Sunday, September 25, 2011

Living Color

I've recently moved into a house where my tendencies towards non-drinking, non-drugging and baking enjoyment sort of place me in the "quaint and/or odd" category as far as my roommates are concerned. Think of an Amish person moving into a frat house and you've sort of got some idea of what we're working with here. Case in point: the house was empty and I was reasonably certain that I would be alone for a while so I snuck downstairs with my newly rented Pierrot Le Fou and popped it in. About five minutes later my roommate Dave wandered in the front door. Let me tell you about Dave. He's about six foot three or something ridiculous and has decorated our refrigerator with a carefully curated gallery of him and his friends squinting blearily at the camera, alcoholic beverages artistically littering the frame. Their hands are invariably held up in various "bro" or "frat" "signs" and he always comes home right when I'm attempting to be embarassingly cultural. Once he came in about midway through Jane Eyre and when it got to the part where St. John asks Jane to come to India and be a missionary as his wife, Dave yelled, "Don't do it, Jane! There's hella monkeys in the city."

So anyway, he came in and plopped down on the couch and proceeded to try to engage me in a conversation about College Sport. When I failed to adequately respond as far as College Sport was concerned, he folded his arms and watched about a minute of Pierrot Le Fou. Then the following conversation took place.

Dave: What are you watching?
Me: Pierrot le Fou. It's New Wave film. (Gropes for something to make self sound less like a pretentious ass) Yeah, I've always thought Jean-Paul Belmondo was really hot. Definitely one of my favorite actors in the Godard canon. (Realizes that last part sort of killed it.)
(A minute passes).
Dave: Why do all those girls have their shirts off?
Me: Well, Godard had a big problem with sort of the shallow, scene-y culture he found in parties and society, so that's just sort of an, um, representation of, um, his...feelings...towards...
Dave: Oh.
(Another minute passes. Dave, by this point, is looking mildly concerned.)
Me: Wow, that color transfer is fantastic! I love the Criterion Collection.
(Dave leaves.)

But, friends, the color transfer was fantastic and as a sort of displacement activity I started daydreaming about all my favorite images from various color films. There are some movies that are in color and there are others that take the color and bounce it off the walls. So, to celebrate the awkwardness that was my attempt at watching Pierrot le Fou, I present the following:

(Note: these are nonmusical because you could easily just have a list with My Fair Lady, Singin' in the Rain, Gigi and Can-Can all up in here).

 This is a film where the use of color is as integral as plot, casting or dialogue. It's filled with images as haunting as its story in which a young, precocious ballerina is recruited by a controlling, tyrannical company director to dance the ballet of the Red Shoes. In the ballet, a girl wears a pair of magical shoes and dances herself to death. Pretty soon, life and art start to imitate each other.

The movie plays like a surreal dream, with flame-haired, porcelain-skinned lead Moira Shearer lending her snippy, vivacious presence to the heart of the film. It is justly famous for the extended ballet sequence in the center of the film in which the girl slowly dances her life away, surrounded by images of clouds turning into dancers, newspapers coming to life and sheets of paper slowly falling off walls and swirling around her feet. And the shoes themselves, such a startling red that they seem to leap off the screen, serve as both a motif and a foreshadowing of the young dancer's doom.

It was difficult to restrain myself from listing at least three Hitchcock films to be on this list, but there was never any question that Vertigo is supposed to be here. Hitch's deeply personal, disturbing tale of all-consuming love and obsession follows a retired detective who is hired to tail his friend's wife. He falls in love with the wife, goes half-crazy when she commits suicide, then turns into a Pygmalion-like monster when he meets her doppleganger. It's constructed as a murder mystery but is really a journey into the dark depths of the human heart.
And, more than in any of his other works, Hitchcock amps up the use of color. Take the above image, of Madeline (the suicidal wife) in her first scene. Her green shawl, black gown, white-blond hair are all framed against a background of startling red. Madeline's iconic gray suits were crafted to look as if she had "stepped out of the San Francisco fog" and the recurring images of flowers and bouquets fill every frame. The Master was known for some of the most iconic images in cinema, but this film alone contains some of the most beautiful, breathtaking compositions of all. 

3. RAN
 First: if at all possible, you must see this film on the big screen. I only sort-of liked it when I watched it at home, then fell completely in love with it when I saw it at Film Forum. Kurosawa's epic adaptation of Shakespeare's King Lear finds a new setting in feudal Japan, in which an aging warlord finds himself trapped amid the power struggles of his sons. 

You know you're in for a treat when the credits take your breath away. The film opens in an emerald sea of grass in which the warlord and his sons are conducting a boar hunt. The motion and the vivid detail and color are some of the best you'll ever see. Kurosawa outfits each son in a different color scheme, and when two armies fight the sea of soldiers (each bearing the flag of their leader) is something to behold. Incorporated into it all are the traditions of Japanese theater; the white, decaying age makeup applied to the warlord and the cadaver-like face of the demonic Lady Kaede (above) create a deliciously flamboyant, theatrical bent to this stunning epic. 

Really, you only have to look at the above image to know why this movie is on the list. Kubrick, ever the stickler for perfection in the cinematic image, truly outdoes himself with the marvelous cinematography of this film, which charts the (mis)adventures of a young man named Redmond Barry as he seeks (and loses) his fortune in 1700's Ireland and England.

As incredible as the images are the stories of how they were created. Kubrick referenced paintings from the era and brought them startlingly to life, to the point where I found myself jumping out of my seat a bit when the image actually moved. This film was also quite famous due to the fact that Kubrick used only source lighting--meaning that the scenes taking place by candlelight were actually shot by candlelight. It wasn't an easy task by any means, but Kubrick was never one to do things halfway and in this case it truly pays off. The film itself is slow-paced but in my opinion it barely matters; the entire thing is a gorgeous feast for the eyes.

This one is a very personal addition to the list. I first watched the Adventures of Robin Hood on a VHS copy that my dad had taped a long while ago when the film was playing on television. Needless to say, everything was intensely dark and muddled but it didn't even register because everything else about the film was so great. Starring Errol Flynn in his iconic role, Robin Hood is a swashbuckling adaptation of the adventures of the titular outlaw and his merry men. 

About five years ago when I was leaving for college, I went on an Amazon market spree just to ensure that I had all the comfort movies I needed for my transition. Naturally, Robin Hood was one of the first ones I purchased and when I saw it for the first time on DVD, with all the colors remastered to their full brilliance...I'm not going to lie, I sort of cried a little (definitely one of those "You know you're a film nerd when..." moments). But I mean, there were scenes I didn't even know were happening. Like when that guard is messing with that girl and all of a sudden there's an arrow in his back? There's a little puff of something that goes off right when that happens and when I was little I always reasoned that it was because the guard's uniform was really dusty. But it's actually because Robin shoots an arrow through a candle and into the guard's back and snuffs out the candle. How cool is that? And then there's Errol cavorting around in his Lincoln green jerkin and tights, Olivia de Havilland's rosy cheeks blushing daintily at Errol's roguish ways ("Why, you speak treason!" "Fluently.") and Basil Rathbone's polished black coiffure unsettling ever so slightly as he and Robin battle down through the belly of Nottingham castle. One of the best, certainly not to be missed. 

Honorable Mention: Romeo and Juliet
I could have also added Zeffirelli's Brother Sun, Sister Moon to this list but refuse to do it on the moral grounds that I found myself snickering rather unkindly through most of that film. Instead, our honorable mention goes to Romeo and Juliet. I mean, just look at Olivia Hussey. Did you look like that when you were fourteen? I sure as hell didn't! The hot dusty, streets of Verona are teeming with life and color and blood in this faithful adaptation of Shakespeare's classic. Zeffirelli puts ebony-haired Hussey in that red dress and it's no wonder Leonard Whiting's Romeo falls for her like a ton of bricks. Rich color, sumptuous costume design and a painterly eye make this version easily the most beautiful Romeo and Juliet yet made.
Coming soon: Black and white and musical versions of the above list!


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