Monthly Archives: June 2010

When Film Imitates Art

The Last Supper (1495-98, Leonardo da Vinci) & M*A*S*H (1970, Robert Altman)

One art form “borrowing” from another is nothing new, whether it be an homage or a rip-off. In film, for example, a filmmaker might mime something from another visual art (typically painting) to make a point. Here’s some examples (which are interesting in their own right but really a set-up for an obscure one)…

Robert Altman did it in M*A*S*H (above) for the sake of irony. An army dentist prepares to kill himself and his buddies have a send-off dinner. They ask the army priest to deliver the last rites, and he arrives just in time to see the party inadvertently strike a famous pose. (By the way, his reaction shot is the icing on the cake.) 1

Terry Gilliam was both funny and literal in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen: the dinner-time arrival of the goddess Venus recreates Botticelli’s painting, the humorous implication being that this is how she comes to dinner daily.

The Birth of Venus (c. 1486, Sandro Botticelli) & The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988, Terry Gilliam)

Ken Russell’s recurring theme of blurring fantasy and reality is key to his use of Fuseli’s The Nightmare in Gothic, his version of the circumstances behind the creation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In real life, she claimed that her book was born out of a nightmare she had. Russell visually represents it, asking, in a sense, was that nightmare caused by the demon on her chest? 2

The Nightmare (1781, Henry Fuseli) & Gothic (1986, Ken Russell)

Director Herbert Ross and writer Dennis Potter’s depression-era Pennies from Heaven has a mood so similar to Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, it made perfect sense to see Potter’s characters momentarily become the painting. (I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve yet to see if this homage is in the original BBC version.)

Nighthawks (1942, Edward Hopper) & Pennies from Heaven (1981, Herbert Ross)

The source materials for all the images above are very famous to begin with, common images in the popular consciousness. Sometimes, however, the filmmaker doesn’t hit you over the head with the reference; sometimes the inspiration is not as well known. For example, George Cukor had keen appreciation for the grace of Degas’s Dancers Lace Their Shoes, which he used as the inspiration for a Cinemascope tableau early in A Star is Born, throwing in a gruff stagehand to modernize it. This shot does little more than establish the backstage mood at a live event, but it sure looks gorgeous on the big screen.

Dancers Lace Their Shoes (c. 1970, Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas) & A Star is Born (1954, George Cukor)

Here’s my favorite reference in a film. I came to this backward, meaning when I saw the film I had no idea what it was referencing. However, in this post I’ll unfold the information in real chronological order.

John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men was published in 1937, and his tale of the doomed Lennie and George immediately entered the popular consciousness. Meanwhile, photographer Dorothea Lange was in the midst of documenting the day-to-day plight of migrant workers and other victims of the Depression (her most famous photograph is Migrant Mother) and took this picture, which she called Toward Los Angeles, California.

Two years later, Lewis Milestone directed the first film based on Of Mice and Men, starring Burgess Meredith as George and Lon Chaney, Jr. as Lennie. This scene is very early in the film; in fact, it isn’t in the book (it occurs a few hours before Steinbeck’s first chapter). George and Lennie, on their way to a workranch, get off of a bus, being told by a dismissive driver that their destination is “just a stretch down the road.”

Like I said, I came to this in reverse: I saw the film in grade school and a few times after that on TV, and then, about ten years later, in some trendy boutique in the Village, I came across Lange’s picture on a rack of postcards. I experienced major déjà vu, and it took me months to recollect where I had first seen it.

I think Milestone’s allusion to Lange is way more sophisticated than the others listed above. All the others have their merits and fit into the filmmakers’ purpose, so they’re perfectly fine (Hell, this isn’t a competition). But Milestone referenced a largely-unknown photo that was only two years old. (As opposed to the others who were sometimes reaching across centuries.)

The film uses Lange’s image as a way of infusing some topical documentary into the narrative, but I think it runs deeper, a kind of mixed-media mind meld. Even though Steinbeck and Lange were contemporaries using their respective skills to chronicle the times, in 1937 Steinbeck was the more famous of the two. It isn’t a far reach to think that Lange imagined Lennie and George when she took her picture a month after the book’s publication. (That’s the cover to the first edition to the left, with artwork depicting–you guessed it–two guys walking down a road.) And then Milestone’s appropriation posits a possible back story to Lange’s photograph (especially since he staged it so the scene/shot would resolve with the recreation of her Toward Los Angeles, California).

I’m spelling this out explicitly because in 1940 when John Ford directed his film of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, he and Director of Photography Gregg Toland also borrowed imagery from Lange and photographs taken by the WPA—and that artistic give-and-take has been fastidiously chronicled. You can’t read five sentences about Ford’s film without the writer going on about that. Look, I dig it and all, but I’ve never read anywhere that director Lewis Milestone did it, too—a year before John Ford did!

Of Mice and Men 1st edition dustjacket (1937, artist unknown), Towards Los Angeles, California (1937, Dorothea Lange) & Of Mice and Men (1939, Lewis Milestone)

Yeah, I’ll admit it: as much as I love Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, I’ve always had a soft spot for Milestone’s Of Mice and Men. The cast is exceptional; the filmmaking both technically sophisticated 3  and elegantly simple; and Aaron Copeland’s original score is pretty damn brilliant. If you’ve never seen it, do yourself a favor and Netflix it. (And fer Christ’s sake, stay clear of the 1992 Sinise/Malkovich version, unless you want to see the oxymoron of all oxymorons: Malkovich’s thinking man’s Lennie. Yeesh…)


BACK TO POST 1 Thanks to Altman’s love of gritty cinematography, it’s hard to truly appreciate the amount of detail in this frame grab—and all of its humor. This production still, although from a slightly different angle, reveals two particularly nice touches: the shape of the tent’s wall-of-gauze creates a marvelous frame-within-the frame, and the red cross on the top of the tent is an extra allusion to religion.

BACK TO POST 2 Ken Russell’s work does not lend itself to extreme simplification, and odds are I’ve misrepresented his intent with his use of Fuseli’s painting. My apologies to the Russell fans out there, especially to Michael Worrall, an old friend who helped me considerably with this post.

BACK TO POST 3 If you want to see something really cool, check out this clip, which is a slightly longer version of the clip above. It includes George’s conversation with the bus driver, half of which is shot on a soundstage. After the insert shot of the bus driver’s foot on the brake, it cuts back to the conversation, only now the actors are in a real bus. It’s really cool; in fact, if I hadn’t pointed it out, I wonder if you would have noticed it?


Filed under Books, Film

Batman Begins…to Annoy Me (or Christopher Nolan Needs a Bullshit Detector)

Full disclosure: I’m not a fan of Christopher Nolan’s 2005 franchise re-boot Batman Begins.

Fuller disclosure: I really tried, having seen it one-and-a-half times. (I walked out mid-way through my first screening of it, and then, in the wake of the over-whelming praise of my peers and their cries of “What are you on crack?! That shit rocks!!” and “What an asshole you are for not loving it!” and “This friendship is over,” I revisted it, with eyes more open than the first time. But to no avail. I spent the whole time wishing I could Memento my ass back to a time before the film began. 1

It’s comforting to know that there’s a smart backlash to the structural messes known as Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, but looking at the box office receipts (the true indication of a “great” film), we’re still a minority, albeit an angry one. (And, yeah, I know, I’m a few years late on this post, but, hey, I’m still a rookie!)

I’d rather not give overviews of either film or a thorough breakdown of what bores me about them. Instead I’d like to do what I’ve been doing regularly on my blog: dissect one moment, a standout moment for me, which I think typifies the whole kit and kaboodle.

In fact, the moment in Batman Begins I’m going discuss is the one that prompted me to turn to my wife in the theater in 2005 and say, “OK, I’m done.”

A third of the way into the film, Bruce is in Ra’s Al Ghul’s “boot camp,” about to be given his final test, with Henri Ducard by his side. Here’s an abbreviated version of the scene…

Look, I have no qualms about Bruce Wayne killing every non-Caucasian in the room—or even saving Ducard—but I hate that he says (twice!) that he won’t be an “executioner.” I’m not going to dilly-dally over the finer subtleties what he meant with that word (he will not kill anyone unjustly) versus what he does (kill with just cause) OR that it’s Nolan’s way of showing Bruce’s inner conflict and tortured soul. Screw that.

To me, it’s simply a case of bad dialog. Not bad like, “Your eyes are pools I’d love to swim in,” but bad like when I heard it, I thought, “OK, so Bruce Wayne’s not an exectutioner. I can dig it.” But when he started killing everyone in sight, I asked, “Wait. But didn’t he just say he wasn’t going to do that?!” And that’s the kind of questions that yank me right out of a film, and in the case of Batman Begins, I was yanked out for good.

Back in college, I had a writing teacher named Howard Enders, and he advocated nurturing what he called your Bullshit Detector. That was the alarm in your head that would go off whenever you wrote anything that was false in spirit or intent. It’s along the lines of “Maybe you can bullshit the reader, but do you really want to bullshit yourself?” In fact, if your Bullshit Detector worked well when you were writing your script, then you stand a great chance of maintaining a sense of truth for the rest of your filmmaking process.

And Howard’s impact was so profound that to this day, I have a Bullshit Detctor for watching films, and when something doesn’t feel right, off it goes. (Thanks, Howard. I mean it.)

So, does the blame fall on the script? Hard to say. There’s a draft of Batman Begins on the internet, one credited solely to David Goyer, and the word “executioner” doesn’t appear once in the script. (True, there’s a scene that strongly resembles the one above, but Ducard asks Bruce to blow out a candle, not kill someone.) So, I suppose that Bruce’s tortured soul line entered the picture when Nolan wrote his draft of the script. Muy intersante.

Would the scene be perfect–or even better–without the word “executioner”? Probably not. 2  But is it too much to ask the filmmaker and his cohorts to vet their script for sore thumbs that might cause confusion? I wonder if anyone in the process said, “Y’know, Chris, I get what you’re saying with the ‘executioner’ lines, but then why does Bruce kill that guy who’s tied up. Y’know, the one he said he wouldn’t ‘execute’?” Well, if anyone did bring up this point, he or she was outvoted.

I’m bugged that I’m writing a whole post that does nothing but bitch about a film I don’t like. The more I write these things, the more I realize my stronger posts tend to be about what I love, not what I don’t. (Maybe it’s my Bullshit Detector at work.) So, I’m going to end this post on an up note!

In Cameron Crowe’s book Conversations with Wilder, writer-director Billy Wilder repeatedly says that if you have a strong script you’re likely to have a strong film—but it won’t happen the other way around. (Weak scripts will always make weak films.) And regarding The Apartment (perhaps his most “perfect” screenplay), he says its strong script made every subsequent step in the filmmaking process easier, a no-brainer:

“The idea behind shooting it is getting everything that is written on the screen. Everything, making it clear…I just tried to be careful that one thing led into the other thing…We did The Apartment in fifty days and edited it in less than a week. We had three feet of unused film. Why? Because the story was good.”

I can’t elaborate on that sage advice. It’s as succinct as, well, a screenplay by Billy Wilder. But, I’ll add this piece of naïve optimism: I saw Nolan’s Batman Begins even though I didn’t enjoy Momento (aka the World’s Longest Twilight Zone Episode). And even after those two missteps, I still saw The Dark Knight, which I thought was dreadful. And yet, I’m sure I’ll see Inception this summer. And if I think it blows, I’ll send Christopher Nolan a copy of Conversations with Wilder.


BACK TO POST 1 My alternate joke: But to no avail. I spent the whole time wishing it were called Batman Ends.

BACK TO POST 2 I tried re-cutting the scene without the word “executioner,” but it was still a bore of a scene so I gave up.


Filed under Film, Gripes

Steve Martin: A Wild–Yet Inspirational–Guy

Like many men around my age (41), I was influenced—no, molded by Steve Martin. (And if you were, too, then you know exactly the inflection I used in that last sentence.) Although he was a non-stop presence on TV and in film in the late 70s, it was his LPs that really schooled me in comic timing. It was the ability to re-play those albums endlessly that made them so important for me and my ilk. Simply put, when I was a kid, Steve Martin was the embodiment of pure comedy (summarized beautifully in the still to the right, which came with his 1978 album A Wild & Crazy Guy.)

As I got older and his output mellowed some, becoming a steady stream of a film or two a year, with the occasional (brilliant) appearance on Carson or Letterman, I became more discerning. Some of his films worked (Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid), some didn’t (The Lonely Guy 1). One that’s always worked for me—perhaps my favorite of his films (after The Jerk, of course)—is Frank Oz’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988). I think it’s definitely the most clever film he’s been in, structurally.

The other day I wrote a post about this film and Oz’s DVD commentary for it, a commentary which is a primer on “How to Direct a Comedy.” He worked hard on this film to keep us on our toes, collaborating with Director of Photography Michael Ballhaus to maximize every shot, scene and plot twist.

Here’s a fine example of how he made a scene work. The set up: rookie conman Freddy Benson (Steve) has been jailed in the South of France for plying his trade, and he thinks his one-time meeting with local lothario Lawrence Jamieson will give him the clout he needs to be released. In this clip, the scene is followed immediately by Oz’s commentary for it…

He constantly elaborates like this on what went into making a joke click, whether it was in the writing, acting, shooting, editing, scoring or in the sound effects work. But the real treat in the commentary is Oz’s insight into working with Steve Martin. Repeatedly, the director describes how Steve would contribute a scene-saving gag or punchline—always at Oz’s request. Although Steve doesn’t get a writing credit on the film, you’d think he deserves one. Here’s a short list of what he brought to the table, which includes some of the film’s most memorable moments:

       • Freddy’s character-defining costume touches such as his Speedo and flip sunglasses.
       • Freddy’s Super Glued hand. According to Oz, prior to Steve contributing this sight gag, the scripted scene had no punchline.
       • Ruprecht “going to the bathroom,” perhaps the most quoted joke from the film. (It was actually a joke Steve used to do onstage in the early 70s.)
       • The film’s legendary teaser trailer!

And here’s my favorite of Steve’s contributions. Midway through the film, Lawrence and Freddy are knee-deep in their competition over Janet (Glenne Headly) and her money. Freddy’s angle is to be psychosomatically crippled, while Lawrence claims to be a doctor who can heal him. In this scene, Freddy is perched at the top of an outdoor flight of stairs that lead to a beach. Thanks to Lawrence’s insistence that Janet ignore Freddy, she won’t help him down the stairs. It leads to this…

In the original script, however, it was different: Freddy really does lose control of the wheelchair and careens wildly down the steps. Oz wanted to show this in a single shot, and the stunt supervisor began assembling an intricate rig with a pipeline running the length of the steep steps. It wasn’t going smoothly, and the producer told Frank Oz that it would cost $150,000 to make the gag work. In dismay, the director approached Steve… (At this point, I’ll let Frank finish the story in his commentary.)

I remember seeing this film in ’88 and the ten seconds where we can’t see him—but only hear him—we were laughing because we thought he had fallen, which makes the reveal get another, bigger laugh on top of that (as Oz explains “Sometimes you want to…imagine what’s happening”). But there’s something else that happens here, something plot-wise, that Oz doesn’t even mention: Steve’s suggestion allowed another transfer of control in the ongoing cat-and-mouse between Freddy and Lawrence. As scripted, Freddy gets Janet’s attention because he mistakenly falls down the stairs; as filmed, he wins back her attention by his own devices.

So let’s summarize. With Steve’s one-sentence suggestion—“Well, I’ll just pretend I’m out of control”—he: saved days of work and $150,000 of the film’s budget; inspired a great multi-level gag; and added a brilliant extra twist to the film’s plot. What more could you ask from an actor?! 2

I guess the thrill for me—as a fan of the film listening of the commentary—is that it validated my long-standing appreciation of Steve Martin. He really is the embodiment of pure comedy.


I was lucky to field produce this commentary in the summer of 2001, and I was going to share some stories from that wonderful experience. However, it’s just gonna have to wait for another post. Sorry!


BACK TO POST 1 Ignoring, of course, Charles Grodin’s perfect, toupée-free performance as Warren.

BACK TO POST 2 For the record, there are plenty of Steve’s films I haven’t seen, and although I give him all this credit (he’s brilliant, changed my life, etc), many of them I wouldn’t see even if you put a loaded pistol in my mouth. But, based on what Frank Oz says, I wonder if even the dumbest-sounding of his films have some moments of genius, moments that scream…Steve.


Filed under Film, Humor

When Not to Edit, Pt 3: Frank Oz Lets the Actors Do the Heavy Lifting

In my prior posts about instances when filmmakers refrained from editing unnecessarily, I wrote about Laurel & Hardy holding a shot for the full impact of a joke and how Yasujiro Ozu’s unobtrusive camera enabled a documentary-like use of space and performances. And today it’s about a shot in Frank Oz’s 1988 Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, a shot where the blocking of the actors replaces the needs for edits.

This is going to be a short post—and this shot may not be the best example of my point, to be perfectly frank—but with the director himself explaining it so succinctly in his commentary, it’s hard for me to pass up.

Here’s the set-up: Laurence Jamieson (Michael Caine) and Freddy Benson (Steve Martin) are two conmen duking it out in the South of France. A turf war. By this scene, their animosity reaches its crest, and they realize that neither is going to back down. Here’s the clip, followed immediately by the same scene with Oz’s commentary.

“This is what the movie’s about.”1   Accomplished in a single shot. Well, sustaining it for thirty seconds and having three “shots” in one, ending in an extreme close up, certainly makes it unignorable to the audience that something important is happening.

And while their blocking is a little stagy (i.e. Michael Caine stepping up that last step into his ECU), I think that when it comes to traditional, male territorial behavior, it does matter who’s standing on the highest step. In other words, I’d believe that these characters would end up at the top of a staircase, staring each other down.

So, does Oz prescribe to Eisenstein’s dare to filmmakers to stage as much as possible in a single shot, to maximize the “frame” and its space?2  Hell yeah. It’s clear from Oz’s entire commentary that he gives this kind of thing a lot of thought, whether it’s for a comedic or dramatic purpose. (More below on that commentary.) Moreover, his Director of Photography was Michael Ballhaus. Before the German DP ever met Oz, he was mentored in his youth by director Max Ophüls; and shot sixteen Fassbinder films in the 70s and three Scorsese films in the 80s. In other words, Ballhaus is no slouch when it comes to use of space, and Oz relied heavily on Ballhaus’s sage advice. The result is one of the more intelligently-shot comedies of the 80s.

Next in the When Not to Edit series: Francis Coppola’s use of the camera as an extension of his character’s state of mind.

By the way, I had originally planned to write at length about Oz’s commentary for this film, but I’m saving that for another post. It’s one of my favorite commentaries. Oz intelligently illustrates ways to direct comedy, as well as thoroughly explaining the necessary collaborative process, especially when it comes to Steve Martin. In fact, the post will be about Steve. (Also, I was lucky enough to be the session producer for this commentary, and I’ll write about how that went.) Be on the lookout for it.


BACK TO POST 1 While I think it’s cool that he points out that “this is what the movie’s about,” it is a little troublesome that this happens at the film’s 45 minute mark. I’m not gonna lie to you: I love Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, but I do wish it were a reel shorter.

BACK TO POST 2 In the early 30s, when Eisenstein taught film direction at the Moscow State Cinema Institute, he challenged his class to shoot an entire scene in a single static shot. His idea was simple: through a combination of camera placement, lenses and blocking, the dramatic impact of the scene can be accomplished without editing. He strongly believed that a filmmaker must exhaust all possibilities within the shot before resorting to an edit. He called this mise-en-shot (“staging in the shot”).


Filed under Comedy, Film

The terrifying motion picture from the terrifying No. 1 best seller.

Jaws premiered 35 years ago today, and the internet’s abuzz about it. Plenty of articles, blog posts and e-partying, which I think is really great. Turns out there are many of us out there who call it My Favorite Film. It’s a nice community to be in. (I’ve included a few links below.)

This film is a part of me on a molecular level1, and I’ve already done two posts on it (Before and After and The Many Faces of…). I have many more Jaws-related posts in me, however, I fear they’ll all quickly devolve into bitching about the bad sound mix done in 2000 (see my Before and After post if you don’t believe me). But I don’t want that kind of anger to taint this wonderful anniversary.

Tell you what: my post today will be predominantly about a great moment within Jaws—and towards the end of the post, maybe I’ll grumble a little about what it sounds like in the theaters today.

OK, here’s the scene, which I’ll call the Whale Song scene: Brody, Hooper and Quint are on the Orca, and Quint’s just finished his Indianapolis story. The mood is as quiet as the film will ever get—on the Orca at least—and the silence is interrupted by the sound of a whale in the distance. Naturally, this freaks out Brody, land-lubber that he is. Pay attention to the whale’s interaction with the others…

This is as beautiful as it gets. Gentle, haunting. Let’s break it down, since I think it gets even better under scrutiny:

       -Quint’s story ends. The guys are humbled by his tale. All of us (Brody, Hooper and the audience) have a better understanding of what drives this shark hunter.
       -The whale cries; Brody reacts; Hooper explains, “It’s a whale.”
       -Quint sings with a small smile, “Farewell and adieu to you fair Spanish lady…”
       -The whale cries again.
       -Quint joins the whale, continuing, “Farewell and adieu, you ladies of Spain…”
       -The whale cries the last time.
       -Hooper picks up as soon as the whale is done: “Show me the way to go home…”

In a nutshell, Quint duets with the whale, making his spiritual kinship with the sea even more pronounced than his Indianapolis story did. In fact, you could say that, yes, he’s got issues with sharks but not with the ocean. It’s obvious this is a man who plans to die at sea.

And the fact that Hooper follows his lead—singing a song that asks for “the way home”—could be seen as foreshadowing Quint’s ultimate demise2   a couple of reels later. (Tellingly, in the first version of the script to include the singing, it’s Quint who begins “Show Me the Way to Go Home.”)

I don’t normally read this much into films, but Jaws is so chock full of subtleties, nuances, and idiosyncrasies I’m inclined to think everything is there for a reason. By all accounts—Carl Gottlieb’s The Jaws Log; Laurent Bouzereau’s excellent “The Making of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws”; comparing the few drafts of the screenplay floating around the internet against the end result—this was by-the-seat-of-their-pants filmmaking, with re-writing and improvisation happening at every turn—and yet the young director had a vision and a clear focus on the characters’ purpose within the scheme of the story. Therefore, it’s very likely (to me) that Spielberg directed Robert Shaw to imagine he was singing with the whale.

It bears another viewing…

Of course, a sound effect this distinct prompts questions from an old sound editor like myself: Who picked the actual sound? Who placed it in the film, timing it the way it is? I wouldn’t be surprised if it were Spielberg, perhaps even choosing it prior to shooting. At the very least, a sound effect this important would have been settled upon in the editing room, with input from editor Verna Fields. I can’t imagine the film going through the entire picture edit without any whale sound there, waiting for a sound editor to dig up something appropriate. It’s just too important a sound effect.

But I do have an idea what the scene would sound like without that whale sound. As I wrote in my first post, Jaws was originally mixed in mono (for which it won an Oscar), and when it came out on DVD in 2000, it was remixed for surround sound. Yet for some still-unknown reason, many of the film’s juiciest sound effects were either missing or replaced by something noticeably different or inferior. Sadly, the Whale Song scene, one of my favorite sounding scenes in the film, has been decimated…

I know I said I wasn’t going to bitch too much in this post, but here goes:

       1. The interplay between the whale and Quint and Hooper is gone. Instead, the whale now cries the same time as Quint, which leaves those pockets of silence wide open. The average ear, hearing a film for the first time, is trained to listen to the characters, and any sound placed beneath them will be a distraction. When I used to sound edit, we had a basic rule: it was OK to have sound FX/design wedged in between lines of dialog. (Joe Sixpack, when hearing a sound effect snuck in between some dialog, isn’t going to say, “Hey, they stuck that sound in there because nothing else was going on!” Trust me on that.)
       2. This new whale sound is creepy and happy at the same time—but definitely not mournful in the way the original is. It also sounds like the whale was miked closely when it was recorded and it still sounds that way. Gone is the feeling of distant crying.
       3. Where are all those great boat creaks and groans?! Now the scene sounds like it was filmed on a soundstage (it wasn’t). Check this out. This short clip begins with the new mix and then crosses over into the original, personality-filled mix. (You may have to crank this up for full effect.)

For the life of me, I can’t figure out why any of this was done. But I do know this: if Jaws ever gets its long-overdue theatrical re-release, it will have this anemic mix—and that’s a shame.

But, hey! Enough of my old man grumblin’! Back to the celebratin’!

I’m going to leave you with a couple of gifts. First, here’s those links to some very interesting Jaws-related blogs and articles:
       –Radiation-Scarred Reviews has been doing a week-long Sharkathalon, which includes posts about shark films before and after Jaws as well as links to other blogs posting about the film.
       –Too Much Horror Fiction has some great samples of Jaws in print; and its sister blog Panic on the 4th of July has equally exciting examples of Jaws posters.
       –Hunting Bruce, or, on the Trail of the Jaws Shark, an NPR piece about a journalist fulfilling a life-long dream of literally touching the mechanical shark

And lastly, a song. The song. And this might be the version the guys were referencing:

The Andrews Sisters – Show Me the Way to Go Home (2:49, right-click to download)

I suggest you crank it up, grab a friend or two, and sing along.


BACK TO POST 1 Obviously, Jaws is the Big Mac Daddy of Quotable Films. Oh, sure, there’s “You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” and “Back home we got a taxidermy man–He’s gonna have a heart attack when he sees what I brung him!” Y’know, the quotes we hear peppering our everyday lives. But I’m talking about a deeper layer, like “(inhale).” That’s when Brody gets out of bed, inhaling and standing up straight, which is how I’ve gotten out of bed most days of my life. Or this old chestnut: “(sniff).” Of course, I’m referring to Brody walking down the street of Amity, sniffing sharply then looking up at the birds. I do that one every Fall day.

BACK TO POST 2 Or is it “demeeze”?


Filed under Film, Gripes

Peanuts Week: The Aftermath

So an average two minutes of Charlie Brown’s life came to a close today (click here to see the week’s worth). Even though I knew how it was going to turn out, I did look at the strips repeatedly this week and absorb them before. (When reading these strips in the Complete Peanuts books, I generally read a months’ worth in a sitting.) One wonderful arc became very clear to me when reading them in this slow, methodical way: Schulz deftly turns all of the characters into Charlie Brown. Check it out…

They’re at his side and they’ve (foolishly) pinned their dreams on him.

And like Charlie Brown, they let their delusions of grandeur get the better of them.

But, as it normally goes for Charlie Brown, failure is imminent.

And they have all become losers.

Also, for four days into the next week Schulz shows us the aftermath of Charlie Brown’s mistake. Even the normally neutral Schroder tears into him…


I had so many notions I wanted to discuss in these few posts about Peanuts, and a lot of them got tossed aside in an effort to stay focused. Here’s two loose ends…

One of Schulz’s recurring gags was the snobbish Violet taunting poor Charlie Brown by bragging about her father (i.e. “My dad is taller than your dad,” or “My dad has more credit cards than your dad”), sometimes going for days at a stretch. One time, however, after only three days, Schulz gave Charlie Brown a rare moment of triumph. Imagine starting your week, reading this…

You think, Oh, shit, Violet’s at it again. And the next day, you read this…

Then, think how gratifying Wednesday must have been…

You gotta love Violet’s crushed “Charlie Brown look of nausea” face!

And lastly, there were a few storylines that spanned decades. One of the most famous was Linus’s loyalty to the Great Pumpkin. Every year there was another round of Linus being tested—and sometimes, after Halloween, he’d be downright pissed that he didn’t literally see the Great Pumpkin, his faith being tested more than his lumpy six-year old head could handle. In 1960, this prompted him to write his memoirs, giving us one of the Great Lost Peanuts Phrases…

“Rudely Clobbered”? How come a band hasn’t taken that as a name?!

So, if you haven’t already, I recommend that you find a spare 20 bucks, go to Amazon or and buy yourself a volume of the Complete Peanuts (if you like, start with one from the early 60s, when Schulz was on a roll). You won’t regret it. Charles M. Schulz is one of the artistic geniuses of the 20th Century and, gratefully, getting a huge dose of that genius isn’t terribly expensive or difficult.


Filed under Humor

Parenting: This is how you do it.

My son Harry Mose graduated yesterday. Pre-school. Another rite of passage towards adulthood and independence, albeit an early one. My wife sat next to me crying and, as usual, I sat there panicking. A lot about being a parent scares me. I don’t want to damage him psychologically, and I’d love to support him regardless of what he does. But I imagine being supportive can be difficult at times and I wonder how I’ll do as Harry gets older.

Fortunately, we can learn from our elders, and the other day I found some old letters that gave me perspective and hope…

This Sanyo RD5030 and I looped beautiful music together.

1986. I was a budding young creative type, ideas flying in all directions. Despite being completely tone deaf, I had aspirations of being a part of the music scene. Then I read about the tape loops created in the 60s by minimalist Steve Reich—“music” created with multiple tape decks only—and I knew I was in business. Without hearing any of his work, I took a 1974 recording of my father and my brother, set up three cassette decks and after many late nights in the family room under headphones, made “8 Years Old.” (It’s 3 minutes of looped voices, which I’ve included at the end of this post).

I heard there was a bi-monthly late night experimental music program on WXPN, University of Pennsylvania’s radio station. Hosted by John Hudak, I listened one night and while it wasn’t my cup of tea, I sent John a copy of “8 Years Old.” (Not sure why, actually, but like I said, my head was flying in all directions those days.) He sent me this flattering postcard saying, among other things

Thanks for the tape -> It is an interesting piece/your brother’s voice from that time ago displaced -> I’ll play your piece April 21 probably in the beginning of the show

No way! I thought. I was thrilled and told my mother and my buddies. The night of his show (which began at midnight I believe), I camped out in front of the stereo, headphones on, tape recorder going. The first 30 minutes came and went without my piece playing. So did the next 30 minutes. And the next after that.

What is it like to listen to hours of experimental music against your will? Well, there’s no metaphor for it. In fact, it is its own metaphor. It’s what’s used metaphorically to describe something else that’s painful and unrelenting.

I drifted off, my hope of hearing my brother and father on the radio fading away. At sunrise, I woke up on the floor next to the tape deck. Reviewing what had been recorded after I passed out, I discovered that I had been boned.

I don’t know what I daydreamed would happen after having a 3 minute experimental tape loop play on late night college radio (fame? fortune? chicks?), but I was severely bummed out that morning. (I also had a rug burn on the side of my face.) My mother was very sympathetic, and before I left for the bus, she gave me this note. It said, in part:

      I know you’re disappointed. Understandably so. But don’t be too discouraged.
      Unfortunately, creative people pay a price for their gift. They often suffer rejection, set-backs, lack of interesting on the part of others, etc. You’re a little young to be experiencing these things—but it will help toughen you for the future.
      Remember, I love you and will always stand by and try to be supportive of the little failings and your big successes.

I kept it even though I don’t know how much it helped me at the time. (Hey, I was sixteen. I’m sure my reaction was something along the lines of, “Yeah, nice, Lady. This and 8 bucks will buy me a cassette at Strawberries.”)

But finding it the other day, my immediate reaction was, “Y’see. This is how you do it. This is how you raise a child.” Every word my Mom chose was on the money. And the thing that really blows me away is that it’s a straight line. She wrote it long-hand, in ink, and there’s not a single crossed-out word or any back-stepping. If I had to write something like this, I’d draft the damn thing in Word, and dwell on every sentence like I was Ayn Rand writing John Galt’s speech at the end of Atlas Shrugged.1  But Mom knew exactly what to write, without any second-guessing.

So, yesterday Harry “graduated,” and with every step he makes, the more excited and afraid I become. But I’m lucky that I was schooled right. Hell, when the time comes for me to write a note like this for my Boy, I’ll just grab my Mom’s note and, well, plagiarize it. Thanks, Mom!


8 Years Old
This isn’t for everyone, but I’ll admit it has the same effect on me today that it did in 1986. After a brief introduction by my father and brother Paul (who was eight years old at the time), it’s a single phrase looped for a couple of minutes. There’s two tracks of it, one in each ear, and one is running slightly faster than the other.

The effect is that as long as the two tracks are out of synch, your head is split in half, but as they gradually fall back into synch, you’ll feel your halves come together as one, even if only for a brief instant. Like I said, not for everyone, but thanks to the iPod generation, more people are wearing headphones than ever, which is the only way to hear this.

Stephen Altobello – 8 Years Old (3:24, right-click to download)


BACK TO POST 1 It took Rand two years to write the 70-page speech.


Filed under Family

When Not to Edit, Pt 2: Ozu’s Unobtrusive Camera

Two weeks ago I did my first post in a series about instances when directors chose to use a single shot to tell a story, even though a filmmaker’s instinct might be to use several shots. I referenced a lecture by Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. Although he was typically a supporter, promoter and innovator of montage editing,1   he taught the principle of storytelling-via-a-single-shot, which he called mise-en-shot (“staging in the shot”).

Today I’m going to focus on a clip from Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Chorus, a 1931 silent domestic comedy-drama. Ozu was a Japanese director who made approximately fifty films between 1927 and 1962. Many focused on family life and the day-to-day struggles between the generations. I’m certainly no expert on him—I’ve seen very few of his films, sorry to say—but everything I’ve seen has keen insight into human nature, frequently gentle but rarely melodramatic.

Tokyo Chorus is the story of Shinji Okajima, a young husband and father in contemporary Japan, which was in the thick of the Depression. This is an early scene, one that introduces the family. As Okajima is preparing to go to work, he and his wife discuss his salary bonus and he interacts with his son and daughter.

I love this scene. It’s chockfull of moments, mannerisms, and feelings. I don’t know much about Japanese cinema—much less their silent cinema—but this strikes me as more realistic looking than your average American film from the same period. The production design, costumes and even the performances seem less stagy that what I’d expect from its American counterpart.2

As for the shooting, Ozu uses his share of conventional angles one would expect in a narrative, such as this angle/reverse angle exchange…

…but later in the scene, there a there’s a single comic shot that relies on blocking for its effect. It’s the shot immediately after the son (unnamed in the film) breaks some of Okajima’s records…

This is great narrative comedic staging and directing since the timing of the joke is decided by the blocking: we register Okajima’s disappointment and, in lieu of a couple cuts and close-ups, the son steps out, delivering the smile that makes the joke.

This is cute but not what I’m referring to when illustrating how Ozu uses a single short for maximum effect. That shot is, of course, the final one in the scene, the one that stikes me as the one most like a documentary. The camera is static, low to the ground and unobstrusive. I see three-and-a-half shots in one:

“Shot” #1 is Tsuma (the wife) on the tatami mat, and it’s framed for her (which explains why the camera is low to the ground). Okajima enters frame right, though we can only see him from mid-torso down. While this is a perfect place for a conventional cut-on-action to a medium of him, Ozu holds his ground.

“Shot” #2 is Tsuma sending her husband off to work, with only the lower half of their bodies visible. Ozu foregoes shots of their faces in exchange for seeing the wife caringly brush her husband’s blazer, the final touch before sending him on his way.

“Shot” #3 is their departure, a family parading by the camera like a family of ducks, which ends beautifully with the camera already perfectly framed for Miyoko, the daughter.

The “half shot” is the 2-and-a-half seconds after Tsuma leaves the frame and before the children enter…

This is a very atypical-Hollywood “dead air” shot, where the audience is left in the dark. My guess is that for a Hollywood film, the walking would have been choreographed so that the procession would have been tidy, rhythmic, and uniform. However, Ozu and his unobtrusive camera let the action happen at a more realistic pace, like a vérité documentary, and he doesn’t worry if we lose our bearings for a moment. Hell, there’s always their home to look at, isn’t there?

So, does Ozu prescribe to Eisenstein’s dare to filmmakers to stage as much as possible in a single shot, to maximize the “frame” and its space? Kinda, though I don’t think that was his goal. I believe he searched for the one place to put the camera that would give him the maximum number of shots. This kept his budget down and allowed his actors to move organically and realistically within the space. And that’s as good a reason as any.

Tokyo Chorus is currently available on Silent Ozu: Three Family Comedies, a 3 DVD set by Eclipse, Criterion’s “bargain” series. It also includes his next film, I Was Born, But…, another domestic comedy. That will be playing in NYC at the IFC Center for two weeks, beginning June 25. As these films rarely screen, I highly recommend it.

Next up in the When Not to Edit series, Frank Oz will make an appearance on Peel Slowly, to talk about using a static camera to stage comedy.

Add’l posts in this series:

       • Frank Oz Lets the Actors Do the Heavy Lifting


BACK TO POST 1 A perfect example of Eisenstein’s affinity for montage if this clip from his 1929 film The General Line. Thanks to an abundance of quick edits, he shows us the kinetic energy in a roomful of peasant farmers witnessing for the first time a creamer in action. (Is it my imagination or is it awfully sexual?)

By the way, the version I saw with English subtitles had the phrase “It creams!” for this shot. Whoa.

BACK TO POST 2 And the children’s actions and reactions ring true, whether it’s the son mimicking the father trying in vain to repair the broken records or the siblings choosing to play with those broken records instead of the ball that caused the problems in the first place.


Filed under Film

Peanuts Week Begins

(Clips Update: I’m trying out VideoPress, which is WordPress’s flash player. It’s going to take me a few days to get all the clips back up, but I’m chipping away at it. One drawback I already notice about the player is that it doesn’t have AutoPlay–which means it won’t play the clip until it’s completely loaded. This isn’t a drawback, per se, but it’s not how YouTube behaves, so it’ll seem slower. The fact is, if the first thing you do is click “Play” when you begin reading the post, it’ll probably be loaded by the time you get to it. If you have any qualms–or praise–for WordPress’s Flash player, let me know. Thanks!!)

I had a real-deal post ready to go–one about Army pamphlets, of all things–and I realized it was kinda lame. So instead I’ll just announce the beginning of Peanuts Week here at Peel Slowly. (For a better explanation of what a Peanuts week is, read my post here.)

Every day until Saturday, I’ll recreate the week of June 9, 1958, when everyone, young and old, expectantly “tuned in” every daily to see whether or Charlie Brown could catch a ball. The banner will be updated every day, and if you need to play catch up, I’ll post the prior days’ strips in the About the Banner page.

Add’l reading in a subsequent post:
       • Peanuts Week: The Aftermath

1 Comment

Filed under Humor

Play It Again, Woody…Wait. Is That Woody?

(This blog is still clips-free! My research on Vimeo and DailyMotion, as alternatives to YouTube, has left me flat. The former moderates clips and has no time for the words Fair or Use, in any order; and I think the latter looks pretty damn bad. I put up a few test clips and was less than satisfied with the results. Currently, I’m exploring VideoPress, which is WordPress’s video hosting tool. So far, I’ve posted a few clips and none of them play at all. Not a good sign. To be continued.)

A few months ago I ranted on about MGM’s insulting behavior towards that gem-in-their-crown Annie Hall. While I think abuse of Woody Allen’s film is artistically damaging, I’ll give them this much credit: at least they know what he looks like, which is more than I can say about Paramount Pictures.

Paramount released Allen’s Play It Again, Sam in 1972. It’s an unusal film in his canon since it takes place in San Francisco (instead of Manhattan) and was not directed by him (Herbert Ross did). It’s about a nebbishy cinephile (played by you-know-who) who falls in love with his best friend’s wife and receives encouragement and advice from the ghost of Humphrey Bogart. The film was successful, as was the play it was based on, both written by Woody.

The cover of the 1979 VHS (right) is all well and good, with artwork based on the film’s US poster (not the Belgian version above). Very “of its time.”

The ridiculousness begins, however, when you flip it over. There are three photos on the back, one is wide and there are two smaller ones beneath it. Here’s the top one…

Because I’ve seen the film, I can guess it’s Woody Allen to the right, but mind you, that’s an educated guess.

Here’s the one on the lower left…

This is marginally better since it has exposure though our hero is inexplicably camouflaged. I’m not sure if it’s Play It Again, Sam or Platoon.

And here’s the kicker, the photo on the lower right…

Are you shitting me? Who the fuck is that?! Was there someone at Paramount who said, “Hmmm…Curly hair…big nose…glasses…I’m thinking ‘Jew.’ Yep, it’s Woody”? I’ve double-checked—triple-checked–the film and this guy isn’t even in it! Is it possible that these are the only three production stills taken for the film? No wonder Woody’s characters get nauseous in Hollywood.

(Hey, I just noticed this in the homestretch of making this post. I wonder if there’s any coincidence between this essay, which essentially calls Paramount Pictures a bunch of idiots, and the fact that they were the studio that made YouTube pull my clips down. Well, well, well. Blog-as-Rorschach Test…)


Filed under Film, Gripes