Friday, September 23, 2016
Dani Michaeli, but it’s so long ago now that who knows. It was a simple statement once while watching a film: “Pans suck.” That’s all it was, probably spoken during a film which contained a camera pan that most likely sucked. And I’ve always remembered that brief utterance, making me think of every bad pan I’ve ever seen, maybe some of them in the context of clunky student films and how false they were. Sure, you could bring up a million examples of good pans by Scorsese or whoever and, really, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to this sort of thing. But maybe there’s some truth to it, that the falseness of a pan is something to avoid and you should find some other way to frame your shot until you’ve figured it out. The reason I’m saying all this is that recently I was watching THE LETTER, a William Wyler-directed Bette Davis vehicle released in 1940, one of those goddamn Warner Brothers epics that opens with the familiar Max Steiner fanfare and everything about it speaks to the quality you’d get from films that were churned out by the studio system. As I get older there’s something about those goddamn Warner Brothers epics that stands out—yes, the familiar actors, but also that studio’s particular type of storytelling, a stylishness which sets it apart from the silvery aura of Paramount or the glistening perfection of MGM. It’s an extremely well-made film, heightened by performances which match the story and tone perfectly. At one point I found myself drawn in and fascinated by the direction, the way Wyler was staging a certain key moment and how the impeccable camerawork added to the way the story was being told. There was an undeniable elegance to every single moment in the deliberateness of the framing that Wyler was bringing to this particular shot. What I’m trying to say, and maybe it says something about the film as a whole, is that THE LETTER has some really good pans. George Stevens, documented in Mark Harris’ book Five Came Back) he returned home and took many of his feelings about the experience coming back from the war to make 1946’s THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES. That film won the Best Picture Oscar and is a confirmed classic by now but still feels underappreciated, its post-war context forgotten as other films, possibly made by more esteemed auteurs, have continued to be lionized. That one’s his masterpiece, not so much THE LETTER which may not even be the greatest film made by Warner Brothers during this period but of course they can’t all be CASABLANCA or TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT. But I’ve been watching THE LETTER multiple times over the past few weeks getting lost in its sumptuous atmosphere and found myself with a growing “damn, this really is good” appreciation for what it does, weaving its story through a tight running time of around 95 minutes without an ounce of fat and yet infinitely complex on a thematic and visual level. Frankly, you’d think that’s what more films should be. It’s one of the best examples of this sort of filmmaking that doesn’t get talked about much anymore as the past recedes further into the distance. It’s a great film regardless of when it was made.
Monday, September 12, 2016
KCET Cinema Series sometimes screens one of his films in conjunction with the James & Paula Coburn Foundation and this past August they played a gorgeous 35mm print of this film, something I had never expected to see. Remembered these days mainly for being the feature debut of a certain other legendary star in a bit role, DEAD HEAT is almost too aloof to be a classic, it’s almost daring you to call it anything other than aloof, never asking for your love but within the fractured quality of its story its own cool rhythm comes to play. It may not be a masterwork of the genre but regardless, there aren’t many days where I’m going to complain about getting to see a 60s heist movie anyway and this one definitely has its pleasures. flower stand in San Francisco). In addition, as much as the world already knows, Harrison Ford makes his film debut here as a bellhop who briefly gets confused by Coburn pulling one of his many cons. It’s cool to see him here, but the film deserves to be known for more than that. Lynda Erkiletian of the James & Paula Coburn Foundation for the invite. There’s a chilliness to DEAD HEAT ON A MERRY-GO-ROUND which sets it apart while fitting in perfectly with other Coburn films from the 60s. “It all depends on what you need,” goes a line near the end and sometimes that one thing can be all you think about, where all your focus is so you miss what else is there. Maybe you eventually notice it. Maybe you notice it too late. Sometimes these films keep things so light that there’s no time for such truths but DEAD HEAT ON A MERRY-GO-ROUND has just the right amount of sting to it. Besides, there’s nothing wrong with a little nastiness just when you think things are going your way. Except when it happens to you, of course.
Sunday, August 28, 2016
SECONDS. His last film of that decade was THE GYPSY MOTHS, a nearly unknown film now which apparently never got much of a release by MGM at the time and went mostly unseen for several decades until it came out on DVD in 2002, soon after Frankenheimer’s death. But it’s a lovely, sad film, almost like the end of the road for the world he was portraying in the 60s, much of which was an outgrowth of what he may have thought of as ‘the 50s’ and the America that was being represented. It certainly recalls a few of his other films in what it wants to say about fate, about where you’re going in life, how far you try to get away from yourself and if it’s too late to ever change. That question of can you transform into something else or is the path you’re on already set. Not all of the answers in THE GYPSY MOTHS are ones you want to hear. But sometimes those wishes are just impossible. Film Score Monthly CD of Elmer Bernstein’s music contains a few cues of carnival-like excitement that mostly went unused. It’s almost something that can’t be put into a subtle speech revealing why they do it since they can barely put it into words themselves. There’s a lot here you have to take on faith—the sadness, the feeling of loss, with the unspoken thoughts of what didn’t happen. Warner Archive. In a subtle, heartbreaking touch near the end—much of THE GYPSY MOTHS is subtle, or maybe ‘subtle in a direct way’ to quote a line of dialogue from it—a handshake between two characters turns into an embrace by the end, yet it still feels like it’s holding back, just like too often we hold things back ourselves in life, much to our everlasting regret. But you can’t get the past back after those times when you’re not very observant, you can’t get what you really want and maybe that one small embrace is the best you can ever hope for. I can’t put the reasons for some things that happen in THE GYPSY MOTHS into words even if I do understand. Sometimes you just don’t have the answers. Frankly, there’s a lot I don’t have the answer to right now.
Wednesday, August 17, 2016
anything positive about it at all. Maybe it was the wrong film at the wrong time, maybe people aren’t looking for that sort of tortured glamour these days, even, or maybe especially, if it does involve Brad & Angie. Now that the Blu-ray is out there, I’m already finding myself returning to it over and over, to a film which is clearly nakedly personal but also, let’s face it, a dream of films that just aren’t made anymore. And I’m finding myself more than willing to live inside it. In many ways, we have no choice but to live in the past, to return to those moments we have guilt over, that we know deep down are our own fault. That’s part of what films are anyway. CONTEMPT seen through scope imagery thanks to cinematographer Christian Berger who revels in the lusciousness of this tiny bay hidden away from the world. Along with the celluloid ennui to make us think of Elizabeth Taylor & Richard Burton in their late 60s yachting-around-the-world prime (embarrassing admission: I’ve never actually seen BOOM! but have somehow made it all the way to the end of THE VIPs) there’s also, somewhat surprisingly, a certain amount of WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? in its portrayal of games between two married couples and of the specific secrets that get revealed. It’s almost a version of VIRGINIA WOOLF not written by Edward Albee or set in academia but somewhere off in the Mediterranean in that late 60s Liz & Dick world although in this case we’re the only ones who find out the secret that the two leads already know. The other couple is much more incidental in this film because these secrets are just for Roland and Vanessa, the sort of things you only find out about somebody past midnight and it sets them apart from the rest of the world. There’s some of Woody Allen’s ANOTHER WOMAN in the basic plot as well (the Blu-ray special features include a visit to Gena Rowlands by the lead couple to receive her blessing, no doubt because of the Cassavetes connection but her lead role in that film certainly comes to mind) and even a slight Hitchcock vibe, not just in the peering next door reminiscent of PSYCHO but in the always careful placing of point of view, particularly through that peephole or even how Jolie Pitt places the hotel and cafe always in relation to each other in the frame, continually keeping the two leads together when all they want to do is stay apart.
Thursday, August 4, 2016
diaries (highly recommended) from around this time where he writes about her, forever compulsively. He admits to jealousy of Beatty during the filming but also at one point while musing on Taylor’s health issues wonders, “Elizabeth’s endless operations are the natural successors of indifferent eating and drinking habits and no exercise at all, or are they?” No matter how affecting her work here is at certain moments, that’s the woman we’re seeing, sitting around waiting for her boyfriend like he’s Burton returning from location in Prague or, even worse, waiting for MGM to call and tell her that the old studio days are back on again, framed in big close-ups with soft focus. She never looks bad, she just looks like late 60s Elizabeth Taylor so she never looks very much like a Vegas showgirl.