Saturday 12 August 2017

My favourite films from the 1950s

(Note that this is a list of favourites, so some great films may be absent, such as Rashomon or Tokyo Story). 

(A photo of Fellini and Bergman, with Liv Ullmann- source

All about Eve (1950) by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Sunset Boulevard (1950) by Billy Wilder 
In a Lonely Place (1950) by Nicholas Ray 
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) by Elia Kazan 
The Big Carnival aka Ace in the Hole (1951) by Billy Wilder
The Life of Oharu (1952) by Kenji Mizoguchi 
Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) by Kenji Mizoguchi 
A Geisha aka Gion bayashi (1953) by Kenji Mizoguchi 
Summer with Monika (1953) by Ingmar Bergman 
Roman Holiday (1953) by William Wyler 
La Strada (1954) by Federico Fellini
On the Waterfront (1954) by Elia Kazan 
Rear Window (1954) by Alfred Hitchcock 
Dial M for Murder (1954) by Alfred Hitchcock 
Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) by Ingmar Bergman 
The Killing (1956) by Stanley Kubrick 
The Trouble with Harry (1956) by Alfred Hitchcock
Street of Shame (1956) by Kenji Mizoguchi 
Nights of Cabiria (1957) by Federico Fellini 
Witness for the Prosecution (1957) by Billy Wilder
12 Angry Men (1957) by Sidney Lumet
Wild Strawberries (1957) by Ingmar Bergman 
The Seventh Seal (1957) by Ingmar Bergman 
An Affair to Remember (1957) by Leo McCarey 
Vertigo (1958) by Alfred Hitchcock 
Some Like It Hot (1959) by Billy Wilder 
Anatomy of a Murder (1959) by Otto Preminger 

So many great films in the 50s. Wonderful period.

Friday 11 August 2017

Roger Ebert's writings about Fellini

My favourite film critic, whom I always turn to after watching a film, is Roger Ebert. Even though I don’t always agree with him, I share with him an enthusiasm, a passion for cinema, and admire his sensitivity and openness and his elegant prose. Among his best writings are the brilliant reviews of Fellini, which greatly help me appreciate the Italian maestro. 
Here are some of my favourite excerpts: 
Review of La Strada
“In almost all of Fellini's films, you will find the figure of a man caught between earth and sky. ("La Dolce Vita" opens with a statue of Jesus suspended from a helicopter; Marcello Mastroianni opens "8 1/2" floating in the sky, tethered to earth.) They are torn between the carnal and the spiritual. You will also find the waifs and virgins and good wives, contrasted with prostitutes and temptresses (Fellini in his childhood encountered a vast, buxom woman who lived in a shack at the beach, and made her a character again and again). You will find journeys, processions, parades, clowns, freaks, and the shabby melancholy of an empty field at dawn, after the circus has left...” 
Review of Nights of Cabiria
“By the nature of their work prostitutes can find themselves almost anywhere in a city, in almost any circle, on a given night. She's admitted to the nightclub, for example, under the sponsorship of the movie star (Alberto Lazzari). He picks her up after a fight with his fiancee, takes her to his palatial villa, and then hides her in the bathroom when the fiancee turns up unexpectedly (Cabiria spends the night with his dog). Later, seeking some kind of redemption, she joins another girl and a pimp on a visit to a reputed appearance by the Virgin Mary. And in the scene cut from the movie, she accompanies a good samaritan as he visits the homeless with food and gifts (she is shocked to see a once-beautiful hooker crawl from a hole in the ground).
All of these scenes are echoed in one way or another in “La Dolce Vita,” which sees some of the same terrain through the eyes of a gossip columnist (Marcello Mastroianni) instead of a prostitute. In both films, a hooker peeps through a door as a would-be client makes love with his mistress. Both have nightclub scenes opening with exotic ethnic dancers. Both have a bogus appearance by the Virgin. Both have a musical sequence set in an outdoor nightclub. And both have, as almost all Fellini movies have, a buxom slattern, a stone house by the sea, a procession and a scaffold seen outlined against the dawn. These must be personal touchstones of his imagination.” 
Review of La Dolce Vita
“The famous opening scene, as a statue of Christ is carried above Rome by a helicopter, is matched with the close, in which fisherman on the beach find a sea monster in their nets. Two Christ symbols: the statue "beautiful" but false, the fish "ugly" but real. During both scenes there are failures of communication. The helicopter circles as Marcello tries to get the phone numbers of three sunbathing beauties. At the end, across a beach, he sees the shy girl he met one day when he went to the country in search of peace to write his novel. She makes typing motions to remind him, but he does not remember, shrugs, and turns away.” 
“Movies do not change, but their viewers do. When I saw "La Dolce Vita" in 1960, I was an adolescent for whom "the sweet life" represented everything I dreamed of: sin, exotic European glamour, the weary romance of the cynical newspaperman. When I saw it again, around 1970, I was living in a version of Marcello's world; Chicago's North Avenue was not the Via Veneto, but at 3 a.m. the denizens were just as colorful, and I was about Marcello's age.
When I saw the movie around 1980, Marcello was the same age, but I was 10 years older, had stopped drinking, and saw him not as a role model but as a victim, condemned to an endless search for happiness that could never be found, not that way. By 1991, when I analyzed the film a frame at a time at the University of Colorado, Marcello seemed younger still, and while I had once admired and then criticized him, now I pitied and loved him. And when I saw the movie right after Mastroianni died, I thought that Fellini and Marcello had taken a moment of discovery and made it immortal. There may be no such thing as the sweet life. But it is necessary to find that out for yourself.” 
Review of 8 ½
“The critic Alan Stone, writing in the Boston Review, deplores Fellini's "stylistic tendency to emphasize images over ideas." I celebrate it. A filmmaker who prefers ideas to images will never advance above the second rank because he is fighting the nature of his art. The printed word is ideal for ideas; film is made for images, and images are best when they are free to evoke many associations and are not linked to narrowly defined purposes.” 
“Fellini's camera is endlessly delighting. His actors often seem to be dancing rather than simply walking. I visited the set of his "Fellini Satyricon," and was interested to see that he played music during every scene (like most Italian directors of his generation, he didn't record sound on the set but post-synched the dialogue). The music brought a lift and subtle rhythm to their movements. Of course many scenes have music built into them: In "8 1/2," orchestras, dance bands and strolling musicians are seen, and the actors move in a subtly choreographed way, as if they're synchronized. Fellini's scores, by Nino Rota, combine snatches of pop tunes with dance music, propelling the action.
Few directors make better use of space. One of his favorite techniques is to focus on a moving group in the background and track with them past foreground faces that slide in and out of frame. He also likes to establish a scene with a master shot, which then becomes a closeup when a character stands up into frame to greet us. Another technique is to follow his characters as they walk, photographing them in three-quarter profile, as they turn back toward the camera. And he likes to begin dance sequences with one partner smiling invitingly toward the camera before the other partner joins in the dance.”  
Review of Amarcord:
“Sometimes from this tumult an image of perfect beauty will emerge, as when in the midst of a rare snowfall, the count’s peacock escapes and spreads its dazzling tail feathers in the blizzard. Such an image is so inexplicable and irreproducible that all the heart can do is ache with gratitude, and all the young man can know is that he will live forever, love all the women, drink all the wine, make all the movies and become Fellini.” 
“Fellini was more in love with breasts than Russ Meyer, more wracked with guilt than Ingmar Bergman, more of a flamboyant showman than Busby Berkeley. He danced so instinctively to his inner rhythms that he didn’t even realize he was a stylistic original; did he ever devote a moment’s organized thought to the style that became known as “Felliniesque,” or was he simply following the melody that always played when he was working?” 
“It’s also absolutely breathtaking filmmaking. Fellini has ranked for a long time among the five or six greatest directors in the world, and of them all, he’s the natural. Ingmar Bergman achieves his greatness through thought and soul-searching, Alfred Hitchcock built his films with meticulous craftsmanship, and Luis Buñuel used his fetishes and fantasies to construct barbed jokes about humanity. But Fellini .. well, moviemaking for him seems almost effortless, like breathing, and he can orchestrate the most complicated scenes with purity and ease. He’s the Willie Mays of movies.” 
This is just wonderful.

Thursday 10 August 2017

On Federico Fellini and his detractors

Having just watched again La Dolce Vita and Amarcord, I’m thinking about Fellini’s detractors. He’s overrated, they say, as though it meant anything and could negate his tremendous influence on cinema and other filmmakers. He’s self-indulgent, they say, and we who love his films are seen as pretentious, the 2 words so commonly (mis)used in criticisms, in literature as well as cinema, that I’m not even sure what they mean now. Fellini’s an enormous force, and like Ingmar Bergman, one of the few true auteurs with a specific vision and worldview that is expressed over and over again in their films—his is a world of weak, philandering men and buxom women; of dreams and fantasies and people seeking miracles; of dwarves, clowns and grotesque characters; of magic, circus, hypnosis and carnivals; of parties, affairs and decadence; of drifting people wracked with guilt but unable to escape from themselves. He’s seen as narcissistic because he makes films about himself, creates art out of his own fears, dreams and longings. His films are personal, like Bergman’s, they’re his means of self-expression. That to me is not a drawback—Fellini and Bergman are both so large, so original and visionary; and, genius aside, they don’t have the self-pity that makes someone like Woody Allen so limited in comparison. 
Another argument against Fellini is that his films don’t have a narrative. What they mean is a conventional plot. His earlier films like La Strada and Nights of Cabiria, and perhaps I Vitelloni (which I don’t remember very well), have a 3-act structure; his later masterpieces such as La Dolce Vita, 8 ½ and Amarcord don’t. They don’t even have what is known as the inciting incident. But why must a film have a conventional structure to work? 

The structure of La Dolce Vita is 7 days and 7 nights, with the same formula—night of pleasure, and morning of disillusion and guilt. That is the point of the film, that his life is forever the same and Marcello is stuck in a cycle that he can’t get out, that he both despises his job as a gossip reporter and the life of hedonism but at the same time loves “the sweet life” (la dolce vita) and can’t leave it, that he keeps searching for love and meaning, in the wrong places, and never finds it. The only kind of break from the structure of 7 nights 7 days is his visits to Steiner, the model, the embodiment of success and happiness that Marcello admires and aims towards, until an event shatters all the illusion, breaks him, and makes him sink deeper in his life of hedonism. 
Similarly, 8 ½ doesn’t have an inciting incident, and doesn’t really have a journey. Guido is stuck. 8 ½ is a film about being unable to make a film, about the equivalent of writer’s block in cinema. Mixing reality with fantasy and dream, it is not a director’s search for ideas for a film, but an examination of his creative problems and personal troubles, his childhood, his relations with women, and his own selfishness and inability to love. Guido has to accept and reconcile with them all, to get out of creative block, but he is the same person in the end. 

Different from La Dolce Vita and 8 ½, Amarcord is a series of vignettes and not about a character being stuck. A film made out of nostalgia and pure joy, it’s a film that encapsulates Fellini’s memories of a village and its people, and the experience of growing up. It’s watched not for a story, but for the place, for the characters and Fellini’s warmth and love for people, for Nino Rota’s music, for many memorable moments and the sense of the wonder. As Roger Ebert put it, Amarcord is “like a long dance number, interrupted by dialogue, public events and meals”. It’s a beautiful film about adolescence. 
Why do some people think a film must have a conventional narrative to work?

Monday 7 August 2017

The close-up: Ingmar Bergman vs Kenji Mizoguchi

These days, as I started to like Mizoguchi, I’ve been thinking about how different he was from Ingmar Bergman—Ingmar Bergman was fascinated by the human face, which he saw as the most important subject of the cinema, and constantly used close-ups, whereas Mizoguchi almost never did, and generally kept the camera a bit distanced from the subject.
I’ve just seen Sisters of the Gion, showing Mizoguchi at his worst. I don’t mean the film is bad: the story is moving, the characters are well-developed and complex, and the themes are the main concerns he kept dealing with in his films—life struggles vs dignity and honour; Japan’s patriarchal culture and its misogynistic, exploitative geisha system; fallen women/ outcasts; weak, cowardly and selfish men, etc. The problem is that Mizoguchi was yet to be Mizoguchi at this point—he hadn’t develop his style.

(here the characters are completely hidden) 

Why keep the camera so far away? I don’t mean he should use close-ups, and definitely don’t mean that the better option would be shot—reverse shot. In fact, when there is conflict, it’s better to see actors reacting to each other instead of seeing each one isolated in a close-up. It’s fine too, to see some body language. But the camera could still be closer. It’s too far away most of the time. Why not move it? Why not have another camera set-up closer to the subjects? The characters argue, or get upset, or come to a realisation, etc. but I can’t see their faces. Avoiding the close-up and keeping the camera far away, Mizoguchi’s ignoring one of the advantages cinema has over theatre.
But that was then, in 1936. His most renowned films were from the 1950s, such as Ugetsu and The Life of Oharu. He had developed his style, and became the master of mise-en-scène. He still avoided the close-up, but his camera now constantly moved and was no longer static, he brilliantly orchestrated the movement of his actors and his camera, and his films had a rather distant, dispassionate style.
Here are 2 excellent articles about his style:
The Life of Oharu is the saddest film I’ve ever seen about a woman’s life (more depressing than Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria)—a story of a noblewoman in 17th century Japan, banished because in love and involved with a man of a lower class, then sold into a clan as a concubine, then forced to become a courtesan, then accepted as a kind of servant, and then after a brief time of happiness, she falls even lower as she’s forced into street prostitution, and so on. Except for a scene somewhere at the beginning of the film, when Oharu wants to kill herself after the man she loves is killed, in the film there is no melodrama, no excess sentimentality, no camera lingering on Oharu’s face in grief. Oharu is stoic—she accepts it all with dignity, and tries to behave as morally as she can. Mizoguchi’s dispassionate style therefore fits the film perfectly. The Life of Oharu is a haunting masterpiece.
However, to go back to the comparison at the beginning of the post, I think the key difference between Ingmar Bergman and Mizoguchi, even though they both focused on women, is that Bergman explored the inner world and human consciousness—emotions, the soul and inner demons (when his films deal with relationships, the subjects of study are actually selfishness and the inability to love, and a misanthropy that is borne out of self-loathing), whereas Mizoguchi was interested in the outer world—society and culture, feudalism, the patriarchy (especially the geisha system), and the struggle between economic need or survival and dignity. Therefore, Bergman got as close as possible to the individual and wanted the audience to watch what happens on a human face, whereas Mizoguchi wanted the audience to see his protagonists in their settings and in relation to other people. Different focus, different approach and style.
And they both are masters.

Sunday 6 August 2017

100 film conventions; and a few cool things recently noted

Here are my notes from Cinematic Storytelling: The 100 Most Powerful Films Conventions Every Filmmaker Must Know by Jennifer Van Sijll: 
1/ Space: 
- X-axis (horizontal): 
Left to right: good 
Right to left: bad 
- Y-axis (vertical): 
Straight line: good 
Detouring or being sidetracked: bad 
- XY-axes (diagonals): 
Descending: aided by gravity; once the motion starts, it’s hard to stop 
Ascending: against gravity 
- Z-axis (depth-of-field): 
Character’s height and power 
- Z-axis (planes of action): 
Staging in-depth: actions in foreground, middleground and background 
- Z-axis (rack focus/ pull focus): 
Shifting focus from 1 object to another 
2/ Frame: 
- Directing the eye: light and dark function as visual signposts—directing the audience to focus on what’s intended
- Balance/ symmetry 
- Imbalance
- Orientation 
- Size: character’s relative strength and weakness may be established by the use of size 
3/ Shape within the frame: 
- Circular (circular imagery can inherently suggest confusion, repetition and time) 
- Linear 
- Triangular: created by lighting, furnishings, exterior graphics, character positioning, or movement; harmony or disharmony (e.g. love triangle) 
- Rectangular: may represent logic, civilisation, control, or the aesthetics of modernity; can represent death (coffin) 
- Organic vs geometric 
4/ Editing: 
- Montage: created through an assembly of quick cuts, disconnected in time or place, that combine to form a larger idea
- Assembly editing 
- Mise-en-Scène: new compositions are created through blocking, lens zooms and camera movement instead of cutting; uninterrupted take 
- Intercutting/ cross-cutting: cutting back and forth between 2 actions occurring simultaneously in 2 different locations 
- Split screen 
- Dissolves: blending 1 shot to another
- Smash cut: to jar the audience with a sudden and unexpected change in image or sound (e.g. cutting a wide shot against a huge close-up or vice versa)
5/ Time: 
- Expanding time through pacing 
- Contrast of time (pacing and intercutting): slow vs fast (suspense) 
- Expanding time—overlapping action 
- Slow-motion 
- Fast-motion
- Flashback
- Flashforward: cut to the future, real or imagined; typically assisted with a slow dissolve
- Freeze-frame
- Visual foreshadowing 
6/ Sound effects: 
- Realistic sound (diegetic): character, emotional response and outer world 
- Surreal sound (meta-diegetic): inner world 
7/ Music: 
- Lyrics as narrator: character’s inner thoughts 
- Symbolic use of music 
- Music as a moveable prop: e.g. used to express an idea linked to a character 
8/ Scene transitions: 
- Matching audio segue 
- Audio bridge: dialogue or sound effects 
- Visual match-cut: 
Graphic similarity
Pattern and colour
- Extended match dissolve (time transition) 
- Disrupted match-cut: 2 matched images separated by a single shot 
9/ Camera lenses: 
- Wide-angle 
3 grounds 
Establishing shots 
- Telephoto: brings distant objects closer to the viewer, compresses space, making objects appear to be on the same horizontal plane; its shallow depth-of-field throws objects, both in front of and behind the focal point, out of focus 
- Fish-eye: distortion 
- Prop lenses within the scene 
- Objects: stained glass, water or plastic (distortion) 
10/ Camera position: 
- Close-up 
- Extreme close-up
- 2-shot 
- Over-the-shoulder shot 
- Point-of-view 
- High-angle: makes subject small and vulnerable 
- Low-angle: makes subject large and dominant 
- High-low combine
11/ Camera motion: 
- Static shot
- Pan
- Tilt
- Rotation 
- Tracking shot
- Circular: hand-held camera, Steadicam, or tracks 
- Push-in 
- Pull-out 
- Crane 
- Handheld 
- Steadicam 
- Aerial 
12/ Lighting: 
- Rembrandt lighting: light vs dark 
- TV lighting: conventionally bright, flat and shadowless 
- Candlelight: flatters the face, smoothens the skin and adds a warm tone 
- Motivated lighting: any light that would naturally exist in the world depicted in the frame, e.g. a lamp
- Unmotivated light: e.g. the bath of light symbolising goodness
- Motion: e.g. swinging light bulb, flash lights, etc.
13/ Colour: 
- Coding character 
14/ Props: 
- Externalising character: 
Dramatic way to express a character’s inner world 
Gives a scene an added layer of meaning
- Repurposing props: the meaning of a prop changes over the course of the film
- Contrast 
15/ Wardrobe: 
- Wardrobe 
- Repurposing wardrobe 
- Contrast of wardrobe
16/ Locations: 
- Defining character 
- Location as unifying element: e.g. similar locations 
- Location as theme 
- Moving locations: e.g. train 
17/ Natural environment: 
- Climate 
- Seasons and the passage of time 
- Physical phenomena: can be foreshadowing, can have symbolic meaning, etc. 


Here are a few cool things I’ve just noted lately watching films: 
- The fade-out in the middle of the scene in Kieslowski’s Three Colours: Blue 
- The fade-to/from-red in Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers
- The wipe in Kurosawa (scene transition)
- Ingmar Bergman’s juxtaposed faces: close-up of 2 faces, in the same shot, not looking at each other
- Kurosawa’s axial cut
- The geometry of the scene in Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well
- Mizoguchi’s mise-en-scène: move characters around, and then move the camera accordingly; long take
- The dream sequence in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona of Elisabet entering Alma’s room—the use of smoke and the resulting ghost/dream image  
- The metaphorical/ symbolic images in Jodorowsky’s The Dance of Reality 
- The repetition of the exact same scene, from 2 different angles, in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona 
- The face-merging in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona: the morph at the beginning of the film, and the combination of the 2 halves 
- The superimposed image in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive