A look back at Peter Weir's best films, on the occasion of his upcoming lifetime achievement Oscar.
A look back at Peter Weir's best films, on the occasion of his upcoming lifetime achievement Oscar.
Thanks to Joshua Frankel, who worked closely with director Phillip Noyce and stunt coordinator/director Vic Armstrong on the animated storyboards for the sequence I examined in "In the Cut Part II: A Dash of Salt," for sending me his previsualization sequence, above. As he explains on his site:
created previsualization animation for several major sequences in Salt. The film was not based on a book or other pre-existing property and the director, Phillip Noyce, had a lot of freedom to craft the story. Phillip worked with our team in previs to experiment with story options and push every moment in the film to be as unexpected and exciting as possible....
What is previsualization animation?
We build scale versions of the characters and sets inside the computer and create virtual cameras with lenses that match exactly the lenses being used by the cinematographer. I then work with the director to block in the actions, design camera moves and cut together a rough edit. We are able to do quite a bit of experimentation before anyone walks on set. The previs becomes a foundation for the sequence that the director can then build upon throughout the rest of the filmmaking process.
Compare with the sequence in the finished film, below:
Chaos Cinema Part 1 from Matthias Stork on Vimeo.
Matthias Stork, a German film scholar now based in Los Angeles, has created a most stimulating two-part video essay on a subject near and dear to my heart: "Chaos Cinema." At Press Play, it's given the sub-head "The decline and fall of action filmmaking," while an analysis at FILMdetail considers it from the angle of technology: "Chaos Cinema and the Rise of the Avid." Stork, who also narrates his essay, describes his premise this way:
Rapid editing, close framings, bipolar lens lengths and promiscuous camera movement now define commercial filmmaking.... Contemporary blockbusters, particularly action movies, trade visual intelligibility for sensory overload, and the result is a film style marked by excess, exaggeration and overindulgence: chaos cinema.
Chaos cinema apes the illiteracy of the modern movie trailer. It consists of a barrage of high-voltage scenes. Every single frame runs on adrenaline. Every shot feels like the hysterical climax of a scene which an earlier movie might have spent several minutes building toward. Chaos cinema is a never-ending crescendo of flair and spectacle. It's a shotgun aesthetic, firing a wide swath of sensationalistic technique that tears the old classical filmmaking style to bits. Directors who work in this mode aren't interested in spatial clarity. It doesn't matter where you are, and it barely matters if you know what's happening onscreen. The new action films are fast, florid, volatile audiovisual war zones. [...]
Most chaos cinema is indeed lazy, inexact and largely devoid of beauty or judgment. It's an aesthetic configuration that refuses to engage viewers mentally and emotionally, instead aspiring to overwhelm, to overpower, to hypnotize viewers and plunge them into a passive state. The film does not seduce you into suspending disbelief. It bludgeons you until you give up.
It seems to me that these movies are attempting a kind of shortcut to the viewer's autonomic nervous system, providing direct stimulus to generate excitement rather than simulate any comprehensible experience. In that sense, they're more like drugs that (ostensibly) trigger the release of adrenaline or dopamine while bypassing the middleman, that part of the brain that interprets real or imagined situations and then generates appropriate emotional/physiological responses to them. The reason they don't work for many of us is because, in reality, they give us nothing to respond to -- just a blur of incomprehensible images and sounds, without spatial context or allowing for emotional investment.
Philip Noyce's "The Quiet American" is a tale of lies. It introduces itself as a noir murder mystery, but seamlessly veers into a story of man in love with a dancer, looking for redemption in his twilight.
From there it flows into a love triangle pitting an old frightened Brit (Michael Caine) against a young fearless American (Brendan Fraser). In moments of crisis, the American saves the Brit's life. In a moment of anger, the Brit seems to allow the American's death.
Things in movies that made me feel as if my head would explode, in joy or disgust or both, during 2010.
Shot of the year: That's part of it, up there. "Sweetgrass" (Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Ilisa Barbash)
Best opening shot: "Mother" (Bong Joon-ho)
Best final shot: The terrifyingly comedic/nihilistic ending of "The Ghost Writer" (Roman Polanski). It all comes down to this: meaningless chaos, scattered and swirling in the wind...
Most astounding shot: A slow zoom-in on a mountainside that outdoes the opening of Werner Herzog's "Aguirre, the Wrath of God": "Sweetgrass"
Best movie-star shot: The one on the Staten Island Ferry that glides up behind Angelina Jolie and turns into a magnificent profile close-up. "Salt" (Phillip Noyce)
The reviews of "Salt," re-teaming Angelina Jolie with director Phillip Noyce, fell into two distinct camps: those that treated it as an action/espionage thriller, and those that saw it as something rarer: an old-fashioned star vehicle. Of course it's both, but (as I said in my second paragraph) I think it's even more fascinating as an examination and appreciation of Jolie's persona, on- and off-screen.
Kathleen Murphy observed that Noyce "has turned 'Salt' into a movie about being a movie star, about gorgeous Angelina Jolie dressing up and down, working up a sweat, displaying her exotic self for our voyeuristic pleasure...."
Phillip Noyce's (and definitely Angelina Jolie's) lean and unpretentious "Salt" is proof positive that dumb summer thrillers don't have to be stupid. That is, it revels in absurd implausibilities that are as outrageous as in the movie playing the next auditorium down the hall (and the one next to that), but it never breaks a sweat trying to convince you that it's anything other than what it is. The difference between "Salt" and most ludicrous trying-too-hard action movies is a matter of grace under pressure: a veteran director with a firm command (and respect for) the integrity of screen space; a stripped-down screenplay that gives you just enough exposition to create suspense and keep you guessing about what's going on (What's she doing? Why is she doing it? Does she know why she's doing it?); and an iconic leading lady whose poise is exceeded only by her stubborn resilience.
And then there's her face, which is the real subject of the film. You won't find a more thrilling moment in summer movies than the shot -- "Queen Christina" via "The Scarlet Empress" -- of Jolie's Evelyn Salt, wearing a Russian fur hat and wrap, standing on the Staten Island Ferry, with Ellis Island in the distance. The camera moves in on her from behind, causing the distant silhouette of the Statue of Liberty to sweep across the horizon from right to left, then swings around her into a breathtaking close-up profile. The whole movie is contained in that shot, from a far shot of the abstract Lady Liberty, into a close-up of another statuesque lady of questionable loyalties. (I couldn't help but think of Truffaut dollying around the stone bust of the Greek goddess with the serene, unreadable expression in "Jules and Jim" -- Jolie's Eve(lyn) being as mysterious and even more deadly than Jeanne Moreau's Catherine who, after all, was not CIA.) The shot has nothing to do with the plot; it just serves to get Salt to a rendezvous with a Russian sleeper cell. But it's a great movie-star moment, the kind of image you could imagine being built around Garbo or Dietrich or Ingrid Bergman.
"I don't think you go to a play to forget, or to a movie to be distracted. I think life generally is a distraction and that going to a movie is a way to get back, not go away." -- writer/director/actor Tom Noonan (see epigraphs at right)
The whole reason I keep at this blog is because it gives me the freedom to write about whatever I want and not have to write about anything I don't. And it lets me communicate with Viewers Like You. After many years on what we used to call the "review treadmill" of unidirectional daily and weekly newspaper movie reviewing (with tight deadlines and/or tight space restrictions), this is a luxurious change of pace for me. I can freely obsess over minutiae in obscure (or mainstream) films, new and old, if it strikes my fancy. And I have the liberty to virtually ignore things I don't care about that are being obsessively covered elsewhere ("Twilight," Lindsay Lohan's jail time, Harry Potter, Comic-Con, Oscars, box-office). Then again, if some pop-culture phenomenon piques my curiosity (say, a new movie by James Cameron or Christopher Nolan, or The Return of 3-D), I may just find myself compelled to say something about it. Then we can examine it, look at it from different angles, and bandy it about.
But in the more than five years since I started writing Scanners as a separate editorial offshoot (an annex, really) of RogerEbert.com, I've never sought to give equal coverage to all kinds of motion pictures. This is a blog about looking critically at movies -- based on my ideas of film criticism (of which I have many after doing it for so long) and my kinds of movies, and positive and negative examples that serve to illuminate both. That's all.
Click above to REALLY enlarge...
UPDATED 01/28/10: 2:25 p.m. PST -- COMPLETED!: Thanks for all the detective work -- and special thanks to Christopher Stangl and Srikanth Srinivasan himself for their comprehensive efforts at filling the last few holes! Now I have to go read about who some of these experimental filmmakers are. I did find some Craig Baldwin movies on Netflix, actually...
Srikanth Srinivasan of Bangalore writes one of the most impressive movie blogs on the web: The Seventh Art. I don't remember how I happened upon it last week, but wow am I glad I did. Dig into his exploration of connections between Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" and Jean-Luc Godard's "History of Cinema." Or check out his piece on James Benning's 1986 "Landscape Suicide." There's a lot to look through, divided into sections for Hollywood and World Cinema.
In the section called "The Cinemaniac... I found the above collage (mosaic?) of mostly-famous faces belonging to film directors, which Srikanth says he assembled from thumbnails at Senses of Cinema. Many of them looked quite familiar to me, and if I'm not mistaken they were among the biographical portraits we used in the multimedia CD-ROM movie encyclopedia Microsoft Cinemania, which I edited from 1994 to 1998, first on disc, then also on the web. (Anybody with a copy of Cinemania able to confirm that? My Mac copy of Cinemania97 won't run on Snow Leopard.)
From the opening shot of "Cutter's Way" -- my favorite movie of the 1980s.
... and speaking of critical "best of" movie lists, here's a swell one called "50 Lost Movie Classics," from The Guardian. I might quibble with the terms "lost" (how "lost" can they be, when so many of them are available on DVD?) or "classics" (a "masterpiece" can be lost or overlooked, but can a "classic"?). But it is what it is. A group of British critics and filmmakers chose 50 movies (I have no quibbles with either of those terms) that... well, allow Philip French to explain: This isn't just another list of great movies. It's a rallying cry for films that for a variety of reasons -- fashion, perhaps, or the absence of an influential advocate, or just pure bad luck -- have been unduly neglected and should be more widely available. You know that feeling when someone hasn't heard of a film you've always loved and you want to show it to them? Or, in a different way, when you get annoyed because a picture hasn't been accorded the position you think it deserves in cultural history or the cinematic canon? That's the sort of film we have included on this list.And now, please permit me to add my own huzzahs for a few of the selections, several of which have also been featured on my personal "ten-best" lists over the years -- or would have been, in the event that I had made one that year. (And some were released before I was born, OK?) Several of these have already been discussed here at Scanners. Here are just a few of the choices I'd particularly like to second:
"Petulia" (Richard Lester, 1968) -- use the link to read about the opening shot."The State of Things" (Wim Wenders, 1982) -- one of the best movies about movies ever. And "Stranger Than Paradise" was made using the leftover b&w stock."Newsfront" (Phillip Noyce, 1979) -- charming account of Aussie newsreelers."Fat City" (John Huston, 1972) -- best boxing movie ever (and, yes, I include "Raging Bull" and "Rocky")."Ace In the Hole" aka "The Big Carnival" (Billy Wilder, 1951) -- no excuse for this to still be unavailable on DVD."3 Women" (Robert Altman, 1977) -- just watched it again the night Altman's death was announced and was thrilled to find it as mesmerizing as ever..."Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me" (David Lynch, 1992) -- although I think the series is by far the best work Lynch has ever done, I didn't "get" this one when it came out. Now I think it's genius (and should be double-billed with "Mulholland Drive")."Safe" (Todd Haynes, 1995) -- my choice for best movie of 1995."Housekeeping" (Bill Forsyth, 1987) -- my choice for best movie of 1987."The Parallax View" (Alan J. Pakula, 1974) -- NOT "Alan J. Parker" as The Guardian has it, fer cripes sake!!! Gripping paranoid thriller -- with a fight atop my beloved Space Needle!"Dreamchild" (Gavin Millar, 1985) -- nice double-bill with "Pan's Labyrinth," I think."The Ninth Configuration" (William Peter Blatty, 1980) -- I see a big moon risin'..."Cutter's Way" (Ivan Passer, 1981) -- my choice for the best movie of the 1980s."Wise Blood" (John Huston, 1979) -- I don't think I've ever fully recovered from the scars this one left on me."Two-Lane Blacktop" (Monte Hellman, 1971) -- this does qualify as a cult classic."'Round Midnight" (Bertrand Tavernier, 1986) -- Dexter Gordon as a version of Dexter Gordon, in gorgeous widescreen. One of the best evocations of cinema as jazz, and vice-versa."Grace of My Heart" (Allison Anders, 1996) -- pop music history mix-and-match (not unlike "Velvet Goldmine" in that respect) with terrific songs co-authored by Brill Building vets and contemporary artists. I watch this one over and over. Made me fall in love with Illeana Douglas.
Some of the choices I haven't seen: "Ride Lonesome," "Jeremy," "Under the Skin," "I Wanna Hold Your Hand," "Let's Scare Jessica to Death," "The Low Down," "Quiemada!," "The Hired Hand," "Le Petomane," "Bill Douglas Trilogy," "Babylon," "Day Night Day Night" (just missed it in Toronto!), "The Day the Earth Caught Fire," "The Mad Monkey," "Terence Davies Trilogy" (not sure what individual titles they mean to include, but "The Long Day Closes" was my best movie of 1992 -- or was it 1993 in the US?). And there are others the list reminds me to revisit (like Monte Hellman's "Cockfighter") because it's simply been too long.
Take a peek and let us know which ones you treasure (or don't) -- and maybe suggest some additional titles for such a list...