Tag Archives: Francis Ford Coppola

When Not to Edit, Pt 5: The Kissy Face Workaround

Tod Browning was a masterful director of the 20s and 30s, once most famous for directing the original Dracula (1931) and now best known for making the infamous Freaks (1932). The latter is a documentary packaged as a melodrama, with real sideshow freaks in the cast. It also has the shot that is the inspiration for this post, yet another instance where a director let a single shot tell his story, instead of relying on conventional coverage and edits. (Prior posts has highlighted shots in films by Leo McCarey, Ozu, Oz, and Coppola.)

But first some context. I imagine filming a passionate kiss has always been a drag for filmmakers. The idea of putting the faces of your characters that close together is dramatically sound but cinematographically dull. Sure, if the script has organically brought us to the kiss, then we, the audience, can do without seeing their faces for a few moments, and if the acting is spot on, we can feel the passion. But still I’m sure some directors (and actors and DPs) dislike the visual element; it has a way of leveling the playing field, whether it’s Bogart and Bergman, Woody and Diane, or Edward and Bella.

Since the camera can’t see either face completely, what’s a filmmaker to do? Traditionally, they rely on other ways of conveying the passion: the blocking of the actors (how they move into the kiss and out of it); their moans, pants and words uttered in between kisses; music, of course; multiple angles and edits; and camera movement (ah, the old “360° around the kissing couple” routine). In Notorious, Hitchcock famously dealt with a kiss in a single shot that was long, intricate, and incredibly clever.

It’s also been talked into the ground, so I’ll leave that shot alone.

On the other hand, given the same visual conundrum every filmmaker faces, here’s how Tod Browning staged it.

Freaks is about life in the circus and the code of honor among the pinheads, dwarves and others of the freak-class. Many within the circus regard them as “less than,” though to others, such as Phroso the Clown, they’re (relatively) normal people and even their peers. Frequently the film shows us how these people are as domestic and as we are—they can roll cigarettes, pour wine, etc,–regardless of how few limbs they have. In the case of the conjoined twins the Hilton Sisters, Violet and Daisy, we even see their suitors.

In this brief scene, their first in the film, the sisters approach Phroso. They talk about Daisy’s pending marriage and Phroso seizes the opportunity to flex their genetic empathy, so to speak…

The sisters are just bystanders in the film’s plot—not even a subplot—and in a later scene, Violet gets engaged. Naturally, a newly-engaged couple will kiss and this is how Browning shows it…

An uncommon solution, but it always takes my breath away. And although this shot seems like a gimmicky excuse for a post, it stands up under scrutiny, with plenty of pointers for filmmakers.

For starters, use what ya got. If you have gifted people in your film, use those gifts to your advantage. Repeatedly in the film, Browning turns his casts’ unusual skills and features to his advantage, both visually and narratively. In this instance, he found a way to show his characters uniqueness and how their lives might be—and that it’s really quite wonderful.

Secondly, Browning gives us context. Long before this kiss happens, he sets up the payoff. The brief scene with Phroso touching Violet’s arm is played off as a parlor trick, not even a plot point, but only 17 minutes later we get the kiss and Daisy’s joy and know exactly why she feels the way she does.

Lastly, it’s simply a beautiful shot. Here’s how I know: I showed this film to my wife, Debbie, a few years ago. She’s by no means a film geek—she doesn’t get hung up on cinematic style or form—and Freaks really isn’t her cup of tea. She was rolling with it, somewhere between repulsed and bored, when this kiss happened. Her reaction was palpable and positive (kind of a gasp or an audible smile). It didn’t matter whether Daisy’s bliss was genuine or if she was acting (I doubt conjoined twins really do feel each other’s sensations as such); it was something Debbie had never seen, a moment of perfect visual storytelling, all the more impressive since she had not put the film or its filmmaker on a pedestal. In other words, its eloquence caught her off-guard.

Like I said, I don’t know if the Hilton Sisters really had this kind of symbiosis, but this is another example of Browning’s attitude toward “freaks”: they’re well-adjusted, domestic, special (in a good way), honorable, very human, and members of a community that we should respect. (Gooble Gobble!)

Compared with my other posts in this series, Browning’s Kiss is perhaps the most unusual in the bunch (maybe closest in intent to Ozu’s static wide-shot), but I’m certain of one thing: if there were even one more cinematic ingredient (i.e. edits, coverage, a close-up of Daisy’s face, a music cue, even a dolly in) it wouldn’t be as powerful as it is. He cast it well, set the stage, and stood back. After that, it was all up to us.

Next in the When Not to Edit series: Kubrick knows how to make us hold our breath.

Advertisements

4 Comments

Filed under Film

When Not to Edit, Pt 4: Coppola’s Eavesdropping Camera

Time for another post discussing an instance when a director chose a sustained shot as opposed to a more conventional, edit-filled approach. Today is all about Francis Ford Coppola’s use of the camera in one scene in The Conversation.

My prior examples in this series (Laurel & Hardy’s The Finishing Touch; Ozu’s Tokyo Chorus; and Frank Oz’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) were static shots, with all the movement occurring via the blocking of the actors. Today’s example broadens the scope a little, since the camera does move, yet it’s the way it moves that makes it note-worthy. Coppola does something I call character-driven filmmaking, which is when a character’s emotions dictate the mechanics of the film, such as the editing, the lighting, and, in this case of this entry, the shooting. (I wrote about this before in my post about the editing in Silkwood.)

The Conversation (1974) is about surveillance expert Harry Caul. It’s a 70s character study disguised as paranoid thriller: Harry eavesdrops for a living but, not surprisingly, lives in fear of being watched or even noticed, preferring solitude.

In this scene, which happens early in the film, Harry enters his apartment at the end of the day. He checks his mail, calls his landlady, and takes off his pants. Such a straightforward scene could be shot and cut several different ways, all expanding our understanding of Harry. These possibilities include:

• a handful of medium shots where Harry’s décor is visible in the background, each with Harry in the frame as he walks from room to room
• a dolly shot either in front of him (camera dollying backwards) or behind him, showing only his back; in both cases his décor would be visible on the sides of the frames
• a slightly more esoteric approach: static medium shots or close-ups of parts of his apartment, without Harry in frame

So how does Coppola shoot it? Well, I think when a filmmaker is crafting a scene, he or she needs to constantly ask, “What information does the audience need to know right now?” Here’s how Coppola answers that question…

I love this shit. Coppola’s tableau is wide and sparse. Harry lives simply, so the director foregoes showing us his apartment in detail and instead lets the camera behave as an extension of Harry’s state-of-mind, which is one of surveillance. In fact, the first time he leaves the frame, he appears to be consciously trying to get away from the camera.

Gratefully, Francis Ford Coppola did an audio commentary for this film, so I can let him speak for himself. Here’s a minute-long clip of his explanation of this shot and its style:

Couldn’t be much clearer than that, could he? It’s nice to hear him say that, but, truthfully, when I first saw this film in the 80s, it was crystal clear to me.

(For what it’s worth, I think the lone CU in the scene—a generic birthday card from his bank—is so sad it only reinforces our understanding of Harry’s isolation. Instead of showing us one of Harry’s personal belongings, Coppola shows us the exact opposite: what could be more impersonal than a form birthday card?)

Obviously, such a self-conscious shot could be perceived as gimmicky, but if you haven’t seen the film, believe me: Coppola successfully uses this style for maximum effect, abetted enormously by Gene Hackman’s performance.

I could go on and on about this film—I freakin’ love it—but I’ll leave it at that. However, if you’re interested in a great essay about The Conversation, I recommend this post at Precious Bodily Fluids.

Next in the When Not to Edit series: Director Tod Browning thinks freaks work best without too many edits.
__________________________________________________

By the way, the DVD for The Conversation is unique: It not only has a full-length commentary by the director, it has one by the editor. Why? you ask.

Those familiar with the history of this film are aware of the uncomfortable relationship between Coppola and editor Walter Murch. The director had to leave the project prematurely (to begin pre-production onThe Godfather, Part 2) and left a good deal of The Conversation in the hands of the editor. Murch’s changes to the structure of the film were radical enough for some to claim he saved the picture, and it seems it’s been a sore spot for both men ever since. Case in point: for the aforementioned DVD, they each say surprisingly little about the other’s input on the film.

Anyway, I had planned the second half of this post to dissect that seemingly rocky relationship, but, alas, that will have to wait for another post.

8 Comments

Filed under Film

Discovering I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale

A wonderful documentary will be premiering tomorrow night, June 1, at 8pm on HBO. It’s called I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale. Clocking in at a mere 40 minutes, it’s a profile of one of the best character actors of the 70s. Well, Hell, of all cinema.

Here’s the trailer…

I’m lucky to be friends with the doc’s director, Richard Shepard, and its editor, Adam Lichtenstein. When I saw the film at its Brooklyn premiere last August, I sent them an e-mail with my reaction, which was pretty laudatory. At the end I wrote: “PS So when is this gonna be on HBO? Maybe I’ll finally start my blog in time and put these e-mails up as a post.”

Gratefully, HBO gave me a few months to start Peel Slowly and get my sea legs. So, as I promised, here’s excerpts from that e-mail, written hours after I saw the doc and still on a high from it…

I imagine calling a film “a valentine” is something of a diss, and yet you found a way to be loving without being shameless, touching without being maudlin, and most importantly, you put Cazale on a pedestal but make us damn sure he belongs there. There isn’t one quote that isn’t supported by a clip or a still that does it justice.

This stuff is very tricky for me. I have a real problem embracing anything that scrutinizes 70s cinema. I don’t know why. That Raging Bulls, Easy Riders book, those docs from a few years ago, Stephen Bach’s book about Heaven’s Gate [Final Cut], and so on–all these things do too much of one thing or not enough of another. Adam had already forewarned me that this was NOT a doc about 70s cinema, per se, but in some nutty way, it’s probably the best thing I’ve seen that captures the importance of that era and the shift away from classic looks, classic acting, classic choices of prior decades. I have this theory that if you do it well, you can study one aspect and in turn summarize a much larger trend or period. John Cazale–and the contributions he made to those films–does that.

It’s also been a long fantasy of mine to make a doc about character actors, and I think your doc proves my point. One of these days, I’ll make that one.

The length is perfect! Perfect. I’m of the mindset that every film is too long, and every documentary is too longer. I really appreciate this film’s length, even though its probabaly excluded you from a lot of festivals and venues, right? Well, screw them. Ten minutes shorter and I’d be too hungry for more; ten minutes longer and I’d start thinking, Man, this guy’s forehead is really big!

It’ss the only time in the last 25 years I’ve thought Al Pacino was cool. Now, I’ve never been a Pacino junkie–I’m just a huge fan of some of the films he’s been and his contributions to them–so the fact that he’s evolved into this Patron Saint of Overacting bores me to tears. He bears no resemblance to the guy in the films you reference. So, coming into this doc, I was already prepared to take him with a grain of salt. And sure enough, there his is: bushy hair, leather shirt (OK, I don’t know if it was leather, it just seems to me that that’s what he wants to wear), husky voice (which I think is fake). And miraculously, for all of his praise he never ONCE sounds like he’s bullshitting. He seems unable to top himself in praise of his old buddy, and it always feels genuine. He still looks like an asshole (to me) but clearly isn’t. And I think there’s two men to thank for that: John Cazale and Richard Shepard. A really well-prepared and genuine interviewer can bring the best out of people, encourage them to shrug off the pat answers, and let their guard down.

I’m really grateful you made this film.

sma


Though you might not believe it from what you just read, I do have a gripe about the film—one crucial clip that I felt was missing—and so I’ve decided to post it here. (Consider it a tease for the doc.) It’s the “banana daiquiri” exchange from The Godfather, Part 2, when Michael and his brother Fredo are talking over drinks in Cuba:

A man, helpless and out of his element, asks his kid brother for some help, and the brother gently responds, with good humor. Sweet and subtle (two words I don’t normally associate with either Godfather film). To me, it’s the films’ best positive example of the transference of big brother/little brother status. (As opposed to the negative example, which is, of course, Fredo hugging Michael around the waist, while sitting in the chair.) It’s a perfect example of actors feeding off each other (which is discussed at length in Shepard’s doc). It also may be Michael’s lone likable moment in the film, and therefore Coppola really needed it to be there. (If you’d like to see the whole scene, I posted that as well.)

Interestingly, there’s a version of the screenplay for The Godfather, Part 2 (labeled “SECOND DRAFT”) that doesn’t have this scene at all. When it entered the shooting schedule is a mystery, but it’s a huge contribution to the notion that Fredo is the real heart of that film (if I remember correctly, this notion is discussed in the Cazale doc).


Anyway, regarding Richard Shepard’s documentary, It Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale…see it.

2 Comments

Filed under Film, Trailer

On the Cutting Edge with Belmondo, Beatty…and Moe

A jump cut is a device in film editing where a portion of a shot is removed, and the beginning and end of that shot are then joined together, with the hope that it will have dramatic effect. We’ve all seen them, in film, TV and music videos, and at one point, decades ago, jump cuts were considered revolutionary and scandalous within the film world.

As a life long fan of cinema, I sometimes wonder what my favorite jump cut is. Could it be the ones in Godard’s Breathless (1960), the über-cool edits that introduced jump cuts as a viable film style? Or maybe it’s Clyde Barrow’s truncated formal introduction in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, the first jump cut to keep me awake at night. Or perhaps it’s Martin Sheen’s drunken and silent self-destruction in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. (All of these can be seen in this minute-long clip.1)

No doubt about it, all of these jump cuts have teeth. They’re visceral and intellectually exciting, and they challenge the most basic logic of time and space: one thing moves from here to there, continuously.

But when it’s all said and done, when it comes to my favorite Jump Cut in All of Cinema, I’m gonna give it to the Stooges. All Three of them. Here it is, from their 1943 Columbia short, They Stooge to Conga, directed by Del Lord.

Continue reading

17 Comments

Filed under Film

Hyman Roth’s shirt(s)

A significant difference between the two Godfather films is that the first was made on a very low budget, while the second, benefitting from the success of the first, was quite a different story.

On the audio commentary for The Godfather, director Francis Ford Coppola repeats endlessly about compromised locations, restrictive shooting schedules, and constant corner cutting. On the commentary for The Godfather, Part II, he explains it was just the opposite: he was the goose that laid the golden egg and everything he needed was at his fingertips. That’s what makes this story from that commentary all the more amusing. It’s about one of the scenes in Cuba, with Lee Strasberg, and it’s a nice reminder that Coppola got his start with the barebones-yet-resourceful Roger Corman.

Before & After


Perhaps this is why Coppola decided to have Lee Strasberg topless in the next scene…

Hyman's hair shirt

4 Comments

Filed under Film