Monday, April 23, 2007

48 Hrs.

Lobby cards for Walter Hill's 48 Hrs.

48 Hrs.
is a mysterious film.
The greatest puzzles in Walter Hill's 1982 action flick are the lights: frequently out of focus in the foreground, they pop up seemingly unexplained. Streetlights become will-o-wisps at the edge of the frame; streets are photographed from above through of clusters China lanterns that form glowing clouds. We can still tell what they are—ordinary, familiar objects—but in the way they’re introduced, they become foreign. Suddenly the ordinary warrants an explanation. San Francisco is some place we've never heard of; when its hilly streets are used to set the film's car chase, we're surprised--the streets that we've seen a million times have become unfamiliar.
The film seems shot through binoculars—or, rather, with a zoom lens. We’re aware of the zooming (every time the camera moves, we notice the tell-tale distortion of space), but it doesn’t suggest physical distance—rather what we become aware of are the numerous objects, many of them obviously far from the actors, in the foreground. The zoom lens becomes a way to sketch telling details while allowing them to remain vague; we take these details for granted, yet we can’t completely make them out--they’re like the false memories a dream leaves behind, readily accepted but not completely understood. These qualities are all reinforced by the film’s numerous unresolved plot points, which don’t seem messy, but rather consistent with its aesthetic—even with its acting, with that odd chemistry between Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy. It leaves you with a sensation that doesn’t easily submit to written or spoken language—one that can only be described by making another film.

John Ford's Imaginary Film

John Ford and members of the cast on the set of The Quiet Man

The Quiet Man is the sequel to an imaginary film noir: the movie that details John Wayne’s life as a boxer in America prior to his return to Ireland. It’s one of the great imaginary movies that exists only in the mind of the audience, up there with Odile and Franz’s silent adventures in South America.

Bits of this phantom film sneak through—in the way Wayne lights and smokes his cigarettes, or the way he grabs Maureen O’Hara by the hair and kisses her. These are desperate actions, at odds with Wayne’s screen persona. We even get a glimpse of this film—the flashback sequence, which breaks with Ford’s visual style for give us a few minutes of stunning color noir, all alienating close-ups, sweaty brows and vague signifiers (we see a doctor’s briefcase, but never a doctor). Wayne looks stunning uneasy in this scene; it’s as if he’s realized that he’s in the wrong film, and therefore escapes somewhere where he feels more at home: a John Ford picture.


There’s a big difference between most noir--or in this case, color noir, a genre in an of itself--and Ford. Chiefly, there’s distance, the sense of space that places several characters into a frame when a noir film would linger on the face of one; this distance, by allowing us to examine the characters surroundings while they carry out their actions, or to see other characters’ reactions, allows us to analyze them. There is no urgency, no desperation here—instead, we can always see alternate solutions. The camera, after all, can make us aware of details we wouldn’t normally notice just as well as it can make us single-minded, unaware of the subject’s surroundings. In medium and wide shots, noir’s desperation would seem foolish—we would see a possibility, another course of action the characters, invariably trapped, don’t realize. The noir carryovers John Wayne brings in his baggage to The Quiet Man--his constantly abandoned cigarettes, the way he sulks in the shadows on his wedding night—are shot from a Fordian distance and seem awkward. Noir is a close-up without possibilities, while Ford is a medium shot, controlled but nonetheless giving us room to think; in noir, the story is a downward straight line, while in Ford it’s just one of many possible paths across an open field.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

A Car Ride with King Vidor

A promotional still from Show People, directed by King Vidor

King Vidor came to Hollywood by car. He, his wife Florence and a friend slept in their Model T and paid for gas by shooting newsreel footage for the Ford Motor Company. It was a wild country then: you almost imagine they'd run into Indians or herds of buffalo the way he describes traveling across pre-highway America--all forests and deserts, rocks and tumbleweeds.

One of the first shots in his 1928 film Show People is of a man and his daughter in a car; an intertitle tells us that he, like Vidor, has driven all the way from Georgia (Vidor’s trip was a little shorter—from Texas) to seek fame and fortune in Hollywood.

Few directors understand movement the way Vidor did. Not stylized movement, everyday movement—the speed of trains, of carnival attractions that made so much of the 20th century seem like a race to those born in the 19th. The camera is riding alongside the speeding car (presumably in another car—the scene appears to be shot “on location,” if such a thing was possible in the Hollywood of the silent era), and the effect is that we do not as much perceive the car as moving as the city around it, which becomes a blur of street signs and intersections behind the characters’ heads. What a difference two decades makes: automobiles had seemed like speeding rackets to the early filmmakers, but by 1928, they had become commonplace; now it seemed as though the world was becoming fast as well.

The film’s beginning is dominated by the car, which the father and daughter don’t leave for quite a while; even at the gates of the studio, the father talks to the guard from the behind the wheel, the motor still running. Throughout Show People, we see cars in use; Hollywood in the 1920s, at least for those involved in the film industry, is not designed for public transportation. Cars are not only glamorous (that those who’ve “made it” get driven around by chauffeurs), but practical: the studios, offices and locations are far apart, and the concept of a “community” is largely imaginary—like the concept of “America” in westerns, it’s constantly being undermined by the reality of the landscape, only instead of Monument Valley, it’s California’s hills and winding roads. Though used differently, they’re a bit like the cars in the films of Abbas Kiarostami—a persistent detail that becomes an astounding indicator. It's like looking through a keyhole at a distant culture: in this case that of that small bit of the 20th century that was mechanized but not yet homogenized: when tools for bridging geographic gaps were in use but had not been implemented to their full extent. Like seeing peasants in an engraving plowing wild lands—simultaneously seeing the past and its future. The car becomes a crystal ball.

Another indicative detail: the way, during a break from shooting, a camera man drapes a filthy cloth over the camera, like the kind you’d put over a table saw when you aren’t using it.

Friday, April 6, 2007

The Deaf Photographer

The world must be more ambiguous for the deaf—at least for Tony Leung’s character, the deaf photographer in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s City of Sadness. It was reportedly the first contemporary Taiwanese production to be shot entirely with direct sound, and so much of our experience of the film is colored by the sounds that accompany its often still compositions. One scene springs to mind specifically—Leung waiting in a prison cell while his friends are executed. We, like Leung, can only see the interior of the prison cell, and we hear the terrifying sound of gunshots in the distance. As the take continues, we realize Leung’s character cannot hear the gunshots—but that makes the prison cell no less terrifying for him. He doesn’t have even the slightest clue as to his fate, and, in effect, neither do we. Later, at his own wedding, he has to take cues from the bride in order to correctly participate in the ceremony—for a brief moment, he glances at her bowing before he knows to bow, and someone has to touch him on the shoulder before he knows to kneel.

The bootleg DVD of the film inadvertently replicates this sensation by failing to subtitle the various inter titles and letters used in the film—therefore creating an effect of disorientation similar to the one Leung’s character must be experiencing, somehow left out on key texts that help make sense of the world. Before starting conversations, which he is forced to write on paper (and which I, therefore, cannot understand), he stares at people, trying to make sense of what their world must be like based on the few clues their facial expressions give away. I end up feeling the same way, having to guess from character's reserved reactions as to what secrets his writing might have contained.