Archive for the ‘Movies’ Category

Great Moments in Screenwriting #2: “The Wolf of Wall Street”

June 3, 2014

JORDAN: Ge ozza zone! Ge ozza iz!!

DONNIE: Waz? Iz zoggin oo anzali!


DONNIE: Wazza fuh is wrong wizzz oooo?!! I wuzz awwing to!! Wazza mazzer?! Wazza yoo razy?!!

JORDAN: Zee vone!! He nah zuppose zoo dalk on zee vone!!

DONNIE: Wuzz?!!





Terence Winter


Bob Hoskins (1942-2014)

April 30, 2014

I can think of two indelible images of Bob Hoskins: one is of him sobbing inconsolably behind his novelty sunglasses when he realizes that Cathy Tyson has been using him all along in Mona Lisa, and the other is the extended close-up of him at the very end of The Long Good Friday. The latter comes at the moment Hoskins, playing a barbaric little gangster named Harold Shand, has just realized that he’s made the miscalculation of a lifetime—one that will cost him not only his life but the lives of those dearest to him—and that there’s nothing in the world he can do to fix it. The shot lasts some two to three minutes, and not a word is spoken during it because there’s nothing left to say. Harold is seated in the back of a limo that’s whisking him to his doom, and the shot’s tight framing and its location in the story make it a bookend to the closing shot of Michael Clayton, an unblinking close-up of George Clooney sitting in the back of a NYC taxicab, as he reflects on his role in events we’ve just witnessed. Now, I love Michael Clayton dearly—it’s just the kind of thriller Hollywood ought to be cranking out by the bucketload—and Clooney is great in it, but his moment simply pales next to Hoskins’. An agonizing parade of emotions—surprise, fear, regret, outrage, defiance, grief—washes over Harold’s face, and Hoskins expresses each of these in such concrete terms that you feel like you’re tracking every inch of his anguish. And in the end you can see it happen, in his eyes and his tightening jaw-line, when Harold experiences the belated, now meaningless discovery that his downfall was entirely avoidable—that he has only himself to blame for his ruin. It’s a ghastly, glorious bit of work.



March 14, 2014

another one down

February 3, 2014

For more than 30 years I’ve had a loose phrase—“that rapturous swig of scotch”—bouncing round my head like a song lyric. It was a description of the sip of booze James Mason takes in the bathtub after Shelley Winters’ death in Lolita, and I’ve remembered it this whole time because, simple as it is, it so nicely captures one of those private moments movie characters are sometimes allowed to enjoy, and also because, well, scotch was involved. But despite always keeping one eye peeled for the phrase whenever reading something about the movie over the years, I never could find it, not in Kael or in any of the other critics from that era, and I couldn’t think who besides a film critic would’ve zeroed in on such a fleeting moment. Then this weekend I re-read the screenplay Nabokov wrote for Kubrick, which I owned way back in Houston, and when I finished it I quickly flipped back to the preface where my eyes alit on the following: “Quite a few of the extraneous inventions (such as the macabre ping-pong scene or that rapturous swig of Scotch in the bathtub) struck me as appropriate and delightful.”

I should’ve known, I guess; anyway, I’ll take it. Anything that reduces the list of things to be puzzled about in life is fine by me.

(November 24, 2013)


Yeah. I do.

February 3, 2014

“You’re 53, with a life in tatters, like the rest of us. Instead of acting superior and treating us with contempt, you should look at us with affection. We’re all on the brink of despair. All we can do is look each other in the face, keep each other company, and joke a little. Don’t you agree?”

Jep Gambardella, The Great Beauty


A Hill of Beans: A Few Good Movies About World War II

September 3, 2013

Naturally it’s a subjective list: these are movies which satisfy me to some high degree emotionally, dramatically and aesthetically. Their quality as “war films” ranks low on the totem pole. Judged just by its combat scenes, Saving Private Ryan would certainly make the cut, but since its action is in service of a false, even pernicious, idea, I left it off. I’m also not smitten with gung-ho heroism, hence you’ll search in vain for The Sands of Iwo Jima here. For me the value of the World War II film lies in its concentration on the unlikely protagonist; fittingly, the war against fascism gave rise to some of the most egalitarian-minded films in the history of cinema, with many of the greatest ones coming from the Axis nations. The protagonists here aren’t heroes because they’ll charge a machine gun. The vast majority of them are little people, often weak, often cowardly, and almost always unprepared, but the intensity of their reactions to the cataclysm around them makes Bogart’s famous line in Casablanca—“The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world”—look simply wrong. Even the characters in uniform work to stay alive mainly to return to the normal, non-military life that existed for them before the world lost its mind. These movies make their characters’ humanity the subject of their stories, even in such cases as Army of Shadows or The Conformist, where that humanity is subordinated to a wider cause. Asterisks appear by the titles which mean the most to me—the ones that landed closest to where I live.

I close things out with a short list of films which many people dote on, and several of which are considered classics, but which, for one reason or another, have the same effect on me that The English Patient had on Elaine Benes; I mention them not to be a contrary asshole, but simply to forestall the incredulous query “You mean you haven’t seen The Pianist? Why, it’s the most wonderful thing in the world!” I also omitted a handful of films I love or admire (The Long Voyage Home, A Matter of Life and Death and Notorious among them) in which the war was mainly an incidental or peripheral factor. And, obviously, I’ve omitted the ton of movies that aren’t worth ranking at all. (Hail, The Battle of Britain! Ave, The Secret of Santa Vittoria!) God knows what movies I’ve forgotten, overlooked, or need to catch up on, but I’d be grateful for tips on all of them.


The Mortal Storm (Borzage 1940)


49th Parallel (Powell 1941)

To Be Or Not To Be (Lubitsch 1942)

The Pilot Returns (Rossellini 1942)

Went the Day Well? (Cavalcanti 1942)

went ealing

Casablanca (Curtiz 1942)

Air Force (Hawks 1943)

The More the Merrier (Stevens 1943)

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Powell 1943)*


This Land Is Mine (Renoir 1943)

Le Corbeau (Clouzot 1943)

Lifeboat (Hitchcock 1944)*


Western Approaches (Jackson 1944)

The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (Sturges 1944)

Hail the Conquering Hero (Sturges 1944)*


Rome Open City (Rossellini 1945)*

Objective, Burma! (Walsh 1945)

They Were Expendable (Ford 1945)*

they nurses

La Bataille du rail (Clément 1946)*

Paisà (Rossellini 1946)*

Les Maudits (Clément 1947)

Germany Year Zero (Rossellini 1948)*


Home of the Brave (Robson 1949)

home of the brave

La Silence de la Mer (Melville 1949)

Battleground (Wellman 1949)

The Axe of Wandsbek (Harnack 1951)

Decision Before Dawn (Litvak 1951)

Forbidden Games (Clément 1952)


The Caine Mutiny (Dmytryk 1954)

Attack! (Aldrich 1956)

Kanal (Wajda 1956)

Four Bags Full (La traversée de Paris) (Autant-Lara 1956)

A Man Escaped (Bresson 1956)*


The Burmese Harp (Ichikawa 1956)

The Battle of the River Plate (Powell/Pressburger 1956)

The Cranes Are Flying (Kalatozov 1957)


The Devil Strikes at Night (Siodmak 1957)

Bitter Victory (Ray 1957)

The Enemy Below (Powell 1957)

Ice Cold in Alex (Thompson 1958)


Fires on the Plain (Ichikawa 1959)

The Ballad of a Soldier (Chukhray 1959)

The Bridge (Wicki 1959)


General della Rovere (Rossellini 1959)

Il Federale (The Fascist) (Salce 1961)

Der Fall Gleiwitz (The Gleiwitz Case) (Klein 1961)*

Hell is for Heroes (Siegel 1962)


Ivan’s Childhood (Tarkovsky 1962)

The Great Escape (Sturges 1963)

It Happened Here (Brownlow/Mollo 1964)

Diamonds of the Night (Němec 1964)


King Rat (Forbes 1965)

In Harm’s Way (Preminger 1965)*

La ligne de démarcation (Chabrol 1966)

Army of Shadows (Melville 1969)*

The Conformist (Bertolucci 1970)*


The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (De Sica 1970)

Distant Thunder (S. Ray 1973)

Lacombe, Lucien (Malle 1974)*


Zerkalo (Tarkovsky 1974)*

Overlord (Cooper 1975)

Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Pasolini 1975)

1900 (Bertolucci 1976)*


Mr. Klein (Losey 1976)

The Ascent (Shepitko 1977)*

Cross of Iron (Peckinpah 1977)

The Tin Drum (Schlöndorff 1979)

tin drum

Christ Stopped at Eboli (Rosi 1979)

The Marriage of Maria Braun (Fassbinder 1979)

The Big Red One (Fuller 1980)

Das Boot (Petersen 1981)

Night of the Shooting Stars (1982 Taviani)

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (Oshima 1983)


Come and See (Klimov 1985)*

Au Revoir, Les Enfants (Malle 1987)

Empire of the Sun (Spielberg 1987)

Hope and Glory (Boorman 1987)

hope and glory

Grave of the Fireflies (Takahata 1988)*


Story of Women (Chabrol 1988)

story of women

Black Rain (Imamura 1989)

Europa Europa (Holland 1990)

Schindler’s List (Spielberg 1993)

The Thin Red Line (Malick 1998)


Sophie Scholl – Die letzten Tage (Sophie Scholl: The Final Days) (Rothemund 2005)*


Indigènes (Bouchareb 2006)

Letters from Iwo Jima (Eastwood 2006)

Vincere (Bellocchio 2009)

The Hangover

Murderers Are Among Us (Staudte 1946)

The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler 1946)*

Shoeshine (De Sica 1946)

Without Pity (Senza pietà) (Lattuada 1948)

senza pieta

The Search (Zinnemann 1948)

the search 1

The Third Man (Reed 1949)

Pigs and Battleships (Imamura 1961)

Das zweite Gleis (The Second Track) (Kunert 1962)

Wings (Shepitko 1966)*

Camp de Thiaroye (Sembene 1988)

Digital Fusion Image Library TIFF File

Enemies, a Love Story (Mazursky 1989)*



Memory of the Camps (Bernstein/Hitchcock 1945)

Days of Glory (Visconti/De Sanctis/et al. 1945)

(The Battle of) San Pietro (Huston 1945)*


Blood of the Beasts (Franju 1949)*


Night and Fog (Resnais 1955)*

Night and Fog

The Sorrow and the Pity (Ophüls 1969)*

The World at War (BBC 1973)*

The Memory of Justice (Ophüls 1976)

Shoah (Lanzmann 1985)*

The Doomed City: Berlin (Darlow 1986)

The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (Hara 1987)


Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie (Ophüls 1988)*


The Eye of Vichy (Chabrol 1993)


But Not For Me

The Great Dictator (Chaplin 1940)

Let There Be Light (Huston 1946)

Stalag 17 (Wilder 1953)

The Bridge on the River Kwai (Lean 1957)

Kapo (Pontecorvo 1960)

Two Women (De Sica 1960)

Judgment at Nuremberg (Kramer 1961)

The Pawnbroker (Lumet 1964)

The Damned (Visconti 1969)

The Night Porter (Cavani 1974)

Seven Beauties (Wertmüller 1975)

Sophie’s Choice (Pakula 1982)

Saving Private Ryan (Spielberg 1998)

The Pianist (Polanski 2002)

Downfall (Hirschbiegel 2004)

Inglourious Basterds (Tarantino 2009)

Stray Dog

July 16, 2013

I got the Blu-Ray of Seven Samurai yesterday, and spent most of last night rolling around in it like a pig in shit. It struck me that one sequence which gets generally overlooked—the consummation of Katsushiro and Shino’s relationship, and its aftermath—shows off Kurosawa’s skill as well as anything in the movie. At that point of the movie—three hours into it, the night before the climactic battle—it’s hard to believe Kurosawa is putting his forward thrust on hold while this little playlet acts itself out, but it’s filled with so many beautiful, psychologically right details that I never want to skip past it. The lovers’ bodies writhing in the infernal firelight, Shino’s sensuous post-coital countenance just before she spots her enraged father, the reflexive decency with which Kambei comes to her aid when Manzo begins beating his daughter (“Stop this brutality!”), the camera’s sudden leap behind Katsushiro when Kambei realizes that he’s the samurai Manzo is raving about, the onset of the rain, and finally the winnowing of the scene to its essentials: first the villagers, and then Kambei, and finally Manzo, all drifting away, until only the lovers are left, Shino sprawled in the mud, Katsushiro standing with bowed head in the downpour.

It also struck me how right Kurosawa was to emphasize the warriors’ grief and fatigue. Katsushiro “becomes a man” by sleeping with Shino, and the next day he reaches another level of maturity when he kills his first bandit (though the camera cuts away with such quickness that a first-time viewer might not even realize the significance what’s just happened), but he reaches his most important milestone at the very end of the battle. Aching to avenge Kyuzo’s and Kikuchiyo’s deaths, he can only run in hysterical circles until Kambei grabs him and says “All the bandits are dead!”—at which point he falls to his knees and sobs. His education is complete now, but he becomes a true samurai only by taking on the sorrow that’s been Kambei’s all along.

seven sam

hey, this’d be a good place to start a blog

February 18, 2013

Glenn Kenny’s reprinted an old interview he did with Scorsese when home video was a new thing, and the ensuing comments made me realize that sometimes I still get flashes where home video feels like a miracle. When I was a kid I understood that TV would show Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein about once a year, but that was a model of reliability compared to the days when missing, say, The Conformist during its theatrical run might mean having to wait 25 years to get another crack at it. One reason I appreciate old-timey critics like Sarris, beyond anything they ever wrote, is the dedication it would’ve taken to hunt down the most obscure Allan Dwan movie and then create whatever mnemonic devices they had to in order to remember its details because—very probably—they were never going to see it again. That rarity lent a lot of magic to scanning repertory house calendars when they came out because you never knew when some movie you’d been hammering your friends with for years would be on it.

I have to say, though, I’m having a time getting my head around streaming. I like collecting stuff and I also like just staring at shelves of things, be they movies or books or what-have-you. Yeah, I probably don’t need that copy of Wellman’s The Call of the Wild in my closet, but I like knowing it’s there. And when I think of the scores of movies I do feel like I need to own physical copies of, there’s so many of them I may as well go the semi-whole hog, even if physical discs look like a losing technology.

You’re All Right, Jack

October 28, 2012

Excerpts from Nicholson’s commentary during that long shot near the end of Antonioni’s The Passenger, delivered in his flattest-sounding About Schmidt voice:

“Still one shot…Still one shot…The girl goes out…Still one shot…The police…Was that a gunshot?…Still one shot…Still one shot…[long silence]…Still one shot…[about three minutes after the camera has floated through the bars] How’d thecamera get through the bars?…Still one shot…Still one shot…There’s the window again…No, wait…That’s the other window…”

It fits the movie, though.

Dreaming in Ozu

October 15, 2012

Clotheslines. Smokestacks. Sake bars. Alleyways. Parked bicycles. Movie posters. Embankments. Teakettles. Gas storage tanks. Coca-Cola signs. Folded legs. Farting. The color red. “Peace” cigarettes. Children marching off to school. Parents marching off to work. Clocks. Hallways. Drinking to excess. Western skirts. Bare lightbulbs.

But, most of all, trains. Lots and lots of trains.

The Incredible Shrinking Umberto D.

October 4, 2012

On January 20, 1952, Vittorio De Sica released his masterpiece Umberto D., and God saw that it was good. It still is. Something more than just another “great film”, it’s one of the loftiest peaks in Italian neorealism, the postwar film movement that tried to draw the shortest possible line between movies and everyday life. To this day, watching Umberto D. remains a full-body experience: what’s at stake for its unlikely protagonist is communicated in such clear and concrete terms that we come to register the minutest adjustments in his emotional coloring. But it’s the film’s conclusion, which manages to be both definitively devastating and hypnotically sphinx-like, that concerns me here.

For those who never saw the film, it’s about the retired civil servant Umberto Domenico Ferrari, who lives in a rented room in Rome not long after World War II—a terrible time and place to be alone in the world. Umberto’s station in life has been drifting downwards for some time, we are made to understand. When we meet him, his only friend is a naïve young housemaid who’s saddled with her own problems; he lags so far behind on his rent that his landlady allows hookers to turn tricks in his bed; and the one thing standing between him and a self-administered mercy killing is his constant companion, a personable but utterly dependent terrier named Flike, who’d be doomed without his master.

The film takes place over the handful of days in which Umberto loses his last toehold on life, and his final descent from have-not to have-nothing takes us into situations that we normally see only in nightmares. De Sica spells out in exacting detail just how much work it takes to be poor: whether he’s trying to sell an old watch that nobody wants to buy or scamming a bowlful of food from a soup kitchen for Flike, Umberto is constantly fighting just to reach the next moment in his existence. When at last he’s reduced to pauper status, he has to force himself to extend his hand for alms, making Umberto D. perhaps the only movie to notice how unnatural the act of begging is.

For the most part De Sica and the great Marxist screenwriter Cesare Zavattini successfully avoid sentimentalizing their baggage-laden hero. For starters, they present Umberto as something of an asshole: it’s implied that he’s partly responsible for his predicament, and he’s much better at asking for favors than he is at performing them. (Carlo Battisti, the linguistics professor whom De Sica chose for the part, projects the dour and hissy personality of an unlovable grandparent.) Likewise, De Sica doesn’t overplay the Flike card, mainly by refusing to acknowledge the canine point of view. In the one instance that he slips up—Flike flinches as a human would at the sight of another mutt being abused—we get a glimpse of the different, more ordinary movie that Umberto D. might have been.

Umberto D. observes the daily life of its characters with the intensity of a jeweler’s loupe. A famous scene, played out in something close to real time, merely watches the housemaid go through her morning routine; in one fragrant shot, still in bed and only half-awake, she watches a cat picking its way across the skylight above her head, in one of those mysterious, ineffably right moments of cinema. De Sica pulls so many of these details together that by the end we seem to be inside Umberto’s world; the critic André Bazin put it best when he said that Umberto D. “makes us aware of what it is to be a man. (And also, for that matter, of what it is to be a dog.)”

Near the end of the film Umberto, now out of options, leaves his house for the last time, intent on finding a home for Flike—in effect, clearing the decks for his own suicide—but the world thwarts both this humble effort and, even more appallingly, his subsequent attempt to kill himself.

Now, anyone who’s sat through the film has to concede that man and dog will soon be dead—in a week perhaps, or perhaps in an hour—and yet if you didn’t know better, you’d think that master and pet don’t have a care in the world as they frolic along that pathway. Even the impact of De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, one of the most celebrated downers in the history of art, is cushioned by our knowledge that at the movie’s end Antonio Ricci still has a home, a wife, and his son’s undying love. Umberto, though, is left facing the abyss, and yet in that final shot he displays a vitality, even a joy, that’s visible in no other part of the movie. How can this be? Acceptance is a virtue, God knows, but when you’re on the bricks like Umberto is, acceptance and two-bits won’t even buy you bubble-gum. Umberto and Flike disappear from view, some rowdy schoolboys sail past the camera, and suddenly it’s time to get on with our lives again. But what exactly did we just see? I’ve discussed the subject with friends and read what wise men have to say on the matter, but the most satisfactory answer came from an entirely different movie.

Jack Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man appeared in 1957, and to this day it remains my favorite ’50s sci-fi flick, largely because of its graceful, enlightened ending. Richard Matheson’s story stars another abrasive hero, Scott Carey, who is enveloped in a radioactive mist that causes his body to begin shrinking—first to laughably childish, and finally atomic, proportions. A lot of Shrinking Man’s entertainment value springs from its parade of Brobdingnagian props: straight-pins that double as spears, a mousetrap the size of a minivan, kitchen matches that look like saguaro cactuses. (One of the movie’s biggest jolts comes in a shot of Carey unexpectedly sitting in a chair that fits him, topped by our realization that he’s moved into a dollhouse.)

The earliest threats to Carey come from such common domestic sources—a sour-faced tabby cat, a burst water heater—that it’s like being terrorized by a ficus tree. The scenes in which he’s reduced to the size of a Ken doll and juxtaposed against his strapping, buxom wife discreetly pick at the male dread of impotence, but like Umberto D. it’s ultimately about what happens to a person when lonesomeness becomes a way of life, and Carey’s description of his existence as “a gray friendless area of space and time” could serve as a tagline for De Sica’s movie. It’s only after he’s vanquished a towering tarantula (it straddles the camera in repulsive close-up) that Carey recognizes a deeper enemy, and realizes that he’s already licked it.

“The infinitesimal and the infinite…this vast majesty of creation…to God there is no zero….” As Jack Benny would put it: Well. But while that language may be a little bit gamey, the typical 1950s sci-fi flick was so intent on easing the age’s anxieties that it felt it had done its job once it dropped an A-bomb on its mole men or leech women and blown them back to kingdom come. For Richard Matheson to actually think through the implications of his original idea was an act of artistic largesse, and the image of Carey stepping off into the cosmos with this micro/macro Möbius strip swirling around inside his head only made it that much more generous. Under a title bad enough to make us wither from sight, Matheson would later concoct a sequel to The Incredible Shrinking Man. In it Scott Carey’s wife begins to shrink, too, and joins him in his tiny adventures until, thanks to exactly the type of miracle which the first movie so forcibly rejected, both Careys return to their normal height and retake their place in the world. It’s as if Matheson had set out to prove that the best endings are the ones which open themselves outward to the largest possibilities.

The Incredible Shrinking Man came into the world five years after Umberto D., and in the decades since the two movies’ fortunes have done a dosey-do. Shrinking Man, an instant hit in ’57, was still playing in crowded theaters when I saw it three or four years later, whereas De Sica’s movie, coming at the tail-end of the neorealist cycle, was a notorious flop in Italy. The Minister of Culture, with one eye glued firmly to the wrong end of the telescope, accused it of national slander while the Italian Communist party rejected its pessimism. Today, of course, Umberto D. is one of cinema’s most hallowed titles while Shrinking Man barely rates as a cult movie.

Say what you will about The Incredible Shrinking Man, it helped me to appreciate Umberto D. on a level beyond trite miracles or easy despair. Once he’s regained Flike’s trust with that pinecone, Umberto has done everything that he needs to do in this world. His bags are packed. And like Scott Carey, he recedes into “the infinitesimal”, an invisible world in which the ties that bind man and beast can never be erased—a place where dogs and men bear the same sized souls, and there are no zeroes.

I’m not normally given to plugging stuff, but…

September 5, 2012

“Underworld U.S.A.” (1961)

August 30, 2012

Director: Samuel Fuller / Director of Photography: Hal Mohr

“Chaos” Theory

August 27, 2012

The problem is actually state-of-the-art Hollywood filmmaking itself, which while in pursuit of relentless video-game-style cool and nonstop action no longer has room or time for ideas or story or character or even other kinds of tasteless sensationalistic impact—the kind that Samuel Fuller, Stanley Kubrick, Verhoeven and Lars Von Trier, for example, have trafficked in without always resorting to chases and punching, chases and punching, and then some shooting.

That’s from Michael Atkinson’s takedown of the Total Recall remake, which I was ready to sign onto without even reading it because of the whole Jesus!-Hollywood-get-some-imagination-already thing, but also because I’m a fair to middling fan of the old Schwarzenegger number. Indeed, I’ve bitched so much—here, there and everywhere—about the lack of “ideas or story or character” in mainstream fare that I don’t really need someone haranguing me on the subject.

The slam-bang relentlessness Atkinson is describing refers to the sensation-centered cinema of Roland Emmerich’s mega-disaster flicks, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and Paul Greengrass’ Bourne movies—the exact kind of cinema that Pauline Kael once feared would eventually cause audiences to see nothing but “a big hole in the screen” during movies that don’t come with over-the-top action scenes. These movies take as their basic building block the loud, splashy and improbable sequence, as opposed to the old-fashioned story that organically grows out of a single idea, which is roughly the difference between a string of sausages and a living pig. Fans of the style like it because it’s exciting and at its most extreme it provides what they think is a one-on-one correlation between the perils on the screen and their own experience—“It’s like you’re really at war” they’ll tell you, although why anyone would want to experience such a thing is never explained, any more than the difference between sitting in a comfy theater chair and someone firing a machine-gun into your face is ever reconciled.

The style was recently christened with a name—“chaos cinema”—which successfully conveys the idea of a perspective that’s missing a unifying consciousness, and when Tony Scott, a past master of fragmented editing, committed suicide last week, his work was hailed as “a smearing of the senses”, which gets at the same thing. Well, as for me, I don’t get—not even remotely—where the pleasure is to be had in this stuff. The final battle of Seven Samurai also employs a lot of cutting, but only after Kurosawa has so thoroughly grounded us in both the characters of the combatants and the layout of the battleground that not only can we make instant sense of what we’re seeing, we can derive meaning from the action even as it’s happening—meaning that goes far beyond “Oh, he got him right in the head!” I believe the people oohing and aahing over Bourne’s car chases are being sincere when they say they’re having a good time; I just don’t think they’re demanding enough. If the biggest high you get from movies comes from a fireball seen from half a dozen angles, then a stripper humping a silver pole must make you feel like you’ve just gotten laid.

For my money, good action scenes—whether it’s the train robbery in White Heat, the encircling nightmare of Nada’s arrest in Carlos, or a shootout on the velvety streets of a night-darkened town in No Country for Old Men—do a hell of a lot more than throw me into a passive trance. Craving disorientation isn’t just infantile—it’s self-defeating. The touches and details that go into a successful action scene create levels of involvement and satisfaction that go far beyond who’s whacking who. The car chases in Siegel’s The Lineup and Halicki’s Gone in 60 Seconds are thrilling in part because, even amidst the mayhem, we can appreciate their geographical correctness as they zoom across San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The ironic thing is that “chaos cinema” ultimately hails from Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, which in 1969 contained an unprecedented amount of multi-angle editing, to the point of setting a record for shot-to-shot edits in a single feature film. (Some 3,200, if memory serves.) But Peckinpah was a classical filmmaker to the bone, and every shot of his massive gunfights was both intensely motivated and carefully fixed within the physical arenas of his action, while his famous intercutting of film shot at different speeds was done with Hitchcockian precision to achieve very particular effects.

And so I’m fundamentally sympathetic to Atkinson’s complaint here. However, he makes a mistake that’s common as dirt when critics lament The Death of Cinema, and it’s all based on some strange misunderstanding people have about videogames. It may be simple prejudice. Once, when I told a pair of friends that I was playing Grand Theft Auto IV, they literally gasped “No!” as if I’d told them that I like strangling kittens in my spare time. It’s no dark or dirty secret, though: I own a PlayStation 3, and I’ve enjoyed the hell out of the half-dozen games I own. And I’m here to tell you, my brothers and sisters, those games—all among the most popular ones on the market—provide an experience which is completely and utterly at odds with the slash-and-stab attack on the senses that Atkinson is talking about. In fact, he has it exactly bass-ackwards. Movies haven’t come to resemble awful videogames; instead, the games—these games, anyway—have done their best to look like good movies.

The games’ cinematic roots can be seen dangling from them in various ways. In GTA IV a bank heist gone awry leads to a reproduction of the (classically staged) street shootout in HeatRed Dead Redemption owes some of its story and many of its tonal elements—the music, most noticeably—to Unforgiven and Leone’s spaghetti westerns. And as its title indicates,  L.A. Noire is the most movie-conscious of them all, with in-game references to a million old crime pictures and a wild foot-chase through the Babylon set from Intolerance.

There’s none of Tony Scott’s whiplash editing style in any of these games, not even for a second. Indeed, that would be impossible, for apart from the cut-scenes—that is, those autonomous little scenes in which the storyline is advanced without the player’s participation or guidance—there’s no real editing at all. Typically you’re viewing the scene through a proscenium-like frame, just as in a movie. Even during the gunfights the action remains framed, continuous and seen from a constant perspective—your own.

Atkinson also complains about the breathless pacing of the modern action movie:

Total Recall is structured in one-second bricks—that’s exactly as long as you get, and not one microinstant more, to let your eye rest on an image, contemplate a character’s feelings, or piece together a narrative sequence’s logic. What movies traditionally basked in now comes at us in strobe-rate splotches…You watch the blip-blip-blip of Total Recall‘s trite ingredients speeding by, and your abandoned craving for context and contemplation and substance—any substance—quickly turns into irritation and then disgusted rage.

In GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption, the player’s surrogate is normally found on foot, and has to be put on horseback or in a car to travel with any velocity at all. If you’d wish to have him walk across the entire “sandbox”—meaning the territory as a whole on which the game is played—from one end to the other, you better be ready for a lot of context and contemplation, because it’s going to take you hours. These game-worlds are each infused with an uncountable number of details that serve as constant enticements to slow down and examine one’s surroundings. Red Dead Redemption, for instance, recreates the topology of the American west—from the plains to the deserts to the snow-capped mountains—while carefully including all the wildlife, weather conditions, and changes in light one would expect to find there.

This encouragement to explore to your heart’s content is the opposite of “chaos cinema”, which holds your attention in a death-grip and never stops directing your gaze. The appropriate cinematic equivalent for videogames, in which “the camera” is perched slightly above and behind the character, isn’t Gladiator at all. It’s the Dardenne brothers’ subjective camera peeking over Rosetta’s shoulder.

In truth, the impersonal, purposeless cutting that’s killing so many action movies today is derived from an art-form that was the whipping boy for everything that was shallow and fast in the ’70s and ’80s: the music video. If you want to blame someone, blame Adrian Lyne and his goddamned Flashdance video. (It’s only fitting: chaos cinema has shredded the musical, too.) That’s the model that has six edits whenever someone tosses a cigarette away, that zooms in and out willy-nilly, and that rejects anything resembling a governing consciousness. The distinction is hardly a milestone in the history of aesthetics, but it’s worth getting right if it’s worth going into at all. Far from corrupting movies, videogames have done their best to replicate the older medium. They’re practically a tribute to it.

From “Cinéma Cinémas”

August 4, 2012

Dunaway Chambre 357: Faye Dunaway doing PR for Barfly, interviewed while sprawled across a giant bed in her hotel suite, wearing an elegant suit, looking wonderfully warm, answering questions while chain-smoking and slipping back and forth between French and English. More thoughtful, more attractive as a person than I’ve ever seen her—softer; she runs her hands through her hair as intermittent bits of the love theme from Vertigo are heard. The ending is typical of the series, with the interviewer asking her about her childhood. Dunaway ponders the question and asks aloud “What kind of little girl was I?” Cut, to the little clip from Alphaville that separates the segments.

And Hotel Jacumba, the best thing in the box so far. In 1928 Louise Brooks shot Wellman’s Beggars of Life on the Mexican border, with cast and crew lodging at the local roach-trap. The segment opens with a clip showing Brooks (in the same get-up she’s wearing in my FB avatar) and Richard Arlen jumping onto a moving freight train—it’s clearly Brooks herself sprinting full-speed and hoisting herself up the ladder. A railroad dick appears and clubs her, sends her spinning off the train onto a stretch of rocky ground (in long shot). Cut to the modern day, to the now abandoned and spookily dilapidated hotel. As the camera roves through the rundown grounds and lobby, a woman is heard reading from Brooks’  account of the shoot, describing how she seduced the stuntman who took the spill off the train, how he subsequently asked her—in public—if she was carrying syphilis, then mocked her in front of his girlfriend. The woman’s voice is calm and unruffled as she recites these facts, and weeds choke the life out of Hotel Jacumba.

%d bloggers like this: