30 June 2009

The Stalking Camera

I have always loved those wonderful tracking shots that glide behind a character, following them in a limited omniscient way that allows us to simultaneous become the character and a floating spirit behind him/her. I was recently inspired by such shots from Michael Mann's Heat -- shots which made a gun fight seem like a violent ballet and which also made me more excited for Public Enemies. Matt Zoller Seitz, who recently did a nice little video series on Wes Anderson, compiled a video of such shots, accompanied by a short essay which I encourage you to read. Enjoy!

26 June 2009

Quotes on Welles

Much to my delight, I found a used copy of Peter Bogdanovich's book on Welles, This is Orson Welles, at the book store. Have just started it, but wanted to share some nice quotes from Bogdanovich's intro.

Cocteau on Welles:
"Orson Welles is a giant with the face of a child, a tree filled with birds and shadows, a dog who has broken loose from his chains and gone to sleep on the flower bed. He is an active loafer, a wise madman, a solitude surrounded by humanity."

Bogdanovich on Welles:
"My favorite memories of him? Many: like Orson moving hurriedly through my study in the afternoon on the way to his bedroom, anxious not to miss a second of his favorite TV rerun, The Dick Van Dyke Show. Orson in Paris pacing up and down the street one night, arguing with himself as to who should play the old director, he or John Huston -- wanting to keep the plum role for himself: 'Why should I give that great part away!?' -- but feeling Huston was more right for it. Orson in my car's passenger seat, told to put on his seat belt, flipping it over his shoulder like a scarf. Orson climbing into a New York cab, giving the address and adding, in his most swashbuckling tone: 'And a gold doubloon if you get us there before nightfall!' Orson in a Beverly Hills Hotel bungalow watching John Huston live on TV accepting an honorary Oscar for Welles; Huston waved the statuette saying he would deliver this to Orson in Spain and Welles cried out, 'I'll be waiting for you, John!' and broke up into gales of laughter. When I asked him why he didn't pick up the award himself, he shook his head and smiled slightly: 'Oh, no, I'm not going to give them that.' And, vividly: Orson under the trees at night on a Beverly Hills sidewalk lithely doing a little song-and-tap-dance routine from a musical he had written in school at the age of thirteen. There was a full moon, and Orson's face was beaming at us, looking remarkably like an out-to-please teenager, unburdened by legends, lies, mistakes, trimumphs, or failures, the whole world still out there for him to conquer."

17 June 2009

"You're Being Melodramatic"

So says April Wheeler (Kate Winslet) to Frank (Leo DiCaprio) in Sam Mendes's Revolutionary Road, or at least something along those lines. Perhaps it's a wink to the '50s melodramas (Sirk's come to mind first) that deal with the same milieu (white, suburban, middle-class) as Mendes's film, but a wink seems out of place in such a heavy (and heavy-handed) film.

Frank and April spent their youth thinking they were exceptional, special people full of promise -- people that knew better than everyone else. As they get married and time goes on and babies start becoming children, Frank and April realize that they are everyone else. They opt to run away from the trappings of their mediocre life in order to realize their potential -- or, as April puts it, to realize what it is they want to do -- in the utopia they come to know as Paris. Of course, that doesn't work, and the film quickly builds to tragedy.

Something in me wanted to like this film. Perhaps a fondness for melodramas, perhaps an interest in the trappings of suburban, middle-class life, perhaps it's the idea that everyone thinks they are exceptional and actually aren't -- either way I wanted to remain optimistic despite poor reviews. And there were things that kept me in the film -- Deakins's photography, Michael Shannon's character -- but it ended up falling short of even lowered expectations.

Perhaps Mendes wanted to invoke Frank's arrogance and April's artless naivety through his directing, but something tells me it is just a bit of ham-fistedness. At some points during the first half of the film the scenes felt so staged that everything became self-conscious -- I could see the actors acting, the art direction as art direction; at one point I was counting the shot duration -- and I couldn't get immersed in the film. Is DiCaprio acting like a putz for his character or is he playing his character like a putz? It got better as the tragedy picked up and my involvement with the characters deepened, but something about Mendes's lack of imagination is constantly off-putting.

And Kate and Leo are good actors, don't get me wrong, but sometimes the intense, raw anguish they are made to exhibit in every frame makes them look more like caricatures than the characters that are presented as caricatures -- Frank's co-worker, Frank's secretary, Kathy Bates's character -- making me question the merits of "realistic" acting, or at least its definition. Are they acting melodramatically or are their characters? There must be some way to express anguish that doesn't rely so heavily on Kate and Leo scrunching up their faces and forcing tears, at least not so often. Again, I tend to point the finger at Mendes, perhaps unfairly.

Even so, the source material offers a lot of deep thoughts about life, marriage, and what it means to be happy or successful -- ideas which kept me thinking and which make me want to read Richard Yates's novel. I know I certainly grew up thinking I was exceptional, and in many ways I still do, acknowledging the possibility of being average only as a distant concept like death; it's an idea that frightens me and can cause endless angst if I think about it too much, but at the same time it is something I feel temporarily immune to. Maybe I'm just perpetually naive. Anyway, I try to avoid the whole disappointment and disillusionment by setting low expectations. I think I'll be alright.