Monday, July 27, 2015


Chiyoko Fujiwara and Genya Tachibana, the protagonists of MILLENIUM ACTRESS.
It seems that I have never written about Satoshi KON or any of his mind-boggling films. Kon (1963-2010) was one of the great visual storytellers and a true visionary whose parallel editing and overlaying of several levels of reality influenced film makers like Aronofsky or Nolan. Today, I will focus on the first scene of MILLENNIUM ACTRESS (2001) which is practically a master-class in how to open a movie.

[SPOILER ALERT] This analysis naturally reveals a lot about the storylines of the works discussed.

The first page
Novelists usually introduce us to characters, settings, conflicts and tone of a novel in the first few paragraphs, quite often on the very first page. Most of the time we do not consciously take in all of this information. It nevertheless shapes our expectations and influences our decision to read on. Sometimes a narrator even foreshadows the outcome or parts of the narrative arc as can be seen on the first page of two of my favorite novels:

Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird

In Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird the first three paragraphs tell us that the narrator is relating events that happened some time ago in her childhood. The first sentence belongs to her older brother who used to be a primary source of knowledge to her at the time and whose broken elbow marked the end of a chain of "events leading to his accident" - in fact, the events that make up most of the novel's storyline.

Already in the second sentences she addresses the recurring motif of fears that are finally assuaged but define much of the atmosphere, especially in connection with the Ewell family as well as the children's interest for their reclusive neighbor Boo Radley. By the end of the third paragraph, the narrator's father Atticus - the novel's most beloved character - is introduced as a wise but unconventional consultant on what is right or wrong

Only then the narrator delves into the quasi-prologue of the family history and the Southern sense of ancestral roots. But now the reader is already hooked and at least wants to know why Jem broke his arm and why both Jem and the narrator can be right about who started what.

Many of the same narrative devices can be found in a much more recent and experimental novel like Paul Auster's City of Glass:

Paul Auster: City of Glass

The narrator is again concerned with how "it" all began and how much time has passed since then. In fact, the key to the whole book is right there at the end of the first paragraph: "The question is the story itself, and whether or not it means something is not for the story to tell." Even though the second paragraph begins with "As for Quinn, there is little that need detain us. Who he was, where he came from, and what he did are of no great importance.", the reader is provided with information about Quinn's age, relationships, work, personal interest and that "what he liked to do was walk". 

At the same time, the setting of New York City is introduced both as an defining part of the protagonist's life and as "a labyrinth of endless steps". Although we might not yet know what all this means, through the words of the narrator the author primes us for a story that revolves around a relationship with a stranger, a man who endlessly walks around the City and a protagonist who will eventually get lost. Having read this setup, we are hopefully eager to get answers to enough questions (who was on the phone, what did he say, what happened) so that we continue reading even if we as readers get lost in the narrative labyrinth Auster is drawing us into.

The opening scene of MILLENNIUM ACTRESS

A similar interplay of parallel realities and subjective perception is at work in Satoshi Kon's anime MILLENNIUM ACTRESS. When you see the film for the first time, you only gradually realize how great this opening scene was:

If we take into account all we know by the end of the movie, we see how well this completely mysterious scene prepares us for the following story: 

Synopsis: A beautiful girl named Chiyoko Fujiwara falls in love with a mysterious stranger she has only met briefly. Searching for her long lost love defines her adult life as a travelling actress. At least in her memories she practically acts out her own story in films set in different historical eras and genres. After 30 years of living in seclusion, Genya Tachibana – a former employee of her film company who she did not remember but who saved her life and has been secretly in love with her for decades – is granted one last interview and thereby learns that she is still driven by her yearning for the stranger.

The moon and beyond
The moon as a visual motif.
First the camera pans past planet earth to a slowly opening space base. Strangely the rocket that is about to launch seems to be stationed on the moon. Throughout MILLENNIUM ACTRESS the moon serves both as a metaphor and a visual motif for Chiyoko's hope that drives her search for the stranger she met on a night just before the moon was full.
Plant: Chiyoko meeting the stranger who links the moon to hope.

In a subjective flashback that mixes blurred memories, fever dreams and scraps of a movie plot Chiyoko even travels to the moon - only to find that her lover has already left.
The "lonely white landscape" later on changes between moon and snow.
A final farewell

In the best dramatic tradition, we enter the scene in the last possible moment when the astronauts say goodbye. Soon we realize that MILLENNIUM ACTRESS on the whole is about an actress' farewell. From the sparse dialogue we overhear, it becomes clear that the woman is looking for another man while the astronaut on the platform would like her to stay knowing that she may embark on her last journey. So we already know that Chiyoko is determined to sacrifice everything in order to be with her object of desire.

Doppelgänger and Alternate Realities
Then we get a closer shot /reverse shot situation when the young man on the platform tries to hold her back by confessing his true feelings. More importantly however, Kon cuts to an extreme close-up of an older man mimicking the young man's words we now hear coming from a video tape creating an audiovisual link between the two men while doubling the hint that this will be a story about longing for someone who will be out of reach forevermore.

In a film titled MILLENNIUM ACTRESS we most likely expect to see scenes of movies within the movie. So it only takes a few sounds, bluish color and fragments of VHS cassettes in the background for us to understand that he is watching a movie. Apparently this man has seen the scene many times before.

Much later, Chiyoko learns that Genya was a young assistant who once saved her life.
The following group of shots emphasizes the connection between the young astronaut and the old man in front of the tv screen. But then Kon creates an impossible shot - reverse shot juxtaposition of the old man in his room and the astronaut actress.
Top: reflection; middle and bottom: a shot/reverse shot across time and space.
Since lonely middle aged men gazing at beautiful movie actresses has become such a well-worn stereotype, we might not yet understand that Kon has just established not only the actual male protagonist (Genya) of MILLENNIUM ACTRESS but also the core relationship that motivates the whole movie. This setup emphasizes the fact, that - as we later find out - the relationship is basically one-sided with the man gazing at an inaccessible object of desire. 

Moreover, we are getting prepared for the movie's formal structure of seamlessly matching shots across time and reality levels in a rather unobtrusive, comprehensible way. When this farewell scene recurs in the last part of the film, Genya as a middle aged man will actually be there in the frame which by then we have learned to accept as Chiyoko's memory filtered through the interviewer's own perception and imagination.
Genya in the frame during an intense re-imagining of their shared memory.
And if you pay close attention you can see the reflection of the young man (above) observing the rocket launch. Reflections are fairly common in subjective films about self-reflexive characters. But as you can see in the pair of screenshots below (from later in the film) Kon draws parallels between Chiyoko's life and her movies by exchanging characters from her life (in this case her mother) with characters/actors from her movies (her senior rival Eiko). Although Chiyoko herself is in both scenes, first we see her real reflection and in the soundstage scene we see the ghostly reflection that haunts her.

Later in the film, reflections are not always what they appeared to be.
Then the take off does not only shake the frame within the video but metaphysically affects the viewing situation as well - or so it seems. Even the tapes and discs around Genya fall off the shelf as if he were close to the rocket.

But what could easily have been an expression of the emotionally agitated protagonist's subjective perception is finally revealed as an objective earthquake. Unfortunately, I do not know what the actual Japanese wording is but the English and German subtitles imply that earthquakes are quite common to these characters because when the lights go on again, Genya does not say "oh, an earthquake" but rather "That was a big one!"

It later becomes clear that earthquakes have been pivotal in both Chiyoko's life (e.g. being born during the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake) and in Genya's relationship with her.
Then we really see Genya's office for the first time and from the dialogue we learn that he is the long haired young man's boss and that they are about to leave for an assignment. As it turns out, they are about to interview Chiyoko, the very actress we have seen as an astronaut.

Non-Linear storytelling
There is one last formal information left, however: just before Genya leaves his office, he rewinds the VHS tape in play mode and primes us for the fact that MILLENNIUM ACTRESS will not only seamlessly alternate between reality and film but jump around in time.

As it later turns out, this space adventure was Chiyoko's very last film before her withdrawal into seclusion for 30 years. And the image below will be one of the last shots of MILLENNIUM ACTRESS as well. While it is not uncommon to begin a film full of flashbacks with an enigmatic scene the significance of which will be understood only after it is replayed at the end, here we are introduced to both Genya's story about interviewing Chiyoko (forward) as well as Chiyoko's trip down memory lane (backwards) in the same frame.

During the immediately following credits sequence everything around Genya triggers memories of Chiyoko's films which Kon juxtaposes based on visual connections.
Within less than two minutes, Kon has introduced the protagonists and their relationship as well as the setting, tone and narrative structure while planting bits of information that only pay off up to 70 minutes later.
Hold back the key!
However much is alluded to in the opening scene, the narration holds back one crucial piece of information until an excited Genya meets Chiyoko face to face: the literal key that triggers her memory, has guided her life for many years and is instrumental in revealing Genya's true feelings for her. 

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... 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.