Monthly Archives: April 2010

If Boys Don’t Cry, Then Why, Oh, Why Can’t I?

(A few weeks ago, I contributed this post to the Film Experience blog–my first guest post!–and I’m only just now getting around to posting it here. Normally, I’d link to it, but I’ve added a few images and altered the copy enough that I’m posting in its entirety below. But I still heartily recommend visiting the Film Experience blog!)

Twelve years ago, when I was a sound editor in NYC, I had the good fortune to meet with director Kimberly Peirce to discuss her film, Boys Don’t Cry. I don’t know if I was ever seriously considered to her supervising sound editor, but I was flattered nevertheless. And talking to her about her great film-in-progress was really a privilege.

I always looked at the film—the story of transgender male Brandon Teena–as interpreting Brandon’s tragedy as a Pinocchio story: someone who wants to be a boy is severely punished for lying. I suppose I thought that because of moments like this:

Lord knows Peter Sarsgaard and Brendan Sexton III’s characters scared me as much as these guys did in Pinocchio.

But in Peirce’s very incisive audio commentary, she refers much more to The Wizard of Oz as point of reference. For example, during Boys Don’t Cry’s opening credits, Teena has just “become” Brandon and goes to meet a date at the skating rink. Peirce explains that Brandon’s entrance to the rink is the final step of his mental transformation:

“We…set up a shot sequence that made you feel like you were walking inside the landscape of your fantasy. It was a…structure inspired by The Wizard of Oz:



A shot of the character;





a shot of the landscape she walks into;





the door opening;





the character going through;





and us going right through that door with them.”



This clip I made helps illustrate her point. It has Peirce’s commentary, Brandon’s “passage to manhood,” and Dorothy’s entrance to Oz…


Peirce’s entire commentary is riddled with these awesome examples of how she uses the camera to transform Brandon’s experience—as best as she can imagine it—into a cohesive film. To hear her thoughts on the difference between fantasy and reality; self-loathing as a by-product of an oppressive environment; Brandon’s self-destruction; etc, makes it very clear that the film’s impact was no mistake.

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My Lai, Alfred E. Neuman and the ‘Loss of Innocence’ Rap

The massacre at My Lai [pronounced Me Lie] occurred in Viet Nam in March, 1968, and the resulting cover-up, exposure, trial and press coverage from 1969 through 1970 greatly increased the US civilian opposition our involvement in Viet Nam. Tonight, PBS’s American Experience is airing My Lai, a compelling new documentary by Barak Goodman. Here’s the promo for it.

I’ve seen it. It’s great storytelling and I strongly recommend it. But for here and now, I’m going to put aside the American Experience and tell you about My Experience (which happens to be as American as you can get).

Like so many people in the last sixty years, my childhood was influenced by Mad magazine (and when I write “people” I mean “guys”), and Mad poster child Alfred E. Neuman was one of my heroes, a sort of spokesman for the irreverent. I regularly trolled the used comic book shops looking for old issues, and in 1980, on one of these junkets, I came across a 1971 issue of National Lampoon, the counter-culture humor magazine that was a direct descendant of Mad. The cover referenced Alfred E. Neuman but being only eleven years old, I didn’t understand what the joke was.

Mad’s Alfred E. Neuman and a portion of the National Lampoon cover


OK, now let’s skip to two weeks ago. I’m in theater watching an advance screening of the My Lai documentary. Lt. William Calley was a key figure in the massacre, was found guilty for his actions and sentenced to life imprisonment. To many, he was the face of My Lai, and controversy surrounded his trial and conviction from all sides, left and right. In the midst of the documentary, there’s this photograph of him:

…and in the audience, I’m the one person who said “Oh, shit!” for a reason not related to war atrocities. I mentally rolodex back thirty years to a comic book store in South Jersey and all the pieces fell into place:

For the last two weeks, with all the cultural info now at my fingertips (unlike back in ’80 when knew nothing about that war), I’ve been pondering that cover. I know it’s (purposely) tasteless but I couldn’t put my finger on why. I suspect the My Lai/Me Worry pun made the cover irresistible to the folks at Lampoon. As for morphing the face of Neuman into Calley, well, if you see enough pictures of the latter, you easily see their resemblance. (And with cover art done by former Mad artist Kelly Freas, it only helps it’s authentic Mad magazine look.)

Ultimately, placing myself into the mindset of an American living through the Viet Nam war–something Goodman’s documentary does brilliantly, by the way—I noticed the cover melds a 50s icon with a late 60s icon. The fact is if you were in your twenties in 1971, it doesn’t matter whether you were burning your draft card or be burned by the draft–you were raised on Alfred E. Neuman and you had a strong opinion of the war. This cover artfully conjures that whole Loss of Innocence rap I always hear from those who lived in America between Kennedy getting shot and Nixon resigning. (Let’s face it: you old guys do go on about that.)

Anyway, if you made it this far that means you’ve seen the magazine cover. Now I suggest watching My Lai tonight on PBS. And afterwards, if you want more on the twisted relationship between the Viet Nam war, the media and the Loss of Innocence, just Google “Lt. Calley Esquire cover.”

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Dede Allen, Film Editor, Part 2

Earlier this week, I did a post about the great editor Dede Allen, and since then I’ve seen more online tributes for a behind-the-scenes film person than ever before (except, of course, for a director). It’s been great to learn so much about her accomplishments and legacy. Here’s some Some Facts About Dede that I never knew until this week:

        -She was the first editor to receive a solo title card in the opening credits to a film, for Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Prior to that, editors received their credits in list of five or six or ten others, one of thse “all the little people who helped make this film” title cards, while the Directors of Photography regularly enjoyed a card just for themselves.

        -According to the Motion Picture Editors Guild website, Dede was the first to obtain “points” for the film editor in profit distribution. Jesus, if that doesn’t prove how smart and valued she was, I don’t know what does.

        -She pioneered the “L cut,” also known as pre-lapping, which is when the dialog of the incoming scene begins before the picture transitions into that scene. While it’s not the easiest thing to describe in prose, it’s easier to just say, “she pioneered the predominant editing for every HBO show.” True, this idea existed before she made use of it, but she was the first editor to capitalize on it and make it a part of a film’s style.

Here’s another scene she edited, from the 1977 George Roy Hill film Slap Shot. (Her credit is at the top of this post.) A harsh and hysterical story of a down-on-their-luck minor league hockey team, this is the scene where the tide turns for them. Thanks to near-homicidal style of their new players, the Hanson Brothers, they use violence to tap into the pent-up rage of their economically-frustrated fans. It’s expertly shot and directed, but I think Dede’s contribution is key. Besides the fact that she cuts immediately after a moment of violence, which tends to make the violence more painful, she also has this recurring motif:




-violent action occurs






-spectator reacts





-cut back to see the fallout of that violent action




It’s the Rhythm of Catharsis. (Also, the clip ends with one of the best sight gags of 70s cinema.)


Here’s some links to articles about Dede, including an interview with her from 2000:

Imagine That: Dede Allen, Hollywood’s Greatest Film Editor, Died Oscarless, The Big Picture by Patrick Goldstein, LA Times

The Woman Who Turned Film Violence into Poetry, by Matt Zoller Seitz, at Salon.com

The Legacy of Film Editor Dede Allen, on NPR, featuring an interview with a Craig McKay, a student of Dede’s who also co-edited Reds with her

Dede on Digital, a 2000 interview with Dede from the Motion Picture Edtiors Guild magazine, by Mia Goldman

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Happy Birthday to a Living Legend!

Yes, true, Jack Nicholson turns 73 today, but more importantly (for me), it’s John Waters’s birthday. To celebrate, I’ve written a guest post on FilmExperience.com and you can read it here.

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It’s Sharon…’Miss Jones’ If You’re Nasty

Soul singer Sharon Jones (left in the photo above) is all the rage nowadays and I couldn’t be happier about it. Her new CD I Learned The Hard Way is getting heaps of praise; she and her backup band the Dap-Kings are selling out bigger and bigger venues; and if you saw Up in the Air, you heard her funk up “This Land is Your Land” over the opening credits.

All of this brings me back to the first time I heard Miss Jones, in 2003. I was listening to Downtown Soulville on WFMU.org which is DJ’ed by Mr. Fine Wine. He plays 60s and 70s soul and funk almost exclusively on vinyl. Yes, he occasionally spices things up with contemporary soul bands, those that play with the ol’ skool soul flavor, but I was unaware of that then. One night, among such obscure classics as “Baby, Your Hair Looks Bad” by Mr. Bo & His Blues Boys and “The Witch Doctor” by Over Night Low, he played this (feel free to listen and guess what it is):

When if finally registered what song it was, I had a frantic moment thinking Janet Jackson had actually been doing a cover in 1986!

The truth is that not only does Sharon Jones perfectly capture the spirit of soul music from 30 years ago, the Dap-Kings arrange and produce in the same way. Likewise, they use recording equipment and techniques from the era, too. All of which would make anyone believe they’ve gone back in time.

Not that that is their point, thank goodness. The point is to get down and get funky.

And I strongly recommend beggin’, borrowin’ and/or stealin’ the see them perform live. You’ll have a blast!

Here’s some links to bring you up to speed on the Hardest Working Woman in Show Business:

Her website.

The video for the title track of her new CD. It’s so cinematic I expected there to be closing credits.

Here’s a download of Sharon’s version “What Have You Done for Me Lately?” This is the rare full-length version. (Right-click to download)

And just for nostalgia, here’s the original version of “What Have You Done for Me Lately?” by Janet, um, I mean Miss Jackson. (Right-click to download)

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Polish Posters Revealed

Last week I posted some Polish film posters with their identifying information blurred out. Traffic was strong, participation not so. Well, what can you do? I’m still just getting up to speed here.

You can see the blurred versions at the original post, but here they are in their unadulterated form.

Considering the Sex and the City franchise is so firmly in place, it’s surprising that in Poland they’d create something so different, something that doesn’t use Sarah Jessica Parker’s face.


The Shaggy Dog (1959), the one with Fred MacMurray. Yeah, even Disney got the highly-imaginative Polish treatment.


I’m at odds with this one. True, it does evoke one of the most sinister elements of Altman’s 1975 film–it may even be a kind of a spoiler (I have to be delicate here since I don’t want this post to be a spoiler!)—but it’s just so horrific it could be counter-productive to welcoming people into the film Still, on its own terms, it’s striking as Hell.


And here’s one more for the road: Mel Brook’s Silent Movie (1976).

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Dede Allen, Film Editor

Sadly, Dede Allen passed away Saturday. (Here’s her New York Times obituary.) Her impact is enormous, however, as she edited many wonderful and important films, such as Serpico, The Hustler, Dog Day Afternoon, and others. I’d like to show scenes from three of them.


Bonnie and Clyde (1968)
This is the big mack daddy of her credits. The obvious go-to scene for Arthur Penn’s film is the brutal finale (which Allen actually credited to her assistant editor Jerry Greenberg), a scene I tend to re-watch four or five times whenever I see the film, but I’ve selected a different scene. It’s the picnic with Bonnie’s mother and family. It occurs late in the film, and death—Bonnie and Clyde’s that is—is beginning to feel inevitable. For almost two minutes the film becomes dreamlike, with hazy filters and distant sound. But it’s Dede’s editing that really hits me: like the film’s violent conclusion, time is warped, but in this case you’re floating. It feels like Bonnie’s heaven and funeral combined.



Reds (1980)
This is an early scene from Warren Beatty’s 1980 film (which Allen also executive produced). Activist/journalist John Reed and writer/future wife Louise Bryant have just met. She’s interviewing him, and she (and we) quickly get a sense of his passion for politics and change.

Something tells me this was fun to edit. Not easy, but fun.


The Breakfast Club (1985)
I remember being surprised to find out she had edited this John Hughes film. But as I’ve re-watched it over the years—and enjoy it more and more—I can see her imprint. The success of this film is hinged on the Reaction Shot.

Since these characters slowly warm up to each other in the first third of the film, their reactions to each other aren’t always verbal. (This is particularly true of Ally Sheedy’s character.) Not to take anything away from Hughes, but I imagined he’d let the camera roll sometimes, asking the actors to give multiple versions a reaction, perhaps varying the intensity, and then he and Dede would pick and choose, meticulously pacing the evolution of these complex relations. Even though I’m talking about a cumulative impact over a ten minute scene, I ‘ve strung togther most of these reaction shots into a single clip. (I hope this doesn’t do a disservice to Dede’s work. I even feel cheesy cutting this to the Simple Minds tune, but I hope my point comes across.)

Next time you watch the film, I suggest paying close attention to the reaction shots throughout the whole film. It’s great storytelling.


BONUS: The “Clyde Barrow” Jump Cut

Clyde: Before and After

Ten days ago I did a post about jump cuts, and due to my vague prose and the technical limitations of the internet, one jump cut I referred was impossible to understand. Ironically, I’ve been meaning to write an addendum to that post, explaning that edit in more detail, and with Ms. Allen’s passing I feel even more responsible to accurately represent her work.

This 25 second clip breaks down the edit, at varying speeds. About ten frames of a shot are removed just as Clyde says his name.



I don’t want to get too sentimental over these things, but I can safely say Dede Allen’s work changed my life and the lives of many others. Her work pushed envelopes and changed the way we abosorbed information, which is no small feat.

(Jesus, all this and I forgot to show anything from Slap Shot! What a masterpiece of editing! Well, that’ll have to wait for another post.)

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Woody Takes Control, Commando Style

For the first four Sundays of this blog-thing, I’ve written about Pixar films (here, here, here and here). And now, here’s another.

Commando (1985), directed by Mark L. Lester, is Arnold Schwarzenegger’s first starring role after The Terminator and is perhaps the apex of his comicbook/video game style of “shoot everything and everyone in sight” films. The body count is extreme, to say the least, and it’s influence can be felt on Pixar’s Toy Story. Well, kinda.

Here’s the deal. This minute-long scene from Commando might be its most famous. Arnold’s character, John Matrix, is trying to infiltrate the mansion of a drug kingpin and gets cornered in a toolshed. Needless to say, he relies heavily on toolshed staples (i.e. a circular saw blade) to get him out of this jam. Here’s the scene in its Director’s Cut form; pay particular attention to the ending, when Matrix understandably machetes a man’s arm off.

This scene was conceived on location, where imaginations run wild, and according to the audio commentary by the film’s director, Arnold was making suggestions: “So Arnold cuts off this guy’s arm and he wanted to pick it up and and slap his face with his own hand and then throw it at him. That was Arnold’s idea. And I thought that was too much. [laughs]”

So where does Toy Stoy fit in? Watch this clip—when Woody brings a “drunken” Buzz to his senses—and notice what Woody does with Buzz’s dismembered arm.

Conincidence? This (gleeful) excerpt from Toy Story’s commentary puts things in perspective:

Obviously, I could go on about how cartoons have the freedom to behave in ways real humans can’t, blah, blah, blah, but what’s the point? I just like the fact that these geeks heard of a great gag and didn’t want to see it go to waste. (I also like that this whole narrative isn’t complete until you’ve listened to both audio commentaries, of which I’m probably one of the only people who ever has.)

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One Day in September and a Confounding Marketing Decision

In 1999, Kevin Mcdonald made the gripping (and Oscar-winning) documentary One Day in September. It’s about the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich when a Palestinian terrorist group held several Israeli atheletes hostage. The artwork for the poster and DVD (which I got at the time) highlights the most indelible image of that tragedy: one of the masked hostage takers on the balcony.

OK, now let’s leap to 2005 when Steven Spielberg’s Munich is released. Starring Eric Bana, it’s a narrative film about the Israeli govenrnment’s secret retaliation attacks after the massacre. I’m in a video store with a good friend, describing One Day in September, which functions as a kind of prequel to Spielberg’s film. I say, “Even the DVD cover is freakin’ chilling. Here, check it out.” I pick it up and do a double take. Y’see, logically, to capitalize on the imminent success of the Speilberg film, Sony Pictures gave a push to the documentary DVD, only for reasons I can’t comprehend, they made new artwork:

Say what? I’ve done some casual research and haven’t found any stills of the terrorists taken with optimum lighting by professional photographers, which leads me to believe it’s as fake as it looks. It’s terribly ridiculous and “Hollywood” when compared to the Real Deal.

In fact, since this unfrightening “re-enactment” still isn’t in the film at all, it’s definitely misleading to the consumer. But the most damaging effect of this new cover is that it’s no where near as chilling as the iconic image that graced the original. Am I on crazy pills or is everything that makes the real picture terrifying—the graininess, the imperfect mask, the inability to see the eyes—completely missing from the new artwork?

It’s becoming a recurring theme on my blog: it drives me nuts when bad things happen to great art, whether it’s a film like Jaws getting an emasculating remix or a fine documentary like this being marketed as something it’s not. I’m reminded of what Norman Bates said about his mother in Psycho: “I don’t hate her. I hate what she’s become.”

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What’s That a Poster For?!

Tonight I discovered one of the two topics for which blogs were created: Polish posters.1   I cooked up a quiz, did the heavy lifting in Photoshop, and wrote most of this post before a Google search showed me that I’m the last one to arrive at this party.

The good news is that this daring artwork is getting a lot of attention all over. For example, last year there was an exhibit at MoMA devoted to Polish poster design from 1945 through 1989, and there’s this documentary, Freedom on the Fence, which looks fascinating:


If you want history, as I said, just Google “polish film posters blog” and go nuts. (I found this blog post to be particularly interesting.) Those folks are much more educated about this stuff than I am. On the other hand, I can provide you with a little personal history and a little fun.

My fascination and love with Polish posters began ten years ago with Film Posters of the 70s, by Graham Marsh and Tony Nourmand. This is a helluva great coffee table book, with an average of a poster to a page, from several countries. Repeatedly, as I flipped through the book, the posters designed in Poland were the most shocking, unique, beautiful. Sometimes they were so out there I wondered if the artists had seen the films before making the posters. A fine example of their blend of the grotesque and esoteric is the one for Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974). If you’ve never seen the film, take my word for it: this creepy poster is definitely onto something. In its own way, (I think) it captures the darker nuances of that film.

The poster that really caught my eye, however, was for Cabaret (look above), by Wiktor Gorka; it was the only Cabaret poster worldwide that had the nerve to include a swastika as part of its design (it does more than include it!). Since finding an original poster was cost prohibitive–they go for around $500–I simply ripped the page out of the 10”x12” book and framed it. (A few years later, I got a Jewish girlfriend who became my Jewish fiancé. Naturally, when she moved in, I thought, well, time to take down the swastika poster. Strangely, she suggested we hang it in the bathroom.)

But I digress.

Suffice to say that the posters are dazzling and these small scans do not do them justice. (I’ve seen many at galleries and the impact of these bold images several feet wide is like being punched by a cultural revolution.)

And here’s the quiz. Below are 3 posters, with the identifying info (title, filmmaker, actors, etc.) blurred out. All the films are from the last 40 years and are American. Can you guess what they are? (I’ll post the unadulterated versions in a couple of days.)


(Actually, as of April 20, I’ve posted the un-blurred originals here.)
__________________________________________________


BACK TO POST 1 The other is Frank Sinatra’s doomed 1970 concept LP Watertown. I’m reminded of what Brian Eno said about the Velvet Underground’s first LP: “It only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.” Well, not many people listen to Watertown, but whoever does ends up blogging about it.

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