Thursday, August 21, 2014

Free Falling

It’s been a tough summer for cinematic San Francisco.  Last month, the post-apocalyptic wasteland of SF served as a battleground for Man vs. Monkey in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.  Before that, a trio of horrific monsters laid waste to my City by the Bay in the recent reboot of Godzilla.  Not since Jeanette McDonald warbled her way through the devastation of the 1906 earthquake has the city taken such a pummeling on celluloid in one year.

I’ll admit I had fun in both films—neither was superb but the production values were high, the casts were game, and the silliness was within acceptable limits for these genre tentpole endeavors.  But between both, there was only one moment that really struck me as arresting and even, perhaps, magical.

To provide a little context: I am not an adrenaline junkie.  I don’t really participate in extreme sports, ride wild rollercoasters, or do high-octane adventure travels.  I love taking my time, enjoying the scenery.  I’m a walker, not a runner.  Heck, I don’t even know how to ride a bike.  But one thing I have done is jumped out of a plane.

It was my bachelor party, 15 years ago.  Instead of the typical bar crawl/strip joint routine, I wanted to go skydiving.  Not a tandem jump.  Not a static line.  A full free fall, where I pull the chute myself, land myself.  So that’s what we did.  We had to train for hours on what were essentially three procedures: (1) Jumping, (2) Pulling the chute, (3) Pulling the emergency chute if #2 didn’t go so well.  In fact, by the time our training was done, the winds were too high and we (the two groomsmen and myself) had to come back the next morning to jump.

And that’s what we did.  We each went one at a time, so the other two could be waiting on the ground when one landed.  I jumped first.  The hours of learning the same routine over and over was smart, because by the time you were standing at the plane's doorway, you were thinking about the steps you had to do and not about being thousands of feet above the ground.  The rule was that you jumped with two experienced skydivers, so while you weren’t attached in any way, they could keep an eye on you in your descent.

Similarly, there was a routine as you were falling to earth: Check your altimeter (to track your fall), check the horizon (for orientation), check in with each of your spotters (thumbs up sign).  Rinse, repeat.  Over and over.  The thing you discover very quickly is that it is very, very windy and very loud from the wind as you fall.  And the Earth is so far removed so far below, it almost seems abstract.  It’s unreal.  So while you’re conscious that it’s gradually getting closer, it doesn’t really feel like you’re falling.  You feel suspended in a way.  But you have your routine (rinse, repeat) so you don’t have much time to wrap your head around the unnatural particulars of your situation.  You just have one job: Land.

And then, at the right altitude, you pull the chute and you get this massive jerk and then you’re not suspended anymore, but you are floating.  You feel gravity more because of the harness you’re in, and you start adjusting to the handles that control your directions.  Your spotters kept falling so you are by yourself in the sky.  That’s when you can start enjoying the view and getting your bearings.  Those first moments are the most tranquil and beautiful.

Eventually, the spotter (who has now landed) checks in with you on the one-way radio in your helmet to start spotting you again, giving suggestions so you can best hit the landing zone.  Each descent is different, but mine consisted of a large circle that spiraled into tighter and tighter rotations until I was heading straight for the target.  Then, right before you touchdown, you pull the handles down hard, giving you one final gentle little air bubble in the chute, so you don’t land quite so hard.  Then, when you’re on the ground, you run to gather your chute so the wind doesn’t blow it (and you) farther afield.

It was awesome.  Not just the sensation of it, but knowing that I did it all myself.  I've focused on the mechanics of the jump because the truly amazing aspects really are impossible for me to describe.  I’ve never experienced anything like it, and though I haven’t done it again since (mostly because of cost), I would again in a heartbeat.

So there’s this scene towards the end of Godzilla where a dozen paratroopers (each holding a red smoke flare) jump over San Francisco, enshrouded with fog and smoke from the monster battle below.  And the camera follows Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s descent, with the only sound his breathing and the only music Ligeti’s haunting Requiem (made famous by Kubrick’s 2001).  In a movie full of noise and bombast, it’s a moment that borders on the spiritual as these falling angels dive straight into hell.  Remarkable.

The best part of Iron Man 3 was the harrowing barrel-of-monkeys rescue scene as a dozen Air Force One passengers plummet to earth.  My favorite part of the J.J. Abrams 2009 Star Trek reboot was the space jump.  In short, I’m a sucker for skydiving in the movies, even when the movie (Terminal Velocity, Moonraker, Point Break) isn’t very good.  Because it always makes me remember that day.

Raymond Burr was featured in the US release of the original Godzilla (1956, Honda/Morse).  Perry Mason premiered a year later.  The USPS Scott # for the stamp of that TV show is 4414n.  The Iron Man stamp is Scott #4159h

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Fab 50

When you see a lot of movies, it’s incredibly easy to take some for granted.  And so it’s been my whole life with Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night (1964), the Beatles’ best movie and one I’ve seen plenty of times.  It’s smart, funny, loose & limber, and supremely enjoyable.
But until last Sunday, I’d never seen it on the big screen.  For how many surprises can a film you’ve seen over and over yield just from a change of venue?  As I’m repeatedly reminded, plenty.
My impression walking out of the film I thought I knew so well (in theaters again for its 50th anniversary) was of astonishment.  Wow.  From that first legendary chord, to the whirling chaos of the pursuit in the train station, and then from one song or setpiece to another, the sheer energy of the film—propulsive, buoyant, irreverent—is impossible to fully appreciate on the small screen, where many of the tropes that Night pioneered (the flurried editing, the hand-held mockumentary lensing, the music video pacing) have become a natural part of the visual language of TV.
But in the theater, where the immersive insanity (and dry whimsy) of the film are writ large, it’s another experience altogether.  Which is why, in a very real sense, as much as I love channels like TCM and the availability of older or obscure films on DVD, I don’t really consider ever having seen a movie until I’ve seen it in a cinema, the way it was meant to be seen.  It’s not just Bigger = Better; it’s that watching a film the way it was meant to be seen often completely changes your relationship with the way a shot is composed, the way the sound is designed, the way your attention can’t afford to drift.  In the movie house, the death of Frank Poole in 2001 in the vast silence of space is terrifying; at home, it’s like you left the Mute button on.
I remember the first time I truly was hit by this sledgehammer of truth.  I wrote my senior thesis in college on the films of David Cronenberg (this was right after Naked Lunch was released).  This meant watching The Brood (1979) countless times on my VHS player at home, until I thought I knew this nervy, bizarre movie inside and out.  But not long after, the Pacific Film Archive decided to program it, and so I went.   
And it devastated me.  The full spectrum of emotion that sometimes felt campy at home was now in its full, rich, grandiose power.  And the same goes Cronenberg's mise en scene.  There’s one shot, with two of the brood walking the lead’s daughter through the snow, all three in their colorful jumpers, that seemed little more than transitional in my living room, but was one of the most heart-breaking shots I’d ever seen sitting there in the dark.
This is why I see far more films in the theater every year (shorts and features) than I ever do at home.  I rarely buy DVDs and despise watching anything on the internet.  For movies, the cinema is their home and I’m lucky I live somewhere where the selection of films I can see that way is boundless.  But as the glorious rawness of this 1964 classic reminds me, I still have a lot of catching up to do.

It’s worth noting that in addition to the marvelous characterizations of the Fab Four, the wonderfully visualized songs (particularly “Can’t Buy Me Love”) and the anarchic hijinks, the film has a couple of postage stamp references as well.
Hanging out in their hotel room, their manager Shake brings in a batch of fan mail for Paul, John, and George--but not Ringo.  His bandmates playfully take the piss on their drummer until Shake returns with a batch twice as big just for Ringo himself.

Shake: “Hey, here”
John: “Are those yours?”
Shake: “No, they’re for Ringo”
John: “It must’ve cost you a fortune in stamps, Ringo”

Later, the boys visit a TV studio where they'll be performing at a broadcast.  Some dancing girls are rehearsing to an elevator-music version of "I Only Want to Dance with You".  As the practice ends, the Beatles' other manager Norm goes over their schedule:

Norm: “Now, you’ve got about an hour but don’t leave the theatre. Where are you going, John?”
John (with blonde): “She’s going to show me her stamp collection.”
Paul (grabbing brunette's hand): “So is mine”
Dancing girl: “But I haven’t got any stamps...”

The Beatles stamp (Scott #3188o) is from the Celebrate the Century series, while the Ed Sullivan stamp (#4414j) is from the Early TV Memories issue.

Top 10 Favorite Films of 1964

1. Dr. Strangelove (Kubrick)
2. Onibaba (Shindo)
3. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Demy)
4. A Hard Day's Night (Lester)
5. I Am Cuba (Kalatozov)
6. The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Pasolini)
7. The Naked Kiss (Fuller)
8. Man's Favorite Sport? (Hawks)
9. Woman in the Dunes (Teshigahara)
10. The Train (Frankenheimer) 

Top 10 Favorite Beatles songs
(note: none of them are from my favorite Beatles album, Revolver)

1. "Strawberry Fields Forever" 
2. "Here Comes the Sun"
3. "I Saw Her Standing There" 
4. "She's Leaving Home"
5. "Ticket to Ride" 
6. "Things We Said Today"*
7. "Hey Jude"
8. "I Feel Fine"
9. "While My Guitar Gently Weeps"
10. "In My Life"

*This is actually on the album A Hard Day's Night, but sadly not included in the movie itself.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Happy Star Wars Day!

Star Wars (Lucas, 1977) has always been part of my cultural landscape, coming out in the theaters when I was 6.  I actually remember the weekend it came out, not because I went to see it (my parents wouldn't let me, disliking "Wars" in the title) but because the following Monday everyone at school was asking each other, "Do you think Darth Vader lives?" and me not having a clue what people were talking about.

But I did eventually see it on re-release, and then repeatedly on video, at student union screenings of the trilogy and the eventual Special Edition after I'd graduated from college, astounded at the lines circling the block waiting to pile into the Coronet in San Francisco, supposedly George's favorite cinema to see the films with the public (and now, like most single-screeners in the Bay Area, long closed).

It was an easy film to take for granted, primarily because it was so ubiquitous, and because The Empire Strikes Back was such a smarter, darker, more provocative, more mature film and easily the best in the series.  A New Hope (as it would eventually be called) was a fine movie that changed the industry forever (for better and for worse), but I found myself easily relegating it to afterthought status, even after getting hired by Lucasfilm and diving deep into the history of that production.  But something happened during my time at Skywalker Ranch that changed all that.

In anticipation of the release of Episode III, I was called upon to do a Quality Control assignment (one of my disciplines there). It turns out, George's best friend (with an alliterative name) was being given his own personal print of Ep3 to see. However, it was decided that he should also have a copy of Ep4 so that they could be run consecutively, back-to-back (for the purpose of highlighting all the continuity embedded therein). But since this was going to be at this famous filmmaker's personal deluxe home cinema, we were to send him the best print possible.

Now while I had been exposed to Ep4 many times while working there, it was always in bits and pieces, on DVD or my computer work station, or on a flatbed watching dailies, but always with a "job" in mind, deconstructing visuals or analyzing audio for a variety of reasons. But I didn't even remember the last time I'd seen the film on a big screen, though it was probably around '97 (almost a decade earlier) when the SE first came out.

And one cardinal rule I had discovered while working there is that the really really great films never got old (I count Empire and Raiders as the only two from the studio that fit that criteria), the bad films stayed bad, and those I thought in the pretty good range, you still hit an exhaustion threshold over time. I always considered the first Star Wars one of those.

So here I was, with a pristine 35mm print of New Hope, one that was struck off one of the master negatives, told to QC it start-to-finish to make sure it looked good (no one even knew the last time it had been examined). Yes, this was the Special Edition version, but it was still me all alone in the theater at ILM, about to watch a stunning print of this film.

I thought I'd be jaded, or a little bored with the familiarity of it, or too wrapped up in my assignment to actually have fun. But I was wrong. I was transfixed, and while I have issues with the film, everything that made it so remarkable, so amazing and creative and ambitious an accomplishment, all popped out again, so vividly and lovingly, as if to remind me of all the things I had indeed taken for granted. The eyes of a nine-year-old and a 37-year-old converged as I dove deep into George's universe of imagination.

Personally, I love being alone in a big theater watching a movie. There's something very special about the experience, as if it's being held just for me. Well this one was, with as good a print and as exemplary a theater as existed anywhere--and it was far far better than I could've imagined. I left beaming. I'll never forget it.

The Scott # for the Star Wars stamps pictured are all #4143, with the following letters denoting the Millennium Falcon (b), Leia & R2 (f), C-3PO (g), Obi-Wan Kenobi (i) and Darth Maul (k).  The Yoda stamp was a separate issue later that year, #4205. 

Saturday, March 1, 2014

My Oscar Ballot

Picture: 12 Years a Slave
Actor: Bruce Dern, Nebraska
Actress: Amy Adams, American Hustle
Supporting Actor: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave
Director: Steve McQueen: 12 Years a Slave
Original Screenplay: Her
Adapted Screenplay: Before Midnight
Cinematography: Inside Llewyn Davis
Production Design: Her
Editing: Gravity
Costume Design: The Grandmaster
Score: Philomena
Song: "Let It Go", Frozen
Sound Mixing: Gravity
Sound Editing: All Is Lost
Visual Effects: Gravity
Make-Up: Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa
Animated Feature: Frozen
Animated Short: Feral
Documentary Feature: The Act of Killing
Documentary Short: Facing Fear
Live Action Short:  Just Before Losing Everything
Foreign Language Film: The Missing Picture

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Of Tramps and Vamps

This past weekend was the 100th anniversary of Charlie Chaplin’s introduction of his Little Tramp character in the 1914 short film Kid Auto Races at Venice and there is probably no single character in cinematic history so universally recognized or instantly iconic as him.  As you can see in these stamps, from various decades and continents, the Tramp belonged to the world, and was embraced for the hope and humanity he represented.

But 1923 was an unusual year for Charlie Chaplin.  After enormous success at the Essanay and Mutual studios, he was now at First National, fresh from his first feature film, the incredibly popular and moving The Kid (1921).  He was still making shorts, but with nowhere near the same manic productivity of the previous handful of years.  He was an artist in transition, and faced with the prospect of creating an ambitious follow-up, he took an unusual turn—one unlike any in his remarkable career.

A Woman of Paris (subtitled “A Drama of Fate”) opens with the following disclaimer:

TO THE PUBLIC: In order to avoid any misunderstanding, I wish to announce that I do not appear in this picture.  It is the first serious drama written and directed by myself.  – CHARLES CHAPLIN.

No ambiguity about his intentions, Chaplin wanted to make a movie that wasn’t propped up by levity or his own comedic presence.  And the story is a familiar one: a provincial ingĂ©nue, unhappy with her home and romantic life, goes to the big city, where she becomes torn between a wealthy benefactor and her beau from her past life.

The film, quite frankly, is an impressive endeavor, but also a bit of a mess—albeit an illuminating one, because it brings into sharp relief what a master storyteller Chaplin typically was, and how his rigorous discipline in creating comic set-ups was a reflection of his insistence on having motivation and characterization contribute to a larger narrative unity.

When the film opens, we already see Marie St. Clair (Chaplin regular Edna Purviance) and Jean Millet (Carl Miller) ready to elope.  Summarily banished from her own house and rejected by his parents, she’s taken by him to the train station to purchase tickets to Paris while he quickly returns home to pack a few items before meeting back up with her.  A family tragedy delays him, but despite his efforts to explain the situation, she simply hangs up on him and, without a penny or possession, goes to Paris alone.

While we do later learn that Jean is unreliable and easily swayed by parental pressure, we haven’t seen this yet.  It is his idea to take Marie in when her step-father abandons her.  It is his idea to move forward with their plans to marry.  Why does she give up on these dreams so quickly, and without even giving him a chance to explain?  We know very little about the couple, but she is quickly characterized as one ready to appease and acquiesce; so where does this spirit of reckless abandon come from?

Then, an intertitle: “A year later in the magic city of Paris, where fortune is fickle and a woman gambles with her life.”  And now Marie is traveling in the uppermost circles of Paris society.  She has a stable of vain and fashionable friends, all well-to-do (if perhaps fellow gold-diggers).  She is the kept woman of the richest bachelor in Paris, Pierre Revel (Adolphe Menjou).  She is cavalier enough about her opulent lifestyle that she isn’t worried about the prospect of losing her meal ticket when Revel becomes engaged (for business reasons) to another woman, but she is also still conventional enough that she objects to his remaining her sugar daddy, even though it’s an arrangement he wants to maintain because of his affection for her.

How did this traditional country girl ascend so fast to this high social tier?  How did she adapt such a sophisticated, almost cynical, attitude so quickly?  We see not a sliver of this potential in the first act of the film, so this transition feels incongruous and jarring.  And then, invited to an upper-class friend’s party, she happens on the wrong apartment by accident and discovers Jean living with his widowed mother in the same building.  How did they move to Paris so quickly, and how are they able to support this quality-of-life change on Jean’s profession as an artist?  And how likely is it that Revel would’ve never heard Marie mention Jean over the course of their affair? Again, no answers.

And this comes as quite a shock coming from Chaplin.  His films are brilliant examples of the intricate mechanism of set-up and payoff, where he establishes early a prop, a character foible, a deep-seeded intention, a simmering conflict, all so that when these elements align, a convincing foundation has been laid and the convergence of these story points harmonize to beautiful effect.
His films are filled with coincidence and unlikely incidents, but they never stink of contrivance because he has planted the necessary seeds in a way that is meticulous, visually deft, but also quite hilarious.  And here may be one important factor—because when we laugh, we as an audience are willing to forgive much that might otherwise suspend our disbelief.

But I think it goes deeper than that.  Chaplin’s obsession with multiple takes and working out the minutest of details is legendary, and this relentless perfectionsim was critical in making many of his most famous sequences work so effectively.  A Woman of Paris suggests that these comic set-ups were instrumental in driving this exacting narrative cause-and-effect, for divorced from any humorous context, the motivations in this “serious” drama are flimsy and the characterizations underdeveloped.

“A Drama of Fate” suggests a certain inevitability to Marie’s story, that her future was preordained by bad luck and the world’s cruelty.  But whereas Chaplin can mine deep emotional undercurrents from his comic set-ups (another part of his genius), there is little to invest in with Marie’s tale because she is less the victim of class or patriarchy and more her own bad, almost random, choices.  There is lots of melodrama, but little that is tragic.  Just frustrating.

This translates to the casting as well.  Purviance showed great comedic chops in his films, but also genuine emotional warmth and range; but here she seems adrift, not quite knowing where to take her character.  Marie is obviously meant to be a complex persona, but it never quite elevates beyond the contradictory.  Unquestionably the best performance is by Menjou, who controls every scene he’s in, and even though his part of the wealth, materialistic temptation is usually the heavy in these morality tales, he is not only the most charismatic person in the film, but also the most sympathetic—because he knows what he wants, refuses to be a hypocrite, but still displays real feeling, too.  Was Chaplin a better evaluator of performance when he was acting in a scene?  Did performing opposite him bring out unexpected qualities from his co-stars?  It’s tough to say, but Woman certainly raises these questions.

Don’t get me wrong, there is much to admire in Woman.  Chaplin shows his gift for composition often, and brings enormous amount of energy to the various crowd scenes.  The story does have a real adult and sophisticated sensibility.  And there are still small little touches, visual grace notes, that act as emotional shorthand in individual moments.  Plus, the ending is an unexpected one, although still in compliance with reaffirming gender roles of the time.  It is only the larger arc that I find unsatisfying, these merits notwithstanding.   But it does one make one wonder how Chaplin’s directorial skills would’ve developed if he’d pursued more projects like this in his career.  As it stands, A Woman of Paris remains a one-off for him—a fascinating experiment in a legendary career.

Chaplin’s last “short”, (actually a four-reeler) was also in 1923, The Pilgrim.  After that, it would only be features, with the masterpiece The Gold Rush (1925) right on the horizon, though this exacting nature would mean his productivity would slow down while his contemporaries Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, with two features each in 1923, would stay at full throttle until the silent era ended.  But he would prove with each subsequent film, that the wait was well worth it.