What do we need to procure a powerful imagination? A childhood steeped in traumatic events, emotionally supportive family members, being exposed to various quirky people, enriching early experiences, long hours of solitude…. Ingmar Bergman in Fanny and Alexander, his ode to the origins of imagination, suggests that all of the above is true. Bergman’s semi-autobiographical farewell gift to cinema is a reflection on what nourished his imagination to create decades of outstanding cinematic work.
Brattle Theatre Film Notes Posts
Allen Baron’s lonely, murky, Christmas-set noir Blast of Silence is notable for a number of things – its barely existent budget, stark city photography done without permits, and a rare second person narration track (read by veteran character actor Lionel Stander). The latter suitably sets the mood of the film and includes passages like, “When the Better Business Bureau rings the Christmas bell, the suckers forget there’s such a business as murder, and businessmen who make it their exclusive line,” which blur the usual holiday spirit with something a lot colder, and a lot more sinister.
Like its protagonist, It’s a Wonderful Life has its own redemption story. Released in 1946, the film received tepid reviews from critics and was famously a box office flop, failing to earn enough revenue to break even with the budget, contributing to the bankruptcy of the production company Liberty Films and its eventual sale to Paramount. Twenty-eight years later, a clerical error allowed the movie to enter the public domain, at which point television stations started airing it solely because they could do so without paying royalties. Just as Uncle Billy’s clerical error was the catalyst that pushed George Bailey to find new appreciation for his life in Bedford Falls, that mistake at Paramount allowed a new American audience to find and embrace Bailey’s story, turning the forgotten film into the perennial classic it is today.
Horror films, even a comedic kids creature flick like Gremlins 2, need to have a monster. Sometimes the monsters are human, as in Psycho and Cannibal Holocaust. Sometimes it is an animal, as in Cujo and Jaws. Or it could be aliens, a ghost, vampires, a haunted snowman, or even the devil himself. The point is that the tension and conflict at the heart of every horror film comes from some version of the monstrous. In 1984’s Gremlins, the monsters were the gremlins themselves. The same is true of Gremlins 2. However, the film also sprinkles in a few bad guys who initially seem like they could emerge as monsters in their own right. But, none of these human bad guys are given the full commitment and power of a true monster.
Cinematic language – the grammar of perspective shifts, cuts, and editing that underpins movie storytelling – is immediately understood by audiences. This instantaneous comprehension is most likely because our film language has developed around the stories and plot devices that filmmakers like to use and moviegoers engage in. This explains how the use of the flashback is universally understood, and why it is taken for granted. In Spider-Man 3 when Peter looks at a photograph of his uncle’s killer, followed by a cross dissolve transition into a new scene featuring his uncle, the audience already assumes and comprehends that this new scene is set in the past. Because this convention is so established, it also means that filmmakers can play with audience expectations, as the 2016 science fiction film Arrival does. The film the subverts audience expectations of how a flashback works, and how a story is generally told, expressing an unusual use of film language in both its form and its themes.
Akira Kurosawa’s 1957 film The Lower Depths is set in Japan during the Edo Period (1603-1868), and is about the poor tenants of a rundown residence. In this featured scene we see three, and then four, men circle dance using traditional hand movements. From their simple “stage” to the faux flautist, these peasants are performing their own rustic version of Noh Mai, which is a form of Japanese dance theatre typically enacted to music made by hand held drums and flutes.
Akira Kurosawa’s storied career is exemplified not just by his cinematic masterpieces, but also how he subverted genre film. From detective noir like Stray Dog to thrillers like High and Low, he never shied away from challenging how audiences experience familiar genres. Never is this more on display than in his 1961 film Yojimbo.
The film is part of the jidaigeki genre, which encompasses period pieces set during the Edo period (1603-1868). More specifically, it is part of the chanbara (samurai) subgenre. Typically, films in this subgenre follow valiant warriors, whose moral code shines through from the very beginning and never wavers. The violence on screen is meant solely to entertain. Rarely do we see critiques of this, but in Yojimbo, Kurosawa steps up and calls this into question.
Hal Ashby was one of the leading filmmakers of the 1970s. The march of time relegated him to near-anonymity until lately. His work is being re-examined, thanks in large part to Amy Scott’s new documentary, Hal which explores Ashby’s success with a decade-long chain of splendid films beginning with the little-known gem, The Landlord, which addresses inner-city conflicts in 1970s Brooklyn. It was followed by Harold and Maude (1971), The Last Detail (1973), Shampoo (1975), Coming Home (1978) which won Ashby a Best Director Oscar, and Being There (1979). Harold and Maude, like many of Ashby’s other films, features a rebel who refuses to mindlessly go along with the system at its heart.
Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 film Near Dark tells the story of Caleb, a naïve young man who falls for the winsome blonde vampire Mae and finds himself struggling to adjust to her nighttime world of murder and mayhem. Transformed by a bite from Mae, Caleb nevertheless struggles with the morality of feeding on humans. Bigelow’s vision of star-crossed love among bloodsuckers is at once wildly romantic and frankly gruesome. It offers a rare mix of beauty and ugliness – grace and brutality.
I wanted to watch The Player tonight not only to see all the nice designer suits everybody wears in it from the 90s, but also to get a sense of what was called the developing shot. Now you might, if you’ve seen The Player, think to yourself, “well crap, they do a lot of long takes in that, don’t they? Where’s all the editing?”