Thursday, December 31, 2009

Think of the problems it would solve -- unemployment, poverty, standing in line for theater tickets...

Many films, stories, and urban legends have been based on the 1920s Leopold and Loeb case, in which two young men decided to murder someone just to see what it would be like. Alfred Hitchcock's take on the tale, Rope, is notable for two reasons: One, it's Alfred Hitchcock, and that alone is enough to warrant a significant amount of attention. Two, he shot the entire film as one continuous take, an experiment that, while not entirely successful, is a very interesting attempt.

In actuality, the film is a series of takes about six minutes long, because at the time the film was shot that was the longest take possible. Hitchcock gets around this by using a handheld camera that follows the characters around; every six minutes or so, it just happens to come up against the back of someone's jacket or a chair or something else that's solid, giving him the time to change reels while still making the cuts completely invisible.

One very interesting shot that results from this method is that an important conversation takes place entirely offscreen. Brandon and Phillip have killed a classmate of theirs, David, and hidden his body in a large trunk in their living room, which they cover in a tablecloth and use to serve dinner at a party to which they've invited David's parents, his girlfriend, and their old schoolteacher.

Naturally, everyone is concerned when David doesn't make an appearance, but the party goes on without him (at least, as far as the other guests are aware). After they have effectively eaten off of the young man's makeshift coffin, everyone moves over to a large seating area, but the camera remains on the trunk. We hear the party guests discuss once again David's possible whereabouts, while watching the maid, Mrs. Wilson, clear dishes off of the trunk in which we know David's body is hidden; among the guests, only Jimmy Stewart, as the schoolteacher who gave his young students the (purely theoretical) idea to kill in the first place, is visible at the edge of the frame. This juxtaposition of audio and visual information creates the very tension that gave the Master Of Suspense his nickname.

The philosophical arguments presented in the film are compelling enough to make up for the lack of variation in camera work. The teacher, Rupert, postulates that a select group of superior human beings should have the right to kill those who are inferior. His reasoning is cold and academic; it is Brandon and Phillip who decide, arrogantly, that they fall into that "superior" category, and moreover, that Phillip is decidedly inferior. Once he sees how his rationale would be applied out in the real world, Rupert is appropriately horrified -- and yet, still coldly logical enough to deduce that his former students were the ones behind their classmate's disappearance.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

I freak out in your dream, I freak out in my dream...

There is one subject that filmmakers seem to love making films about. That subject is making films. Tom DiCillo's 1995 indie flick Living In Oblivion portrays the trials and tribulations of Nick Reve, the over-stressed director of an indie flick. Self-referential in a way that reminds me of Frederico Fellini's (more on that one later), Living In Oblivion takes the movie-about-a-movie genre in an interesting direction.

The story is told almost entirely through dream sequences, as various members of the cast and crew have nightmares about what can go very wrong in the making of a no-budget movie. I thought this was a very effective way of examining the hardships faced by independent filmmakers; it wouldn't be believable for everything possible to go wrong during the filming of a single movie, but it's absolutely believable that the people with the most to lose would worry to that extent. Thus, in 90 minutes DiCillo manages to demonstrate how many things can plague a set without beating the audience over the head with Murphy's Law.

One thing I really liked was that in the first dream sequence, the film opens up in black and white, then switches to color whenever we are shown a scene that's being filmed. Normally, I see movies or TV shows shot in color for the "real life" sequences and then switch to black and white to represent the camera's point of view. I found this reversal extremely interesting, as it seems to suggest that what's on camera is more important (more vibrant, and thus more colorful) than what's happening behind the scenes. Or I could be reading too much into it, and it could simply be a way to clue the audience in at the beginning to the fact that it's a dream sequence. Either way, I wish that this had been carried out throughout the film.

Interesting, the only part of the movie that's not a dream sequence is when the characters a filming a scene from their movie that is. Wildly over the top and exactly the kind of dream sequence produced in most stereotypical low-budget films, I kept waiting for the reveal that what we were watching took place only in someone's subconcious. However, just when I thought the movie had gotten predictable it threw a curveball at me, and ended with the most obviously unrealistic scenes as the ones that actually took place. Well played.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Some people are bullfighters, some people are politicians...

The 1960s were a time of change, and the film industry was no exception. The conventions of classic Hollywood began to lose their appeal as movies found a younger audience that was more interested in experimentation. The first film schools were springing up, giving rise to a new generation of filmmakers and critics who knew not just what the rules were, but why and how to break them. Additionally, more and more films were internationally produced. Blow-Up was one of the first such pictures.

The basic plot, such as it is, sounds like a conventional mystery: A photographer discovers something odd in one of his pictures, and repeatedly blows up the negative until he uncovers a corpse in the photo and realizes that he has witnessed a murder. However, auteur Michaelangelo Antonioni -- who inspired the phenomenon known as "Antoniennui" for his supposed ability to bore audiences to death -- turns this concept into an open-ended question about the nature of reality.

The film follows Thomas, a photographer who works with models, a group he clearly disdains, in order to fund his more artistic pursuits. He is involved with one woman, although in what capacity remains deliberately unclear ("She isn't my wife, really, we just have some kids... no, no kids, not even kids."), but flirts with and seduces others, including the woman he later comes to believe attempted to have her husband killed. The narrative, until he discovers the body in the photo, seems to drift a bit aimlessly; this is perhaps what the term "Antoniennui" is referring to, although I thought the beautifully-shot film was anything but boring, including several sequences that didn't seem to go anywhere. This apparent lack of direction is very purposefully in keeping with modernist themes; not every loose end needs to be tied, or rather, most don't.

Of course, I can't end this post without talking about the mimes that bookend the film. In the opening sequence they are a loud and active contrast to the quiet, passive world the film presents us with; at the end, their game of tennis, and particularly the sound of tennis as Thomas throws the imaginary ball, suggests that truth is subjective; if you believe in something, then it's true even if it isn't necessarily factual. This could be seen as a representation of the hallucinogenics that were popular among the counter-culture at that time, stating that what you see is your reality.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

I watched it get dark outside, and didn't even turn on the light...

1944's Double Indemnity is considered one of the first true films noir, if not the very first. It was certainly a turning point in many ways -- as the first James M. Cain novel to be approved by the Hays Office for adaptation, it set a precedent for darker, racier material than anything that had been seen since the pre-Code era.* Like Casablanca before it, Double Indemnity is largely a product of World War II.

The darkness and shadows that help define the film are largely the result of wartime restrictions, but the absence of available lighting was artfully turned into an opportunity to further explore the bleak tone of the narrative. The famous effect of venetian blinds casting shadows across the characters' faces suggests entrapment as they find themselves living in fear of having their crime discovered. The frosted glass in the office doors makes each character's shadow often the first and last part of them that the audience sees. It's even worked into the dialogue, as in the quote I used for the title of this post. The sense of darkness that pervades the film is more than just aesthetic; it's psychological, exposing the audience to the sense of hopelessness and claustrophobia that Phyllis and Walter feel in the aftermath of murdering Phyllis' husband.

The war had other effects on Double Indemnity's production as well. To avoid government censorship from the Office of War Information, the screenplay was set in July 1938, so it was not portraying the home front in a time of war. However, this created its own problems, as many props needed to make the set look realistically pre-war were unavailable at the time of filming due to rationing. This issue was most pressing in the scenes when Walter and Phyllis meet at the grocery store. To prevent cast and crew from making off with the canned goods, undercover federal agents patrolled the set, heightening the sense of paranoia already inherent in the movie's script.

Gender and sexuality are particularly strong themes throughout the film. Phyllis Dietrichson, ever the femme fatale, is introduced from a low angle, visually giving her power over Walter Neff right from their first meeting. The dialogue involving her anklet was created specifically to get their sexual tension past the censors; the result is a conversation laced with metaphor and innuendo, the first of several throughout the film. However, Phyllis' ownership of her sexuality does not come without a price. Although both main characters have dark sides, the woman is portrayed as more evil than the man, a common theme in hard-boiled stories such as this. In the end, both characters paid for their crimes with their lives as required by the Code, but Phyllis is the first to die, and Walter's shooting her can be seen as the first step in his redemption.

*Further information on Double Indemnity and its long struggle to gain approval from the Hays Office can be found in my professor's textbook, Blackout: World War II And The Origins Of Film Noir by Sheri Chinen Biesen