Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Brief Encounter and the Art of Restraint

While reading another "Why do Hollywood films suck so much compared to old Hollywood films?" rant on one of the media commentary sites I frequent, I got to thinking. After a bit of pondering, I landed on the idea of censorship. Now, I don't by any means support censorship as a way to repress artists and artistic expression, but if you really think about it, the Golden Age of Hollywood owes an awful lot to the strict censorship codes of the era. A lot of directors and screenwriters had to shimmy their way around the "questionable" subjects of the day and the whole thing resulted in a number of positively brilliant sequences whose impact is owed mainly to the restraint and the implications of their situations. Cary Grant and Paul Newman had to be incandescent so that their allure would be transmitted in just a glance or a smile, without having their bedroom prowess blatantly spelled out. Old Hollywood was all about mystique, which in most cases is more powerful than explicit statement. For example, one of the most famous of these sorts of scenes:

Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman's infamous balcony kissing scene in Notorious. Director Alfred Hitchcock famously taunted the censor's three-second kiss rule by having his actors embrace, whisper, coo, and stare smolderingly at each other. Would the erotic impact of this have been the same if they had been allowed to make out or even if they were shown hopping into bed together? I don't think so. The audience, thanks to this scene, is well aware of the great sex that they're having, and the great sex we can imagine is far more potent than any Hitchcock could have shot. And even the timing of the shot--the kisses seem almost cut off, building up the tension of the moment, prolonging the stares and the whispers. So in some ways, I think censorship was almost a boon to directors who were gifted enough to bring some ingenuity to their approach. Of course, without loosening of the codes we wouldn't have The Godfather or Step Up 2: The Streets, and then where would we be?

Now, one of my very favorite films is Brief Encounter, made in 1945 and directed by David Lean. It's sort of the filmic equivalent of wearing a corset, everyone is so tightened and constrained by the societal norms that even the slightest loosening is like a new breath of life. I imagine that young audiences today would find the conflict boring and the narration overwraught, but it is an incredibly moving story about longing and the fleeting glimpses into a different life and possible freedom.

The first scene of Brief Encounter is only about six minutes long, but it is one of the most brilliant sequences in cinema and is a fantastic example of the subtle drama that can be created through the art of cinematic restraint (regardless of censorship--that doesn't really come into play here). Lean stages it so expertly that after the first scene, we know almost everything there is to know--and no one has explicitly spoken a word about the plot. It's all in the staging, the camera, the faces of the actors. There's deft manipulation of the audience/camera symbiosis that rivals the work of Alfred Hitchcock in Rear Window. 

To illustrate the sequence, I'm just going to take you through it step by step, with stills from the movie.

The opening shot sets the scene, a train station. The moody, gorgeous cinematography and melancholy, romantic score tell us the tone of what is to come.

 A train conductor checks his watch. The theme of time is established.

The conductor crosses the tracks and heads up and across the platform...

...and into the small station cafe, where the conductor stops to talk to the woman working behind the counter.

The two begin to chat, and we get the feeling that they're fairly well acquainted and have been carrying on this subtle flirtation for some time. But the woman is a bit severe, the man paunchy and their conversation holds little interest for us. So we (as the camera) casually glance around the interior of the cafe, and our attention fastens on...

A nice-looking couple sitting alone in the corner over two innocent little cups of tea. They are seated intimately; he sits next to her instead of in front of her. There is deep sadness on both of their faces and an air of melancholy around their small table. The man says a few words to the woman, but his voice is so low that we can't quite catch what he's saying. We strain to hear what is being said. And then, Lean denies us any more information. In a brilliant move, he turns the camera back away from them and back to the conductor and the woman behind the cafe counter. The result, of course, is for the audience to say, "Hey! Go back! I want to know what's going on with the two of them!" Lean captures our interest and our fascination in these two people by keeping them at arm's length from his viewers. 

And then--the quiet atmosphere of the little cafe is brutally interrupted by a loud woman who recognizes the woman seated at the table. She bustles over and we are immediately aware of her intrusion; we squirm in embarrassment at the loss of privacy of the quiet couple, yet we are still keen to know precisely what is going on with the two of them (audiences are, as a rule, the most nosy individuals in the movies). The loud woman begins to prattle on, and we notice (though the woman doesn't), the significant glance passing between Laura (the quiet lady) and Alec (the man). Both Laura and Alec remain perfectly polite, and Alec even offers to get up and get the woman her cup of tea. Immediately after he stands the woman leans forward to Laura.

"My dear, what a nice looking man, who on earth is he? Really, you're quite a dark horse. I shall telephone Fred in the morning and make mischief!"

And in response, Laura attempts a smile but can only manage this:

It's an expression of unabashed horror, and in that moment we know everything. She having an affair with Alec, he is not her husband, and they have been having a covert rendezvous that was brutally interrupted when this woman plopped herself down at the table. Alec returns, and the story unfolds. He is a doctor who is leaving for South Africa the following week. This is the last time Alec and Laura will see one another and this revelation (though it only takes a moment and is treated quite casually by the three of the table) expands the poignancy and sadness of the moment by a thousand. The conversation is punctuated with little sidelong glances between the lovers, clearly desperate to tell the old bag to leave them in peace, but unable to rebel against the societal mores that bind them. And then, the conductor calls the name of Alec's train. They stare at each other for a moment, wishing that the moment hadn't come so soon. He stands, pauses for a moment and:

With a final, polite touch, walks out of the door, while every line on Laura's face tells us that she wishes more than anything to have a small private moment with him, something far away from the horrible woman who is still talking, still completely oblivious to the turmoil she is causing. Laura glances up as Alec walks out of the door, and we (along with her) wonder if he will turn back. Will he smile, will he make some gesture of his feelings?

But no. He is out the door without a backward glance, and we, like Laura, feel our hearts sink. The woman's prattling continues and the camera rests on Laura's face as she hopefully watches the door. Perhaps he will come back. Perhaps he will miss his train on purpose, buy them a little more time together, makes some excuse to get her away from the dreadful woman.  But as the woman's banal chatter chugs along, and with Laura we hear the sound of the train starting, the whistle and with each passing second we realize that he is gone for good.

Finally, the chattering woman stands and walks to the counter and our gaze follows her. The express train roars by, its noise eclipsing everything else in the scope of the scene. After a moment we glance back--and Laura is gone! We are confused, startled, we search around for her (along with the ladies at the counter) and then finally she enters back through the door, looking shaken and a little dizzy. "I just wanted to watch the express go through," she says weakly, and we get the feeling that something (though we don't yet know what) profound has just happened to her. Our interest is piqued again and we are pulled into the current of the story.

It's a brilliant sequence, and the delicate handling of the situation and the gradual subtle revelations about the characters are like a finely staged piece of music, with themes and grace notes only gradually reaching our consciousness. The gentle shifting of point of view from the camera to Laura to the woman is easy and constructed in such away that we never know too much but feel as though we do. Would that all directors gave this sort of care to their films. Every time I see this sequence I like it more and the movie itself is lovely and incredibly poignant. I highly suggest giving it a watch.


Monday, August 23, 2010

Since Roving's Been My Ru-i-in

Hello! Just got back from a fantastic week on the square-topsail schooner Shenandoah out of Martha's Vineyard. It's always an extreme overload of fun, and this year in particular had really great music and really fantastic people. I'm in total withdrawal. Glurg.

Yeah. Pretty hellish, right?

It's a very odd situation being on that boat. There are certainly people who come back year after year for this week and it's always really wonderful to see them and catch up. But I always end up making friends toward the last few days of the sail, and then before you know it, the trip is over and I have to wait another year to see them again (if ever). It always makes me feel happy that I've made new friends and a bit melancholy that it's all over so soon.

And, in other non movie-related news, yesterday (and today for that matter) was pretty rainy so I sort of puttered around indoors all day. In between sessions of cooing at my goldfish Spot, I managed to crack out this painting of Janis Joplin:

It feels pretty great, as I haven't painted anything for an extremely long amount of time and my previous attempts at painting Janis were pretty feeble. Hooray! Now if only it would stop raining so I could go out and train for the 5k I'm running in September.

A new movie post will follow shortly.


Friday, August 6, 2010

Balsamic Reductions, Respec' and Eminem

So last night turned out to be a bit of a mixed bag as far as entertainment/dinner pairings went. First, I'll start off with dinner, which nearly turned out to be a sixty-dollar trip to a nearby restaurant (oy, New York). That madness didn't last long, however, and Adrian and I set out on our daily venture to Citarella to get something to make. This resulted in the following:

We made duck with a blackberry-balsamic reduction, sweet potatoes and fresh spinach. The entire thing was quite lovely. I really enjoy duck, but we don't have it that often even though Citarella sells fantastic $10 duck breasts that are quite enough to feed two people. The reduction was very good, especially since I accidentally dumped in more sugar than I intended while I was making it. Accident or fate? You tell me.

Anyway, the night's entertainment turned out to be 2002's 8 Mile, and I guess now it's time to discuss the complicated feelings I have toward Eminem. First, though, I'm going to tell you a little story. My sister, Piper, has always had a rather unique way of looking at things, and has maintained an interesting relationship with the English language. Once, when she was about seven or so, we were at a horse show where she managed to catch a small frog in a styrofoam cup. She brought it up to my mom's friend, Linda. Linda asked, "What have you got there, Piper?" Piper replied, "A frog. Isn't it great?"
"What's so great about it?" Linda inquired. To which Piper thoughtfully regarded the frog and said, "It's just so...honest."

So I guess that's one way to sort of describe my feelings towards Eminem. This is not to say he in any way resembles a frog or any sort of amphibian for that matter. It's just that generally he projects this sort of very aggressive, violent persona but yet, like the frog, there's a little sumthin' sumthin' going on under there. I never really listened to his music and I thought he was a bit scary when I was in my early teens. He seemed to be very angry about everything all the time and expressed it by yelling and occasionally dressing up as Spock. Then I saw a trailer for 8 Mile, and I immediately wanted to see it since I'm a total sucker for people with great faces. And he's got a great face.

It's probably been around seven or eight years since I last saw the movie, but that was the image that stayed with me; pale and thin beneath armor-like layers of hats, hoods and sweatpants, staring out unblinkingly with those huge, haunted eyes. His eyes convey a sort of sensitivity and vulnerability that is lost in MTV videos where every shot is one second and consists mostly of him flailing at the camera. Here, what struck me was his stillness rather than his manic energy. When he's onstage during battles, listening to the other rappers insult everything from his skin color to his mother to his social status to his job, I tried to watch him and figure out what he was thinking during all that. He keeps his face blank, almost impassive, but you can feel the turmoil beneath it just sort of simmering. Is it anger? Does he duck his eyes in avoidance? But then--he picks up the mike and words just sort of come pouring out, and I realize that all through it he's calculating, taking and processing every word that is hurled at him and seeing how he can counterattack with the precision of a chess player. I think that many people were surprised by the amount of screen presence that he commands, and what continues to fascinate me are the contradictions that I see in his character. He's tough, bigoted, violent, extremely profane, juvenile, yes. But at the same time his lyrics have a complexity and a rawness to them, not to mention rhyme schemes that would boggle the minds of many English majors. And what further impresses me is that he can just toss of those rhymes on the spur of a moment, with only a few seconds' thought.

I enjoyed 8 Mile about as much as I did the first time, but then Adrian and I decided to watch some of the special features as well. And this was where we struck gold. We decided to watch a little featurette about how Curtis Hanson, the director, organized a little impromptu battle-thon to keep the extras in his club scene happy. Four would have the chance to face Eminem in an unscripted battle onscreen and may be featured in the final cut of the movie. They showed a few of the auditions (one of my personal favorites was a gentleman who took his thirty seconds of time to describe the amount of marijuana residue to be found in his urine). When it came to the final four battle, Hanson (who was narrating the featurette and rather adorably kept referring to Eminem as "Marshall") informed us that he had instructed Eminem to just pantomime his half of the battles, since he was beginning to lose his voice after three days of shooting in the club. Needless to say, I was rather disappointed that we wouldn't get to see him do his stuff for real. I enjoyed the final battles in the movie but always in the back of my mind I knew that they had been scripted, so it would have been interesting to witness the real thing.

So the first battle went and Eminem mimed his performance and the other guy was pretty good, applause, applause. Then the next guy came up and did his thing, and in retaliation Eminem again began to mime his performance. This time, however, the audience (who was clearly getting into the real spirit of things) began to boo and taunt him. So he stopped, paused for only a second and flipped the switch on his microphone:

Hold on, (offensive term) let me turn this mike on
Don't think for a minute I'm gonna let you get away with that song
That shit was wack, you ain't spittin'
As a matter of fact, all that shit was written
And I know it wasn't for me, you surely must adore me, now lookee
Yo, you might as well move to Italy, 
Look this guy's ripped 
(ripping sound)...literally. 

It goes on, but you can really just hear the crowd come alive as soon as he starts to rap, his personality and charisma are sort of infectious. It was like a creative dam holding back and then finally being released, all in that scratchy, bruised voice. And for each of the following two battles, he fights right back and completely owns the stage. It was a great moment, especially because I was watching it with Adrian, who is probably the world's best audience member when it comes to "OOOOhhhhh!!!" moments (as in "Oh, no he did-n't!" or "Oh, man, that shark just bit that guy in half! Hahahahaha!") He kept letting off "OHHHHH's!!!!" that probably could have been heard all the way to Hoboken.

There's such a deep, primal pleasure to be had from watching people who are extremely good at something do that thing and do it well. So, in case you haven't seen the movie in a while or didn't have a look at the extras when you first saw it, give it a re-watch (among other things you'll get to see the hilariously disconcerting image of Eminem comfortably resting his elbow on Brian Grazer's shoulder). As for me, I'm still thinking about that moment when he turned the mike back on. That's such a defining moment for who I understand him to be. Someone who thrives on performance, on challenge, on competition, and someone who has an amazing gift for swift thought and lingual dexterity. I mean, I did improv comedy for a number of years, and it's tough. I can't imagine what it would be like if I knew the crowd was going to publicly crucify me if I messed up. Who would Eminem have been if he had been born fifty, a hundred years ago? A poet? Dead before twenty? It's fascinating to see someone who has been able to thrive in the context of a very particular art form in a very particular moment in time.

In truth, that moment was the definition of art. Being completely incapable of remaining silent when someone tells you to do so.

ps. Adrian would like to register his dignified outrage at all the horrible, slanderous claims I made about his movie-watching habits in the previous post. He would like me to say that he greatly enjoyed Guys and Dolls AND My Fair Lady and knows all the words to "I Have Confidence in Me" from The Sound of Music, thank you very much, and that he's not at all the snooty, closed-minded poo-head I make him out to be. Which he isn't by any means. But I mean, come on, my blog's called Expedient Exaggeration. What did you expect?

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Once: Musical or Diegetic Lollapalooza?

In some instances, it is very pleasant to have a significant other who is also a film student. We can say something like "We're on an express elevator to hell...going down" with the exact same Bill Paxton inflection. We are both bemused and fascinated by Kevin Costner. We will use irritatingly erudite terms like mise en scene and not get slapped. But we differ radically when it comes to the types of movies we like, and this leads to many situations in which I storm out in a huff and begin to stress-bake angry cookies. You see, I love classic Hollywood, in all its shapes and sizes. I love film noir, I love slapstick comedies, I love suspense thrillers, I love weepy romances, I love those soaring dramas blown up to the proportions of high Italian opera. Adrian...does not. I would say that it's because he lacks the patience to sit back and give them a chance, but he loves Kubrick for God's sake. I don't know.

Our biggest lasting conflict is on the subject of musicals. Adrian staunchly maintains that one day he's going to "do a musical the right way" (at which point I mutter something along the lines of Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, grumble, grumble, no respect, grumble), and though I've tried time and again to get him to sit down and appreciate the blissful, colorful, gleeful joys of My Fair Lady or Gigi, he will have none of it. The only way I got him to watch Guys and Dolls was by piquing his interest in seeing Marlon Brando as a song-and-dance man, and even then, half  an hour in he was in the kitchen rummaging around the cheese drawer.

Audrey or a hunk of cheddar? Tough call.

I was having lunch with Adrian and one of his friends, Craig, when the subject of musicals came up. I sat grumpily with my arms folded, fully expecting another hatefest on my favorite genre, until Craig used the words Sondheim and fabulous together in the same sentence. Joy! Gleefully, I tossed back a shot of tequila (it was during the World Cup and the Mexican restaurant downstairs was giving free shots for every goal scored) and threw myself headfirst into that tumultuous fray that is film debate. We both ragged on Adrian for half an hour or so until Adrian confessed that he found musicals to be too fake. This struck me dumb. "What about Once?" I asked. "You can't get much more of a realistic musical than that."

"Once isn't a musical," he replied.

Well, that did it. Not a musical, my eye! What piffle! But then I started to wonder what it was that made him think that way. It was a tough call. Once doesn't really boast any soaring strings or tappy dance numbers. At most it sounds like nice young people singing various folky-poppy songs structured around a small storyline. What really makes a musical? Music, certainly, but you'll be hard-pressed to find a movie without music. Music in a central role? Absolutely, but then again, you won't really find many people classifying Amadeus as a musical and in that film the music is basically the whole point.

I'm now going to make a few posits about what I believe a musical to be. I know full well that there are exceptions and that many people will feel differently, but these are the definitions of what works for me. I think in a musical people should sing (again, there are exceptions--ballet, for one), and that there generally should be accompanying music. I think the musical accompaniment certainly doesn't have to be diegetic (presented in the realm of the story, as in a musician playing an instrument onscreen); in fact, most of the best-known musicals are not. And, perhaps most importantly of all, I think that whatever song is sung should somehow support the emotions or the conflicts of a certain character at a certain point in the story. For example, take O Brother, Where Art Thou? When George Clooney sings "I am a Man of Constant Sorrow", he is not, actually, currently a man of constant sorrow. It's just a diegetic song in the realm of the story, as are most of the other songs. Therefore, I wouldn't classify that film as a musical.

What about Once? It's easy to see how the music could just be mistaken for regular old song breaks, a la O Brother. But to prove my point, I'm going to offer as an example two of the songs from the movie. The first, which took me a long time to get around to liking, is "Say it To Me." Now, if you haven't seen the movie, I'll offer a brief sketch of the scene in which the song takes place. We've met Hansard busking on the streets of Dublin, and we've watched his little daily routine of singing for people, playing other people's songs, chasing off would-be thieves. You know, the usual. Then we see this scene*:

The first time I watched it I was distracted by the song itself which seemed too harsh and screamy and yelly for my own personal tastes. It sort of put me off of the whole scene. However, after watching the movie a few more times, I realized that this was because I wasn't thinking of it as a musical; once I changed my outlook the song became heartbreaking instead of harsh and the scene itself became extremely moving.

Take the scene as a metaphor. A man in the dark stands and sings a song that is filled with hurt, anger and loneliness. It is his cry for help, a literal musical scream. He begins alone, but by the time the camera pulls back out...there she is! Marketa Irglova's character is standing in front of him, beautiful and smiling, ready to be friends. Here, it's important to note the uninterrupted take; her apparition is almost a trick of the light--in some ways, it's every bit as magical as the entrance of Clarence the angel in It's a Wonderful Life. And there, in this scene, in this song, you have the entire crux of the movie. She comes in as the answer to that musical plea for help, his way out of the darkness. Together they write songs and he remembers how to fall in love and resolves to piece his life back together and take a chance at making a life with his music. At the end (as is always the case with angels in movies) they go their separate ways, but remain all the better for having spent time together. Honestly, I can only think of a few scenes in more recognizable "musicals" that express the depth of a character's emotion and the theme of a story quite as profoundly as this.

Then, of course, you have "Falling Slowly", probably the best known song from the movie, and the tune that won Irglova and Hansard a well-deserved Oscar. This is where the music/reality metaphor becomes absolutely blatant:

Well, gee. I wonder what the subtext of that song is supposed to be! (For those unfamiliar with the film, Hansard and Irglova have begun a tentative budding friendship that results in their going to a music store where Hansard teaches Irglova the chords and they play the song together. By the end, he's hooked.) Let's consider the first words: I don't know you/but I want you all the more for that. Pretty topical, I'd say. Both characters have been romantically bruised, so the hesitant yet hopeful lyrics fit them perfectly. It's a song about falling sung at the first step off the proverbial romantic cliff.

The other songs adhere to the plot in much the same vein. "Lies" is sung by Hansard to video footage of his ex-girlfriend. "Fallen From the Sky", an adorable little ditty, is sung in the music studio at the height of their collaboration and happiness. My other favorite example is "Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy," in which Hansard hilariously recounts the tale of his breakup in song form:

Ten years ago
I fell in love with an Irish girl, she took my heart
But she went and screwed some guy she knew
and now I'm in Dublin with a broken heart
Oh broken hearted Hoover fixer sucker guy
Oh broken hearted Hoover fixer sucker, sucker guy
One day I'll go there and win her once again
but until then I'm just a sucker of a guy
And on that note (ha ha), I rest my case. I'm quite sure, though, that Adrian is going to come up with a million compelling reasons why I'm nuts and Once is really a slasher flick with Oedipal undertones, but I nevertheless remain steadfast in my beliefs. One last thing--if you haven't seen the movie yet, I highly suggest you do. It's lovely.

*There is no copyright infringement intended. The courts recently ruled that it is not a violation of copyright to extract sections of a DVD for the purpose of essays or education, which is my intention here. If there is a problem, please contact me. 

First post!

My first post! Hooray! Just thought I'd get Jean-Pierre out here to get us off to a good start.