Saturday, June 30, 2007

Moments of Distinction

The Film – Barry Lyndon, dir. Stanley Kubrick

The Set-Up - Barry Lyndon (Ryan O’Neal) has been challenged to a duel by his step-son Lord Bullington (Leon Vitali).

Our first look is a close-up of one of the pistols being loaded.

The rules of the duel are explained.

The coin flip to determine who gets first shot. Lord Bullington wins it.

The two men take their positions. What a great location!

Trembling, Lord Bullington fires his pistol by accident. He asks for a replacement…

…And is told that Lyndon gets to take his shot first.

Bullington takes his position.

Overcome by fear, he vomits.

He retakes his place, and Lyndon fires into the ground. It is now Bullington’s turn again.

This time he gets the shot off (on the count of two, not three), and wounds Lyndon.

This sequence is memorable for the way Kubrick pulls the rug out from under us. Lyndon has spent the film climbing to the top, seducing Bullington’s mother, and squandering their fortune. We want to see him get what’s coming to him.

The duel puts a twist on things, however. Bullington is portrayed as a sniveling coward, and Lyndon as the calm, brave one. When Lyndon gets the chance to kill Bullington, he elects to waste his shot, probably hoping that by doing so the matter will now be over. No such luck – Bullington still takes his shot and ends up permanently crippling Lyndon. Bullington has failed to kill his enemy, and has been humiliated because of his fear. He comes out of the duel a lesser man, while Lyndon, in a perverse way, is vindicated.

This scene also begs for recognition for Kubrick, cinematographer John Alcott, and production designer Ken Adam. Kubrick doesn’t rush to the payoff in this scene. The duel is a decidedly formal affair, and is treated as such. The building itself is marvelous. It’s barren and cold, but not without it’s own elegance. It’s like a stately meat locker.

Friday, June 29, 2007

The Newsstand

Greta Garbo, Nov 8, 1937

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Marquee

10 Days Wonder, dir. Claude Chabrol

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Jeff's Filmmusic HoF - The Last Word

My favorite film - The opening of Werner Herzog's "Aguirre: The Wrath of God" - Music by Popol Vol

Jeff's Filmmusic HoF #5

A concert clip of Ryuichi Sakamoto playing his theme from The Last Emperor.

Jeff's Filmmusic HoF #4

The opening credits for Raging Bull - music by Mascagni - the beautiful Cavalleria Rusticana.

Jeff's Filmmusic Hall of Fame #3

A drunken Harvey Kietel in Mean Streets. Music by The Chips - "Rubber Biscuit"

Jeff's Filmmusic Hall of Fame #2

From Sergei Eisenstein's "Alexander Nevsky" - the music is by Sergei Prokofiev.

Stop Making Sense

Part of the Filmmusic Blog-a-thon hosted by Windmills of My Mind

“Hi. I’ve got a tape I’d like to play.”

Stop Making Sense thus gets under way. Not with blaring intro, smoke and pyrotechnics, but rather with one lone man armed with a guitar and a small boom box on a bare stage. This 1984 concert film by the Talking Heads ignores all the rules and just goes on its own merry way. It is the best concert film I’ve ever seen.

The Heads might seem an odd choice to present in this homey, low-key setting. David Byrne, after all, was the artist who once wrote a song that observed a scene of suburban bliss, and then concluded, “I wouldn’t live there if you paid me to.” All those songs about urban angst are in here, too, but the concert itself is joyful, not morose.

Take the opening bit. Byrne sets the boom box down, and behind a simple percussion beat, kicks into “Psycho Killer” This is a song about mental illness, but it’s also arguably the head’s most catchy tune, and watching Byrne strut and shimmy is FUN, despite the lyrics.

The concert itself is set up in a loose, informal way. After the opening bit, bassist Tina Weymouth joins Byrne onstage and the two of them play “Heaven”, after which drummer Chris Frantz joins in on “Thank You for Sending Me an Angel”, and so on until the stage is full of musicians. During the music, the stagehands are quietly setting up the next instrument, all in full view. Byrne and director Jonathon Demme wanted the focus to be on the music, not on the ancillary things that make up most concerts.

Ah, the music. The Talking Heads were a great favorite of mine in my younger days, and this concert catches them on a night (actually several nights) when they were “On”. The product presented onstage is in stark contrast to the image that their lyrics convey. Byrne himself is a physical contradiction. Facially, he pretty much maintains his joyless android look, but the rest of his body gives him away. Watch the guy dancing with two backup singers during “Slippery People”, and tell me he isn’t having fun.

For me, the two highlights of the film are a torrid rendition of “Life During Wartime”, from the great Fear of Music album, and “Once in a Lifetime”, for which Byrne dons Buddy Holly-esque glasses, and a suit jacket that seems a couple of sizes too big. It’s such a great song that it’s easy to miss how simply it is presented. The camera just holds on Byrne in a medium shot as he performs on a dark stage with just one small light illuminating him, and Byrne takes his great tune about domestic normalcy and injects it with equal parts funk, punk, and spastic madness.

It’s also striking to see how democratically Demme presents the musicians. Byrne is of course the focus, but the backup players are featured just as prominently as the band members. That’s as it should be, too, because bongo player Steve Scales and guitarist Alex Weir are as instrumental to the heat created on stage as the Heads are.

If the film has a weak spot, it’s in the inclusion of “Genius of Love”, by Tom Tom Club, which was the side project band led by Weymouth and Frantz. This is the only time Byrne isn’t on stage, and the film suffers for it. The song isn’t strong, and Weymouth has none of Byrnes’ jittery charisma.

Towards the end of the film, the camera turns around and gives us our first real audience reaction shot, and we suddenly realize that yeah, there haven’t been any audience shots. That’s one of the major ways that SMS strays from the tested and true, and it works beautifully. When we do see the audience, they are dancing in the aisle, as we might expect. Withholding this shot adds to the feeling that the concert has built to a crescendo. Instead of being bombarded with fast cuts and endless shots of people bopping away, we get to watch the band. What a novel idea.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Jeff's Filmmusic Hall of Fame #1

The film is Days of Heaven, and the music is by the great Leo Kottke. "The Train and the Gate"

Monday, June 18, 2007

The Marquee

The Seventh Seal

Friday, June 15, 2007

On Location

Orson Welles (top left) and the gang from the Mercury Theatre , 1938

Thursday, June 14, 2007

God, sex, and allergies - An interview with Ingmar Bergman

Charles Samuels’ Encountering Directors should be on your shelf if you have any kind of a weakness for film books. Samuels conducts lengthy, in depth interviews with such titans as Carol Reed, Robert Bresson, and Michelangelo Antonioni. This is a link to his great interview with Ingmar Berman. It’s long, but endlessly fascinating. Bergman has a reputation for being a bit prickly, but Samuels is able to brush this aside and get some interesting comments from the director.

This piece is also notable for the way Samuels doesn’t just sit back reverently. He gets in Bergman’s face a little bit, and the results are really entertaining.

Read it here.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Newsstand

Esquire, March , 1970

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Sansho the Bailiff

To scholars of Japanese film, Kenji Mizoguchi was part of a great triumvirate, which also included Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu. As such, it was always mystifying to me why his films were so hard to see. Had you done a search on Amazon.com a couple of years ago, you would have seen only his great masterpiece Ugetsu available on DVD. It’s a great relief, then, to see Criterion release his outstanding 1954 film Sansho the Bailiff on a new DVD. It’s a long overdue chance to see one of the landmarks of Japanese cinema.

Sansho tells the story of a humanistic governor, and how his defiance of the local lord sets a tragic chain of events into motion. The governor is sent into exile, and his wife and two children are left to fend for themselves. Before he leaves, however, he imparts a bit of his wisdom to his young son. “Without mercy, a man is not a human being”. This is advice that will resonate throughout the film.

The lonely young wife eventually decides to go to join her husband, but makes the grave error of trusting a kindly older woman, who betrays them to slave traders. The wife is sold into prostitution, and the children become slaves of Sansho the bailiff. Sansho is a harsh boss. Early on, a runaway is captured and brought back to the compound, and branded with a burning stick. One woman has the tendons in her feet cut when she tries to flee. This level of cruelty is stunning, and the disc’s liner notes make the observation that this may be Mizoguchi’s statement on the atrocities committed by the Japanese during WW2.

A recurring theme throughout Mizoguchi’s career is sensitivity towards his female characters, and it is certainly evident here. It’s the young sister Anju who stays strong during their captivity. The brother Zushio, on the other hand, shows signs of succumbing to the evil around him. Sansho gives him the opportunity to brand a runaway slave, and he obediently does it rather than questioning the order. We wonder if his father’s words of advice even occur to him at that moment.

The film cuts occasionally to the mother, still in grieving for her lost children. There’s a song that she sings, and its plaintive lyrics become a leitmotif for the space that now separates the family.

“My Anju, I yearn for you.”

“My Zushio, I yearn for you.”

This same song becomes the impetus for the escape of the siblings when Anju hears a new slave girl singing it, and realizes that they may now be able to find their mother.

The escape is the axis that the film revolves around, and it invites endless discussion. The children are ordered to take an ailing woman out in to the forest and leave her to die. Anju decides that this is the moment, and tells Zushio to make a run for it, and that she will provide a diversion. By doing this, she is essentially sacrificing her life. Then, at the last moment, she tells Zushio to take the ailing woman with him. This seems strange, because he would certainly move slower carrying the stricken woman than if Anju came with him. It is plain throughout the film that Anju is the stronger of the two, and by making her the martyr, Mizoguchi is paying homage to her courage. She does the tough job because she’s more able to. Her last gift to her brother is to ensure his freedom, which she hopes will result in the rest of the family being restored. With Zushio safely on his way, Anju drowns herself in a scene that is simplistic, yet remarkably beautiful.

Free at last, Zushio manages to be appointed to his father’s old position and takes it upon himself to close down Sansho’s operation, despite having no authority to do so. This tactic seems suicidal at first, but it creates a slave revolt, which topples Sansho. The determined Zushio is now channeling his father’s philosophy, and there’s a marvelous little scene where he again confronts the old man that he branded earlier.

“My sins in branding you can never be erased…”

It’s only now that Zushio learns that Anju is dead, and this makes his final meeting with his mother so poignant. He traces her to a remote beachside village, and led by the sounds of her singing finds her crippled and blind, supporting herself by shooing birds away from the seaweed harvest. She at first believes him to be an hallucination, but gradually comes to the realization that this strange voice does indeed belong to her long-lost son. It’s a gorgeous sequence, because it doesn’t wallow in false sentimentality. This family has been shattered, and although there is a closure of sorts, there is also a sense of immense loss.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Sunday, June 03, 2007

On Location

John Wayne in another chess game, this time on the set of Chisum in 1970.

On this Date

Alain Resnais turns 85 today.