Sunday, July 5, 2015

Roy Andersson Reklamfilmer and the Complex Image

Falcon Bayerskt Commercial by Roy Andersson
With his trilogy on "being human" (SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR (2000), YOU THE LIVING (2007) and A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH REFLECTING EXISTENCE (2014)), Roy Andersson has made a name for himself as one of Sweden's most original film auteurs.

While his first two narrative features from the 1970s already explored similar themes, the establishment of his signature style of one shot scenes (dubbed "the complex image") is usually traced back to his 1991 short film WORLD OF GLORY. For Swedish tv viewers it might be obvious however, that Andersson was working in this peculiarly funny style for many years as a director of commercials.

As Andersson himself wrote in 1995:
"I have not only worked on feature films, but also commercials, and there too I have worked with the complex image. I would like to suggest that it is during this work with commercials that I have realised the advantages, even superiority, of the complex image. I can find no reason to communicate something in several images if it can be done in one. I enjoy both watching and describing someone within a room - in the widest meaning of the word."

In the following two compilations of his commercials (two more are available on youtube) you can see many of his signature traits such as:
  • one-shot scenes
  • exclusive reliance on deep focus long shots
  • sickly greenish gray colors
  • the importance of offscreen sounds
  • relationship between inside and outside action and doorways
  • absurdist humor
  • and most of all disrespectful behaviour towards one's fellow human beings, especially older people and spouses.






Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Colors of Room 237

Stanley Kubrick's THE SHINING (1980) has popped up in connection with many films I have been occupied with during the last few months. There has been so much written about colors in Kubrick's oeuvre and in the Overlook Hotel especially that I limit myself to one scene that I can't get out of my mind: exploring room 237.

Subjective films like NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (Coen, 2007), BIRDMAN (Iñarritu, 2014) or THE SHINING which are told from the unreliable perspective of one or several characters often undermine our expectations by fooling us with point-of-view (POV) shots. When people "shine" in Kubrick's film, they share visions and it is not always clear who sees what and why. There are some clues however which most people register only subconsciously. As we see in the following screenshots, even those may be ambivalent or even misleading on purpose.

Danny has just told his mother Wendy that he was abused in room 237. When Wendy tells her husband Jack (Nicholson) about it he asks her which room she is referring to. At that moment, Kubrick cuts to Dick Halloran (Scatman Crothers) hundreds of miles away in his bedroom watching the news.

What caught my eye was the  combination of Halloran's violet pajama and the greenish-teal bed-clothes which is at odds with the rest of the room. As we zoom in on Halloran having a fit - or in the film's language a "shining" - the other colors are eliminated:
After an cutaway to Danny telling us that he and Halloran share a vision, Kubrick cuts to a steadicam shot inside room 237 that looks like a depersonalized POV shot. Apart from symmetrical lamp shade setups the dominant element is a carpet that mirrors the colors in the above screenshot.
The pattern and especially the colors of this carpet seem to be unique to this room and this one scene (location colors happen to change in this film disturbingly often). Subconsciously we believe that we share a vision by Halloran (and probably to some degree Danny who visited the room offscreen earlier) which is reinforced by the POV quality of the single take steadicam movement through the room towards the bathroom door.
But to our surprise when the camera is near the door a hand comes into view. It opens the door for the viewer/camera to enter the room...
... and only then do we see that it is in fact Jack whose POV we shared. Also note the mirrors in the bathroom that are always present when Jack has one of his (creepy) visions. This time however Jack is not looking at himself in a mirror and seeing somebody else. There is no mirror in the center above the bathtub where the object of his desire sits.

This seemingly random SHINING observation also serves as an entrée to a planned series of posts about the original TOY STORY (1995).

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Captain Hook's Red Coat (Part 3/3)

In this third and final installment I will sum up and discuss the overall color and lighting concepts found in Part 1 and 2 by way of analyzing the remaining three sequences of Disney's PETER PAN (1953) all of which feature Captain Hook's red coat in one way or another. I will finally look at the combination of red against blue.

Capturing The Kids
When the pirates approach the hangman's tree during Wendy's song about mothers in Seq. 13, the blue of Technicolor nights dominates the scene. In the establishing shot the characters appear dark against the pool of moonlight. The concepts of silhouettes against lighter backgrounds was a standard indication of nighttime scenes of the period. Audiences were used to infer day or night from conventionalized lighting cues because color films had to be shot "day for night" as the following screenshots from LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (Stahl, 1945) illustrate:
In studio shots, lighting conditions could be more closely adjusted to simulate night (left). However, dark characters against artificially darkened daytime landscapes was common practice to indicate night scenes when shot on location during the golden age of Hollywood. It is unclear, however, whether these scenes were supposed to be color corrected to look more blue in the original Technicolor prints as this DVD was probably made from a later non-dye-transfer release print.



Although in the PETER PAN scene the greenery looks pretty blue because of the night, the costume colors are merely darkened and not really affected by the blue cast. In closer shots, the lighting assumes the theatrical studio quality that is always possible in animation but was nevertheless carefully arranged to look "natural" enough:

The warm light emanating from Peter's hideout seems to come from the right rather than from below in order to illuminate both Smee and Hook so that they again stand out against the dark background. Hook's coat and (newly recovered?) hat look as rich and warm as in the sequence before when he wooed Tinker Bell. The faces are in full light and Hook looks stronger than ever (regarding colors, not animation that is certainly weaker than in the Frank Thomas or Woolie Reitherman scenes).

The package however is wrapped in the girly pink of Hook's shirt underneath.

Excursion into gender codes:
In this context it is probably noteworthy that Wendy is not dressed in pink but in light blue, for centuries the color for girls because blue is more receding than red.
The pink/male vs blue/female attribution was completely correct for a story set in a pre-war period. At night Wendy's blue dress stands out against the surroundings only by its lighter value.
In my first storybook which I loved exactly because it featured production stills rather than book illustrations, the publisher seemed to be worried about "dated" colors and "adjusted" (aka painted over) Wendy's dress in pink - probably to make it more accessible to a 1980s audience...

Whatever the reasons, the tinkering resulted in some absurd combinations like Wendy and Michael as one entity or a rather unattractive and narratively contradicting Peter - Wendy contrast:
How Wendy looked in the 1982 Unipart storybook.
Hook's Happy Hour
As we have seen in Hook's introductory scene, color-wise he is very much at home on his ship with all the reddish wood around him. Except for his skin, feathers and white frill he practically blends in with his surroundings and only stands out because the background is less saturated (whereas Smee clearly reads against the ship.
Hook tells us what happens to Peter when the clock strikes six.
While the children have been kidnapped late at night, the next scene on the pirate ship seems to take place during the following day. It is hardly plausible, however, that Peter did not attempt to open his gift for a whole day - unless we are talking about dream time. Time and clocks are a strong motif in this film about never ending childhood (think of Big Ben or the alarm clock within the crocodile) and at that moment we still do not know that - in the Disney version - we are inside Wendy's (rather the children's collective?) dream.
Hook may be shaved now (right), but the overall colors are the same as in the beginning (left)
The lilac sky around the ship indicates that we are either in the same spot as in the beginning or it is the same time (see above). At that moment the children are again in a similar situation tied to a pole. And again they see it as a lighthearted game and readily agree to become pirates.


The Sky Darkens
It is only at the moment when Peter's home explodes and Wendy is marching the planks that the clear sky is increasingly overcast as if the lighthearted atmosphere was overshadowed by the children's realization that Hook is probably a real threat.

When Wendy's walking the plank (Seq. 14.0 "the fight with the pirates" according to the production drafts) does not produce a splash or even a ripple, the pirates themselves become scared and the sky darkens considerably. And as if to reinforce the "pink undergarment" concept, the scared pirate is wearing exactly the same colors as Hook when he is shown weak and whiny.

The dark and rather desaturated clouds now almost obscure the purple sky so that Hook stands out not only because of the saturation of his red clothes but also because they everything around him is either very dark or very light when Peter finally reveals himself being alive.

Although the sky around the ship is dark, the ship itself is harshly lit in the same theatrical lighting style that produced the ongoing light and shadow contrast. But since this would be a subject for a whole article I will not discuss it any further here.

In a resuming of their earlier fight, Peter's evasiveness once again seems to be no match for Hook. Nevertheless, he still keeps his red coat firmly on. He is still angry and powerful, even when he almost falls off the ship in another cartoon moment that should feel out of place in a "realistic" Disney feature but still works (like the earlier concerning Hook walking on air above the crocodile).


Again Peter first destroys Hook's status symbol, his hat, and then lands a blow that leaves Hook with an open coat. But we still do not see anything pink underneath. Not yet. Hook is still angry and determined to kill the boy.

But then Peter agrees on a fair duel which means he must not fly. Instead he ties Hook up with his own Jolly Roger...


...so that Hook is covered by a blanket for the third and last time. Consequently, we do NOT see his red coat when he is embarrassed and ridiculed in front of the lost boys.

As we have seen in the beginning, all the adult men in this film behave like naughty children. So the moment Peter is releasing Hook as if he was ending a mutually agreed upon game the pirate breaks his word and strikes one last time which enables Peter to fly without being the traitor.

After all, the childish captain was still wearing his "strong" coat under the flag, but as soon as he falls into the water it is again devoured by the crocodile and for the remainder of the scene Hook is being chased helplessly screaming like a girl wearing only his pink and purple undergarments.

The Coat Makes The Captain
With Hook definitely out of the way, Peter is taking over the pirate ship and Hook's insignia (there really seems to be an endless supply of both hat and coat somewhere around the ship).
The flamboyant red and purple look so unexpectedly sensational on Peter because they are in maximum contrast to the green costume he has worn throughout the whole film.

Whenever Hook did not have his coat on and therefore was in a weak situation, he did not have his hat either. While his first substitute coat was a light blue (receding, girlish) blanket and the second was a blanket in the color of the crocodile, the third was not that soft and "weak" but rather dark with a strong picture in harsh black and white. After all, he was still able to strike one more time. Since a captain should be wearing some headdress, Hook's predicaments led to three compensatory "hats":

I feel the need to stress the following caveats one more time:
1) I am not saying that these color decisions have all been conscious or entirely based on rational rules. I am pretty sure that a lot of it simply felt right and was intuitively done because it looked right to the color stylists. But there is little doubt that once the basic concept was laid out they sought for coherence throughout a film.
2) The colors as seen on the BD/DVD are naturally different from those seen on a Technicolor 35mm print because they are based on different media and different color spaces. I am also aware that the digitally restored colors were altered in the process and I presume that the restoration heightened and clarified the color concept but I do not know to what degree. Sometimes it looks as if the point of reference was the original artwork and not the photographed artwork transformed by the Technicolor process, but this is speculation.
3) Although I have some reservations about all the de-grained 1950s Disney restorations (from CINDERELLA to LADY AND TRAMP), I certainly believe that they increase our awareness of the artists' original color concepts by eliminating the slightly shimmering quality of the original prints in favor of clinically clean images that match the digitally composited direct-to-DVD sequels. In short: they are great to study, but do not convey the experience of seeing the real film.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

2014 Year End List


Did anyone say Attica? - Al Pacino in DOG DAY AFTERNOON.

In 2014 I obviously have not had a lot of time left for blogging and I have managed to see even less films than in the year before. Nonetheless, here is my personal film year in review. For those only interested in newly released films, just scroll down to the list in the lower half of the post.

New York Stories
Early 2014 was clearly dominated by a whole batch of New York City movies from the late 1970s as well as the films that inspired them. Initially I had planned a series of special screenings of NEW YORK, NEW YORK (Martin Scorsese, 1977), MANHATTAN (Woody Allen, 1979) and ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (Sergio Leone, 1984).

But then Sergio Leone's opus magnum became unavailable because of the Bologna restoration that was to be premiered at the New York Film Festival later the same year. Besides, the only DCP available after that was the 260 min version with the re-inserted cutting-room-floor-footage that in my opinion was only interesting to people who are familiar with the original version and rather took away from experiencing an already perfectly paced film.

Finally, I decided to substitute the great Scorsese musical with his more consistent masculinity study RAGING BULL (1980) and dropped Leone in favor of one of Sidney Lumet's Pacino verhicles. Since SERPICO (1973) would be a better companion to TAXI DRIVER (1976), I settled on the unbeatable DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975) which we were even able to screen from a 1976 35mm release print.
Al Pacino as real life cop Frank Serpico - his growing isolation represented by facial hair.


So my introductory lectures focused on how the three directors captured their respective milieus within the city. Since I have already studied Scorsese's Little Italy quite closely before, I dug deeper into Woody Allen's very narrow Jewish middle class society and especially his personal philosophy and beliefs that are satirically revealed in all the films from TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN (1969) up to MANHATTAN a decade later.

It also provided me with an excuse to see some Sidney Lumet pictures I had never seen like the strong but forgotten FAIL-SAFE (1964) or NETWORK (1976). Even though released after DOG DAY AFTERNOON the latter was a good example for Lumet's staging of group dynamics.


Japanese Autumn
Although I would have preferred to push European cinema in the second half of the year, two opportunities for lectures on Japanese films dominated autumn 2014. The very instant there finally was a Swiss release date for Miyazaki's farewell feature THE WIND RISES (KAZE TACHINU, 2013) I knew there had to be a special screening to lure people into seeing an animated film exclusively for grown-ups (the existence of which is still unknown to most art-house patrons).

Red, green and white dominate Ozu's lavish color film FLOATING WEEDS.

In November a local film club that usually invites film makers to their screenings showed the new DCP of Ozu's TOKYO MONOGATARI (1953). Since the director has died half a century ago they asked me for an introduction which I happily agreed to. Although I focussed on the Noriko-trilogy LATE SPRING (1949), EARLY SUMMER (1951) and TOKYO MONOGATARI and some of the earlier black and white films, thanks to the blessings of "Masters of Cinema" and BFI Blu-rays I found myself mesmerized by the masters late color films such as FLOATING WEEDS (1959).

(Re-)Discoveries
From all the older movies I have looked at in addition to the ones mentioned above, the next few made the strongest impact:
  • LA GRANDE ILLUSION (Renoir, 1937): Still one of the most memorable anti-war films. Woody Allen's favorite movie and probably the reason for Tracy presents him with a harmonica in MANHATTAN.
  • A STAR IS BORN (Cukor, 1954): George Cukor's opus magnum in many ways and a blueprint for Scorsese's NEW YORK, NEW YORK. Judy Garland and James Mason at the top of their games.
  • IVAN'S CHILDHOOD* (IVANOVO DETSTVO, Tarkovsky, 1962): Tarkovsky's bleakly expressive debut finally convinced me to look at his later films with fresh eyes.
  • CERNY PETR* (Forman, 1964): Meandering portrait of youth in 1960s Czechoslovakia. Incredibly charming and funny (especially Petr's unforgettably pompous father).
  • PERSONA* (Bergman, 1966): European art cinema landmark. Iconic black and white images, J.S. Bach, split personality, no wonder Woody Allen borrowed more than just its cinematographer Sven Nykvist from it.
  • KES (Loach, 1969): Our life experience determines our experience of a movie to a much higher degree than is usually admitted. I have seen a claustrophobically tense drama when I saw KES as a teenager. Now the same tragedy seemed to contain a great deal of humour and light touches.
  • PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK* (Schatzberg, 1971): One of two unfairly forgotten Schatzberg-Pacino classics that showcase the later GODFATHER star's versatility as a troubled young man.
  • PORCO ROSSO (Miyazaki, 1992): Among Myazaki's personal films this is still a favorite and it has never looked as good as on the new BD release.
* films I have seen for the first time.

My Favorite Dozen of 2014
Wes Anderson and his team have outdone themselves in arranging the most delicious candy colors in THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL.

Among the current releases there was no single "film of the year" for me this time (if I had to choose my favorite cinema experience it would probably be the DOG DAY AFTERNOON screening with a small but very receptive audience). The following is a list of those films that left a deep and lasting impression in 2014 (in alphabetical order):
  • BOYHOOD (Linklater, 2014): Another successful long term project by Richard Linklater. Watch a boy (and a girl played by Linklater's very talented daughter Lorelei) grow up in real time and a middle-of-the-road American biography suddenly feels like a real life.
  • CLASS ENEMY (RAZREDNI SOVRAZNIK, Bicek, 2013): A Slowenic drama about the dynamics within a high school class and a group of teachers that unravels after the suicide of a shy student with a soft spot for Chopin.
  • ELECTROBOY (Gisler, 2014): A surprising documentary about a dysfunctional family with more unexpected twists and turns than many a thriller. To speak of its universal appeal may be quite depressing but true.
  • GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (Anderson, 2014): Wes Anderson's crowning achievement and one of Alexandre Desplat's best scores. It has got balalaikas, Tilda Swinton, Soarse Ronan, three aspect ratios, Mendl's pastry and cardboard sets - what more does one need?
  • IDA (Pawlikowski, 2013): It is not often that small gestures and unbelievably beautiful images and sounds reveal such emotional depths. One of two wonderful films about young nuns, the other being MARIE HEURTIN (Améris, 2014).
  • LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON (Kore-eda, 2013): No matter how simple his stories, Kore-eda Hirokazu always reveals his characters' humanity on a universal level.
  • NEBRASKA (Payne, 2013): Not as flashy as ELECTION (1999) and less melodramatic than THE DESCENDANTS (2011), this laconic father-son tale about sturdy old Woody Grant on a quest to claim a million dollar Sweepstakes prize ends with an emotional punch worthy of an Eastwood movie.
  • NEULAND (Thommen, 2013): A documentary that changed my perspective on integrational school in Switzerland.
  • THE WIND RISES (Miyazaki, 2013): The slightly controversial story of an air plane designer that includes events from the life of writer Tatsuo Hori, extracts from his novels as well as Thomas Mann's "Magic Mountain (Der Zauberberg)" into the biography of real life designer Jiro Horikoshi. Joe Hisaishi has outdone himself in Miyazaki's swan song.
  • TOM À LA FERME / MOMMY (Dolan, 2014): Canadian wonder boy Xavier Dolan has been compared with Rainer Werner Fassbinder. With two stylistically different but almost equally intense films about mother-son-relationships he completed five great movies in five years.
  • UNDER THE SKIN (Glazer, 2013): "The girl who fell to earth" with Scarlett Johansson reprising the Bowie role. Although water is a central audiovisual motif in this film as well, this time the alien is after our human essence. The most sensual sound experience of the year thanks to Mika Levi, Peter Raeburn and Johnnie Burn.
  • VI ÄR BÄST (Moodysson, 2013): Moodyssons films do not look like period films, they feel as if they were made during the time they portray. Probably the most sensitive portrayal of how life feels being a 12-13 year old punk within a safe middle class environment. Certainly not Moodyssons best film but the one that made me look at his first three hits all over again.
Encore
And as kind of a "coda" to my 1970s New York based-on-reality series I cannot resist mentioning this purely entertaining motion picture:
  • AMERICAN HUSTLE (Russell, 2013): Easily the most hilarious and least ambitious of countless New York period pieces that were inspired by real life events and released during the 2013/14 awards season. "Some of this actually happened" - my favorite disclaimer in a long time. An actors' movie par excellence. Christian Bale was never better than in this unashamed Scorsese-DeNiro homage mode (complete with weight-gain and all) and Jennifer Lawrence simply steals every scene she's in. As funny as the Quaaludes-Ferrari-scene in WOLF OF WALL STREET (Scorsese, 2013).

Red and Blue
As I have predicted, the standard mainstream teal vs orange (or rather beige/skintone) color clichee (more on that in a later post) seems to be vanishing in favor of the more interesting red vs blue color scheme that once looked so rich in Technicolor. Most convincingly so in PADDINGTON (2014) which despite an annoying explanatory prologue in darkest Peru and the resulting Mission-Impossible-style backstory-wound-subplot was a rather pleasant experience with interior and costume design to revel in. Even the much shunned CGI bear - who would want to see a photorealistic bear when he could have one that looks like Paddington? - worked quite well.

Isn't Sally Hawkins the perfect match for Paddingtons's blue coat and red hat?
It reminded me of Technicolor films like FANTASIA (1940) which I am currently analyzing and where...

...strong colors are kept alive even during night scenes...
...that nowadays often look like this (fake hue changes by myself).


The first film I have seen in 2015 was very promising as well: Ulrich Seidl's relentless filmic essay IM KELLER (2014) about what the more bizarre Austrians store and do in their basements might be a tad too voyeuristic. Nevertheless it is one of the most radically esthetic films I have seen in a long time.
IM KELLER - one of the few non-symmetrical shots in this voyeuristic documentary essay.





Friday, December 12, 2014

Remembering Ozu

TOKYO MONOGATARI (1953)

Ozu Yasujiro died on his 60th birthday on December 12 1963. 
So today, I would like to commemorate his 111th anniversary with a hardly noticeable double matchcut from a TOKYO MONOGATARI scene appropriate for the occasion:


Anyone who has seen at least one Ozu film, knows how much he liked matchcuts that defy our sense of continuity editing. I am not talking of the family members and the doctor in near identical places in two of the three frames. I am referring to the background space that is in one frame occupied by the typical Ozu lamp (top center), then by a towel and finally by gap in the reed background. It might be a coincidence, but then Ozu was very particular about arranging objects to achieve the composition he envisioned in his head...



EARLY SUMMER (1951)
Ozu is buried near the now iconic Kita-Kamakura station known around the world as the recurring location of films like EARLY SUMMER (BAKUSHU, 1953). There is even a website dedicated to Ozu pilgrims that tells you how to get there.