Tuesday, September 17, 2013

This is not an apple

Citizen Kane (1941)

Someone once complained to me that Orson Welles wasn't as great as his reputation, citing the shot of the eyeless cockatoo from Citizen Kane — whose transparent eye was apparently an unintended effect of the imposition process — as evidence that Welles received praise for such accidents as if they were intentional and meaningful moments of his own design. The cockatoo shot is ripe for such debate between people who may wonder what the bird's transparent eye signifies and those who would dismiss any such search for "meaning" due to the effect's unintentional origin. Filmmaker and Welles confidant Peter Bogdanovich, on a commentary track on the Citizen Kane DVD, explains that Welles told him the shot was only inserted to reclaim the audience's potentially waning attention at a late point in the film. Accepting anything Welles said about his own work at face value is risky, but refusing to allow that the shot could have any effect beyond Welles' own imagining is more so.

In a 2013 blog post about Room 237, a documentary in which fans of The Shining explain their theories about the Kubrick film, David Bordwell, addressing one theory that The Shining is Kubrick's apology for helping fake the Apollo 11 landing, wrote:

The Apollo 11 argument illustrates the risk of appeals to intention: they tend to substitute causal explanations for functional ones. That is, they tend to look for how something got into the film rather than what it's doing in the film. But that's a risk that professional critics run as well when they appeal to intention. The problem is just more apparent when the causal story that's put forward seems tenuous.


While the technical explanation of the transparent bird eye is perhaps easier to accept than the claim about Kubrick and Apollo 11, the problem of "appeals to attention" is applicable to debate over the Kane shot as well. Regardless of how the transparent eye came to be, it nonetheless ended up in the final film, and can therefore influence the viewer's response. All meaning in a film — or in any work of art — rests with the viewer. Filmmakers can do their best to shape an intended meaning or effect, and they can explain their intentions forever after; still, for better or worse, meaning is in the mind of the beholder.

Ceci n'est pas une pomme
Rene Magritte, 1964
The Magritte painting Ceci n'est pas une pomme ("This is not an apple") demonstrates the disparity possible between an artist's intentions and the end effect on a viewer. At first, the discrepancy between what the painting depicts (an apple) seems to be at odds with the inscription above it ("This is not an apple"). By one interpretation, this can be resolved by realizing that the apple is merely a depiction of an apple; thus, "this is not an apple." But there is something more at work. Magritte has included above a very recognizable image of an apple an equally unambiguous statement, "This is not an apple." In doing so, he has given us conflicting information about what we see and what we are told. Specifically, between what he is showing us and what he is telling us. To resolve this intellectual conflict, we must decide for ourselves what we are looking at. Thus, the painting is also a demonstration of the audience's relationship to the artist; more precisely, of the relationship between the artist's intentions and the audience's perception.

What if Magritte had inscribed something else, like "This apple is hanging from a tree" or "This apple has been poisoned"? Our decision would then be to decide if we accept this extra information about the apple, to determine if what the artist tells us about his own thoughts and intentions are relevant to our perception or "interpretation" of the apple. There would be nothing requiring us to accept such statements, and there is nothing requiring us to accept, or accept in a specific and predetermined way, the statement "This is not an apple." It is not incorrect for us to reject that statement in favor of what we believe we see, nor is it incorrect to reject a filmmaker's stated intentions in favor of what we interpret from the final film.*

I'll close with a few movie moments that came to mind when writing this.

Opening title card from Fargo

Fargo (1996)

I wouldn't necessarily fault anyone who accepted this statement without question, though claims such as this beg examination. When I first saw Fargo, I assumed this statement was false (it is a movie, after all) and wondered why it was included; what I accepted without question was that the Coen brothers thought it contributed somehow to the film. (For insight on this, see an interview snippet with Joel Coen in Karl Heitmueller's Rewind: What Part Of 'Based On' Don't You Understand?)

Jesus confronts Paul in The Last Temptation of Christ



When Jesus, saved from the cross and living a regular life, tells Paul that Paul's stories of Jesus' death are not true, Paul tells Jesus that the reality of Jesus' life does not matter to him when compared to what the people need to believe. If he, as storyteller, needs to interpret the details of Jesus' life in order to make his point, he will. (Hopefully, he's prepared for his audience to do the same and interpret his stories as they see fit.)

Marshall McLuhan stifles a know-it-all in Annie Hall



McLuhan appears in order to back up Alvy's assertion that a man in line knows nothing about McLuhan's work. Alvy wishes, "Boy, if life were only like this." Maybe to Allen the filmmaker, who could then assert more control over how his films were perceived, this is an appealing fantasy. Still, it would be impossible. Even if he inserted himself into all of his films in order to explain his intentions, or magically appeared in person at every screening of his movies, it wouldn't prevent viewers from thinking what they want. In fact, it would probably prompt more questions about what his explanations really mean.**


*I am using the Magritte painting in my own way for example. While I feel that this particular "reading" could be as valid as any, I admit that it depends upon splitting two equally important elements (the written phrase and the depiction of the apple) of a unified work (the painting "Ceci n'est pas une pomme") in order to demonstrate the relationship between two separate things. A director's intentions, and the discussion thereof, are external to a film, while Magritte's phrase and apple are both integral parts of a single work, one which appears to have been designed to prompt that very discussion.

**Certainly there is a difference between interpreting something and misunderstanding it, and in this scene it appears that the man in line is doing the latter. Academic work like McLuhan's is less open to interpretation than artistic work, and there are elements of filmmaking that are more closed to interpretation than others (we know what shot/reverse-shot signifies, for example, or what is implied by a blurry "coming-to" shot). So while it would be difficult to argue that the temporal discontinuity of Citizen Kane indicates something other than flashbacks, e.g., less codified elements like the cockatoo shot are more open to interpretation.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

A Hitchcock tour of U.S. landmarks

Saboteur (1942)

Hoover Dam (Boulder Dam), Nevada

Empire State Building and New York City skyline

Statue of Liberty, New York

Strangers on a Train (1951)

U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C.

Jefferson Memorial and Washington Monument, Washington, D.C.

National Gallery, Washington, D.C.

Vertigo (1958)

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco

Redwood forest, California

North by Northwest (1959)

United Nations Headquarters, New York

U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C.

Mount Rushmore, South Dakota

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Ray Harryhausen (1920-2013)

Film Fantasy Scrapbook,
still on my shelf after 39 years
My oldest Ray Harryhausen memory is from second grade, when I took my father's copy of Harryhausen's Film Fantasy Scrapbook to school. My father was the TV critic for the local paper at the time; knowing this, and noticing the book on my desk, my teacher presumed my father to be an expert on special effects and asked him to give a presentation on the subject.

I was beyond excited to have my father in school on the day of the presentation, and I did not hesitate to leave my seat and wander to the front of the auditorium (the audience had increased somewhat from the time my father was asked to speak to the time of the actual presentation) to interrupt him for the sake of getting laughs and impressing my friends. ("Who are we, the Smothers Brothers?" I remember asking him in the middle of his explanation of stop motion photography. He replied that we were, but that I was to be Tommy, whose role it was to sit quietly while he, Dick, spoke. I'm not sure the Smothers Brothers followed that rule, but I know I didn't. My father was not amused.)

Years later, in seventh grade, I gave my own presentation during a "floor talk" in English class. I opened with a mention of Fay Wray and King Kong, tried demonstrating the stop motion technique using a model dinosaur I had almost completed, and concluded with a look at the same copy of Film Fantasy Scrapbook from third grade.

In the pre-VHS, pre-DVD days of my childhood I didn't see many of Harryhausen's movies, save for the few that were occasionally shown on UHF channels. I remained captivated, though, by Film Fantasy Scrapbook, by the monsters it depicted, and especially by the technique with which they were animated. I kept a lookout for stop motion effects in other movies — The Empire Strikes Back is a great memory of that — and was happy when Harryhausen returned to the screen with Clash of the Titans.

Eventually, as special effects evolved, I began to feel as if stop motion had reached its peak and levelled off. In discussions with friends, I would say that it had been perfected early on, meaning in Harryhausen's prime, and that it was as good as it would ever be, but that it was easily being eclipsed by modern techniques. I was skeptical of those who claimed otherwise, though I still remained fond of Harryhausen's work, which I began to collect avidly on DVD.

Then, recently, I watched the remake of Clash of the Titans (2010), and I quickly realized how much more effective Harryhausen's work on the original is compared to the computer effects of the remake. The digital monsters of the new film are nicely rendered, to be sure, but the action scenes into which they are inserted lack a grounding element — there is simply too much digital stuff filling the screen, tumbling beyond orientation, leaving the viewer lost in a flurry of pixelated scales, fur, claws, etc. Watching the original once more, I noticed how Harryhausen's creatures, while noticeably "artificial," nonetheless become part of the world inhabited by the human actors. The threat or benefit which they represent can be felt, because their relationship to the human characters feels more physical, more real.




So much has been said about the expressiveness of Harryhausen's characters and about his ability to "act" through them. Taking some screencaps for this post, I realized how valid this praise is. Watch the introduction of the troglodyte in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (above), for example, and you will see as natural a progression from aggressiveness to fear to curiosity to acceptance as could be given by any talented actor — and it was done by a man working with miniature models one frame at a time. The fluidity of this scene belies the days, weeks, or months that went into making it, the time between each frame that was spent repositioning the puppet, the skill required to virtually stop time and reassemble it a fraction of a second at a time, somehow remaining aware of how one pose would lead to the next to create a seamless motion and a polished performance.

Below are frames from all of Harryhausen's feature films, I think, except for The Animal World. Also included are frames from two of his several short subjects, both based upon fairy tales. They are presented here in memory of the man, who died today at age 92.

Little Red Riding Hood (1949)
Mighty Joe Young (1949)
Hansel and Gretel (1951)
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)
It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955)
Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956)
20 Million Miles to Earth (1957)
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)
The 3 Worlds of Gulliver (1960)
Mysterious Island (1961)
Jason and the Argonauts (1963)
First Men in the Moon (1964)
One Million Years B.C. (1966)
The Valley of Gwangi (1969)
The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973)
Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977)
Clash of the Titans (1981)

Friday, March 15, 2013

Kai su, teknon?

"You, too, Brutus?"
Cleopatra (1934)

"Et tu, Brute?"
Julius Caesar (1953)

"My son!"
Cleopatra (1963)

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Homage, reference, and free association: Round 2

Here's another bunch of scenes, shots, and movie moments that may have been inspired by others.

Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope (1977) 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
The introduction of Darth Vader's massive spaceship — entering the frame from above the camera and almost filling the screen for several moments until it has finally passed — is similar to the entrance of the Discovery in 2001. The Death Star's docking bay, meanwhile, bears a strong resemblance to the one on 2001's space station.
Cars (2006) Cool Hand Luke (1967)
In an apparent nod to Cool Hand Luke star Paul Newman, who voices Doc Hudson in Cars, Lightning McQueen is sentenced to repair a road by towing a large paving machine. He pulls the machine as quickly as possible to finish his task in a hurry. As the title character in Cool Hand Luke, Newman inspires his fellow chain gang prisoners — also tasked with repaving a road — to work as quickly as possible in order to confound their overseers.
Dirty Harry (1971) The Law and Jake Wade (1958)
After a shoot-out with bank robbers, Harry confronts one of the injured perps who is thinking of reaching for a nearby gun. "I know what you're thinking," Callahan tells him, pointing his own gun at the man, "'Did he fire six shots or only five?'" The man surrenders, then begs Harry to tell him if Harry did in fact have bullets left in his gun. Harry takes aim at the man and fires, then chuckles when the gun clicks harmlessly. After being held at bay by a pistol that has been buried for several years — and which may or may not have been able to shoot — outlaw Clint Hollister asks Marshal Jake Wade not to keep him in suspense and to let him know if the gun would have fired. Jake points the weapon at Clint and pulls the trigger, only for the gun to fail.
Toy Story 3 (2010) Mission: Impossible (1996)
Woody's pull string gets snagged as he falls from a tree, putting him in a similar position as Ethan Hunt during the infiltration of CIA headquarters.
Toy Story 3 (2010) Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983)
Lotso's enforcer, Big Baby, finally decides he has suffered enough at the hands of the bullying bear and tosses his boss into a trash dumpster in the same way Darth Vader redeems himself by throwing his oppressive master, the Emperor, down a shaft of the Death Star.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (1985)
Bilbo's momentary but unexpected transformation as he lunges for the ring around Frodo's neck is reminiscent of the equally jarring split-second metamorphosis of Large Marge.
Jaws (1975) The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
Steven Spielberg seems to have taken inspiration from the Gill-man's first film. The shark's first victim is "stalked" in underwater shots of her swimming and treading water, just as Kay is watched by the Creature. Above the surface, the woman reacts to the first bite, as Kay responds to the Creature touching her leg. The Orca's boom winch strains as the shark pulls on Hooper's diving cage in the same way the Rita's winch strains when trying to recover the Creature in a fishing net. When cage and net are finally brought to the surface, they are both badly damaged.
The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997) The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
The Creature from the Black Lagoon is also echoed in another Spielberg film, this time as the captain of the boat taking Malcolm to Isla Sorna refuses to get too close to the island, claiming that it is known as the "Island of the Five Deaths." Similarly, Captain Lucas tells his passengers that their destination is referred to ominously as the "Black Lagoon," and that no one has ever returned from it alive.
Jurassic Park (1993) The Valley of Gwangi (1969)
Spielberg may also have taken inspiration from master stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen's 1969 film about an isolated valley still teeming with prehistoric life. In one scene from Jurassic Park, a Gallimimus is snapped up by a T. rex, which appears seemingly out of nowhere, in the same way a similar dinosaur is taken by Gwangi, himself a T. rex look-alike. In another, a banner in the Jurassic Park visitor center falls to the floor as the escaped T. rex wreaks havoc in the lobby, echoing the "Gwangi the Great" banner seen when Gwangi breaks free from his cage and terrorizes the town.
The Valley of Gwangi (1969) Mighty Joe Young (1949)
Harryhausen, in turn, used in Gwangi a trick from Mighty Joe Young (a film he worked on with mentor Willis O'Brien), in which Gwangi, like Joe before him, is lassoed by cowboys.
Jurassic Park (1993) Destination Moon (1950)
Spielberg also used a technique similar to one found in a classic 1950's sci-fi film. To explain the science behind cloning dinosaurs, theme park owner John Hammond shows his guests a cartoon featuring an animated character named Mr. DNA. In Destination Moon, investors are shown a Woody Woodpecker cartoon to be taught the technicalities of rocket science.
Jurassic Park 3 (2001) Strangers on a Train (1951)
The third Jurassic Park film includes a reference to the Hitchcock thriller, where Mrs. Kirby, trying to impress with exaggerated tales of her adventuresome spirit, tells once-renowned archaeologist Alan Grant that she and her husband have reservations for the "first commercial flight to the moon." The impulsive Bruno Antony, trying to impress tennis star Guy Haines, boasts of similar plans.
Jurassic Park 3 (2001) Peter Pan (1953)
Jurassic Park 3 also includes a reference to Disney's animated Peter Pan. The presence of the Spinosaurus is preceded by the musical ringing of a cell phone the dinosaur has swallowed. The crocodile in Peter Pan is ominously announced by the ticking of a clock that the reptile has eaten.
Deliverance (1972) Zardoz (1974) Excalibur (1981)
Director John Boorman seems to have inspired himself: he has used shots of hands emerging from below the surface of water in two of his films. A third, Zardoz, offers a slight variation, with the hand rising from a pile of grain.
Christmas Vacation (1989) Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
Clark's swimming pool fantasy from Christmas Vacation is remarkably similar to Brad's fantasy from Fast Times.
Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)
This scene, in which Frodo, Sam, and Gollum watch the Haradrim army and their giant elephant-like Mumakil marching toward Moria reminds me of the Gungan army and their giant fambaas (seen as the shot above pans right) en route to engage the Trade Federation's battle droids.
Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) Seven Chances (1925)
During the battle against the droid army, Jar-Jar Binks inadvertently looses a wagonload of boomers, boulder-sized explosive balls which roll down the hill as he scurries to avoid being hit by them. Buster Keaton has owned this gag since his 1925 film Seven Chances, which found him running down a hill pursued by an avalanche of dislodged rocks.
The Avengers (2012) Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)
The battle against the invading Chitauri aliens in The Avengers is similar to the battle between Gungans and battle droids in The Phantom Menace in that the invading army is controlled by an orbiting "mother ship." Once Iron Man destroys the ship, as Anakin destroys a similar one in Phantom Menace, the Chitauri collapse, as do The Phantom Menace's battle droids.
Batman & Robin (1997) Blonde Venus (1932)
Poison Ivy's emergence from a gorilla costume in Batman & Robin is a direct lift from Marlene Dietrich's "Hot Voodoo" number in Blonde Venus.
From Russia with Love (1963) North by Northwest (1959)
The James Bond film contains a scene in which Bond is chased and fired upon by a gunman aboard a helicopter, reminiscent of the famous crop duster sequence in Hitchcock's film.
Independence Day (1996) The Right Stuff (1983)
An anonymous comment on my original Homage post pointed out a similarity between the end of Independence Day and the Chuck Yeager crash scene toward the end of The Right Stuff. Rightly so.
Pale Rider (1985) Shane (1953)
Clint Eastwood's Pale Rider borrows heavily from one of my favorite Westerns, Shane. Two notable examples are when Preacher helps Hull break a rock that the miner has been working on for a long time, just as Shane helps Joe Starrett clear the tree stump that has vexed Starrett for just as long, and when Spider is shot down by hired guns in much the same fashion that Stonewall Torrey is killed by Jack Wilson.
Total Recall (1990) Forbidden Planet (1956)
The Arnold Schwarzenegger hit is similar to the 50's classic in that it, too, features an expansive machine of unknown purpose deep under the surface of another planet. It's not until the end of each movie that the function of the alien technology is discovered.
Iron Man (2008) Alien (1979)
The lab where Pepper seeks out Obadiah, who has suited up as the sinister Iron Monger, is dark and rife with hanging chains, making it eerily reminiscent of the section of the Nostromo where Brett searches for Jones, the cat . . . and finds the alien.
Kiss Me Deadly, et al.
Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Repo Man (1984)
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Goldmember (2002)
Captain America (2011)
A handful of films have used this before — a character opens a mysterious closed container (the Ark of the Covenant, a car trunk, briefcase, wooden box, even his own pants) and is lit up by a glow from within.
Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002) and Ray Harryhausen
Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)
The 7th Voyage of
Sinbad
(1958)
Mysterious Island (1961)
One Million Years B.C (1966)
Obi-Wan's weapon of choice when battling monsters in the Geonosian arena? A stick — the same preferred by the creature-fighting heroes of many a Harryhausen film.
Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002) Minority Report (2002)
It looks like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were thinking alike when they plotted these chase scenes, both from 2002. Each director set their chase on an automated assembly line, where swinging robot arms posed as much danger to the protagonists as did the pursuers. Pictured above, both Anakin and Anderton nearly lose their right hands as machine parts clamp down upon them.
Salt (2010) Die Another Day (2002)
If you thought the opening moments of Salt looked familiar, you'd probably watched the same scene eight years earlier in Die Another Day. Both films begin with a secret agent being taken captive in North Korea, tortured, then released many months later during a prisoner exchange in the demilitarized zone.
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) Major Dundee (1965)
Aragorn's plea to the Army of the Dead — ghosts of soldiers who deserted their king long ago — to aid him in defending Minas Tirith recalls Dundee's proposition to the Confederate prisoners he hopes will help him battle the Apaches.
The Lady from
Shanghai
(1947)
Gorilla at Large
(1954)
The Man with the
Golden Gun
(1974)
The hall of mirrors scene at the end of Orson Welles' famous film noir has spawned its share of imitators.
Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997) The 10th Victim (1965)
The bra gun wore by Dr. Evil's "fembot" assassins is based upon a similar device worn by a killer played by Ursula Andress in The 10th Victim.
See also:
Homage, reference, and free association
Homage, reference, and free association: Harry Potter edition