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Married to the Movies — Mdino's Blog

Talmage Cooley’s DIMMER

There are a couple of reasons why Talmage Cooley’s DIMMER (2005) is the shortest film to which I have ever dedicated an entire column.  For one, most short films simply do not contain enough material to accommodate a review.  And most significantly, DIMMER is a work so rich and soulful that it can be analyzed in print and still leave viewers with hours of discussion ahead of them. 

From the very first image – a young blind man pointing a pistol directly at the camera – DIMMER takes aim at the expectations of the audience.  This amazing documentary follows four blind youths, who seem to be in their late teens or early twenties, as they traverse the ruins of Buffalo, New York.  These men destroy our illusions of what it means to be blind as they undertake activities from playing catch (though not very successfully) to riding bikes.  The latter moment is captured in cheeky fashion by director Cooley who shows the young people cycling in the pitch black of a northern New York night.  In such situations we are all equal.  One of the group discusses the ease with which sightless people can engage in fist fights with the sighted.  “Landing punches” is easy he assures us, just listen for the breathing.  Well, easy for him. 

The film’s main focus is Mike Cieslinksi, who became blind as a baby and now has artificial eyes.  He wanders the city talking with his estranged girlfriend on his cell phone.  His pain is palpable as he tries to bring about reconciliation.  A broken heart is the same in blackness or in the bright light of day. 

For a film ostensibly about blindness DIMMER is a work rife with sensory excitement.  The cinematography provided by Jim Wall is revelatory in its explicit black and white textures.  The sounds as well overwhelm us: The foul language used by the cast to express themselves.  Distant trains rumble along.  The echoing of sticks and rods banged against empty oil drums.  The winds ceaseless mourning.  The creepy Hitchcockian bird cries that follow us around.  And especially the roar of Niagara Falls.  We wonder what it would be like to experience these sounds as the blind hear them – so much more haunting and intense.  After experiencing life through these young men, it makes sense when Mike comments on his lost love: “I’m blind so I don’t judge by looks, but that bitch was ugly!”

Several times throughout the film the screen goes black, leaving us in total darkness.  For just a brief moment here and there, we can imagine what blindness must be like.  But then the lights come back on… for us.

CREDITS: Directed by Talmage Cooley.  Cinematography by Jim Wall.  Edited by Crandall Miller.  Sound by Brian Blackburn, Michael Fitzpatrick and Lustmord.  Produced by Talmage Cooley, Andy Spade and Anthony Sperduti.  Music by INTERPOL.

July 28, 2010 Posted by | American Film, documentary, film directors, independent film | , , , , , | 2 Comments

CALIGARI AND OTHER DREAMS

THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1919) is a beginning and an end in itself.  It is generally regarded as the first example of German expressionism – that manifestation of the tortured Germanic soul emerging in the aftermath of WWI.  Characteristics of the movement include weird, twisted sets, heavy use of shadows, extreme camera angles, highly externalized acting and macabre story elements.  All of these ingredients were utilized to accentuate the psychological aspects of the character’s inner worlds as opposed to the world as it is usually perceived. 

CALIGARI, directed by Robert Wiene, tells the chipper tale of a carnival hypnotist (Werner Krauss) and the somnambulist, Cesare (Conrad Veidt) who does his murderous bidding.  Everything – and I mean everything – is played to the hilt.  The filmmakers even went so far as to paint shadows on the already deformed sets designed by Hermann Warm, Walter Rohrig and Walter Reiman.  And what sets they are…jagged, twisted angles, contorted as if in some madman’s dream or delusion.  Settings where only hellish deeds can take place.  And indeed they do… 

CALIGARI was the beginning of the movement but also a bit of a cul-de-sac, for its abstractions were far more extreme (and psychologically disorienting) than those of any of the films that followed it.  All of the above traits of expressionism had their fullest realization in CALIGARI.  It is as if the movement burned itself out with the first film, the subsequent entries having far less imagination or guts.  The village settings of THE GOLEM (1920) were oppressive but they had their roots in traditional production design, as did those of NOSFERATU (1922).  To find a German film as daring as CALIGARI we must travel to the era of post expressionism, the kammerspiel or “intimate drama”, and experience THE LAST LAUGH (1924) which, like Wiene’s film, was written by Carl Mayer.  Mayer’s contribution to THE LAST LAUGH was unique in screenwriting history in that he developed a detailed shooting guide, complete with precise instructions on camera placement and movement-instructions which were followed religiously by the director F.W. Murnau.  The imagination employed was often astounding and Mayer’s efforts make the film the greatest of all post expressionist German works.  Though many of them were stylish and enormously entertaining, no such creativity was to be found in the expressionist films made in the wake of CALIGARI.  NOSFERATU is creepy beyond belief, probably the most powerful of the children of Caligari, but Murnau’s film is based on a famous novel (DRACULA).  This work of literature is arguably the greatest reason for the film’s success, even considering the magnificently ghoulish persona of Max Schreck, whose performance as the vampire is an unsurpassed treat. 

Of course this and many of the expressionist films played with techniques and themes introduced in CALIGARI.  Arthur Robison made an entire film on the subject of shadows, called appropriately enough WARNING SHADOWS.  This film of 1923 is about a jealous husband’s obsessions, revealed through the paranoid interpretations of shadows.  WAXWORKS (1924), directed by Paul Leni, takes us once again, into the world of the carnival side-show, as a poet concocts tales of intrigue surrounding such waxen figures as “Jack the Ripper”.  Fascinating and inventive stuff to be sure, but not the envelope pushing one might expect after CALIGARI. 

Despite its shortcomings as a movement, expressionism had a great influence on future filmmakers, especially Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles.  Welles especially took glee in distorting his images, not so much with nightmarish sets but with wide-angle lenses and bizarre camera angles.  As for more modern films, there are touches of Germanic influence in films as varied as Tim Burton’s BATMAN (1989) and Scorsese’s and Paul Schrader’s TAXI DRIVER (1976), both psychologically dark and disturbing as well as visually flamboyant movies. 

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the early expressionist films is that they were an expression of the fears and anxieties of the German citizen of the time.  These fears quite possibly led to the rise of the Nazis.  Like Dr. Caligari, Hitler was a hypnotist and the German people were his Cesare – a nation of sleepwalkers carrying out the nasty business of a maniac.  In a few short years the horrors of expressionism had become a reality.

July 23, 2010 Posted by | expressionism, film directors, German cinema, screenwriters | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Alfred Hitchcock’s final days

Alfred Hitchcock is confined to his bed, sitting up only occasionally to take a soothing sip of cool water from a glass he keeps on the nightstand.  He leans back again and waits…It is April 1980 and a few weeks earlier he could get around-a little- with the aid of a walker, and a stiff belt of Vodka.  His home at Bellagio Road has been his cage for the last few months-a private trap like the ones Norman Bates and Marion Crane found themselves in some twenty years before.  Traps like so many of the characters from his films endured.  It seems that the story from his youth-that famously claustrophobic one, the one that played itself out over and over in Hitchcock’s nightmares (filmic and otherwise)-will be with him to the end: Hitchcock, the boy, no more than five, locked in a jail cell by a London Policemen at the urging of the child’s father, William.  “This is what we do to naughty little boys”.  The policemen’s words, so scarring, so traumatic, so…well in fact, no one will ever know how much of the story is true and how much is Hitchcock exagerating-the years piling onto his fragile psyche.  Maybe the young Alfred-his parents called him “Fred”, later he would be known to the world as “Hitch”-was simply the recipient of a stern talking to by the cop about some long forgotten infraction.  Whatever happened that day so many years ago, it helped mold Hitch’s professional career from the start in the 1920s untill the very last film.  But it is 1980 now and he has given up all pretense of remaining the great director. 

He closed his office at Universal studios in late 1979, a few months after dismissing his last collaborator screenwriter David Freeman.  The two men would never see the screenplay they created-the spy thriller, THE SHORT NIGHT-become a film.  Perhaps Hitch knew it would never reach the screen, all along.  The director invented scenes for the script so outrageous that one is left to wonder…grotesque scenes of graphic masturbation engaged in by the male and female lead characters.  And worse-Hitchcock became obsessed with the idea that the film’s hero should, along the way, commit rape.  This last idea is the reason his first writer on THE SHORT NIGHT, Ernest Lehman (NORTH BY NORTHWEST, FAMILY PLOT), left the project in disgust.  How, he wondered, could the audience be expected to root for such a despicable character?  It can’t  be argued that such ideas were the result of encroaching senility.  Hitchcock included a suggestion of masturbation in a never produced screenplay of 1967, called “Kaleidoscope”.  And Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) rapes his wife, Marnie (Tippy Hedren) in the 1964 film of the same name.  Patrick McGilligan points out in his impressive bio, ALFRED HITCHCOCK, A LIFE IN DARKNESS AND LIGHT, that Freeman became convinced the filmmaker always had a Dionysian streak.  A streak that after nearly 80 years of life, could no longer be suppressed.  Not that it ever was completely.  Perhaps Hitchcock’s strict Roman Catholic upbringing was like a cap on a well that loosened more and more as he grew older.  The geyser is finally bursting forth in his final years.  He has left behind the subtlety that served him so well in his films-especially the earlier ones.  His loneliness and horror now are too intense.  His wife of 53 years, Alma, is no longer much company since being incapacitated by a stroke in 1972.  He gets a few visitors.  Old collaborators such as Norman Lloyd, who was so chilling falling from the Statue of Liberty in SABOTEUR.  Hume Cronyn (unforgettable as Herbie Hawkins in SHADOW OF A DOUBT) shows up one last time and Hitch becomes inconsolable as they discuss the past.  He knows this will be their last meeting.  Then there are the ugly outbursts of anger, as the once great director screams in rage at nonplussed visitors.  He makes it quite clear that he wants to be left alone.  Soon, he will get his wish.  But it is he who abandoned them. 

He has lost interest in everything.  He has ceased his private screenings of recent and classic films.  Even his cherished vodka no longer holds any magic for him.  It has been replaced by that glass of water.  Hitchcock, confined to his bed with various ailments (kidney, heart etc.), but nothing that could be considered truly fatal, seems to be willfully bringing about his own death.  He waits…and perhaps dwells on the past.  The heady successes of his film career.  His unspoken heroics during WW II, when he helped pay the way for British war orphans to be resettled in the U.S. and Canada.  Thoughts of his mother, Emma, whom he so adored.  Of course he thinks of Alma, a filmmaker herself.  She co-wrote many of  his early films and shared her life, as well as her art with him.  Then there is his only child, Patricia, who appeared in several of his movies.  She has always been a good daughter, one to make a father proud.  And England, his beloved homeland, where he began in silent films as a title card designer and had his first thrilling successes as a director.  There will always be an England-if not an Alfred Hitchcock.  Barely cognizant now, perhaps he has shadowed memories of those triumphs that came too late in life to be savored fully: His AFI life achievement award ceremony in March 1979-and his Knighthood-it is Sir Alfred now.  Coming as it did just a few months ago in early 1980, the honor seems a wasted, empty gesture.  And he dwells on something he can never forget: That jail cell…the one that left him with a life long fear of the police, and a need to trap his characters and the world, in a vice grip of suspense, anxiety and fear. 

Find out about the BFI’s efforts to restore early Hitchcock films and what you can do to help at: Rescue the Hitchcock 9

RELATED POST: Hitchcock’s EASY VIRTUE (1927)

July 18, 2010 Posted by | Alfred Hitchcock, Alma Reville Hitchcock, American Film, British film, film directors, Hume Cronyn, NormanLloyd, Patricia Hitchcock | , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

D.W. Griffith’s ORPHANS OF THE STORM (1921)

ORPHANS OF THE STORM (1921) is one of D.W. Griffith’s most perfectly conceptualized films.  It is a compendium of all the techniques and ideas about filmmaking he helped develop in the very early years of the twentieth century.  The frame masking, the color tinting, the adroit staging of crowd scenes, the travelling camera and of course, the editing of action, are all represented here in pristine fashion.  Coming as it did, on the heels of DREAM STREET (1921), ORPHANS is all the more enthralling.  DREAM STREET was one of Griffith’s intimate dramas in the manner of BROKEN BLOSSOMS (1919) but it failed miserably in its attempt to capture the artistic and commercial success of that film.  ORPHANS, on the other hand, was an exhilarating epic adventure, if not an overwhelming financial blessing for its producer. 

Based on a 19th century play by Adolph Ennery, the film thrusts us into the world of two sisters as the rumblings of the French revolution stir in the distance.  Louise (Dorothy Gish), blind and vulnerable, and Henriette (Lillian Gish), all determination  and grit, but a little vulnerable herself, are separated when the former is whisked away by thieves.  To make matters worse (Griffith is always looking for ways to intensify the melodrama), Henriette is exploited by lustful aristocrats with evil on their minds.  One member of the elite class, Chevalier de Vaudrey (Joseph Schildkraut), is pure of heart, and the two young people fall in love.  Romance, however, will have to wait as Henriette begins a search that culminates in her being sentenced to the guillotine.

The quest for the lost sister is accentuated by skillful use of color tinting to manipulate the audience.  Cold, forbidding night scene exteriors are tinted blue, while interiors are enhanced with warm sepia tones.  Moments set in a frightening women’s prison are imbued with an eerie green, heightening the “snake pit” atmosphere.  The storming of the Bastille is bathed in an appropriate gorey red hue. 

The impact of the various set pieces is further amplified by Griffith’s use of masking devices placed over the camera lense. (Remember, this is nearly a decade before the invention of the optical printer, and such effects had to be made in the camera).  The most startling use of these masks is in the films extreme close-ups.  We see a series of tight shots of faces, cruel and unwashed, intensified by blocking out the portions of the faces above the eyes and below the lips.  The eyes penetrate us. The curled lips seem ready to drip saliva. 

There are many storms throughout the film: The rainstorm when Henriette thinks she spies Louise under an umbrella.  The storming of the Bastille by the enraged peasants, and the frenzied dance of the same peasants, newly liberated from aristocratic tyranny.  And most impressive of all, the final storm of horses as Georges Danton (Monte Blue) leads his men on a wild ride to prevent Henriette from losing her head. 

The “People’s Tribunal”, established to punish the aristocrats who had oppressed the citizens of France, sentences Henriette and de Vaudrey to the guillotine, in part because of their relationship.  After they are taken to the place of their intended doom, Danton, the great orator of the revolution gives an electrifying, if over the top speech in their defense.  He wins their freedom, but is it too late?  Along with a dozen or so followers, he races on horseback to stop the executions on the outskirts of town, just as the Ku Klux Klan races to prevent a forced interracial marriage at the climax of THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915).  The camera angles, the travelling shots taken from the back of a truck, and the frantic cross cutting serve as an instant reminder of that infamous film, but there is one more important parallel: Griffith apparently saw the KKK and Danton as the voices of reason after the excesses of both post civil war reconstruction and the French revolution.  Perhaps D.W. Griffith, master filmmaker, was also in many ways, a madman.  Not so hard to believe, after all, when we think of the nuttiness of the Hollywood community.  But it is a different kind of crazy today.  As a result, the name of one of the giants of early filmmaking was removed from the Director’s Guild Of America award given annually in honor of “Outstanding achievement in directing”.  Griffith, it appears, was just a bit too crazy.

QUESTION: Do you think Griffith’s name should have been purged from the Director’s Guild Award?  Leave a comment.

CREDITS: Directed and written by D.W. Griffith.  Based on the play by Adolph Ennery.  Photography by Henrick Sartov.  With Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish, Joseph Schildkraut, Monte Blue, Lucille La Verne, Frank Puglia, Morgan Wallace and Creighton Hale.

RELATED POST: Peter Brook’s Production of MARAT/SADE

July 13, 2010 Posted by | American Film, D.W.Griffith, Dorothy Gish, film directors, French Revolution, Georges Danton, Josepf Schildkraut, Lillian Gish | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Indieflix Collection Part Three

Let us delve, once again, into the indieflix collection-that rare archive featuring independent films of every length and type:  From nine minute documentaries to full length horror movies.  There is, in these infinite vaults, everything anyone could possibly want in mostly low-budget productions.  In this post I will focus on short documentaries.

                                                                                 

We begin with RYAN AT THE HOT SHOP.  This eight minute tidbit from 2005 follows master glass blower Ryan Mellinger as he creates a piece of crystal artistry at the Pratt Fine Arts Center in Seattle.  Director Jonathan Locke opens his film with a quote from Mellinger: “One morning I saw the brightest rainbow I’ve ever seen in my life-I wanted to build something out of those colors.  As a former photographer, he comes to this sort of artistic expression naturally.  In further voice over narration, Mellinger discusses the importance of having a talented assistant, and the first time he was seriously burned in a glass blowing accident.  The film’s imagery perfectly captures the colors and textures of this unique artistic process, but oddly, the picture contains no mention of a videographer in the closing credits. 

                                                           

COMING HOME (2006, 15 minutes) is as an opening title informs us, “the story of one Vietnam veteran”.  It is a story with a decidedly different message than most Hollywood films on the subject.  Filmmaker Herbert Sennett, who is also the subject, paints a mostly positive portrait of America’s involvement in the Southeast Asian nation.  What haunts the former army Lieutenant is his belief that our country “cut and ran”  leaving the Vietnamese people essentially helpless in the face of the invading North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong.  The subsequent suffering, according to Sennett “so profoundly effected me that it’s taken thirty-five years for me to deal with it”.  Made up entirely of eight mm footage and still photographs from Sennett’s personal collection, the film presents an argument that many may find offensive and many more, quite possibly, will agree with emphatically.

                                                             

CAT PARENTS (2007, 28 minutes) is director Debbie Eynon Finley’s sometimes loopy, mostly endearing (to cat lovers) salute to those touched individuals among us who treat their cats like children-often adopting the pets in lieu of having human kids.  A follow-up to Finley’s DOG PARENTS, the director/interviewer asks each parent questions like “How is your cat like a child or member of the family?” and “How do you communicate with your cat?”  The latter query prompts one woman to croon “You’re a bucket of love…” to her unfortunate kitty.  As for me,  I communicate with my cat by telling her to behave.  She communicates with me by ripping the stuffing out of the ottoman.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF INDIEFLIX

July 8, 2010 Posted by | Debbie Eynon Finley, documentary, film directors, Herbert Sennett, indieflix, Jonathan Locke | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

TOUCH OF EVIL AND THE RADICAL MR.WELLES

Orson Welles was always a radical.  From his days with the Mercury Theater to his stint writing editorials for The New York Post in the mid 1940s, Welles espoused a love for Bolshevism and a desire to promote the personage of Joseph Stalin.  Yet along with such political naiveté came some of the greatest cinematic works of the last century.  For Welles was also an artistic radical, stretching tortuously the conventions of film art and creating a new way to look at movies and movie making.  At the same time it should be pointed out, he never actually invented anything.  He was not the first to use wide-angle lenses, nor was he the first to shoot from extremely low camera positions (making it necessary to build sets with ceilings).  Neither was he the pioneer in overlapping dialogue, or deep focus photography.  He was, however, the director who brought all these tricks and more to their fullest expression and prominence in films such as CITIZEN KANE (1941) and THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942).  Nevertheless, he had the Hollywood power brokers  wondering, “What is it with this guy?”  They would ask this question more and more as Welles’s career continued and after KANE they would rarely let him complete his films as he desired.  Some of these pictures like AMBERSONS, would be re-edited by the bosses, and almost mutilated in the process.  He was a genius, quite obviously, but a mad one thought the studio heads, who never appreciated what he was trying to accomplish.  Eventually he would be relegated to grade “B” studios, like Republic, where he would be forced to work with impossibly low budgets.  But this was the magical Orson Welles, and he was destined to create more masterpieces.  One of these films would become known as the “greatest “B” picture ever made”. 

TOUCH OF EVIL (1958) represented an ever-increasing strangeness in Welles’s films.  The camera angles were more extreme, the wide-angle lenses shorter than ever, the tracking and crane shots were longer and more elaborate than anything he had ever attempted in the past.  Even the acting was enhanced with a level of freakiness unmatched before or since.  This maddening, twisted film involves a Mexican Detective named Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston!) and his beautiful American wife, Susy (Janet Leigh).  While honeymooning in Mexico, they witness the assassination of American oil tycoon Rudy Linnaker and his much younger girlfriend.  Los Robles is the mother of all sleazy border towns and the American side is just as putrid.  Throughout the film we are never quite certain on which side of the border the action is taking place.  This is the intent of the filmmakers.  We know the bomb was placed in Linnaker’s car on the Mexican side and that he and his hotsy totsy girlfriend blow up just across the border in the United States.  Vargas and his new bride are crossing the border on foot when the car explodes.  This much is certain.  From there on, the exact geography of the film gets rather dicey. 

Bloated, corrupt, racist American Cop Hank Quinlan (Welles, in a spectacularly pungent performance), frames a young Mexican man for the double murders, but Vargas is on to him.  With the help of Mexican gangster Joe Grande (Akim Tamiroff) Quinlan implicates Susy in a drug crime to get Vargas off his back.  He doesn’t stop there-he can’t.  Quinlan’s massive girth is like a boulder rolling downhill.  His tragic life is set to crash and burn, as his crimes escalate: To cover up his destructive actions against Susy, he strangles Grande. 

All of this creates a sense of vertigo in the audience as the characters cross borders; national, sexual (the interracial couple, the “rape” of Susy by Grande’s thug nephews) and moral.  Welles comments visually on this crossing over by constantly having his actors cross in front of one another, in a constant battle to invade each other’s space, literally “up-staging” their co-stars, as critic James Naremore has observed.  This is especially noticable in scenes involving the Grandes, and in a wild one with Dennis Weaver as “The nightman”.

There are other fascinating characters in the film, and the way they are dissected and set against each other by the director is fascinating as well.  Naremore has also pointed out that  in contrast to Suzy is the character of Tanya (Marlene Dietrich).  The two are a perfect Madonna/whore combination:The young, blond, impossibly sweet wife and the older, dark, worldly prostitute and ex lover of Qunlan.

The set pieces are astounding: The renowned crane shot that begins the film, as we travel along with Linnaker’s car and the Vargas’s as they approach the border and the awaited explosion.  This is a scene impossible to explain in the space alloted, and almost as difficult to forget.  Also nerve shattering is the throttling of Grande in a dingy fleapit motel.  The gargantuan cop brutally murders the tiny, now pathetic man as Henry Mancini”s theme plays on a far off radio and a neon light flashes outside. 

To heighten the frenzied atmosphere of these and other scenes, Welles forces perspective by utilizing an 18.5 mm lense.  (KANE, was shot with a comparatively normal 25 mm lense, though this too was deemed extreme at the time).  These lenses exaggerate the actor’s movements toward and away from the camera and distort the image.  At times it seems the performers and settings are wrapped around a beach ball. 

These radical techniques are always in service to Welles’s left-wing politics.  “Hank Quinlan is the incarnation of everything I fight against, politically and morally”.  He believed this character represented the fascism that was constantly lurking on America’s doorstep.  The fascism he decried while celebrating Stalin.  Of course, Welles kept quiet about “Uncle Joe” once the enormity of the Soviet dictator’s crimes was revealed.  Inhuman. Sadistic.  In many ways Joseph Stalin was just like Hank Quinlan.

CREDITS: Written and directed by Orson Welles.  Based on the novel BADGE OF EVIL by Whit Masterson.  Director of Photography: Russell Metty.  Music by Henry Mancini.  With Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles, Akim Tamiroff, Marlene Dietrich, Joseph Calleia, Ray Collins, Dennis Weaver. 

RELATED ARTICLES FEATURED ON THIS BLOG: THE BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN (1925), RENÉ CLAIR’S A NOUS LA LIBERTÉ (1931), NOAM CHOMSKY AND POWER, DISSENT AND RACISM, PETER BROOK’S PRODUCTION OF MARAT/SADE (1966).

July 3, 2010 Posted by | Akim Tamiroff, American Film, Charlton Heston, film directors, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles, screenwriters | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment