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Posts tagged “Martin Scorsese

Film Talk – Contemporary Silence – Part 2

With the loss of dialogue, a very conscious decision by the makers of the film, there naturally becomes a massive reliance on the audio to carry more of the plot. Traditionally audio is split up into 3 tracks – Dialogue, Sound effects and the Soundtrack.

“The soundtrack of any film…tends to condition an audiences response to it, sound principally creates the mood and atmosphere of a film, and also it’s pace and emphasis, but, most importantly, also creates a vocabulary by which the visual codes of the film are understood.”

Understanding Animation – Paul Wells – Pg. 97

Sound is a vital component of animation adding more depth and understanding to the images and the narrative, allowing the audience to engage with a film. Naturally we take for granted the sounds around us, helps our awareness of our surroundings and situation. The additional an extra layer to the visuals we process.

 “Moreover, visuals are not always subtle-note the overly obvious miming of silent film-and words are not necessarily blatant…Engagement is called for whether one is interpreting action or speech, visual images or dialogue.”

Overhearing Dialogue – Sarah Kozloff – Pg. 11

However to rely solely on dialogue doesn’t mean we can’t understand a narrative without dialogue. Silent films relied upon title cards and the actor’s performances to convey emotions and move the plot forward. Today it’s very rare to silent or near silent films. One example is Robert Redford’s All is Lost (2013); the lack of dialogue was actually a draw for the actor who explains in this clip.

Silent film has had something of resurgence in mainstream film in 2011. With The Artist and Hugo. The Artist a loving homage to silent film that celebrates classic Hollywood. Whilst Hugo by Martin Scorsese is his tribute to early film, set in France, we meet an older Georges Méliès, who in the film is running a Toy store at a train station. It’s also a film that speaks about the importance of film preservation, something, which is very important to the director.

What they are really doing to attempting to re-energise a love for silent film.

“…Hugo and The Artist are only the most visible instances of a broader impulses to make silent cinema “new” at various moments in film and media history…”

New Silent Cinema – edited by Paul Flaig and Katherine Groo – Pg. 2

If you want contemporary silent film – not re-mastered/restored/re-released silent films you have to look out for films such as Ki-duk Kim‘s Moebius (2013), which relies on vocal expression, about

“…a father’s infidelity leads to his son’s all too literal emasculation, as the same actress plays both vengeful mother and wanton mistress, as the genital transplants pile up…”

Back in the U.S. Gus Van Sant‘s Gerry (2002) places two men into a salt desert, where they try to retrace their steps back to the car. Very minimal dialogue, there are long stretches where it’s just Matt Damon and Casey Affleck looking over the landscape.

More recently we have The Revenant (2015) the true-life story of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) whose scene are almost dialogue free. Focusing on his struggle with nature, his own torn body and his anger to seek out revenge for being left for dead.

I ended the talk with a longer show reel, which is the best way to explore and understand the power of contemporary silent and minimal dialogue in film.



Cape Fear/e (1962/91/93) Revisited

I’m going to try something new in this review – 3 films, well 2 films and a TV episode all titled – Cape Fear. For sometime I’ve been thinking about the relationship between these horror films. Having also read that the Martin Scorsese remake in 1991 was pointless really, I need to see this for myself to understand what is actually going on here. Has Scorsese wasted a cast and crews time and a film companies money, not to mention the audience who went to see etc. I’ll finish on a more comedic note with The Simpsons spoof Cape Feare which combines the best of both films. I’m one film in – the original which I shamefully saw in about 9 parts on YouTube whilst working at a summer camp a few years ago.

The 1962 original released as part of a cycle of horror films that attempted to emulate Psycho (1960) which reshaped the genre forever, what a was expected from the genre and its very form. What followed was a series of cheap knock-offs so to speak that tried to replicate that magic for the next few years. With time for the industry to react one of the first films out using A-list actors with well established careers, such as Deborah Kerr‘s The Innocents (1961), and the cult classic of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). However Cape Fear has more in common with film noir, or the first shoots of neo-noir after it ended a few years earlier with Touch of Evil (1959). Take some of the best bits of The Night of the Hunter (1955) and repackage it into a more audience friendly film that has also become a classic.

Taking the Charles Laughton noir of a preacher who works his way into a community, marrying a Jail birds widow, in order to get his hands on the money which the dead husband has hidden. Memorably played by Robert Mitchum, whose physical presence transformed the role and the film into that of almost folklore horror. Seeing America through the eyes of an English director who gave us his vision of a country deeply rooted in its religion that could be so easily be corrupted. The Mitchum character of Harry Powell becomes Max Cady, again not long released from prison has a one track mind, not money, he has plenty of that. Its more like a destiny that he has to fulfill coming to the home town of successful lawyer and family man Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck) who had to testify against him on an attack charge against an innocent woman. After first meeting Cady we know he’s not a family man, not meant to live around law-abiding people. He’s not a gentlemen who stops to pick up papers for woman on the stairs. He’s to be avoided, even before we learn his back story.

The Cady’s live in reasonable comfort, a small lawyer whose life is about to be turned upside down, about to take him and his wife Peggy (Polly Bergen) and daughter Nancy (Lori Martin). I couldn’t help but start to draw comparisons with this to the remake, what were the new relationship that brings Cady to town. It’s more complex for sure in the remake. Back to this more straightforward film that doesn’t waste time establishing whose the good and bad guys. However it’s the law whose hands are tied, Cady’s being doing more than marking the days in his cell before being released. Reading up on the law and planning his revenge. Starting his war of terror against Bowden and his family, taking aim at the teenage daughter – Nancy whose awareness of the male gaze and sexual power is about to blow wide open.

Cady is not just a deranged criminal out for revenge he’s a sexual predator too, making Nancy his next victim. This could be where Scorsese got a bit of tunnel vision, along with changing taste and the loosening of censorship which allowed for a more adult version of the film. Nonetheless the original filmed in cheap/standard black and white adds another layer to this dark film that gets more intense scene by scene. Tying Sam in knots with nowhere to turn but to lead him into a trap on the houseboat along the Cape Fear river. The sexuality is all coming from Mitchum, even middle-aged has a decent body that added to his domineering on-screen presence. If anything I found the ending lackluster, instead of what the audience wants – and Scorsese gives us. We have the law winning out, the courts of justice putting Cady back behind bars before a swift and happy ending. It feels after all of that struggle the good and civilised in Bowden wins out, his primal desire and wishes earlier on in the film to shoot him are repressed to allow him to drag him to a prison cell before a having another trial. Hopefully leading to reform, something I really can’t see happening to Cady, whoever plays this disturbed character.

Onto the remake now, which after hearing it was pointless, I’m starting to see why after just finishing it. I first watched it at University, thinking it was a great thriller, I even used it as part of my research for thrillers and suspense. What the hell was I thinking, more to the point what was Martin Scorsese thinking. It wasn’t even a film he wanted to do, it was an assignment given to him by the Universal, for reasons I just don’t understand, I don’t think he does either. Probably hoping to get his next project The Age of Innocence (1993).

Lets take a look at the film on the face of it, a remake of the 1960’s classic thriller which saw the Bowden family being tormented by the deranged Max Cady that still remains at the core of this film. However 30 years have passed and the script admittedly needed altering in some respects. There’s far more sex on-screen, along with the usual depiction of Scorsese penchant for violence. Making it a good match, but then the same can be said of lots of directors. He’s a director for hire here. The main difference is Cady played by a hammy Robert De Niro whose clearly having a ball, glad to be working with his old pal Marty one more time. The crime committed now is, aggravated assault, essentially rape when you get to know the character. He’s come back to get revenge on his old lawyer Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) who we learn buried evidence that could have allowed Cady to go free. That facts are made clear early on away from Cady who is beginning his campaign of fear.

Originally Bowden was a witness to an assault committed by Cady, now we see that the lawyer has used his professional power to alter the course of Cady’s life. I couldn’t have seen that working in 1962, only a few years from playing Atticus Finch (Peck) couldn’t betray that upstanding heroic image. Whilst Mitchum could’ve easily played that role to the extreme without getting as hammy as De Niro. We spend more time with the daughter now named Danielle (Juliette Lewis) who is more sexually aware. Whilst the wife is pretty much unchanged, reacting instead to the plot as it unfolds. If anything she is more traumatised by the films events. So the father and daughter get the thick of it.

A memorable addition or “nod” of approval to the remake, is the inclusion of three of the original cast Peck, Mitchum and Martin Balsam each having a few scenes. Was this more a ploy to bring in the older audience to see three older actors once more, or to say that the film is not being made without their blessing. I think its more the former with a bit of promotional casting. Mitchum first appears as the detective who wants to help but is forced to not suggest to seek alternatives. Whilst Peck is clearly having more fun in his cameo as Lee Heller who is Cady’s defence lawyer. Whilst a clearly bored Martin Balsam the original detective plays the judge who rules a restraining order in Cady’s favor. The aging actor clearly underused and wondering what the hell he is doing on set.

The law is clearly not in Bowden’s side throughout, doing all he can to protect his family, being screwed at every turn by a criminal who has read his books, including the Bible and Sexus (just for added smut). There are times when you are on the Bowden’s side, then you think, haven’t we been here before, only in black and white and not for as long. Drawing out the scenes and adding new ones that only drag out this practically scene for scene remake. The religious overtones are very heavy and clearly a directorial stroke, which makes the work his – overtly.

Ultimately it’s a hammy overreacted, waste of film that sees an accomplished director scraping the barrel with sacred material that shouldn’t have been touched. He should have looked back to Dead Calm (1989) which had the boat thriller in the bag in every way. We have actors who are doing their best, whilst some are just glad for the bigger paycheck and a few days work. Lastly Scorsese only makes you think about the original more overtly with the lazy use of the original score by Bernard Herrmann, conducted by Elmer Bernstein who simply conducted it for the “new” soundtrack. There’s no attempt to be really a unique film that is about the same basic premise, its the just the same just sexed up.

Now I want to watch the far superior Simpsons parody which focuses in the best elements. The second episode of season 5 – (yes it’s that old), a longtime favorite of mine. I remember getting it on video – the murder mysteries tape. Makes me feel old just thinking about it. It’s been a while since I last saw the episode until last night. It was still as fresh and spot on with the jokes that came thick and fast. Midway through the golden age of the now long running animated sitcom, which has now become the longest running of its kind too. Cape Feare was also the third time that Sideshow Bob (Kelsey Grammer) appears in this now iconic role. Assuming the Max Cady role directly from the Scorsese’s film gave us a year before. It’s a cheeky spoof that is more entertaining that the thriller which is 6 times as long.

I think the focus was on the more recent film still fresh in the public consciousness, which is understandable, leaving the original alone. Taking the best bits of a pointless film and making fun of the rest in 20 minutes of animation. We already know that Bob has it in for Bart (Nancy Cartwright) who has twice already found him out, once for robbery, and for attempted murder. Now it’s time for revenge. There’s no need to build up that history between the two except in a few short scenes. The blood written letters and the parole hearing before Bob’s released, using his charm to gain his freedom.

Already the Simpson family are on edge, the letters and now the cinema scene which is ensures we are in for a scene for scene spoof. Of course there’s more common sense at play, the harassments taken seriously by the police instead of going down the private detective route – which leads to the fishing wire and teddy bear set-up which isn’t taken seriously. Ultimately they’re referred to the FBI who put them into the Witness Relocation Program giving them a new identity and opening titles. It’s all played fast a loose. Yet the law is on the families side, moving the spoof quickly on, there’s no time to discuss the need to use a gun or to kill Bob, it’s about hiding.

The finale is more family friendly with a Gilbert and Sullivan homage, making the most of an earlier scene in the car journey. The houseboat is loose on the water, just not out of control as Bart uses the performance to buy him time. He’s too clever to result to deadly violence to see his enemy (not Moe Szyslak (Hank Azaria) and his panda’s). The episode delivers some of the finest moments not just of the season but a collection of jokes that are better than the expensive thriller that tries to outdo the original.

So ends my first 3 (2 and a spoof) film review, attempting to find a relationship and history. I’ve chosen an easier trilogy (of sorts) to begin with a film, a remake and a spoof. I can see how it a classic (before it was more common) to remake a film. Seeing that it was sexed up, add some violence and some cheeky cameos to draw in the audiences. Whilst a controversial cartoon plays fast and loose, appropriate the events of a recent film and make fun of it, so is the nature of a spoof which in the case of this film is more entertaining, than the remake.


Dogville Vs. Hollywood

I’ve just finished a book I bought from my local independent cinema, which has started a small shop. The book I bought was Dogville Vs Hollywood: The War Between Independent Film and Mainstream Movies by Jake Horsley was on the basis it would go into what the title suggest, look at the battle between directors who are either considered auteurs or independent of the Hollywood system. Building on Peter Biskind’s fascinating Easy Riders, Raging Bulls which was an entertaining and in-depth look at the American New wave which began with Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and ending around Raging Bull and Heavens Gate (1980). Dogville covers much of the same ground coming up to 2006 (when the book was published).

I remember when I first started reading this book I had a gut reaction to the harsh critical tone that the writer who didn’t check his facts, saying Citizen Kane was released in 1942 – was 1941, and Hitchcock’s first sound film was The Lodger (1927)it was Blackmail (1929), I found a few more errors but these two stuck in my mind. It shows how fast this book was written, with passionate anger and disregard for accuracy, when talking about the history of any medium in such detail he got things off to a bad start.

The first chapter was an extended review of Lars Van Trier‘s titular film Dogville (2008) which he uses the basic framework for the book. A film made in response to the current state of Hollywood. A film that is devoid of likeable characters, a set that’s limited to suggestion and a dog that it’s just a drawing on the ground. Most notably an all American cast. I do see the film in a new light now which explains a few things. It’s a dogme that had teeth to bite back.

There were sections where pages where the main body of text was fighting the foot notes that were almost half a page long in places. Why didn’t here just incorporate his research into the main body or minimise it, they became not so much backing up the quotes legitimacy but they were points of trivia which pulled you away from the main body. Eventually I just stopped reading them, noticing that Horsley lifted a lot of quotes from two of Biskind’s books; Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and Down and Dirty Pictures, showing an over-reliance on superior books on the subject. (I haven’t read the second one yet).

Lastly the overall tone of the book was scathing on just about any director whose mentioned in the book. I agree on some points, the state of Hollywood has not changed in ten years, relying on franchises, special effects and remakes – nothing new there, showing that the argument still stands up. However hardly anyone gets off lightly, unless its a director you’ve never heard of yet. The established directors – Scorsese, Spielberg and Coppola etc are seen in varied shades of black. They’ve either sold out, burned out or just faded away. He blame critics for helping Hollywood in the dumbing down of audiences, their expectations and their thinking of a film. You could say Horsley is a film snob who has an axe to grind, has he been burnt in Hollywood and fighting back? It would explain the horrible tone and the scathing attack to practically everyone, he can be fair in places which is rare, whole chapters and sections are rants, building up individuals before bringing them back down to earth with a bump.

I’ve not really learned a lot, except who Horsley hates and hates not so much. I hope in the 10 years since it’s publication he has mellowed.

Duel (1971)

Duel (1971)My lunchtime’s have been recently consumed by reading Easy Riders Raging Bulls: How the Drugs ‘n’ Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation saved Hollywood by Peter Biskind. I’m speeding through it, giving me a really good insight into Hollywood’s silver age, catching up with the New Wave Europe that was racing ahead with new ideas. The old guard (moguls or the corporation’s that bought them out) were not prepared or even ready for the likes of Coppola, Beatty, Lucas, Scorsese, Friedkin, Bogdanovich and Spielberg did for American film. Be that good or bad, that’s up to the individual to decide. Because of the way the book’s written there are times that I feel some directors are not getting a look in until much later on. However there’s a reason, a rational to this, bringing in Scorsese in at the mid-point with Speilberg who we know weren’t doing much in Hollywood, but were there trying to make their personal films a reality.

The book has given me many recommendations (without even telling me) to go away and find these films. Starting with M.A.S.H (1970), there are more I want to get into, I just waiting for them to present themselves. Even a few cheeky revisits which are long over due. I wanted to focus on Steven Spielberg here for this review I wasn’t aware that his first feature film Duel (1971) (not shot on Super 8) was actually for TV. After years of struggling to get anything made and with the curse of Joan Crawford whom he directed in Night Gallery he was stuck in the lesser medium. Once his Movie of the week was aired “Spielberg became a darling of the French Critics”.. (pg 257 – Easy Riders and Raging Bulls). I remember reading an article where a critic suggested that she preferred his earlier work pre-Jaws to that which came after.

I guess she has something there, there is a massive change is tone from the first darker three films that are more adult as much as they are pure escapism you don’t have the schmaltz for which he has come to be known for. Not to say he’s not the worse director for it. He is a master of his medium, yet the title of auteur which is more easily given to Coppola and Scorsese et al. all have very strong styles. What Spielberg has is the ability to deliver big cinematic pieces that can stimulate emotional responses, he’s a master manipulator of emotion I should say. He knows is needed to produce emotion A, by doing B and C in turn to get your attention. It could be argued that he’s never really grown up, that’s what I’m finding from his contemporaries. Which really isn’t a bad thing in terms of his success. He has been able to deal with dark material from the Holocaust to the end of the Civil War, he’s no mouse, however he’s able to tap into the inner child of the audience because he never really let go to that feeling. Looking at his contemporaries work of the 1970’s that is dark, cynical and stylized. Most of them are great pieces of work, the modern classics we have today were made by these men.

Duel is sadly not one of them, for the reason that it’s been overlooked, not celebrated and not properly distributed in the country that produced it. Being shown theatrically in Europe and Japan to great praise, a horror film that relies on that single aspect of driving – Lorries. Admittedly I’m not a fan of those “Kings of the Road”, having to drive on the motorway a lot I have seen what can happen. Previously involved in a road accident that involved one (I’m all in one piece) it really changes your perspective and can change your outlook on how you drive. As much as we need them for the economy to grow I hate them. Spielberg plays on that fear we drivers can have of these vehicles that storm past us, clog up the road and can cause mayhem.

For the director it’s a rare if his only horror film, and not in the traditional sense. It takes place all in a single day, if only a few hours of David Mann’s (Dennis Weaver) life and it’s really enough. What begins just another big-headed road hogging lorry driver. (Sorry for my American readers/followers a Lorry is what we call trucks) is obstructing Mann as he drives to a meeting he is crossing the country for. Getting to the meeting soon fades away as trouble and survival become more important. A chance encounter with an unknown driver of a rusty tanker whose antagonistic and frankly dangerous driving leads to a game of cat and mouse on the open roads of America. This not the same as other road movies of the era, there’s no time for friendship, self exploration or tripping out. Out running the police or even getting the job done, this is survival.

What makes this stand apart from being the run of the mill TV movie of the week is the distinctive cinematography. The opening sequence of the camera being strapped to the bonnet (hood) of the car as it travels through various locations. Telling is we are on the road and have been for sometime. Is this the view of the car or the driver? more than likely the car that holds and carries the driver before we meet the lorry that is to bring hell with him. We have to see the world from the drivers point of view. Not as confined as Locke (2013) which is restricted to the car and the conversations that Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) has over the phone that alter the direction he take in life. This is not as complex as that, more easily compared to Jaws (1975) that plays on your basic fears, that fight or flight. Being able to move is the only option you have, to think on your feet, those quick life or death decisions. Returning to the cinematography briefly we are able to get into Mann’s head as he tries to work out who the driver once he has stopped after the first 3rd of the film. No one really knows who the driver is, given a few pieces of information.

Could I be so bald as the to make the jump and compare this to a stripped back Western, hell yes I will. We have the traveling gunfighter whose making his way to the next town. Met along the way by a group of Native Americans who want him to move on. Not knowing he is on their land, he’s an intruder and has to go. Or is that too simple, as they continually engage him in intimidation that leads ultimately to the gunfighters/white mans victory. Probably a simple translation but a starting point. We have a lorry that is relentless for reasons no one can understand, its crazy yet we watch on, driven by how we can all relate to dangerous drivers, even those who follow us and are completely safe for miles at a time, simply taking the same road as us.

Summing up in what has become a very long review of a much overlooked of Spielberg’s it’s not the landmark film that changed the landscape of the genre like he achieves with his blockbuster a few years later. Instead it’s a solid little horror film that taps into that shared fear we all have. Drivers or not we all at one time or another fear someone is following us, some with good cause for concern. There’s none of the magic that he channels by referencing classic cinema, taking what works and making it his own. Overall I am please to have seen this little film, running in at 85 minutes, just a little sad I missed his reflection in one of those split seconds of a director who is having fun on a limited budget and making it something bigger, grander, more exciting, ultimately cinematic for the small screen when he couldn’t get there at the time.

Death Wish (1974)

Death Wish (1974)I’ve been quietly looking out for Death Wish (1974) for sometime, wondering what it was about. Then reading a brief description it became clear that this was Michael Winner‘s version of The Searchers (1956). Two years before Martin Scorsese‘s own take on the film – Taxi Driver (1976) However architect Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) is not an outsider of society. In fact he lives a middle class lifestyle. Even making his mark on his country by helping design the future for an undeveloped section of Tuscon, Arizona. Unlike Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) who drives the streets of New York at night, unable to have a normal relationship with a woman. We have moved on from John Ford‘s original wandering Confederate Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) who will never have a place in civilised society. He does have more in common with Bickle though, we all know or have seen someone who doesn’t quite fit in, standing out and whom we fear for some reason.

So how else is this quietly violent film like The Searchers and other Westerns, we must first look at the women that are/were in Kersey’s at the beginning of the film. He loves his wife Joanna (Hope Lange) who he has just returned from a holiday with. They are enjoying their freedom from their now grown up daughter, a second flourish of love, it’s a rosy picture. All this is soon lost after not even a word has barely been uttered by anyone. Normality in their lives restored, mother and daughter Carol Toby (Kathleen Tolan) have been out together. Where we meet three men, criminals out for their next easy victims who have plenty of cash to steal from. These thugs/criminals take the place of Native Americans on the street, the wild and uncontrollable, the lost and disillusioned youth of the streets with no-where to turning on the successful and affluent who have the image of an easy life. These three men track down and follow the mother and daughter home, the defenseless women are soon in the arms of the gang who leave the women ravaged, not quite raped but beaten within an inch of their life.

Nearly on a par with the ultra-violence of A Clockwork Orange (1971) but still with some way to go. The effect of the violent is soon felt when the absent men in their lives are at the hospital, who are left to accept the consequences of the crime. Joanna soon dies (not from her external injuries at least) and Carol traumatized to the point she’s moved into a psychiatric hospital. Reminding me of the powerful scene in The Searchers when Ethan and Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) come across two women who are little more than scare children after their time with the savage natives. Time as a squaw is an experience that’s compared to a fate worse than death in the classic genre.

The women in Death Wish are silently labelled “Comanch” they are victims of street crime.  For the men they both deal with their loss’ in different ways. Jack Toby (Steven Keats) Kersey’s son-in-law accepts his wives condition and does what he feels medicine and society can do for her. Whilst the elder who has lost his wife doesn’t take that option, justice has failed for him. Needing to find another way to grieve and right the many wrongs which is beginning to see on the streets of New York City. It takes him a business trip to Tuscon, working on designs for new homes on yet untouched land. He has left the East to go to the old West where. He is helping to define the future for more settlers who want to move West, except there journey is a lot safer.

It takes a trip to a Wild West film set which I recognised from a few films, where Kersey along with his colleague Sam (William Redfield) a member of a gun club awakens the gunfighter and eventual vigilante in the conscientious objector of the Korean War. A man who for years had not picked up a gun and for good reasons too. his principals are thrown to the wind on his return, his first act of self-defense becomes a chance to clean up the streets. Taking law into his own hands, a reversion to an outmoded gunfighter, long after law and order has been instated in the country. Here comes a gunfighter who wants to kill for good. Having the to break the law, to kill in order to make the streets safer.

Soon getting the attention of the police, lead by investigating officer Frank Ocha (Vincent Gardenia) who wants to restore civilised law and order. Or to put him back on-top, allowing the police to do their job. Not exactly the kind of guy you would expect, full of a cold, but wants to see this vigilante who he begins to understand, methodically getting to Kersey who is attracting attention and wannabe vigilantes, not to the same level. He’s enjoying the attention from behind the comfort of his apartment. Collecting newspapers that mention his acts/work. This the gunfighter basking in the glory of his good deeds, writing his own history, without the media even knowing him.

Instead of bringing Kersey to justice he is eventually persuaded to leave, helping to create a modern legend. To be a legendary gunfighter today you have to be a vigilante, it still happens even forty years later as have-ago-hero’s, citizens arrests. The violence in the film is far less in your face, it’s a collection of moments of tension that are built up. We first meet the criminal in the urban setting before Kersey the possible victim turns around and kills them, easing the tension. More death, but less crime as a result, does that make the act of violence right? From a man who abhorred violence soon comes to get a thrill out of it, yet feels like a hero, killing only for good. The first in a string of sequels (which I am toying with watching) he has yet to avenge his wife and daughter.

The Native Americans of the urban streets are not seen again, complete with spray paint and few words. Is he looking out for them or others like them on what has become life’s work. A frightening prospect when you think about it, an architect who allows for progression forward, yet reverts to an outmoded way of life. Much like Ethan Edwards who spent 7 years of his life filled with racial hatred looking for Comanches to kill, whilst searching for his family, was he out for his family or for blood, that’s one of the bug questions you come away with. He’s already an outsider, a Confederate who has not accepted surrender so cannot progress with the forward thinking country. Kersey is a 20th century take on that, before the more iconic and dangerous Bickle, not as prolific in his violence he is not one to get close to, there is more humanity in Bronson’s take on the outsider, a man whose known for his violent roles shows a sensitive side before he becomes the iconic role for a generation.

I’ll leave you with a quote from the original and let you decide how far we have come.

“It just so happens we be Texicans. Texican is nothing but a human man way out on a limb. This year and next, and maybe for a hundred more. But I don’t think it’ll be forever. Some day this country’s gonna be a fine, good place to be. Maybe it needs our bones in the ground before that time can come.” – Mrs Jorgensen (Olive Carey)

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Johnny Guitar (1954) Revisited

Johnny Guitar (1954)Another of those films mentioned in The Story of Film: An Odysseyduring the New Wave movement of films in the 1950’s – 60’s. My first watch about three years ago I don’t really understand the film, Finding out later on Johnny Guitar (1954) was written as a western vehicle for Joan Crawford much like Rancho Notorious (1952) was for Marlene Dietrich, who was more accustomed to the genre. Both are not straight out of the park westerns. However Johnny Guitar simply uses the guise of the genre to tell a very confusing story that really does take a second look to get what is going on under all the big set-pieces you have so much subtext that it would take hours to properly analyse it. For instance if I were to discuss The Searchers (1956) it would be a new page just to give it the time need to fully understand the film and all that is going on. However I think I can refine my efforts to this lone posting for the earlier film.

I had to re-watch the Martin Scorsese introduction more as an explanation of what was going to happen. Coming into the film with ideas about the suppression of the colour blue, which is full on in the opening titles. There’s a lot to take in even from the introduction.

With all of that going on I reminded myself of the intensity of colour in Nicholas Ray‘s films, all of the colour and pent-up emotion that never cools down, always on the edge, where you remain for the duration of the film. From the moment that he titular character (Sterling Hayden) rides in a cloud of dust, surrounded by explosions, a stagecoach being held-up below. He does nothing to intervene, the territory he’s entering is in chaos, and he’s not here to tame it or anyone. Riding over to a saloon that stands out proudly from the rocks in Monument Valley. The redness of the rock is really unavoidable inside and out.

When we finally meet the owner Vienna (Joan Crawford) of the saloon we enter into a world that is no longer dominated by the man. Instead the first of two strong female figures who even the men who work for her are lower roles. The first instance of a reversal, in gender roles, there are no show-girls to entertain the men. Its men running the tables who see her more as a man. Early on the fourth wall’s broken to tell us how they feel about her position. Vienna maybe a woman by her sex, which is all but repressed leaving in a male gender. We’re confused more so by the very image of Crawford, a striking on-screen presence that cannot be ignored man or woman she owns the film even when she’s off the screen.

Turning to the main protagonist Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge) who is the thorn in Vienna’s side, relentless in her goal to driver her out-of-town. Just as the rail-road is coming through. There is a real fear of change, of the individual seeing the future coming. To have a new element in their peaceful life is too much to handle. With these two leading women the man are practically emasculated, mostly Marshal Williams (Frank Ferguson) and John McIvers (Ward Bond) who along with the rest of the men in town are treated like women, subdued and put in their place. This is the very opposite to the standard western dynamic where the strong man stands up for the woman who cannot defend herself. Unless she is trying to get their attention or have to defend themselves in a dramatic sequences. Emma Small is after Vienna and the Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) who along with his men are the only ‘real’ men in the town.

All Emma needs is an excuse and she will go after these five people, mirroring the communist witch-hunt of the time, which ruined many people’s careers lives. A law is to be enacted in 24 hours in the film that would put a stop to mining, selling alcohol and gambling, pushing out all of these people who have yet to be proved to have done anything wrong. Using the Dancin’ Kid’s gang for the stagecoach hold-up. Pushing witnesses into telling them what they want to hear. Truth means nothing in this film.

Away from the witch-hunt there are some interesting dramatic scenes that fill in those gaps seamlessly. Mostly between Vienna and Johnny Guitar a romance that’s been rekindled since he was asked  to come to town. Beginning as estranged to incredible passion that sees them reunited. You could also draw a lesbian relationship from the film between Vienna and Emma that has created the tension between the two, not that it’s spoken there’s a real hate for Vienna who does nothing to ask for the abuse and hate brought her way.

Looking at other aspects such as the choice of costumes, the good guys dress in high contrast colours almost blinding you, whilst the Emma and her men are restricted to black for most of the film, the colour of death, having come from a funeral. Like a mass of darkness consuming all the life in the town. A pressure that encourages the Dancin’ Kid’s gang to rob a bank, just to give them a reason, placing them in the line of fire.

Once you re-watch Johnny Guitar you start to lose the ambiguities of the first viewing to really look beyond the confusion to see a tense film, filled with suspicion double meanings, such as small things like a black veil falling away as the black mob ride into town. It’s such a richer experience, a female driven film that sees the men reduced to supporting roles. Just imagine a heavily populated female western today, the dynamic would be completely different, the settings and stories told to could relate to different aspects of frontier life. Or even stepping up to defend their families or just their reputation, all male drives. It’s a shame that Crawford distanced herself from this film that could have ‘rebooted’ her career, there may never have been Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). Unlike Barbara Stanwyck who relished riding a horse and taking on the strong female roles during the same period of the western. It becomes what if’s from there on. Leaving us with a classic that dared to push what a western could be, and what film could do with gender roles. That not ignoring the more obvious guise of the tension in Hollywood over the McCarthy era. 

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American History X (1998)

American History X (1998)My earliest memory of American History X (1998) was when I was very young, a black and white film that was anything but pleasant on the eye or the ear. I think I was about ten at the time, I really can’t remember. What I do remember was the strong Nazi themes, the skin heads and the strong language and the level of violence which to be honest scared me. I was young at the time. Now is a very different story, I understand that the film is about Neo-Nazism in an American town, focusing on one family which has seen two members radicalized by a manipulative figure. On the language front the amount of effing and blinding I became more numb to, something which has only happened before with any of Martin Scorsese‘s film’s, especially The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). My understand now is only just the beginning of a very thought-provoking film that tries to understand the then state of America’s immigration problem. A film that has taken on even greater meaning in the U.K. as the immigration borders have been busted wide open, with more member states joining the E.U. it seems our own small borders are fit to burst. The country cannot cope with the demand, the public wants change and the political elite are playing on these emotion as we build up to this years general election.  

Going back to late nineties America we find a black and white world, at first gland all is calm looking out at the sea before we cut to a suburban America, two African American’s have pulled up to steal Derek Vinyard’s (Edward Norton) car, we don’t know why, apart from the Nazi paraphernalia that adorns the inside of his bedroom. They don’t stand a chance, even with armed against the angry Derek who shoots them down with cold accuracy. The height of his power and drive fuelled by an ignorance for the immigrant population that live in the community.

Jump forward three years after that night we find the younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong), now also a skin-head, indoctrinated by the same hatred that lead astray from any rational thinking about society. Handing in homework that no other student would ever dare try, based on Hitler’s Mien Kampf, concerning Dr. Bob Sweeney (Avery Brooks) who decides to not throw away and forget about this possible lost cause, taking Danny under his wing. Giving him and the audience a way into this horrible and controversial world of Neo-Nazism that within three years has grown in strength, becoming and organised group that are ready and more hungry to take on anyone who isn’t white.

It’s disturbing to hear these conversations going on that could easily fall into being out-right offensive at times, handled with intelligence we get a balanced debate, with an emphasis on being able to think for yourself, not being lead to believe a particular belief systems without the ability to question and test its ideals and principles, essentially to think independently. We see a number of figures from difference of the ons-screen debate, the family caught in the middle, the victims of the racism and the followers who have been brainwashed effectively, or dare I say radicalised. Something we see more so in the Middle East today, even as close as Paris today.

Photographed in both black and white and colour, I only remember the black and white sequences, before turning off after the shop-raid, the images then were too powerful for the unaware mind. They still are quite strong, having no colour in the image we only see the act, the pain that is inflicted, stripped back and raw. Where there is brutal acts they are beautifully captured, to blur them would loose the rawness of the moment. A choice that breaks up the past and the present in even balance we eventually need the colour to seen the final blow delivered, bringing us out of the past into the present day.

Our society is not as picturesque as we like to image, after we leave the safety of our own street we become more aware of others who live among us. My home town and city has changed over the last few years, more multicultural than before, all for the better we are told. Jobs and services are fought over, crime effects others. It’s too easy to simply brush one ethnic group with the same brush, without understand their circumstances. Something that radicalised people forget, thinking only of how their lives can be made better, by scaring and inflicting pain and suffering on others. American History X aims to confront the our perceptions of society to look at the marginalised in a different light, not just as mindless thugs who attack those who are different. To try and show them up, to question their thinking and the effect they have. They are still immigration problems in America as Mexicans still try to cross the border illegally, in hopes of finding their own American dream. The same is happening at French ports as immigrate try to jump into lorries and cars before they leave for the U.K. The film is almost 20 years old and still has great effect and relevance today, it’s a scary thought really.

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Heaven’s Gate (1980)

Heaven's Gate (1980)Due to the sheer length of Hevean’s Gate (1980) I have decided to watch it in two parts, just over the hour mark tonight (8/11/14) and I feel that I should hold back until I have seen beyond the Johnson County War horses ride off into town. My initial thoughts are that Michael Cimino for all he is now known for, almost bankrupting a studio by blowing his budget, his film truncated for theatrical release he has produced (only looking at the first half of the directors cut) a masterpiece that is the scale of a David Leancover vast stretches of even just one state, the emotional depth of a George Stevens and the romanticism of Robert Altman‘s McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971).  If that is even possible for a man who only a few years before caused uproar with The Deer Hunter (1978) has taken on a dark page in his countries own past, as it turned on the immigrants who tried to make a life for themselves, as the Americans years before once did. I can’t wait to see how the  town react to the state and even country whose middle class army turn on the people who make the country so rich.

I could only wait a single night to complete this epic of a film, putting the label to shame when applied to The Big Country (1958) somewhat. I could see the length issue, needing to bring it in to theatrical release friendly length, which would only hinder the film. Noticing scenes which could be cut back, none entirely removed. Everything is in there for a purpose, prolonged to enjoy the spectacle of their integration with American’s who here are living alongside one another in peace. An issue that has become a hot topic in the UK with the borders within the EU for free movement the influx of people from all over Europe, which is having an effect on the fabric of the nation, its politics and infrastructure. I’m just glad we have moved on even from the 1950’s and the comments of Enoch Powell wanting to pay each immigrant to leave. That’s was progress when compared to the extremes which the US government went to in Johnson County, Wyoming in 1890 with immigrant causing “near anarchy”. This conflict between the towns people enabled by the President versus the immigrants is the backdrop for this dusty dramatic epic.

Beginning in 1870 when two friends are graduating from university it seems that the possibilities are endless for James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) and Englishman Billy Irvine (John Hurt) in a sequence that is full of great promise for all the young men and the adoring women who join them in dance and celebration. We can see the beginning of something special for James and Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert) which’s brought to an abrupt close with cut to twenty years later and the shooting of an immigrant from a shadowy figure from behind a sheet, the figure – Nathan D. Champion (Christopher Walken), of authority  is looming in, wanting to control if not quell the bubbling situation of fear that is brewing out in Johnson County 1890.

We can see the speed of development in the country, as we cut to not a boom town, but a booming metropolis of a busy main street, horses pulling trailers, men in shops kitting themselves out in the latest suits and guns. It’s still very much a mans world. It doesn’t quite fit for James/Jim who quickly leaves for his homestead where we find Ella waiting for him. He has all he needs, a sheriffs job and a woman who makes him happy, what more does he want. The fear of a list of 125 names made up by cattle men who fear the influx of new Europeans. His friend Billy‘s revealed to be a weak man of only clever words and ideals that get him nowhere in the West kept alive only by his class that.

Before the conflict begins we’re treated to over an hour getting to know the people of the county that have shaped it, reminding us of the fabric the growing country then and now. Something that is the foundation of most countries that is sometimes forgotten. It’s a rich tapestry of scenes that are woven together to give us an image of a cohesive community that ultimately stand-up and fight the cattle men. Ignoring the law that was behind this influx of men is long coasts riding over the countryside with guns in hand, ready to deliver justice.

With all the grand imagery that is the overwhelming factor that makes this film so enjoyable and rewarding. We see a lot of dust in the air, brought up by the wheels on the ground, the sub seeping through the windows. Visually its splendid to watch, taking us to a dirty rough and ready. It falls down on the characterisation, the old friends only have a few scenes together. Cimino is doing what I do when documenting my work, he “milks it” squeezing everything out of his scenes, allowing them to play out. A lot is going on, it’s hard to see where any cuts were made for this final directors cut. We could easily have a documentary cut of the film seeing a historical account of the conflict rather than that characters. The only characters that are really focused is within the love triangle which’s tolerated and not tested. Jeff Bridges is given a few scenes as John L. Bridges who protects Ella more than anything. The ending is probably my only major fault that never really says anything, asking more questions, whose the girl who sits before a very much hurt James who cannot seem to move on. Maybe this ambiguity that has allowed such respect to build up around this film that is unique from any other in the Western genre.

If we take only one thing away from this controversial landmark film it is the visual detail, the love devotion that goes into every scene, every frame even. We should forget about the controversy behind the film, the massive budget, the incredible number of takes. However it does mark the end of an era in Hollywood film-making, the loss of directorial control, the creative reins have been now pulled in considerably. We still get the rare film that from Terrence Mallick and   Scorsese which has their stamp all over it. Now we have films that are generated out of successful franchises, reboots and superhero universes that are proven to make a massive box-office return. The studio has won out, thank god for the indie film.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)I began with the intention of setting out view that the character of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) from The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) was likeable. It’s not an easy question to answer with a straight yes or no. In short he’s not a likeable guy, but why? That’s the harder part to answer, because usually if you don’t like the lead or the hero, then you turn off or walk away, not caring for whatever happens to them. They’ve done nothing to deserve your sympathies. Unlike Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) who always wanted to be a gangster, ended up in over his head and gave evidence against his friends in court in Goodfellas (1990). There is none of that here in the cold hard world of making cash on Wall Street. We do have that same template, the aspiration for a better life, that comes at great cost to all involved, not just financially but emotionally and some physically. It’s DiCaprio’s incredible knock out of the park performance that saves this man of excess to be forgiven, and that alone.

And at the end of that we can stick around for an incredibly long-winded three-hour film, which reminds me more of Scorsese‘s Casino (1995) a more visually excessive film that moves at breakneck speed over the course of an individual who is caught up in a whirlwind of a messed up world. I can see where part of the film that were shaved to even ensure an 18 rating, could still be taken down at least another half an hour or so. The overall length reflects the excesses of the corrupt stockbrokers lives. Starting out at the bottom before the financial crash of the 1980’s which saw Belfort back to square one, after learning how to live the life of a stock broker thanks to his first boss Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) who was his role model. Even though it was a small role for McConaughey it does make quite an impression on not just Belfort but the audience. McConaughey is definitely going through a golden period of regeneration in his career after slipping into a rom-com slump for a most of the last decade.

Turning to (Donnie Azoff) (Jonah Hill) Belfort’s partner in crime, with a lust for the high life, the security and luxury that comes with money in its excess. Both becoming addicted to drugs in all forms. Together and with the rest of the crooked high-flyers they enjoy a torrent of sex and drugs which on its own could account for a third of the films length, which is a lot when you take into account all that is a lot.

With all the excess there is a moral centre to it all in the form of those on the outside, the family of Belfort who can see beyond the short-term gains. Mainly in the form of his father Max Belfort (Rob Reiner)  who know that the “hens will come home to roost“. His first wife Teresa Petrillo (Cristin Milioti) who like us doesn’t understand all of the sales and stock market mumbo-jumbo can see what damage could be done, the potential for harm. Even his second wife Naomi Lapaglia (Margot Robbie) begins to see the bigger picture when children are involved.

It’s like DiCaprio has been saying over and over again on the promotions circuit, it is a cautionary tale. Pausing in character to address us, as if to see him reliving the events telling us that he has learnt his lesson, but at the time the lust for money, power, drugs and material possessions drove him to near destruction. It never celebrates any of it, as bright and as colourful as it looks, we can see how the lifestyle cannot be sustained. Something we have seen more recently with the 2008 recession. Gordon Gekko’idea that “Greed is good” is once again questioned, and instead of waiting 20 years for sequel, the consequences are laid out for us.

The Wolf of Wall Street is everything I’ve just been talking about and also extremely funny, with all the f-bombs and other colourful language which is synonymous with a Scorsese film. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Of course at times you think, less of the language, before thinking, he’s paint an honest as he can picture, with added style and effect. We see a return to form for Marty which he never really lost, it’s the subject matter that dictates the tone which we have not seen since The Departed (2006) which was a master-class in acting for all concerned.

Paramount Leads the Way!

Film Projector

It’s been around a year since Side by Side (2012) was released discussing the use of film and digital in the film industry today. Documenting transition from the celluloid film that had been used for over a century to capture and project films, to the progressive transfer to digital. This journey has come a step closer recently with Paramount Studios announcing that Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues(2013) was their last film to distributed on 35mm film to cinemas. Moving to all digital with Wolf on Wall Street (2013), which was partially filmed digitally. Neither are landmark films (until Oscar night).

Paramount being the first of the major studios to change it’s distribution method. With 20th Century Fox, thought not to be far behind with the likes of Lionsgate and Walt Disney Studios who had sent out letters of this change in the not too distant future to cinemas.

It’s another sign of the demise of film and the universal use of digital to project and capture film. Something that I will personally miss, to hear a projector at the back of a screen. Yet the filming on digital is personally far easier to work with. A romantic notion tinged with reality and progress. Again this highlights the need for film preservation, speared headed by the likes of Scorsese and other film organisations whose job is to maintain celluloid prints of film before the disappear forever. It’s known that a very large portion of silent films are now gone. With the odd one turning up in variable conditions.

It’s independent cinemas who will feel this the hardest with, who will be increasingly finding it harder to find film prints, as more films are released digitally. Paramount is working with cinema chains to fund digital projectors however, which will ease this situation. However will older films that are shown be redistributed in digital form?

It’s all a matter of finance too, costing far less to print digitally, instead of at a lab which are now few and far between today. Today marks the next phase of the digital revolution as the distribution format is changing, for speed, convenience and costs. Whilst at the heart of it all you catch new releases in a large dark room surrounded by others, the core experience will still be there, just the delivery of the print is changing. Which in effect is better for the film, not loosing quality on each print and showing of the film overtime. The only problem that remains is how to them store all these prints for future audiences to enjoy.

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