A Shot In the Dark

A place to muse about the art of creating motion pictures, celebrating the blood, sweat, tears and hundreds of tricks that go into creating the pantheon of good cinema.

Flight of the Peacock

         

Rock ‘N’ roll has never been solely about the music. From Chuck Berry’s strut across the stage, to The Beatles’ mop haircut, to Bowie’s eye shadow and Jagger’s scandalously tight pants, rock ‘n’ roll has been about attitude and image as much as the music itself. If the songs make you imagine new horizons, the rest gives you wings to fly there. 

Control, Anton Corbijn’s 2007 portrait of Joy Division and its front man, Ian Curtis, is the story of such a flight. If rock ‘n’ roll helps you escape the drab and grey monotony of everyday life, then Ian Curtis’ longing for escape is wholly justified, for there are few places as grey and dreary as the English Northwest circa 1973. Corbijn shows both this monotony, and the inevitability of the need for something more, in the first act of the film, as a young Ian Curtis resorts to stealing prescription drugs from an elderly woman for a quick high, in a surprisingly heartfelt and light scene, which nevertheless succeeds in illustrating the irrepressible need for something more. 

         

But it is the allure and promise of rock ‘n’ roll, and everything it represents, that is the ultimate drug for Ian. In a revealing, early scene, a shirtless Ian listens to the wail of Mick Ronson’s guitar on Jean Genie as he lays on his bed, smoking his cigarette, before standing up and examining himself in the mirror. 

         

Dancing in the mirror, his reflection sits comfortably alongside posters of Bowie and Lou Reed that adorn his walls. “Let yourself go” he sings along to the chorus, pointing at the mirror and winking playfully. And at that moment he is a star. He belongs on that wall. 

         

This faith in the freeing power of a rock ‘n’ roll state of mind is best illustrated in the most playful shot in the film. Having documented Joy Division’s meteoric rise and abrupt end in iconic, black and white photographs as a rock journalist, Anton Corbijn opted to shoot Control in luscious, high-contrast black and white (shot on Kodak colour-stock, then printed onto black and white interpositive stock, before being colour corrected at Nordisk Film in Stockholm). Furthermore, he decided to compose the film in mostly still shots. That is why, the following shot, the only Steadicam shot in the entire film, and one of only two moving shots, stands out so beautifully:

      

For a brief moment in time, this is Ian as a rock star. Even more so then than when he is actually one. The swagger with which he struts down the street to the driving bass of No Love Lost, the impeccably timed stop to light a cigarette, he looks like he is ready to take on all comers, a point that is emphasized half-way through the shot as the camera allows Ian to go ahead, following him from that point on, and revealing the word ‘HATE’ scrawled on the back of his jacket. Where is this young, bright star, with his ‘fuck you’ attitude and puffed out, peacock chest going? The answer, is the punchline of the shot, as the sign on his eventual destination slowly comes into focus: “Employment Exchange - Department of Employment”. 

        

But Control is a smarter film than that, and in the following scene we choke on the easy laugh that the gag may have brought us, as Ian is revealed as a genuinely caring employee at the job we have already assumed he hates with every bone in his body. We see him go above the call of duty to help a developmentally challenged young man find some form of employment that will bring him more than a bum paycheque, something he might enjoy and find solace in.

         

Corbijn is playing a crafty game of making us believe we know who Ian is and what he wants, before challenging any easy notions we may have arrived at. That pattern is repeated time and again, as we, along with Ian, come to realize that sometimes ‘drab’ is a state of mind, ‘grey’ is in your bloodstream, and there is no escape. That’s not a realization everyone can survive. 

        

Not everything can survive the violence of creation.

Not everything can survive the violence of creation.

Voices in the Dark

       

For years after graduating from university, I lived and worked an hour’s drive away from my hometown. Seeing family and friends frequently necessitated driving an hour there and hour back to where I lived, often in the same evening. At around the same time, I had started making my first short films and harboured ambitions of making a feature. Given that I had a job that occupied my time and mind during the day, I couldn’t afford to lose a minute of my time in the evenings or on weekends. I wanted to think film, live and breathe film, all the time. I wanted to learn, be inspired. Those drives, often at night, were great opportunities to think about the films I wanted to make, but they became something else entirely once I discovered Museum of The Moving Image, and their series Pinewood Dialogues. 

      

By the time I discovered it, MoMI was in its 15th year of operation. Located in Astoria, Queens, in the historic Kaufman Astoria Studios building, the museum is dedicated to the art, history, technique and technology of the moving image in various mediums: film, television and digital media. Remarkable in its expanse and inclusive spirit, MoMI has hosted numerous and varied exhibits and installations, like Making Movies in New York 1896–1982 (July 1982), Film After Film (August 25–October 28, 2012), or Robert DeNiro: Costume & Character (February 6, 2002–January 2, 2004). 

             

But what made me incredibly envious of people who had an easy access to MoMI wasn’t the exhibitions, it was their screening. The museum and its curators and programmers had developed a well-earned reputation for hosting unique film screenings, often bookended by detailed and informative discussions with the filmmaker(s) before and after the film. I imagined watching GoodFellas with Martin Scorsese, asking questions of Robert Altman after a screening of Nashville, or listening to Daniel Day Lewis discuss how he developed his distinctive voice for Daniel Plainview before we watch There Will Be Blood. I did’t live anywhere near New York City, so this all remained a dream until MoMI, remarkably, started hosting an archive of their conversations with the various filmmakers they had hosted over the years, as free, downloadable audio files (with transcripts of the conversations also available). I couldn’t believe their generosity and my luck. So for the days and weeks that followed, I kept on taking the drive back and forth to my hometown, now accompanied by the voices of my heroes in the dark. The entire collection can be found here: http://www.movingimagesource.us/, and it truly is a treasure trove. But here are the highlights for me:

Martin Scorsese  November 9, 2002

http://www.movingimagesource.us/dialogues/date/6/view/258

       

At a transitional phase in his career, Scorsese discusses the making of Gangs of New York and his career to date in anticipation of a two-month Scorsese retrospective at MoMI. 

Arthur Penn  November 11, 1994

http://www.movingimagesource.us/dialogues/date/7/view/298

       

On of my favourite filmmakers of all time (and a criminally underrated one) discusses the making of his revolutionary film Bonnie & Clyde and the tidal wave of change it sent throughout the world of cinema. His views on the celebrity outlaws of the Depression era are particularly interesting. 

Mike Nichols  March 1, 1990

http://www.movingimagesource.us/dialogues/date/7/view/203

     

Before directing the groundbreaking one-two punch of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? and The Graduate, Mike Nichols was part of a highly successful stand-up comedy team along with Elaine May, and hints of his showman past are peppered throughout this entertaining and inspiring conversation. At once poetic and matter-of-factly in his anecdotes, his views on the true power of an audience are the highlight for me. 

Francis Ford Coppola  October 21, 2003

http://www.movingimagesource.us/dialogues/date/5/view/254

      

The making of and reaction to Coppola’s 1982 film, One from the Heart, is one of the most fascinating stories in Hollywood history (and the subject of a future post on A Shot in the Dark), and here Coppola discusses at length and very openly the circumstances surrounding the production and reception of the film that bankrupted him. Keep your ears open for hilarious and not-so-surprising anecdote about Van Morrison. 

Jerry Lewis + Peter Bogdanovich  November 22, 2008

http://www.movingimagesource.us/dialogues/date/3/view/316

      

Before becoming one of the most successful directors of the New Hollywood wave, Peter Bogdanovich was a highly accomplished film critic and historian, having published several books of interviews with his filmmaking heroes of the studio era. And here he interviews a pioneer and an icon, albeit a divisive one, in Jerry Lewis. The back and forth is as rip-roaringly funny as it is informative. 

The Pioneer: Sidney Lumet’s Legacy

       

There are few directors I admire as much as Martin Scorsese, but Sidney Lumet is definitely one of them. So it was a case of cinephile nirvana when I came across a priceless gem of an artifact last weekend at the limited-engagement Scorsese Exhibition at The Deutsche Kinemathek: a letter from Lumet to Scorsese. 

Dated April 23rd, 1980, it is a response to the manifesto Scorsese had authored on the abysmal state of archival film elements held by various studios and the dire need for urgent action on the film preservation front. The very legacy of cinema is at stake here, he had argued a few weeks prior in a call-to-arms letter to hundreds of his colleagues, a veritable list of filmmaking legends, including Losey, Spielberg, Fassbinder, Coppola, Kurosawa, Wenders, and Powell among many others. The original letter was presented at the exhibition, along with a slew of supportive responses he had received, all signing a petition and offering their help. “Every year the blue of the sea fades in colour, while the blood spewing out of Robert Shaw’s mouth gets more red”, read Spielberg’s response in reference to the state of the negative for Jaws

I was stunned when I got to Lumet’s letter:

       

To put things in context, at this point in his career, Sidney Lumet is already a bonafide legend. It has been 23 years since 12 Angry Men, he has 26 feature films under his belt, including indisputable masterpieces like The Hill, Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico and Network, alongside other groundbreaking films like The Pawnbroker, Fail Safe, and The Offence. Yet he is the one filmmaker who takes this call to action to heart most, with the energy and enthusiasm of an idealistic kid (which, in many ways he remained until his dying day). Instead of patting Marty on the back and passively offering support, he expands on his manifesto, bringing into focus the poor manufacturing standards of the raw negative film of the era produced by Kodak (complacency that comes with industrial monopoly is the likely cause, Lumet hypothesizes), and suggests a concerted effort at a boycott of Kodak stock until the issue is taken seriously. 

       

But what he does next is truly astonishing: proposing an industry-wide conference to seriously discuss using video technology for both image acquisition and projection. “Something I know is possible”, Lumet says. This is 1980. Video capture technology is still in its infancy, with the Hollywood establishment, of which Lumet should be a part (at this point he was already a three-time Academy Award nominee), only regarding it with a mixture of disdain and apathy. This is even before a seemingly indestructible, post-Apocalypse Now Francis Ford Coppola was laughed at and scorned for daring to dream of “electronic cinema” as he dubbed it in 1982. 

       

It would take another twenty years before Hollywood started catching up with Lumet. “I could cut below the line costs minimally 50% on video tapes”. He was, throughout his unparalleled career, a consummate professional who loved and thought sacred the field he always considered himself lucky to be in. He just wanted to make movies, and we are so immeasurably blessed that he did. 

Go on and celebrate the great man’s life and legacy. Put on Serpico, turn off the lights, and lose yourself. And when the film is finished, click here (http://www.movingimagesource.us/dialogues/mp3/567), listen to a wonderful Q&A on the making of a classic, and let Lumet charm you with his warmth and infinite passion. What are you waiting for?

       

Lost In the City: The Sound of Margaret

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It is virtually impossible to separate the experience of viewing Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret, from its long, tortured, and well-publicized production history. In the making for over 8 years, Lonergan’s sophomore directorial effort first went through an arduous post-production period as the director tried to assemble a feature-length film out of the mammoth, sprawling 368 page script he had shot. Finally, after he had arrived at a 3 hour cut that satisfied him, the film’s producers objected both to the length of the final product, as well as some of its stylistic flourishes, not least the unconventional sound design and mix. Law-suits and counter-suits followed, and the impasse was eventually mitigated by Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker taking a pass at the material, and delivering a 150 minute cut in accordance with Lonergan’s contractual obligations. Lonergan’s own 3-hour cut, the subject of this piece, was eventually released on DVD. Stories of Hollywood brass balking at sight of any film over two hours long that would limit the number of rotations per day are nothing new. What’s more interesting is the unorthodox sound design and mix that the producers found so objectionable.

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Margaret is a multi-layered film, but in its main thread it tells the story of Lisa, impeccably portrayed by Anna Paquin, a Manhattan teenager whose privileged life is shaken irreversibly when she bares witness to the gruesome death of a woman in a car accident that Lisa herself may have been complicit in causing. From that point on, Margaret follows Lisa as she tries to fit this occurrence into her world-view, trying to cope with a tragic, sudden and violent event by seeking justice, retribution, accountability, and hopefully semblance of absolution. In that respect, Lisa’s personal plight is inescapable from that of her city. Her story is one of many, and Lonergan shows this most acutely using sound. 

Early on in the film, we see a distracted Lisa at a diner, trying to let down an admiring classmate. But rather than focusing on this conversation, the scene starts off on a larger scale, both aurally and visually. The camera, from a high vantage point, starts the shot holding many patrons of the restaurant in view.

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Only then does it zoom in slowly, almost reluctantly, on Lisa. 

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But throughout the slow zoom, what we hear is not the conversation relevant to our central character, but rather two other conversations simultaneously, from the two booths behind Lisa’s. Not only does Lonergan not show an initial preference to Lisa and her conflict, he doesn’t even discount one of the other two conversations in favour of the other. It’s only when everyone else is framed out of the shot that we hear Lisa’s voice for the first time. We have chosen deliberately to hear Lisa’s story, in a sea of such stories, each as valid. 

       

The same point is made, rather hammered home, for a second time shortly after. Lisa walks in to her mother’s bedroom to seek advice and consolation. Just as she starts to speak there is an abrupt cut to the outside of the building. As the camera pans along the windows on the brick exterior, we hear residents, glimpsed briefly through the windows, as well as the noises of the city. Margaret could very well have been their film. Or the story behind the siren we hear, that ever-present feature of New York City’s soundscape. Finally, we land at the window of Lisa’s mother’s bedroom, and then back inside.  

      

Arguably, the most sophisticated juxtaposition of the individual versus the collective is done not by sound design, but visual design in a single shot. The shot opens on Lisa’s back, as she waits to cross the street. On a busy side-walk, in the shallow depth of field, she is unmistakably the focus of the shot, and squarely in the centre of the frame. 

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As she starts to walk, the camera follows her, intimating the type of shot we have seen countless times: a straight-forward close tracking of the protagonist. And she does remain the central focus of the moving camera, for about 10 seconds, as she weaves through the Manhattan rush. But then, abruptly, the camera stops its movement forward, pauses, allows more and more passerby to occupy the frame, before beginning to track back to the point where it started its movement. By the end of the shot it is impossible to pinpoint which of the many in-focus occupants of the frame we are following. This could have been a film about any of them. 

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Sound as meaning features heavily into the thematic fabric of the film as well. When we first meet Lisa, her preoccupations don’t differ greatly from those of an average teenager. Her biggest priorities are finding a cowboy hat that would make her look less out of place during an upcoming horseback riding trip to New Mexico, and whether or not the invitation she just accepted from a classmate is a date. In the wake of the fatal accident, one of Lisa’s struggles is calibrating her sense of what is important and what is trivial. What really matters. And the trivial, as far as she feels, is best personified by her mother, a self-conscious and neurotic actress on the eve of debuting a new play. Lisa voices that feeling explicitly during a shouting match. “I don’t care about any of it, It doesn’t matter, your boyfriend doesn’t matter, your play doesn’t matter except to you”, Lisa barks. “There are more problems in the world than our relationship. There’s a whole city out there full of people who are dying.”

            

So what does matter to Lisa over the narcissistic self-doubts of her actress mom? In a wonderful piece of sound design, we come close to an answer. As Lisa drinks coffee and reads the newspaper, we hear on the radio about a female suicide bomber taking lives in Israel, only for the newscast to be overshadowed on the mix by the voice of Lisa’s mother, off screen, boasting triumphantly on the phone about the glowing reviews her role has garnered. Lisa looks up, reaches over, and turns up the volume. What is more important, as far as Lisa is concerned, at least wins the battle for the attention of her ears, and ours. 

      

Margaret was conceived in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, and though mentioned only briefly, the events of that day and the city they were inflicted upon loom heavily over the film. The subject of Margaret’s meditation on death, guilt, grief, and redemption is no less than the New York City itself. Lonergan portrays the New York with a sombre and reflective eye, in slow, ponderous, panning shots almost always overlaid with non-diegetic dialogue. The fate of Margaret’s characters, their fears and anxieties, are irrevocably bound to those of their city. 

      

At other times, the city simply takes over the story unapologetically, on the occasions where Lonergan leaves a conversation to take a step back and cast a wider eye at the surroundings. What the characters are saying takes a back seat to where they are saying it. 

      

Margaret is an astonishingly ambitious film of many pleasures. But nowhere are its ambitions more apparent and richly rewarding than in its fearless and challenging sound design. It is fitting then, that the climax of the film is an aural, not a visual one, as Lisa finds her emotional release in the soaring crescendo of Barcarolle, from the Opera Tales of Hoffmann. And as the picture fades to black, it is the sound that remains. 

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God’s Lonelier Man

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Loneliness has followed me my whole life. Everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There’s no escape”, says Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, that iconic portrait of alienation and loneliness, “I am ‘God’s Lonely Man’”. But before being lonely, Travis is alone. From the first moment we set eyes on him in his yellow, metal coffin; he is one, devoid of any and all companionship. With the potential exception of The Wizard, a co-worker and a reluctant compassionate face, the only human beings Travis’ world is comprised of are the same scum, filth, whores and junkies he watches with a mixture of fascination and disgust. One could believe the notion of Travis spending a week without speaking to another person as easily as the notion of him not noticing that milestone. For this is the state Paul Schrader himself was in when he wrote Taxi Driver, in a burst of cathartic creativity, after realizing that the conversations he was having with the doctors treating his burst appendix were his first in weeks. 

But the painful of loneliness is only intensified and rendered more gut-wrenching if one is not alone. So I propose that the tragic embodiment of loneliness in 1970’s American cinema, an era with no shortage of films exploring that theme, is not Travis Bickle, but Sonny Wortzik, the ill-fated would be bank-robber of Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon.

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From the first moment we set eyes on Sonny, he is never alone. He is not afforded a moment of solitude even when you feel he most needs it. In the events depicted that day, he is surrounded first by accomplices, then his hostages, and finally the police and FBI agents that surround the bank like an army of ants would a wounded scorpion.  

In his personal life, countering Travis’ daily existence, Sonny has not one but two wives. He has friends, if we are to take Sal and Stevie as such. And he has his parents, at least one of them a loving one, if overly so. Yet from the moment the robbery goes awry, every interaction, ever conversation, serves to reinforce the fact that he is, and has always been, utterly and painfully on his own. And Sonny knows it. The moment he realizes that the robbery is botched he says "I gotta think, I need time to think". The weight of the entire debacle is squarely and firmly on his boney shoulders alone. 

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If there was ever doubt that he could rely on Sal, it is vanquished in a scary conversation where Sal makes it clear to him that he is more than willing and ready to start throwing bodies onto the street. The look on Sonny’s face in the immediate aftermath of that statement is a brilliant moment of acting by Pacino, as he processes Sal’s words and perhaps for the first time realizes just who he has on his side, a suicidal, dark soul, even more frightened than he is. With Stevie long gone, that leaves him with no accomplices he can rely on for support, moral or intellectual. He’s stuck in the bank "With a guy who thinks Wyoming is a country"

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Sonny, we learn, has "a sucker for a mother", as his dad spits out in rage, as if to blame his son’s actions on the coddled way he feels his wife has been treating Sonny. And he may be on to something. Sonny’s mom’s brief appearance at the bank is the only instance of him receiving unquestioning love and worry. The trouble is that it’s the love and worry one would bestow an infant or a dog. Credit now to the immense work of Judith Malina in her short cameo. A mere glimpse of the way she beckons her son to come out of the bank establishes the dynamic of their dysfunctional relationship. Her hands feverishly gesturing to him to join her on the street, the way a proud, crouching parent encourages a toddler to stumble their way across the room. The only real source of love in Sonny’s world, views him in a perpetual state of arrested development, as a misguided child. 

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Even the bank staff, friendly and likeable once the initial shock of the event has subsided, and suffering from a severe case of the Stockholm syndrome; rebuff Sonny every time he gets too close. "I wish to fuck you’d never walked into this bank", barks the cordial and fatherly bank manager, rejecting Sonny’s sympathies to his health problems.

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The girls, amused as they are by him, have little real affection or interest in Sonny. In the final moments of the film, as Sonny is being frisked on the hood of a police car, defeated and dejected, his gaze fixed on the tellers, a few feet away on the runway, rejoicing at the end of their ordeal. Not one of them turns back to Sonny. Not one sympathetic look. Not even a contemptuous one. 

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Worse yet, are Sonny’s wives. We first get a glimpse of Sonny’s relationship with each of them through conversations in which Sonny himself is absent. Angie moans to two beat cops about Sonny’s temperamental tendencies, babbling incessantly and fixating on a recent incident when Sonny lost his patience with her at an amusement park, although at this point we have seen enough that we can sympathize with anyone losing patience with her. Is it any wonder that Sonny didn’t feel like he was being heard, or understood in this marriage? We expect better from Sonny’s second wife, Leon. Yet, his retelling of this past summer centres almost entirely around not Sonny, but the effects of Sonny’s actions on him. Once, in an act of frustration, Sonny put a gun to Leon’s head, it seems. What drove him to that point seems to be of little interest to Leon. 

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What we have suspected about both these marriages comes into fore in two brilliant, back-to-back phone conversations between Sonny and his wives. Sonny, now enveloped in the darkness of the bank, waits for the car to take him to the airport and an increasingly uncertain future. No matter, as long as he can feel like someone would care, should he not make it, as he now suspects he might not. But he is denied even that. “I’m dying here”, he says to both wives. Leon can only process that as far as his worldview allows him, which does not encompass much more than how it affects him: "You say that to me every day of your life. Do you realize how that makes me feel?" To twist the knife, Leon has FBI and the police listening in on the conversation, and asks Sonny to testify to his innocence. After that it’s "Bon voyage" and "See you in my dreams".

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Comically, "I’m dying here" is about the only full sentence that Sonny gets to speak in a supposed dialogue with Angie. The anger and frustration in his face as he slams the receiver down quickly turns into sadness as Sonny realizes the extent of his loneliness. Alone in the dark, he breaks into tears, creaking under the weight of a day, a dog day, that is centred on him, yet paradoxically so uninterested in him. 

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And so as the deafening sound of the jet that was supposed to be his escape fills his ear, eyes on the setting sun, the inherent tragedy of Sonny’s life isn’t his undone plans, but that no one cared, not even the cosmos. He is truly God’s Lonely Man.

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