Monday, 30 November 2009

The framing of George Cukor

It's not difficult to find recurring themes in the collected works of George Cukor, but it's not that important. For me, the key to his genius is his framing. It's a question of timing, of composition and, perhaps even more important, of temperament.

In Little Women (1933) there's a scene when a girl sneaks away at a party and talks to a boy among some flowers. It's nothing special about the scene in itself, but the framing of it, the distance of the camera from the actors, the leafs of the flowers getting between us and the actors, makes it something extra. And as Cukor slowly evolved as a filmmaker his framing skills got even better and better. To me, it's the combination of framing and acting which makes Holiday (1938) such an extraordinary masterpiece, one of the very best of American films.

Cukor's style is like that of someone who is slightly amazed and intrigued by what's going on in front of the camera. He doesn't want to disturb, so the camera stays at a distance, he doesn't want to interfere, so there's little cutting, and he doesn't want to impose, so there are not so many close-ups. Sometimes a shot last for over five minutes, sometimes without the camera even moving.

There's a scene in the beginning of Adam's Rib (1949), where the married couple, played by Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, are having breakfast in bed. It's the most natural thing in the world, and that's the brilliance of the scene. Not for a second does it feel like a breakfast in a movie, it feels like we're watching Katherine and Spencer having breakfast, in their own home. I can't really tell you why, but it's the small things that does it.

Adam's Rib is the second of five films Cukor did with Judy Holliday, one of my favourite actresses. And she's absolutely terrific, not least in the interrogation scene with Hepburn. Again a five minutes long shot, with not only Cukor (and us) watching Holliday in amazement, but Hepburn as well.

Dinner at Eight (1933), The Philadelphia Story (1940) and It Should Happen to You (1954, the last of the Cukor/Holliday films) are other spectacular examples of Cukor at his best. I could sit here all night writing down one example after another. But I won't. Suffice it to say that Cukor is a director who is awe-inspiring. Robin Wood has made a comparison between Bergman and Cukor, in my thesis on Hasse Ekman I'll argue that there are similarites between Cukor and Ekman. But to me, neither Bergman nor Ekman has made a film as good as, say, Holiday.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Favourite films

The other day I attended a rather formal lunch here in St Andrews, and there were eight at the table. I didn't know any of the others but after a glass of wine and some bread we all got along just fine. They were of course most interested in the fact that I was teaching and studying film and after a while the inevitable question came. "So, what is your favourite film?". I can't answer that. My usual reply is "It used to be Rear Window but not anymore. Not because I think any less of it, it's just that I've seen other films which are just as good, or even better." And then I usually mention some titles I feel will be appreciated in the particular setting I'm in. What I mean is that I mention films that I think they will have some knowledge of. So if I'm for example asked by kids I mention other films than I would when asked by people in their late 50s. And I can do this without cheating because there are so many films I can truthfully call favourites.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Breakfast at Tiffany's

I love the book Breakfast at Tiffany's deeply and unquestionably (as is the case with must of Truman Capote's writing). And I wish I could feel the same way about the film version from 1961. But I can't.

Most of the film is irresistible. Enchanting. It has whitewashed much of the book, but there's still enough risky business going on, for example about them both having prostituted themselves. Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard make an adorable couple, both as friends and as lovers. Blake Edwards' patience and lingering camera work is very good, especially in the scene when Holly comes to visit Paul in the middle of the night, and they talk and eventually she falls asleep in his arms. It's a beautiful scene, how it's written, directed and acted. Tender and sweet, but with teeth and innuendo. And on top of that, Henry Mancini's music is also beautiful. When I saw it at a cinema yesterday night, I even discovered a new thing about it, concerning Holly's jewellery, even though I've already seen it more times than I dare to mention.

But then there's Mickey Rooney's role as Holly's neighbour Mr Yunioshi. It's a crude stereotype of a Japanese man, and it involves much slap stick, which is only in bad taste and so unnecessary. I wish it wasn't there. If it wasn't for that, I'd love the film with all my heart. By all means, there should be a mr Yunioshi, but made with a little less bad taste.


Friday, 13 November 2009

On criticism

Now, there are different forms of film criticism. There's the kind that you find in newspapers and magazines, or on-line, and there's the more in-depth (academic) criticism you're more likely to find in books. What I'm discussing today is more related to the daily reviews, but it pretty much goes for all kinds of criticism.


You sometimes hear people say that film criticism should be written by ordinary folks instead of professional critics and sometimes you hear people say that film critics always only like the films that ordinary folks don't like. The first argument is missing the point and the second argument is just not true as a general rule.

It doesn't really matter who is writing the film criticism, as long as that person is capable of expressing her or his opinions in a way that people understands. Another important thing is that the critic is someone who writes regularly, so that the reader gets to know the critic and learn whether or not they have similar tastes. But if the critic is good enough, that shouldn't really be necessary, because everything should be made perfectly clear in the text, even for someone who's never read that particular critic before.


For some reasons, film criticism so very often is just a retelling of the story of the film, and then a few words on whether or not the critic thought the film was good or bad. Now, what's the point of that? If people wanted to know what the film was about, they might as well read the advertisements or watch the trailer. And if someone just says "No, I didn't like it." it doesn't tell you much about anything. In fact, the very thing that that person disliked might be the very thing you'd like. That's why it's so important to explain why you didn't like a particular film, as well as why you did.


It also is a good thing if the critic is knowledgeable about film history. It's for example embarrassing when someone is praising a film for being so new and different, and obviously ignorant to the fact that the very thing being praised as new has been done since the silent era.


One of the most depressing thing about criticism is when critics write like their's is the only way of looking at a film. When they use expressions such as "it's obvious" or "as we can see perfectly clear here" it irritates me because in a work of art, very little is perfectly clear and even less is obvious. It gets even worse if the critic as the next step begins to put thoughts, views, ideas and words in the filmmakers mouth. Perhaps condemning a filmmaker for the behaviour of the characters. I remember when John Schlesinger's film An Eye for an Eye (1996) came out and some critics were upset because Schlesinger was in favour of the death penalty, and the poor Schlesinger said in interviews that he had just made a movie, and that he was against the death penalty.


Having said that a person's view of a film is very subjective, I'd like to add that it's not only subjective, insofar as a good critic might convince someone else that they're mistaken, that a particular film actually is better than they give it credit for, or worse for that matter. I've done that occasionally, and it's not because I have any special skills, it's just that I take the time to explain what I mean. It's very fulfilling when someone says "Yes, you're right, I didn't think about that."


Critics, and people in general, can get so agitated about a certain film in a way that I find a bit weird. It's after all just a movie, which means several things. For one thing, it can be interpreted in so many ways. Say for example that person A is angry because s/he thinks a movie is misogynist and person B thinks it's not misogynist at all, is it then not conceivable that the movie is complex and cannot easily be regarded as either misogynist or the opposite, and shouldn't this temper the feelings of those that watch it? And since it's just a movie, it's also not necessarily an expression of the filmmakers deeply held beliefs.


So, to sum up, for me, a good film critic is someone who can explain in accessible terms exactly why s/he likes or dislikes a movie, and who keeps an open mind to the film at hand and actually knows film history.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Chaplin lost and found

A man in Essex bought a box on Ebay for £3.20 , and when it arrived he found there was a Charlie Chaplin film inside. A 7 minutes long film on 35mm nitrate called Zepped, which apparently is a film nobody knew existed. But further research will discover whether or not Chaplin was actually involved in making it, or if it's some kind of compilation film.

Here's an article from The Guardian with more info.

A month ago I saw a Norwegian silent film which had been discovered not long ago at a market place in Prague, Historien om en gut (1919 - The Story of a Boy). I love stories like this. What will be found next? Maybe in an attic in Kyoto?

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Howard Hawks, scene 3

It's time for my third favourite scene from a film by my favourite director, Howard Hawks. Hawks isn't usually known for his long takes, but if he wanted to he was no stranger to it, and this is a remarkable example. The opening shot of Scarface (1932), with the great Lee Garmes as cinematographer. And, as an added bonus, here's a link to the article on Hawks that Jacques Rivette wrote and that I mentioned in my previous post.

The two previous postings with favourite Hawks' scenes are here and here.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Jacques Rivette at the circus

I've been travelling, hence the low activity here.

When I was in London last week I had the chance to see Jacques Rivette's latest film Around a Small Mountain (36 vues du Pic Saint Loup 2009) at the London International Film Festival. It's nice to still have the ability to see a new film by Rivette, he's 81 years old after all. I've long had a peculiar affection for Rivette, even though I haven't seen all that many of his films. This is just my sixth. (The fact that he's written one of the best articles on Howard Hawks naturally makes me even more favourable towards him.)

Around a Small Mountain stars Jane Birkin and Serge Castellitti and is set at a circus. She's at the circus, he's just passing by, helping her when her car breaks down. She offer him free tickets for the show, he decides to go, and then he stays, trying, much as he did with her car, to fix everything that's wrong. It's very leisurely shot, and although it touches on themes such as death, guilt and betrayal, it's light on it's feet. It has a weird off-handedness to it, I was about to say that it has a liquid feel to it, if I was sure I know what I meant by that.

Rivette is the kind of filmmaker who is always playing games, not least with the audience, and the films often revolve around artists and actors, of some sort. The films are also rather mysterious, not to say enigmatic. This one is rather straightforward though, at least until the end, when it's trying to reach a closure which takes an unexpected form.

The most beautiful and most fully realised of the six films I've seen is La belle noiseuse (1991). It has the same leisurely pace and lingering shots as Around a Small Mountain, but it's much more interesting and poetic. It's just a painter painting a painting of a woman, and still the film is four hours long. It's just one of the greatest films I've ever seen, for its pure beauty. Céline and Julie vont en bateau (1974) is also a magnificent movie, but for very different reasons. But it's to complicated to discuss here and now. It's a movie I will be returning to. As is Rivette. The knowledge that there are so many films still out there that he's made, and I haven't seen, is a joy.