Mediacinema

Mediacinema Blog

The most underestimated American movie ever?

As much as I hate sweeping statements (like the one in the title), I truly believe that the critical evaluation of Michael Cimino’s masterpiece will go down in history as one of the most infamous blunders of American film criticism. Currently marked at 45% on Rotten Tomatoes (for what that matters), Heaven’s Gate is actually a profound and courageous portrayal of the wild west (as well as a sour deconstruction of the American Dream), in form of an epic poem (something along the lines of Antonioni-meets-Ken Loach). And Criterion’s recent blu-ray release of the restored 216-minute version approved by Cimino himself is a wonderful opportunity to reconsider the film--since both the 149-minute studio version released in 1980 and the 219-minute version available on DVD and labeled as “director’s cut” do NOT correspond to Cimino’s intentions. Update: new trailer from the restored version released in France (same as Criterion’s version).

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A one-way mirror from Paris Texas to Vienna

As I’m discussing Laura Mulvey’s theory of the cinematic gaze in two of my current classes (“Italian Cinema 46” and “Intercultural and Women's Film"), I thought that some of you might be interested in the following examples. The first is Alexander Riegler’s recent installation of a one-way mirror in a Viennese sushi restaurant and gallery space. The device allows men to look into the ladies room, in an attempt to "stir people into a discussion of voyeurism and surveillance.” The view merely reveals a glimpse at activities in the women’s sink area (such as washing hands, applying make-up, adjusting hair) and will be reversed in a few months, allowing men a change of perspective‚ moving from subject to object of the gaze.
While some commentators have linked this idea to Kelly Shimoda’s series “Women Putting on Makeup” (see the video below), the core issues are quite different: Shimoda’s intimate and personal videoportraits of women applying make-up in front of mirrors reflect on the construction of identity, while Riegler’s installation forges a first-hand voyeuristic experience between individuals of the opposite gender.

kari from Kelly Shimoda on Vimeo.



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Alexander Riegler’s installation

Riegler’s project brings awareness to issues of voyeurism and narcissism that are partly similar to the ones about the movies discussed in class. However, the lack of a third-party spectator observing such dynamics is precisely what makes the difference between this installation and a classical cinematic experience. Furthermore, the fact that both men and women are informed of the installation before entering the restrooms brings awareness to those mechanisms of spectatorship that, during a film screening, are primarily located in the unconscious.

The project reminded me of the one-way mirror scenes from Wim Wenders’ Paris Texas (1984), where Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) tries to reconnect with his wife Jane (Nastassja Kinski), years after their separation, by way of a similar device. The communication between the two characters takes place entirely at a strip club, where the male customers sit behind one-way mirrors and use a telephone to communicate with female performers who can't look back. In such context Travis’ explanation for his past behavior (he suffocated his wife with jealousy and prevented her from seeing her son) takes place through a progressive change of attitude towards the mirror. At first he hides behind his privileged position of “bearer of the gaze” by looking at the woman in silence and eventually leaving.

Paris Texas 1
Paris Texas 2

The next day Travis decides to return and reveal his identity. During his narrative, he decides to turn away from the “window,” in an attempt to neutralize the gaze privilege that such device provides him with.

Paris Texas 3


When Jane replies with her own narrative, Travis annuls the power granted to him by the one-way mirror, by facing the piece of glass that separates him from his wife and pointing a desk lamp towards his face, so that she can look at him while telling her own story.


Paris Texas 4

Paris Texas 6

While this situation allows for interesting combinations of camera looks/point-of-view shots that deconstruct the classical issues of voyeurism and objectification described by Laura Mulvey, I would argue that it is in the objective shots showing the characters facing each other through the looking glass that the main discourse on gaze and communication takes place. In such shots, in fact, both the work of mise-en-scène, and the placement of the camera (alternatively on one or the other side of the mirror) play a crucial role in terms of spectator’s identification, as they allow the viewer to switch sides (literally and metaphorically) between the two characters, depending on which direction the light and the mirror allow us to look.

Paris Texas 5


Only at this point, when Travis (and the spectator) have accepted to dismiss the voyeuristic privilege granted by the screen, Jane can watch, observe, and try to understand her husband. The spectator is now able to fully embrace this new perspective by looking at his former self (Travis) from a detached perspective, like in front of a TV set—since the glass through which Travis appears in Jane’s room is symbolically framed by a metal structure that turns the mirror-window into a flat-screen TV.

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William Fox's early foray into widescreen cinema

This short feature from the blu-ray release of Raul Walsh's The Big Trail (1930) illustrates the "Fox Grandeur" system developed by William Fox in the late 1920s. Very few films were shot with this process, including Frank Borzage's Song o' My Heart (of which no Grandeur prints have survived) and Raoul Walsh's The Big Trail, featuring a young John Wayne in his first starring role. Grandeur films, shorts, and newsreels were released for a brief period (1929-1931) in a very few selected theaters, as it required the installation of new 70mm projectors and wider screens. Since production costs and technical challenges seemed to offer nothing more than extra expenses (at a time when exhibitors were still trying to recoup the costs of retrofitting their theaters for sound) the system didn’t gain foothold and was definitively abandoned when the Great Depression wiped out Fox’s financial holdings and he lost control of his business. The new company that was formed in 1935, from the merging of 20th Century and Fox, will approach the widescreen format again 20 years later.
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Cinefetish

Los Angeles film fetishists (those who enjoy cinema primarily as a spectacle, rather than for its narrative properties) will be thrilled to know that the Arclight theater in Hollywood has put together a retrospective to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Cinerama.
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Unfortunately none of the few films originally shot with this innovative system stands out for aesthetic or narrative qualities. However, I encourage those of you who have never seen a Cinerama film to take advantage of this rare opportunity and flock to the intersection of Sunset and Vine (that’s where the line is probably going to start) to view at least one of these oddities. My recommendation comes with a warning. As Samuel Goldwin once said: “A wide screen just makes a bad film twice as bad.” Since the Cinerama system triplicates the aspect ratio of the frame, you do the math…

Click here for an informative article including hi-res publicity material about This is Cinerama.
Click here for an extensive online archive dedicated to 70mm films.

Note that 2001: A Space Odyssey was not photographed in 3-film-strip Cinerama but in Super Panavision 70 and then “rectified” to simulate the Cinerama format. Click here for more information.
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Reframing in the digital era

Kristin Thompson discusses David Fincher’s obsession with stable images and smooth camera movements, as explained in the Blu-Ray extras of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (from Observations on Film Art @ http://www.davidbordwell.net/)

The “Post-Production” section [of the DVD/BD extras] is very informative and interesting. “In the Cutting Room” is fairly technical but makes some fascinating points. I particularly liked the description of how Fincher eliminates reframings and unsteady shots by using the extra image space allowed by newer capture media. (Earlier digital film frames allowed no extra image area outside what would show up on the screen; as the image below indicates, the final frame can be selected from a larger picture.) This desire for a stable image in an era where the “queasi-cam” so often rules points to one distinctive trait in Fincher’s style. It indicates a willingness to actually think through the framing of each individual shot and the purpose for choosing that framing. Steven Spielberg does the same thing. Many don’t.


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Editor Angus Wall talks about this advantage of the extra size of the image and how Fincher uses it to stabilize unsteady images. It’s worth quoting at length, and it demonstrates the thoughtful commentary in this particular supplement:

I’ve never seen a movie that was sort of “re-operated” to the extent that this one was. Which I think has an effect on the viewing of the movie. David is really type-A in terms of making the shots very specific. They start in a certain way, they end in a certain way. And the framing, he’s very precise in terms of his composition. He doesn’t like a lot of what you see in 99% of movies, which is very subtle moves where the operator will actually reframe according to how the actor’s moving. David doesn’t like that. Even if there were a lot of those in this film, and before, some of those takes we would have thrown out, because we just wouldn’t have been able to stabilize them to the degree that he likes it. With this, because you have this full raster, this big area around the image, you can take those images and stabilize them, really lock them down. So the movie is really locked down in terms of camera operating. More than any other movie that I can think of.


The smooth glide as the car initially approaches the country house is one example of that utter stability, used to ominous effect in that particular scene.

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Thank You Osher members!

The futility of everything that comes to us from the media is the inescapable consequence of the absolute inability of that particular stage to remain silent.

Jean Baudrillard

The Sound of Silence, my Summer class dedicated to the lesson of silent cinema and its influence on sound movies ended last Friday, and I was really surprised to receive so many enthusiastic emails about the films we watched. Most students mentioned that they were pleasantly surprised by the unexpected narrative complexity of silent cinema. Our last screening (Ernst Lubitsch’s silent adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan) perfectly exemplifies the creative work behind such complexity, as Wilde’s verbal text is turned into a visual performance where off-screen space, indirect narration, and other sophisticated narrative techniques make up for the lack of dialogue. Since the original trailer of Lady Windermere’s Fan doesn’t exist anymore, here’s the trailer for another favorite film of the series (F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise) as a Thank You note for sharing your thoughts with me. It was a real pleasure sharing my passion with you.

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A script recommendation

Students in the screenwriting program should take a look at the following TV show (together with some of the shows mentioned in this post). In particular, pay attention to the narrative construction of parallel stories, where each character’s learning experience ends up affecting another character’s decision.
Here’s a clip from the first season.



Suits (2001, Aaron Kirsh, Season 1)

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Wind

In this interesting conceptual short inspired by a 1950s Lucien Hervé’s photograph, Hungarian director Marcell Iványi literally pushes the boundaries of the original photographic image by unveiling its off-screen space. In doing so, he provides us with a personal interpretation of what the original photograph had left open to the imagination. The narrative outcome, however, is far from being univocal and is ambiguous enough to allow for multiple interpretations (a metaphor of Patriarchy and its modus operandi? An allegory of civil war?). Feel free to contribute with your own interpretation.



Szél (1996), 35mm, 6', b/n

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A film recommendation

When students ask me for suggestions about recent films that might be worth watching, analyzing, and learning from, I often reply by saying that they should turn their attention away from cinema and direct their young curious minds to something else: television (see my previous post about this topic).
However, there is one film that I like to recommend to everyone who’s looking to experience an original cinematic approach to storytelling. I’m talking about Mr. Nobody (2009), one of the most fascinating, intelligent, and underestimated films of the previous decade (1). Poorly marketed in Europe and ignored by every distributor in the U.S., this spectacular $47 million dollar Belgian-French-German-Canadian co-production in English language is a rich and complex tale of parallel narratives that springs from the mind of the main character, Mr. Nemo Nobody (Jared Leto), a 118-year-old man who recounts the story of his life in form of three possible existences that he might have lived.
mr_nobody
As writer-director Jaco van Dormael (Toto the Hero and The Eighth Day) explained, the starting point for this project was a 12-minute short he made in 1982 (È pericoloso sporgersi). “A kid runs behind a train with two possible choices: to go with his mother or with his father. From there we follow two possible futures. I started one version based on the fact that a woman jumps or doesn't jump on a train. Then Sliding Doors by Peter Howitt came out, followed by Run Lola Run by Tom Tykwer. I had to find something else. And that's when I realized that the story I was trying to tell was not binary, that I was above all interested by the multiplicity and complexity of choices. With this screenplay I wanted to make the viewer feel the abyss that is the infinity of possibilities. Beyond this, I wanted to find a different way of telling a story.” (2)
One could argue that similar experiments in parallel narratives had been conducted prior to (and even more successfully than) the aforementioned Sliding Doors and Run Lola Run. In 1948, for example, Preston Sturges had brought to the screen Unfaithfully Yours, a sophisticated comedy of hypothetical narratives based on a screenplay he had been working on since the early 1930s (see my analysis of the film in this book); and in 1993 Alain Resnais turned Alan Ayckbourn’s epic "what if" play(s) Intimate Exchanges into two films (Smoking/No Smoking), which are the results of the possible permutations that originate from the protagonists' choices.
Broadly speaking, already in the 1950s and 1960s, the literary experiments of Alain-Robbe Grillet and the French
Nouveau Roman, as well as the works of the Oulipo group (see Raymond Queneau and his Exercises de Style) seemed to have exhausted the possibilities of parallel storytelling and hypothetical narratives. However, not only the narrative structure devised by Jaco van Dormael is infinitely more complex and better laid out than most of the aforementioned works, but he also succeeds where many of his predecessors have failed, since the final result is not a a self-conscious exercise in meta-narrative, but it’s primarily a fascinating and highly entertaining film that grabs the viewer’s attentions from its opening montage of possible stories to the final narrative twist(s) that unveil the mystery behind Nemo’s recollections.


(1) The film is now available on Amazon on DVD.
(2) Errera, Isabelle (Documentalist) (August 2009). "Mr. Nobody, a film by Jaco Van Dormael".
Pan-Européenne (PDF). Unifrance. Retrieved June 7, 2012, pp. 5-6

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American Film Renaissance: Television

pushingdaisies
When I was a young and impressionable film student, eager to be amazed and seduced by films I had yet to discover, there was only one thing I was biased against: television. To my knowledge, the most popular TV series produced in Europe and in the US in the 1980s and 1990s, relied on formulaic templates, where story development and characters’ progression had to be reset by the end of the episode, in order to be recycled in the next installment. Each new chapter in a sit-com, TV drama, or detective story, was essentially interchangeable, and the only narratives that seemed to be interconnected and show some form of progression from one episode to the next belonged to daily “soap operas,” lacking of organic narrative structures and overwhelmed by gratuitous events and random storylines. Even the audiovisual techniques employed in these shows were almost primordial compared to the ones that could be found in movies.
Then David Lynch came forward, with a very simple idea: why not exploiting the possibilities offered by the medium (serialization) in order to create an organic, lengthy film, structured in chapters? After all the idea had proved to be successful long before television was even conceived, when writers of the caliber of Charles Dickens, Henry James, Gustave Flaubert, Leo Tolstoy, or Fyodor Dostoevsky had published their complex and organic works in installments for newspapers and periodicals. Cinema too had known a fortunate season of serials in the silent period.
Twin Peaks (created by David Lynch and David Frost) was an immediate success, but the execution proved to be less fascinating than the original idea, as it became clear that the undefined and obscure storylines that had captivated the audience in the first episodes remained mysterious to the shows’ creators themselves, who had no clue what to make of the possible stories that Lynch had barely drafted.
Lone-Star-Download-1
We had to wait until the beginning of the 20th century, with shows such as The West Wing or Six Feet Under, to see organic works structured in interconnected “chapters,” and featuring progressive character development. The success of these shows paved the way to a series of productions that fully adopted the structure of the classic Bildungsromans, making of Pushing Daisies, Life on Mars, Everwood or 24 the equivalent of what Great Expectations or Anna Karenina had represented for millions of readers more than a century before.
True, differently from the classic literary serials, some of these productions tend to drop their creators after 1 or 2 seasons, quickly turning from gold to dust during the summer hiatus--I think of a brilliant dramedy such as Brothers and Sisters which, by the end of the third season, had become the equivalent of an 18th century feuilleton). As a consequence, some seasons turn out better than others (see the wonderful second season of Diablo Cody’s United States of Tara or the first one of Lie To Me, a fascinating adaptation of Paul Ekman’s scientific studies on facial expressions into a series of moral tales on deception); some mediocre shows are kept alive for 3 or 4 seasons, while far more promising works are cancelled mid-season or even just after a couple of episodes, depending on the audience’s reception (and I would trade the entire Lost saga to find out what Lone Star could have been).
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Overall, the results remain uneven, with projects and storyline developments occasionally modified according to ratings and marketing research. However, the major media conglomerates continue to invest money in bold and expensive choices and provide writers and directors with stimulating opportunities that are yet to be found in mainstream cinema, where projects cannot be tested or modified in their making, and caution remains the main keyword, since a box office failure can result in the termination of several careers.
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Bordwell on Andrew Sarris

From David Bordwell’s blog Observations on Film Art

The death of Andrew Sarris last week isn’t just a saddening moment for those of us who admire exhilarating film criticism. It also reminds us how much American culture can owe to a single person.
Everyone who writes about Sarris writes about how they came to know his work. It was that powerful, and if it hit you young, you were never the same. (You never hear about the sixty-year-old who suddenly becomes an auteurist.) The period of his greatest impact was the 1960s-1970s when, to borrow a phrase from
Dave Kehr, movies mattered. But his influence has lingered, powerfully, a lot longer.
I think that the best way to honor Sarris is to take his ideas–not just his opinions, but his ideas–seriously, so that’s what I’ve tried to do in this tribute. First, though, some comments that are obligatory in any discussion of Sarris.
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Saul Bass

by Cinefamily.org


“Saul Bass wasn’t just an artist who contributed to the first several minutes of some of the greatest movies in history — in my opinion his body of work qualifies him as one of the best filmmakers of one of this, or any other time.“

Steven Spielberg








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