Thursday, March 28, 2013

Night of Terror (1972)
dir. Jeannot Szwarc

Recommended viewing. The story of a schoolteacher stalked by a killer, this is a great look at what world-class actors can do. Martin Balsam, Catherine Burns, Agnes Moorehead, an eerie-looking Chuck Conners, and Donna Mills at her best since The Incident, all go absolutely Beast Mode on a pretty mediocre little mystery script. Mumbly, idiosyncratic naturalism just bending the walls of the banal sets. Fun watch if you're into that sorta thing.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

My usual way of understanding a movie is to pay attention to what's repeated, so Spring Breakers just threw my brain back in my face.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Hand

M (1931)
dir. Fritz Lang

The Hand (1961)
dir. Henry Cass

The Villain Defeated

Phantom from Space (1953)
dir. W. Lee Wilder

An American Werewolf in London (1982)
dir. John Landis

The Make-Up Mirror

The Appointment (1969)
dir. Sidney Lumet

Dawn of the Dead (1978)
dir. George Romero

The Film Screening

Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
dir. Ruggero Deodato

Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie (2012)
dir. Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim


The Duel

Hell's Angels (1930)
dir. Howard Hughes, James Whale, & Edmund Goulding

Barry Lyndon (1975)
dir. Stanley Kubrick

Kubrick once cited Hell's Angels as one of his ten favorite films.

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Shot Context Reader

I suppose it's not the easiest thing in the world to find articles on this site once they pass the first page, so have an index of all my larger scale posts. These and more smaller pieces can also be found under the "text analysis" label.

"The men who shot King Kong, shot King Kong."

"We begin Psycho peeping at Marion Crane, just Norman Bates peeped at her before killing her."

The Lincoln Myth on Film
"You can tell a lot about where we are by our Lincoln of the hour."

The Case of Pit Dernitz
"The three minute scene, which come 5 years before Cannibal Holocaust and 24 before The Blair Witch Project, constitutes one of the first found fiction horror films."

35 Great Westerns
"These are the lost westerns, the ones left in the attic."

"Blade Runner is a film that does not distinguish between memories and dreams. "

"Is any film universe so deeply polluted as The Road Warrior?"

"It's an object lesson in how to destroy a film."

"Formality and ritual breed inhumanity."

"Proper placement of a shadow can transform a good scene into a great one."

Great Collaborations
"It's pretty much as unique and exceptional a set of actors as has ever been assembled."

Lessons in Filmmaking
"Not all John Ford films are successes, but nearly every one has at least one mighty scene, a moment of utter unity when the characters, setting, and story all hum in a perfect harmony."

"It seems to me that adapting Moby Dick is more like adapting something like The Waste Land than Gone with the Wind."

Audio Commentaries:

A Look At Poverty Row, a 7 part (so far) series
I wrote a thing here about why movies are so amazing, if y'all are interested.

I swear I'll get back to the shot comparisons next week.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Jurassic Park is just such an incredible well-lit film, oh my god.

When the crew sees the baby raptor being born, Spielberg takes us from this really warm moment under the heat lamp:

To Ian Malcolm leaning on a desk, with a bright white lamp as a spotlight insisting that we really pay attention - in this spotlit set-up he delivers the most important line of the film, "Life finds a way."

To Dr. Grant, frightened, hit with an alarming noirish backlight as he realizes he's holding a velociraptor.

Three really evocative lighting schemes within the same scene, totally diagetic and effortlessly communicative.

Absolute masterwork.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

I just discovered Mike Gebert's exceptional article examining the forgotten genius of Fyodor/Fedor Otsep, one of the great early Soviet filmmakers.

This is a crucial read. Otsep's work is rewarding as hell and I can tell you from experience it's hard to find any history about him, so Gebert's work goes a long way to clearing up some mystery about this man.

Otsep's The Living Corpse is on youtube with English subtitles. It's a hell of a thing - in Mike's words:
To have made a film of such psychological acuity, in which the drama comes from inner states rather than outward events of the plot, was rare enough in the silent days, though others (notably Stiller and Pabst) certainly did it. But it is hard to think of another film in which those inner states are melded so completely with the style of the film, and in such a varied and visually innovative fashion. It's one of those late silents that leave you marveling at the medium as it existed— at its end.
Otsep nails the pathetic pains of Tolstoy's original play, his camerawork is dark and unrelenting but less self-conscious than Eisenstein or Pudovkin (who stars in this film). It's a masterful work, alongside Bondarchuk's War and Peace as one the most psychologically rich Tolstoy adaptations I'm aware of.

My favorite Otsep film, Amok, is one of those dreamy, moody, purgatorial island films from the early '30s like James Whale's Green Hell, William Wellman's Safe in Hell, Island of Lost Souls, or, in its way, Casablanca. The opening to that is on youtube as well and I urge you to watch it, it's an amazing sequence - atmospheric and tense with an unfettered camera. This clip isn't embeddable so you have to click through, which works out well because there's a bit of nudity in it so beware.

Anyway, check out Mike Gebert's article. I'm in awe.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

"He would stand in the kitchen door and look out across the dusk and see, perhaps with foreboding and premonition, the savage and lonely street which he had chosen of his own will, waiting for him, thinking This is not my life. I don’t belong here


He was doomed to conceal always something from the women who surrounded him."

Light in August (1932)
William Faulkner

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Watch The Legend of Marilyn Monroe on youtube. It played for the same series (ABC Studio 67) as Dare I Weep, Dare I Mourn?, which I hope y'all watched and enjoyed.

It's a sad and powerful portrait of the woman who, along with Abraham Lincoln, may have been the most American of Americans, embodying everything wonderful and everything horrible about our society.

Put together only a few years after her death, this has some amazing interview subjects - schoolteachers, her first husband ("I knew Norma Jean, I never met Marilyn Monroe."), and even her foster parents. It's all narrated by John Huston, who directed her breakthrough and her final, breakdown performance. He had a fascinating relationship with her, which if you're interested, you can read up on in Jeffrey Meyers's biography John Huston: Courage and Art, a book that's very good when it stops trying to be great.

The youtube version of The Legend of Marilyn Monroe is bookended by some interesting interviews with the filmmakers decades later. Check it out!

Monday, March 11, 2013

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Poor Decision

I was only 16 but I guess that's no excuse
My sister was 32, lovely, and loose

"Sister" Dirty Mind (1980)

Your oldest brother was away at a home
and you didn’t meet him til you was nineteen years old
Old enough to know better, old enough to know better 

"The Deeper In" Decoration Day (2003)
The Drive-By Truckers

selections from Prince's shocking 2 minute song about incest and Drive-By Trucker's shocking 2 minute song about incest.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Os Deuses e os Mortos

I just watched Ruy Guerra's surreal and beautiful 1970 action/drama Os Deuses e os Mortos, which I've heard was one of Werner Herzog's favorite movies - he even cast Guerra as Ursuá in his masterpiece Aguirre.

Yo. Os Deuses e os Mortos is incredible. Shot in the wilds of Brazil, it has an incredible sense of life and motion. Most is from a handheld camera that practically dances. I was jaw-dropped. This one scene I loved so much I had to upload to youtube. It's one of the most beautiful action scenes I've ever seen in my life.

Check this out, count the cuts (hint: there are none):

Friday, March 8, 2013

The Not-Quite-Lovers

My Darling Clementine (1946)
dir. John Ford

Godzilla (1954)
dir. Ishiro Honda

this is easily one of my favorite Ford compositions, and it's just as poignant in Godzilla, don'tcha think?

The Ugly Baby

"Ugly Baby" on The Tonight Show (1965)
Flip Wilson

Seinfeld "The Hamptons" (1994)
dir. Tom Cherones

The Mudder

The Noose Hangs High (1948)
dir. Charles Barton

Seinfeld "The Subway" (1992)
dir. Tom Cherones
Imagine William Friedkin's Hostel.
Imagine Howard Hawks's Jaws.
Imagine Terrence Malick's As I Lay Dying.
Imagine Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski's Moby Dick.
Imagine James Whale's Cabin in the Woods.

Bringing this post back for:

Imagine Nigel Kneale and Val Guest's The Happening.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Five Alarm YouTube Alert.

The Ted Kotcheff (First Blood, Wake in Fright)-directed 1966 TV film Dare I Weep, Dare I Mourn? has hit the internet.

Based on a John Le Carré story, Dare I Weep, Dare I Mourn? stars James Mason as a West German who must escort his father's coffin back home from the Eastern Bloc... and smuggle some jewelry in if he can. 

It's short and punchy and, at 45 minutes, one of those bite-sized TV movies you don't see much anymore. Kotcheff was a master of the form, check out his The Human Voice for another of his for-TV classics from the same anthology program, ABC Stage 67. 

That series, which only ran one season, produced the memorable Sondheim/Tony Perkins collaboration Evening Primrose and the lovely Frank and Eleanor Perry adaptation of Truman Capote's A Christmas Memory, so I'm starting to suspect it was one of those quietly great anthology programs due for a reappraisal.

The Burnt Hull

The X from Outer Space (1967)
dir. Kazui Nihonmatsu

Alien (1979)
dir. Ridley Scott

The Apparition in the Bedroom

Ghostwatch (1992)
dir. Lesley Manning

Insidious (2011)
dir. James Wan

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Rescue

King Kong (1933)
dir. Ernest b. Schoedsack

Jurassic Park (1993)
dir. Steven Spielberg

The Top of the World

King Kong (1933) (ending)
dir. Ernest B. Schoedsack

White Heat (1949) (ending)
 dir. Raoul Walsh

The City of New York

"On Our Own" (1989)
Bobby Brown for Ghostbusters II

"Theraflu" / "Way Too Cold" (2012)
dir. Ashley Smith for Kanye West

Monday, March 4, 2013

"Like a Horrible Dream:" Thoughts on the Mighty Kong

By the end the audience will recognize you. By the end
they will see you as one of them, by the end they will see
their faces in your face

The men who shot King Kong, shot King Kong.

Those two in the plane that riddle Kong with bullets and send him plummeting off of the tallest building in the world are Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, the executive producer and director, respectively, of King Kong. Now at first glance this seems like nothing more than ephemera, but for a film about a filmmaker (Carl Denham) who is directly and specifically based on Merian C. Cooper, for a fantastically risky and unprecedented film which climaxes at an explosion of animal fury and pathos during a show that a genteel New York audience assumes will be a travelogue, for a film absolutely obsessed with showmanship and the highs and lows of filmmaking, it is perhaps of some importance that the filmmakers appear to murder their leading man.

King Kong is one of those films that nobody seems to know quite what to do with. Inglourious Basterds memorably interpreted it as a slave parable. Film School Rejects astutely suggests a surrealist bent to the film. Gerald Perry draws parallels to President Roosevelt. But somehow it still seems like a nut nobody's cracked yet, an obviously symbolic film packed with meaning, a text that somehow none of our great film scholars have managed to tease into a comprehensible whole.

I'm not about to change that. King Kong is bigger than my ability to condense it, and there's something right about that. Kong should be too mighty for us. It's King.

But! I saw a 35mm print of it downtown today and there are some things that strike me about it, a few stray details and idiosyncrasies that I think warrant mentioning.

I don't think I ever before appreciated just how tightly written it is! Let's start with the first scene, in which Carl Denham tries to get an actress for his mysterious new movie. Denham, the Cooper analogue, rants and raves about the audience demand for romance:

You never had a woman in your other
pictures, why do you want one in

Because the public - bless 'em -
must have a pretty face to look at.

Everybody likes romance.

Isn't there any romance or
adventure in the world without a
flapper in it?
It makes me sore. I go out and
sweat blood to make a swell
picture, and then the exhibitors
and critics all say, "if this
picture had a love interest, it
would gross twice as much." All
right, the public wants a girl, and
this time I'll give 'em what they

All right, Denham says, always about a half-second away from breaking the 4th wall. You want romance? I'll give you a goddamn romance. Meanwhile, in the back of the scene, big dumb oaf Jack Driscoll chatters away, little realizing he's about to be a star player in the first major romance of Cooper and Schoedsack's career, as caustic and perfunctory a romance as the cinema's ever seen.

Big dumb oaf Jack Driscoll is a pretty fascinating character. The camera lingers on his big paw-like hands and holds remorselessly on him as he struggles to form half-articulate pronouncements of block-thick love and hate. He has a funny quirk of never knowing quite what to do with his hands, a quirk that Kong too possesses, always pawing and second-guessing.

That's because Jack Driscoll is King Kong.

I don't mean that in a Clark Kent/Superman kind of way - he's not disappearing behind shrubs and coming out as a gorilla - but in a very real and consistent way Driscoll, with his boyish infatuation with Ann (a woman unlike any he's seen before) and his handsy gruffness, mirrors Kong. Even Denham knows it, and there's a very telling early scene about this.

Ann is screen testing for Denham. Jack watches from a deck on high as Denham directs her. She must look up. Higher. Higher. Her eyes go wide, it's hideous, whatever it is. She struggles to scream and then finally lets out an almost orgasmic shriek.

This is of course a moment that will be repeated beat-for-beat when she comes face-to-face with Kong (dog ear this point, I'll come back to it), and it's also an arched-back wide-armed pose that's reprised after she finally kisses Jack in the heat of their sudden engagement.

But back at the screentest, Jack watches with growing horror as she pretends to be scared. The danger of whatever Denham has planned is dawning on him. After Ann leaves, he confronts Denham, and their exchange is remarkable:

Going soft on me, Jack? 
You know I'm not for myself. But
Ann -- 
Oh you've gone soft on her? I've
got enough on my hands without a
love affair to complicate things.
Better cut it out, Jack. 
Love affair! You think I'm going to
fall for any dames? 
It never fails. Some big hard
boiled egg goes goofy over a pretty
face, and bingo! He cracks up and
gets sappy. 
Who's getting sappy? I haven't run
out on you, have I? 
Nope. You're a good tough guy,
Jack. But if beauty gets you --
(he stops, then laughs a
Why, I'm going right into a theme

"You're a big tough guy, but if beauty gets you, you'll crack up like an egg," he warns Driscoll. At the film's end, he stands over the body of Kong, cracked up like Humpty Dumpty on 4th Ave. "Beauty killed the beast," he says.

Kong died of what Jack was warned of, to the word! And over the same woman!

Driscoll and Kong even treat Ann the same way - which doesn't speak much to the film's tenderness. After Kong stomps through the jungle carrying the poor woman, Jack stomps his way back to shore with her in her arms (in a classic monster pose). Just look at the death grip he's got on her in this publicity still:

They even both have a centerpiece scene where they scale a sheer cliff with Ann in tow:

As the crowds shuffle in to see Kong in New York, one woman says "Ain't we got enough gorillas in New York?" Sure seems like it with men like big dumb oaf Jack Driscoll around.

Hell of a love triangle there, by the end Kong is something like a jilted ex stuck on the outside looking in.


See in a way, between all the climbing around with Ann with an unfamiliar island, the story of the beast in love plays out twice, once with Jack, once with Kong.

This doesn't happen in isolation. There's quite a bit of repetition in King Kong. Ann, on her return to New York, shudders: "It's like a horrible dream. It's like being back on the island again." The film bears this out, and I've covered it before. Shots repeat time and again in different settings, characters are chained, stranded on towers, collapsed in heaps. Ann even literally rehearses the reaction she'll make when she sees Kong.

It's like a horrible dream, she says, and "dreamlike" really isn't a bad way to describe the experience of watching King Kong. Between the ever-present fog and the heavy silences, there's a mystical vibe through the film. Max Steiner's percussive score and the downright obsessive verticality of many of the sets and shots (even the establishing shots linger on smokestacks and ladders - hell, even the opening titles are lit from below to give a sense of looming height) all contribute to a large and ancient vibe, the feeling of a dream or a fairy tale. Or of The Movies.

King Kong is about intrusion - Denham and co. intrude on Skull Island, the islanders intrude on their boat, Kong intrudes on New York. Giant hands intrude into windows, nosy art patrons intrude in theater aisles, bloodthirsty dinosaurs intrude on Kong's cave, and - like in that moment when Ann repeats her screen test for Kong - filmic fantasy and primal reality constantly intrude on one another.

Denham's rant about romance in the first scene is the first instance of this - he realizes begrudgingly that he has to overlay a fictional romance on his Kong documentary. Later, Denham and his crew make it to the island and they haul their clunky camera on over to a religious rite the native tribe is performing.

Kong gets knocked for its racial simplicity, and it's not entirely undeserved, but this scene is significant because we're witnessing a complex and serious society undercut by some bumbling white morons. Denham and Driscoll are the comic relief here, stumbling over their hellos and failing to impress anybody.

In the center of that shot of the natives is the Bride of Kong, the native sacrifice that Ann replaces. She's one of the most fascinating characters in the film and, in my opinion, one of the best rounded non-speaking characters in cinema. The camera holds on her, and even shots favoring the Native Chief always make room for her in the second row, so that we can constantly watch her expressive face as she faces her task with calm grace and just a hint of fear and reluctance. But I digress!

Denham intrudes and ruins everything. The ship's captain translates for the Native Priest: "He says the ceremony is spoiled because we have seen it."

I've always been interested in the ceremony. The woman is dressed with flowers for Kong, and we hold on her, the camera favoring her legs and the fragility of her face. Around her, men in ape suits dance in circles. The ceremony is the film itself in miniature. It's a romance between a pretend-ape and a real woman, it's beauty and the beast. But it's ruined because Denham and big dumb Driscoll spoil the illusion.

Things go further south when the natives try to purchase Ann Darrow. When this fails, they steal her away onto their canoe at night.

This is a woman that Carl Denham found on the streets at night and swept away onto his boat because he liked her look and thought she'd make a good foil to his pseudo-fictitious (it's not really clear how straight Denham's movie will play it) Kong. The natives like her look, so they sweep her into their boat and give her up to the real Kong.

Denham's film is undercut when his plot happens for real. He probably should have anticipated this. It was anticipated in King Kong's most obvious and unabashed descendent, Jurassic Park, a film in which Dr. Ian Malcolm passing under the Skull Island-like doors of the Park asks, "What do they got in there, King Kong?" After seeing the miracle of the dinosaurs, Ian Malcolm unforgettably warns that:

Life breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously, but, uh... well, there it is. Life finds a way.

Driscoll crashes through the barrier of the Skull Island doors and gets Ann back, but then Kong crashes right back through the same barrier.

Life has found a way, painfully and dangerously, and it has destroyed Denham's plans for a film. But the man's a fighter and he's got ambition, so he knocks out Kong and puts him on a slow boat back to the Big Apple. This always strikes me a very sardonic moment - Denham stands over the wrecked body of this great animal and declares:
We'll give him more than chains.
He's always been king of the world.
But we'll teach him fear. 
(his voice rises
We're millionaires. I'll share with
all of you. Listen, boys a few
months from now it'll be in lights
on Broadway -- Kong, the Eight
Wonder of the World.
and we smash cut to:

We've rocketed past the months of transit and set-up and are here at Kong's Broadway debut. Something terrible has happened to the King. He's in chains and Denham casually, coldly assures Ann (and by extension, us): "We've knocked some of the fight out of him since you saw him."

I find this moment really fascinating - Kong is positioned just like Ann was, in the center of a vast crowd of gawking strangers with arms shackled to a podium:

Ann, seeing him, says "it's like some horrible dream." She must be seeing something of herself in him.

What do we know about Ann? She's poor and seems understandably wary of slimy men pawing after her. She used to act but the studio in Long Island closed. We meet her in New York as she tries to steal an apple from a street vendor. She faints and is whisked away by Denham to a diner, then, immediately, out to sea. She's a desperate woman who is practically Shanghaied by Denham one night on a trip to a big dangerous island where she's put on display. She wants to be an actress but becomes - literally - The Queen of the Jungle.

What do we know about Kong? He lives alone and is constantly harassed by slimy creatures. He's gas-bombed and faints. He's whisked away by Denham to sea and put on display on a strange and dangerous island full of serpentine El trains, planes which buzz about him like the constant chatter of birds on Skull island, and huge dangerous cliffs. He wants to be King of the Jungle but becomes an actor.

Some terrible things happened to Kong in those missing months, something raw and engineered to "take the fight out of him," and I believe Ann Darrow experienced a similar passage of time in New York before she encountered Denham.

We all interpret the Ann/Kong thing as a love story, but what if it's simply a bond of shared pain and degradation?

At any rate, Ann sees Kong and seems to restore some of the "fight" back into him. Real-life and cinematic unreality slam headlong into each other in this final sequence, beginning with the surreal backdrop on the stage behind Carl Denham.

Look at that - this real-life man is standing in front of a painting of a curtain. He tells the audience that they're not about to see a motion picture, but living proof of the adventure he experienced. A god turned captive, the painted curtain raises to reveal the special effect King Kong with an actual fabric curtain as his backdrop.

Denham points to Ann moments before Kong breaks free and insists that "she lived through an experience no other woman ever dreamed of." But in the face of such an abused and disrespected beast, I do not believe that's true. It's just like a dream, she says.

This is a bizarre and powerful moment and we're relieved when Kong breaks free. Unlike, say, Godzilla, with its harrowing and unjust carnage, I don't know anybody who doesn't root for Kong during this whole New York sequence. 

Nobody cheers when Kong dies.

And Kong does die, of course. The fictional Eighth Wonder of the World climbs to the top of the real Eighth Wonder of the World, the newly built Empire State Building:

and his real-life director shoots him to death, while his fictional director, in that unforgettable final line, tells us that the plane carrying Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack didn't kill King Kong, the love we audiences demanded killed him.

Whatever it was that killed King Kong, it took a bit of us all down too.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Holo-game

Galaxy Science Fiction (1954)
Ed Emshwiller

Star Wars (1977)
dir. George Lucas

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Bridge

Eerie, Indiana (1991) (intro)
created by José Rivera & Karl Schaefer

Oblivion (2013)
dir. Joseph Kosinski

The Revolutionaries

Play for Today "Stocker's Cooper" (1972)
dir. Jack Gold

Les Misérables (2012)
dir. Tom Hooper