drag you down.