Friday, May 28, 2010

Motion Studies: Tomatoes Another Day

      Black and white, the white overexposed, the black patchy. The clock strikes 2:05. Cut to a frozen image of a man holding a woman in his arms with two long curtains drawn in the faded background and behind the curtains, simple whiteness. The man looks over his shoulder, away from the woman. The woman stares at him. The image begins to thaws when the woman slowly says; “We are together.” It thaws out entirely as the man slowly turns his head to face her and says “Oh. There you are.” The voices themselves are slowed down monotone recitals, with the little emotion that is inflected sounding forced; the actors were coached to try, but not very hard.
            It is the thawing sense of time in James Sibley Watson’s 1930 short film Tomatoes Another Day that lends these first two images their power. The second shot looks like a photograph for exactly two seconds, before the woman speaks. The actors are so stiff even at this point, that even when she speaks, it is still not believable that these people exist in the active, bustling world. They are only trying to exist in this world. And they are having a very awkward time of it.
            For its remaining six and a half minutes, Tomatoes Another Day continues to thaw to a startling conclusion, but it is this initial image that is truly, technically subversive. This is because Watson—unlike other experimental filmmakers, then and now—does not make the mistake of wiping the slate clean and  reconstructing cinema itself. His image of a man and his lover is a moving image that tricks us in to being photographic, until it becomes evident as a moving image. It is as if even the actors did not know movement would occur until it somehow happened. This approach is reverential to the sacrosanct cinematic fact of photography in motion, yet it radicalizes that motion. It forces us to question what qualifies as motion. It explores a potential concoction that can be made if a filmmaker starts off with a shot of total stillness, but not an actual photograph. Yet the stillness itself is so imposed that it can only be described as frozen. The other techniques Watson uses to stylize his story are similarly awkward and frozen, and he only allows them to slowly thaw so to distill the essence felt by those involved in a scene of domestic tension. His motion might be called absurdist, like the rest of the film. Similar frozen domestic images, used to absurdist effect, can later be found in the films of David Lynch, who must have watched Tomatoes Another Day before even thinking about Eraserhead.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Girl on the Train


       Anti-Semitism is a problem in Europe. Jewish hate crimes are not uncommon and many of the recent crimes have been committed by European Muslims. Nazi and Fascist groups, while tacitly illegal and still in a minority, are on the rise in Eastern Europe. While the crimes and ideological hatred must be addressed, it seems as though many European filmmakers feel the only way to stay relevant—and to gain international appreciation for their films—is to deal, however indirectly, with the subjects of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. Sometimes it is genuine guilt and sometimes it is opportunism. It is always a slippery method of politicizing film; making films part of the so-called Jewish Question. The Girl on the Train is a film that falls in to the Jewish Question category. 
        The first questions that come to our minds are not about Jews or guilt or opportunism. They are about color, quirkiness and the French film style; or what’s left of it. The opening credit sequence—both vigorous and simplistic—is from the point of view of a train passing through a dark, winding tunnel. When it comes out in to the light, a mesh of greenery and sunlight that will stay consistent throughout the film startles us. Jeanne (Emile Dequenne) lives with her mother (the reliable Frenchwoman Catherine Deneuve) in a cozy house outside Paris surrounded by shrubbery. Jeanne is a red-haired girl who likes to rollerblade, listens to music on her headphones and looks like she means mischief, chiefly because she does. She meets a sketchy boy in a thrift store named Franck (Nicolas Duvauchelle) who cons a suitcase for her and takes her out for coffee. Jeanne is looking for a job for the summer, but just as she gains employment with a wealthy Jewish lawyer Samuel Bleistein (Michel Blanc), who has something of a romantic history with her mother, she decides to take a job guarding the warehouse of a friend of Franck’s. Because we know that Franck is no good, the situation cannot be good either. 
      This first half of the film (the film is divided in to two chapters) is a boisterous game of cinematic sleekness, both thematically and visually. When Franck tries to con Jeanne and her mother with a marriage proposal to Jeanne at dinner, the wall behind him is decorated as a false desert paradise scene. When Jeanne and Franck Skype with each other, their typed words are superimposed over their faces; her’s giddy, his selfish and distant. There is something in this renegade boy-girl love story that echoes Godard, and the various plot elements—Franck is an aggressive wrestler, Jeanne is something of a devious female and they get mixed up in a drug ring—suggest some teenage version of Film Noir. The most stunning piece of cinema in the whole film comes somewhere near the end of the first half; Franck and a junkie engage in a struggle in the warehouse ending with Franck getting stabbed in the stomach and the junkie running off with some drugs. It is shortly after this point, however, that director Andre Techniche (is it no mistake that his name sounds like “Technique?”) pulls the plug on genre and technique. The film becomes a fable about pathology, political incorrectness and the need (lust?) some people have for offending acts.
    The Girl on the Train is actually drawn from a true story about a French girl who made up a story about being attacked by a group of youths who believed she was Jewish. She was later forced to admit that she had lied, provoking outrage across the nation and in the media. But there is no sense in explaining how the zestful first half connects with this central plotline, in part because there is no explicit connection. It becomes beside the point; Techine wants to explore how humans are complicit in drawing themselves in to danger, and how they consciously perpetuate further danger for themselves and society. We know that Jeanne has a penchant for lying, but still we wonder; what is wrong with this girl? Techine and his screenwriters Odile Barksi and Jean-Marie Bassett appear to take the view that it is not society makes people think in such ways, but the individuals themselves. Jeanne is an individual who finds a certain hedonism in lying. Still, the second half collapses in on itself by the fact that we are witnessing a main character who is quirky and baffling from the outset become unlikeable and stupid as an outcome. The Jewish Question that Techine decides to bring in to the film feels forced and, yes, opportunistic. The film could have ended shortly after Jeanne sees her boyfriend get locked up and retained a certain vitality. But this is French cinema as we have it today; giving the tricks its old masters taught a good spin-around, yet stuck with modern obligations that filmmakers must somehow address. A fascinating film could be borne from this paradox, but The Girl on the Train is too desperate to ask some very big questions.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Janitor who did his Job (On Lost Footage)

(Note: As I state, some accounts say the original cut of Greed was nine hours long, some say ten. It is referred to by both lengths at separate times in this piece.)

  • ·      Greed (1924) has been called a Lost Film. But it is either the most renowned and visible lost film ever made, or it is not lost at all. Erich Von Stroheim took two years to shoot, in real locations in California. The original cut, as the story goes, was ten hours long. Some sources say nine. We won’t ever know exactly, because it was only screened once for a group of MGM executives in 1924. Those executives ordered the film cut down to two hours and twenty minutes, resulting in the version seen today. A furious Von Stroheim would remark that the only thing the man who edited his film had on his mind was “A Hat.” Sometime in the 1950’s, the remaining footage, which had been stored in dusty old MGM vaults, was thrown out by a janitor.

  • ·      Thus, the strongest incidental pleasure of watching Greed is to watch for the parts where footage was excised. Sometimes we can only surmise: was the opening sequence introducing McTeague (Gibson Gowland), the selfish and bumbling fake dentist, expanded? (Probably). Was the ending fight scene in the California desert more drawn out? (We hope so). Then there are occasional cuts to black that roughly divide the acts in the film; they feel awkward only insofar as they are emphatic statements by the editor who was wearing a hat. “This footage can all go. Let’s end that part here.” That was the editor talking. In these brief periods of blackness, we can be rather sure there were large chunks of footage removed.
  • ·      Von Stroheim worked with animals in startling, metaphorical ways. Greed features an Opportunist cat in a few key scenes and Innocent sparrows throughout, before revealing the inevitable Sinister desert reptiles at the climax. When McTeague’s friend Marcus (Jean Hersholt) tells him and Trina, played by Zasu Pitts (her character is Marcus’ former girlfriend, no less) that he will be moving out of town, his face fades in to that of McTeagues cat, who stares through its slit-eyes at the two unaware sparrows in their cage on a table. In time we will see just how Cat Marcus leaps on Sparrow McTeague. Stroheim’s aim appear to be that of a folktale; one of old-fashioned, but stylized moralism. It makes one want to see more animal-human dynamic interplay. But was there any more of this interplay in the lost footage? Or is this really all we got?

  • ·      Frank Norris’ novel McTeague(1899) had been filmed once before, in 1916, under the title Life’s Whirpool. That film is lost entirely. It was Stroheim who took on the task of making a bigger film version, and who became obsessed with filming every single aspect of Norris’ novel. This is why shooting extended to two years. This is why the original cut was ten hours. This is what gives this filmgoer pause. Although we really can’t be sure what is meant by filming the entire novel—Stroheim most likely took liberties—any such painstaking fetish for content and detail is usually a slippery slope. (Witness the Harry Potter films. )One wonders if Stroheim’s obsession did indeed pay off; not for him (it didn’t), but for us. This is another reason to agonize over the loss of that extra footage; today, we could evaluate it in the context of faithfulness and artistic fetish. But this is also a reason to distrust that footage.
  • ·      There is one early scene in Greed which is one of the most frightening in the whole film. McTeague meets Trina for the first time when Marcus brings her in to have her teeth cleaned. She lies back in his reclining chair and Marcus leaves them alone. McTeague inspects the inside of her mouth with his scalpel and the camera changes to an angle from her point of view of McTeague as he stops what he is doing and stares at Trina with wide and lustful eyes. The real fright in this scene comes from the fact that Trina’s eyes are closed, so she does not know of his feelings. There is no intercut to McTeague’s fantasy and he makes no advance on her; but the implication of what he wishes to do is clear. Once Marcus returns to take his girlfriend home, the first object of greed—in this case, McTeague’s greed for Trina-- has been set in motion. An unwise director would have added a sexual fantasy, and given Stroheim’s love of metaphorical imagery, it would not have been surprising if he did something to that effect. But this is one of the most powerful scenes in the film precisely because there is no wild psychology. It is a simple domestic vignette . Its underpinnings are malicious, but not quite psychotic. If Stroheim did film the entire novel of McTeague, then we can only hope that he filmed all the elegant details such as we see here. Literature, due to its basis in words, is better at minute descriptions of people and things that carry large implications than film is. Novels are given to more psychological probing than films. Stroheim knew how to capture these literary moments on film precisely, but did he focus on the novel’s minute descriptions and psychological probes, or did he simply extend its imagery and more sensational scenes? We won’t ever know, because the footage is lost.
  • ·      The ending fight scene is no doubt one that audiences wish they could see more of. In one shot, McTeague and Marcus grapple with each other under the scorching sun that has cracked the desert ground, in front of a weary horse. We aren’t sure at this point if they are fighting over water—which Marcus is out of—or the 5,000 dollars that McTeague has run off with. In that one shot, McTeague beats Marcus to the ground and kills him. Marcus gasps out a few final breaths. McTeague realizes Marcus has handcuffed both their wrists. Cut to the scorching sun. McTeague realizes he won’t survive. This is pulsating cinema, made what it is because of the natural elements that surround these men and assist in dragging them down. We already know, as soon as Marcus finally encounters his old friend, that both men will die, making this one of the great-man-against nature endings in cinema. What more could Stroheim have done with this scene? Did he cut back and forth between the two men fighting? Did he insert more shots of the desert and the sun? What we have is an exciting scene that is not overdone by even an inch. One wonders if the extra footage overdid it.
  • ·      Greed is a title that applies well to Stroheim himself. He was greedy for more and more footage, and he didn’t wish to condense the novel. He wanted it all. His greed saw its commupance.  But today, audiences are interested in watching Greed not because of their own greed for its footage, but because of their greed for footage that isn’t there. We won’t ever be able to see it. So Greed has become a film to bemoan and romanticize, not one to watch and then take at face value. It started the glorified idea of the cinematic litmus test; Satantango (1994) and Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) are two sound era litmus tests of astounding lengths. This flies in the face of a critic’s duty, which is not to worry about sitting through something to say you did it, but to put said experience in a certain context. Greed also started the misguided idea of “Director’s Cuts.” It is great in theory to allow a film to be restored by the filmmaker as it was meant to be. But it has led to excessive tripe like Coppola’s Apocalypse Now Redux (2001). It has given directors an excuse to say that the studio ruined their vision, so here is a long and very over-the-top version that may do more damage to the original than good.
  • ·      Perhaps it is for the best that the anonymous janitor who worked at MGM in the mid-50’s threw out the remaining seven hours of Greed. There was a restored version created in 1999 by Turner Entertainment, in which the existing cut of Greed was combined with still photographs detailing additional scenes.  If there was any point to this project, it was to give an outline of what Stroheim intended for the entire film. But to tack on still imagery to moving imagery in order to compensate for some loss is itself dishonest to a director’s vision. A director’s vision is only truly sketched out in motion. Photographs—especially if they amount to a tiring hour and twenty minutes—force us to watch a piece of historical research rather than a grander piece of moving entertainment.
  • ·       If we were somehow to discover an original print that still existed, and released it to the world, it would inevitably be greeted with a mixture of rejoicing and dissapointment. There is no way a nine hour film, lost at the hands of merciless studio executives, could possibly live up to the mythology and adulation that has been built around it. Critics would be obligated to review the nine-hour cut with overwhelming positivity, yet there would be little discussing of the merits of this lost footage. This does not mean MGM was right to cut the film down to 140 minutes; it could probably be even better at three to four hours. Part of conserving cinema, however, is to work with what you can get. Greed as we have it now is a tight, condensed, menacing and thoroughly accomplished picture, far better than the majority of two-plus hour films. We should take the film we have any day, and restore it, promote it, and learn from it in our own filmmaking pursuits. Because the extra footage isn’t there.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Filmmaking and Corporatism

       Here is a New York Times story today that, despite it being relegated to one of the side-sections of their website, I find absolutely appalling. Michael Moore has spoke out against the court ruling in question (it's curious to me why the actual director of this documentary has not said anything, though). Whatever I think of Michael Moore-- and I take any number of issues with his approach to filmmaking and the trend it has created-- I will side with him any day on this issue.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Motion Studies: Tied up in a Grove

          “Everything was silent.
            I heard someone crying.
            Who is crying?”
            As this dialogue is spoken in Rashomon (1950), by the raspy baritone of the Masako’s ghost, communicated through a medium, the camera stares at the shadows of leaves on the forest floor. It will then switch angles and pan upwards to show Masako (Machiko Kyo), tied to a large root of a tree. His wife has run off in a fit, and the viscious bandit Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune) has gone after her. This is the one moment of near-tranquility we will get in this film, yet it is one sodden with guilt and rage. Masako’s wife, wowed by the bandit, has pleaded with him to save her from her husband. Tajomaru has asked Masako if he should kill her or save her. Masako couldn’t bring himself to answer.
            The grove he sits in is vast and, with the soft sunlight and slight breeze, would otherwise be peaceful. In another minute, Masako will free himself and stab himself through the chest in the center of this grove.
            But this image is getting ahead of itself. It is not the grove that needs to be focused on. It is not even something as specific as the upward pan of the ground-level camera. It is the leaves. Rashomon is dappled with images of the sunlight reflecting through the forest trees, and countering shots of the shadows of those leaves. The straight ahead shot of the forest floor, where Masako recalls that there was someone crying as several leaves sway, is the closest we get to any tangible reality in this film. The leaves are the only thing in this flashback setting—returned to four times—that the viewer and the characters can be sure exist. There is no telling which of the four versions of the story of Masako’s murder is true. It doesn’t matter either. In this story, only hope is real, and morality is ambiguous. In Film, only physical objects are real, but in Rashomon, one of the key objects is shown in only it’s reflective—unreal—form.  This is a teasing scene in a teasing film; one that feels like a folktale or a moral fable throughout, except that it takes place in a world where nobody knows what morals are. But in its affirmation of real things—leaves—this stare at their shadows could be Kurosawa’s idea of a moral image. Or is it a morally ambiguous image? That the question is begged proves, perhaps, the latter.