Friday, December 25, 2015

Independent Filmmaking circa 1959

Occasionally on this blog, I like to let readers know about particularly interesting articles, video essays, or other external links that I think will be of interest.

This is an excellent Filmmaker Magazine article from 2013, by Allen Baron, the writer, director and star behind the 1961 independent film noir classic, BLAST OF SILENCE (also one of the best Christmas movies ever made). In the article, Baron talks about the resources that were required to make an independent film around the time he made BLAST OF SILENCE in 1959, and the experience of shooting on location in New York guerrilla style. The article also gives a good sense of the opportunities available to independent filmmakers at the time. As Baron notes, the higher number of independent productions today makes it more difficult for films to be discovered by potential distributors (BLAST OF SILENCE was distributed by Universal and led to a studio contract for Baron), but the advent of digital video has also made it much easier to get your independent film made, and there are more festivals in which to showcase them.

Here is the link to the article. It is a fascinating (and inspiring) read by an absolutely brilliant filmmaker.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Blast of Silence (1961)

Now this is an unconventional Christmas movie!

This low-budget noir stars Allen Baron (who also wrote and directed) as a small-time Cleveland hit man who comes to New York around Christmastime to bump off a mobster, but gets in over his head when he lets slip that he wants this to be his last job. Much of the film consists of shots of the hit man walking the streets of New York, alone with his thoughts (narrated by Lionel Stander). It is ultimately a tragic tale, though never one tainted by cheap sentiment or unearned, misguided calls for sympathy. It is hard-edged, brutal, and terrifyingly honest in many ways.

The locations of NYC play such an integral part in the film, heightening the hit man's sense of loneliness and alienation amid the crowds. Without exaggeration, the location photography here is some of the finest, and certainly most effective, that I have yet seen. A climactic sequence taking place in the Meadowlands of New Jersey is particularly striking for its stark, bleak imagery (clearly filmed during a brutal windstorm) as a backdrop in which the violent final shoot-out takes place. The haunting, lyrical shots of raindrops falling in the water, the reeds blowing in the wind, and the contrast between the marshes and the busy highway visible in the background, achieve a real poetry.

I really have no idea how I never saw this one before, but it's certainly one of those movies that I instantly connected with after just one viewing. This is a special film, to be sure.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Polyester (1981)

John Waters' first mainstream film is a clever if uneven satire of early '80s suburbia, filtered through the style and conventions of '50s melodramas by directors like Douglas Sirk, about much put-upon housewife Francine Fishpaw (Divine) whose life falls apart around her in a series of comically over-the-top circumstances. POLYESTER is very much a mid-point film for the director, coming as it does between his underground features and later, more polished films. Despite its place as Waters' first mainstream effort, it keeps one foot firmly planted in the outrageous, "shock value" sensibilities of his earlier work, and therefore has more in common with his most recent films (especially A DIRTY SHAME) which strike that same balance, rather than the two films that immediately proceeded it (the nostalgic HAIRSPRAY and CRY-BABY).

The satire is greatly aided by the level of production value afforded by the higher budget, with the skillfully-executed lighting and set design doing an excellent job of visually referencing the films that served as Waters' model here. Divine gives a fine performance, taking his usual characterization in a new direction here, and Tab Hunter (an inspired bit of casting) clearly has a lot of fun playing a caricature of his '50s heartthrob persona. The rest of the cast is made up largely of Waters' regular stock company, including Edith Massey and Mink Stole, as well as punk rocker Stiv Bators as a neighborhood delinquent.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Unseen Horrors: The Blair Witch Project (1999)

The Blair Witch Project remains one of the most successful examples of the Val Lewton approach to the horror film: that is, creating scares out of what we don't see. Every time I re-visit the film, I am struck by just how really effective it is in its use of "found footage", a technique that has become utterly overused in the past 15 years, though it is no more fair to blame the unprecedented success of Blair Witch for inspiring such countless cheap knock-offs and imitations than it would be to blame The Texas Chain Saw Massacre for the plethora of mindless slasher flicks that followed in its wake. For like that highly influential horror film, The Blair Witch Project was a game-changer to be sure, by tapping into our deepest fears.

The "found footage" approach here allows directors Dan Myrick and Ed Sanchez the freedom to conjure up whole unseen horrors -- the kind that we find ourselves fearing are lurking in the dark. As the three documentary filmmakers panic and lose their way, venturing further and further into the bowels of the forest, they are menaced by unseen sounds and sensations that disorient them and confuse them, until they lose all sense of their surroundings. Even with the passing of several days, time seems to stand still for them in the middle of the woods, as they slowly lose their perception of reality. This descent is captured so viscerally through the increasingly chaotic and disorienting movements of the camera, which manages to create some of the most unsettling and truly terrifying effects when simply pointed into the vast, black void of the nocturnal forest.

The idea of getting "lost in the woods" touches on some of our deepest mythologies and fears about the forest and the potential evil that dwells within in it, a black vastness that can swallow up those who dare to enter. At one point in the film, one of the characters reassures her companions that it is impossible to truly get lost in the woods in America in this day and age, since man has done such a thorough job of de-foresting our natural landscapes. But as they discover, nature is an unstoppable, merciless force. In the end, it is not the Blair Witch that ultimately proves to be their undoing, but rather, their helplessness in the face of the forces of nature.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Book Review: "English Hitchcock" by Charles Barr

With a few exceptions, the films made by Alfred Hitchcock during the early part of his career in England are too often relegated to a footnote in his filmography, or are even misunderstood by people coming to them expecting to see work more clearly recognizable as that of the same director who made films such as North by Northwest and Psycho.

In English Hitchcock (Cameron Books, 2000), film scholar Charles Barr offers the most comprehensive study of this period of Hitchcock's career, which is actually quite varied and interesting for those studying the evolution of the director's work. Barr covers every film, though he does so by grouping certain films together for the purposes of comparison, an approach that helps to clearly demonstrate the relationship between films that at first seem to bear little in common with each other. He pays special attention to Hitchcock's literary influences, as well as his screenwriting collaborators, Eliot Stannard and Charles Bennett.

Barr does an excellent job of tracing Hitchcock's journey in filmmaking from his time as an apprentice in the British film industry and formative directing work, to his professional struggles with studio-assigned projects during the early '30s, and his eventual success with suspense thrillers such as The Man Who Knew Too Much and The 39 Steps before accepting the call to come to Hollywood. Through his careful analysis, Barr also offers an appreciation of such lesser-known and less-examined titles as The Farmer's Wife and Number Seventeen, which are worth a second look.

English Hitchcock provides a much-needed critical context in which to view this important, if sometimes erratic and seemingly disparate, group of films that Hitchcock directed during his time in England.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Screen Space in the Films of Edison and Lumiere

In formal terms, one of the most striking differences between the films of the Edison Company and the Lumiere brothers is in their approaches to screen space and depth of field. Although films from both companies initially restricted themselves to a single camera set-up, lasting for the entire duration of a roll of film, their approaches to the compositions within the shot could not be more different from each other.

The difference in approach is largely a result of their respective filming conditions: Edison shot his films inside a specially-built studio, dubbed "The Black Maria", which was constructed on a rotating platform with a retractable roof that could be re-positioned at all times for optimal sunlight. The studio was a small, tarpaper-covered affair that allowed just enough room for performers and camera. Characteristic of the Edison company's films was an emphasis on the performer or subject, illuminated by bright sunlight against the black backdrop of this studio. The effect of the sunlight resembles a spotlight being shone on the performer, as in a theatrical setting.

Conversely, the Lumieres shot outdoors, in natural lighting, which likewise gave their films a naturalistic style that differed from Edison's more theatrical arrangements. In the Lumiere films, the subject is often life itself -- the daily routines of workers leaving the factory, for example, or the family feeding their baby. In the latter film, for instance, the fascination for early audiences was as much with the foliage moving about in the breeze in the background, as it was with the subject in the foreground of the shot.

Where the difference is most striking, however, is in the use of depth of field. Edison's films, at least those shot inside the studio, are flat, lacking any sense of the space between foreground and background. By eliminating the background completely and replacing it with a black void, Edison ensured that the focus would be on the performer. The Lumieres, in contrast, not only provided distinctive backgrounds with their own details, but even allowed their subjects to interact with those backgrounds.

Take one of their most famous films, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1896). The shot is set up so that the train station is visible on the left of the screen, the platform is on the right, and the track runs roughly down the middle of the shot. The track serves as the linking visual element that brings the subject (the train) from the background into the foreground, and right past the camera as it comes to a stop. The film's first audiences reportedly reacted with panic at the sight of the train rushing toward them -- a testament to the power of the Lumieres' use of the screen space.

Then, there are the little background details that make the film so vital and rich: the crowds milling about on the platform, the conductor running from the background to the foreground to catch up with the slowing train, and the disembarking passengers who exit the train. Throughout the entirety of the shot, there is no unused or dead space within the frame; the Lumieres find all of the details and film the scene so that they are all visible.

Within a couple years of the development of cinema, these techniques would become more commonplace among producers. Edison, for example, made his own "train" film, Black Diamond Express, later in the same year that the Lumieres had made Arrival of a Train. Eventually, the distinctions become blurred as filmmakers learned from and copied each other's techniques, while other approaches became outmoded or discarded entirely. But the fundamental difference between the Edison and Lumiere approaches to composition is exemplified by their respective uses of screen space in their earliest experimental films.

She's Funny That Way (2014)

A deliberately old-fashioned throwback to the heyday of screwball comedies, Peter Bogdanovich's latest film is a heartfelt and charming farce, even if the humor misses more than it hits. The premise involves a prominent theater director (Owen Wilson), in New York to direct his latest play, who spends the night with a Brooklyn call-girl (Imogen Poots) and pays her $30,000 if she promises to quit her job and pursue her dreams instead. It turns out her dreams involve being an actress, and she auditions for the play that Wilson just happens to be directing. Turns out she's great, and the rest of the cast pressure Wilson into giving her the part. Needless to say, this complicates things greatly, especially since the play stars the director's wife (whom the leading man also harbors a long-lasting romantic desire for). This being a farce, the zany cast of characters all intersect at inopportune moments, leading to much comic confusion and mishaps, but of course, all is set right in the end.

Bogdanovich obviously has a real love for the models that he's working from here, and peppers the script (co-written by Louise Stratten) with references to many of Hollywood's great romantic comedies (most notably Lubitsch's Cluny Brown, which provides the film with its running joke about the line "squirrels to the nuts"). He works with a splendid cast here, headed by Owen Wilson, Imogen Poots, Jennifer Aniston, Kathryn Hahn, Rhys Ifans, Will Forte, Austin Pendleton, Illeana Douglas, and Cybill Shepherd and Richard Lewis, who are especially funny as the aspiring actress's bickering, working-class parents.

Most of the reviews I have read dwell on the fact that the film is old-fashioned. The comedy is old-fashioned, certainly, though not always in the way Bogdanovich may have intended. It was evidently originally conceived as a vehicle for John Ritter in the 1990s, and feels very much like the kind of mid-budget Indie comedy that might have been made at that time. Still, there's an undeniable charm about it that works, thanks to the sheer fun that the cast seems to be having. There are not really any surprises here, sure, and it is unlikely to be remembered as one of Bogdanovich's better films, but it's an affectionate tribute to the fine comedies from Hollywood's golden age, made by a filmmaker (one of our greatest) who clearly loves those films.