Holy Motors is a cinephile odyssey, taking its viewers on a linear, perhaps cyclical journey through a series of variations on film history, performance, and identity. Or, with its continually shifting interplays between character and situation, we might think of it as a live-action replay of the ultimate meta-cartoon, Duck Amuck. The set-up is deceptively simple: we first meet Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) as a businessman leaving his lavish home for work, waving goodbye to his loving family, and being collected by the driver of his white stretch limo, Céline (Édith Scob). On the seat next to him are the details of nine assignments he must complete today. Each one requires a different disguise and costume, and sends M. Oscar out of the car, onto the streets of Paris and into a different performance, for no visible audience (except us), and to no obvious purpose. We watch as he goes about his daily business of acting the roles that may keep families, business, art running from day to day. But we’re never sure of his motives or his masters, nor whether there is a real M. Oscar underneath all of the layers of performance. Continue reading
Usually, when I write these “randomised” posts, I use a random number generator to select three or four frames from a film; these then serve as starting points for a discussion of the film, hopefully from unexpected angles, focusing on the minutiae that reveal the broader concerns of the whole. See here for more examples. In this case, I’m using it as a way to still the torrent of Jeff Keen‘s two-minute collage film Cineblatz, and instead of using the number generator to tell me which minute from the film to examine in more detail, I have intermittently tapped the “framegrab” button to gather a gallery of stills from the film. You can click on any one of them at the bottom of this post, or see them, in sequence, in the slideshow at the top. Continue reading
I haven’t done one of these in a while, and I remember enjoying writing them, so I thought it would be fun to revisit the Randomised series. You can read more examples here, but the gist of it is that I use a random number generator to select for me some images from a film and use those frames as a prompt for discussion of the film.
When I first saw David Fincher‘s Seven back in 1996, I disliked it quite a lot. It wasn’t just that it made me uncomfortable; I was an opinionated, contrarian filmgoer at the best of times, and seeing a packed house for a matinée screening lapping up the lurid details of such a fashionably grim movie wound me up. Dark was the new black. It felt like the film’s downbeat tone was all posturing: it wasn’t the product of a misanthropic worldview, but the shock tactics of a film-maker eager to buck every available trend of the genre thriller. More to the point, I was sick of serial killer films, fed up of hyperintelligent and meticulous murderers whose preternaturally effective and elaborate schemes, always perfectly executed, seemed more like the manoeuvrings not of believable killers but of self-satisfied screenwriters. The fascination with the process of killing someone was distasteful and dishonest, I believed, resulting in the ultimate ascension of Hannibal Lecter and Dexter to the status of righteous avengers picking off the scum of society (a reactionary fantasy that I still find wholly repellent). I still have some of these reservations, but after subsequent viewings, Seven has, to my mind, matured considerably (as, I hope, have I) into a compulsive and rich work that rewards close scrutiny and transcends any of its modish or exploitative genre-mates. Continue reading
To restart the randomised series of posts (follow the link if you need a catch-up or want to read the earlier attempts at this), I thought it might be fun to try out some Pixar films, beginning, with no logic or reason whatsoever, with Monsters, Inc. from 2001. The way it works is this: using a magic bit of random number selection, three frames are generated from anywhere in the film, and provide the basis for a discussion of the film from unexpected angles, or at least angles that are not pre-selected to flatter my own interests. It’s usually fun, and the film needs little introduction, so let’s dive straight in. The randomiser has selected frames from the 5th, 66th, and 86th minutes from Monsters, Inc., which means we begin with…
[This post refers to the 96-minute Director's Cut of Army of Darkness, and comes with a WARNING: the third of the randomly selected frames from the film gives away the ending, and you should not proceed, or even cast your eyes down the page, if you haven't seen, and plan to see it.]
[See also The Evil Dead Randomised and The Evil Dead II: Randomised by Dawn.]
The final entry in this trilogy of randomised Evil Dead posts is Army of Darkness, a lighter, sillier installment of the franchise that takes the story in a different direction. Ash (Bruce Campbell) has been transported in time to a medieval period where the locals are living in fear of the deadites, and he becomes a mighty champion. Of sorts.
The randomiser has selected the 6th, 21st, and 87th minutes of the film. Come get some…..
[See also The Evil Dead Randomised]
And so the randomisation continues. The 1987 sequel to The Evil Dead is something of a system reboot, a kind of remake with an expanded budget; although it continues from where it left off, with Bruce Campbell’s Ash having survived the events of the previous night in the demonically possessed cabin, it restages and amplifies the key motifs of the first episode. We are still in a cabin in the woods, and Ash is still forced to battle frothing-at-the-mouth nasties, this time armed with chainsaw and shotgun. The sequel addresses an audience it has already selected and wooed – it misses the first film’s element of surprise, but compensates with a hyper-kinetic and hysterical visual style that speaks for an accelerated race through genre conventions and the systematic brutalisation of its long-suffering hero.
If you need to know how these “randomised” posts work, take a look at some of the earlier entries here. This time around, the randomiser has coughed up the 2nd, 40th and 59th minutes of the film. Let’s hope that gives us a good spread, and that the 2nd minute isn’t just opening titles:
I remember the first time I saw The Evil Dead. I was an undergraduate, and it was loaned to me on a 3rd or 4th generation VHS copy, so it was fuzzy as hell and fitted with one of those wobbly soundtracks that you only get on movies that have been duped on home machines and passed from grubby hand to grubby hand. Younger readers might be surprised to hear of “the old days”, when plenty of films were not available for download or freely available on shiny DVDs, which lose none of their detail from one copy to the next. The Evil Dead was still fairly notorious, since it featured prominently on the BBFC‘s list of “video nasties”, films targeted by moral commentators in the UK media, resulting in the Video Recordings Act of 1984, which attempted to regulate the content of VHS tapes. It led to the withdrawal of many titles from the shelves of rental stores, and Sam Raimi’s directorial debut survived only on illicit copies salvaged from the purge. In those days (typing those words makes me feel so old), you couldn’t just go online and order a copy from abroad. In restrospect, I’m quite nostalgic for my old taped copy – I made my own (5th generation?), and I still have it somewhere in my office, complete with homemade sleeve. But today I’m working from a DVD version, which was finally released uncut in the UK in 2001.
It’s been a very useful film for me in so many corners of my research, as well as being a childhood favourite of mine, so it seems natural to turn to King Kong (1933) for the latest of my Randomised posts. Randomly selected frames provide a point of entry for discussing aspects of the chosen film. What could be simpler?
The random number generator is requesting 38, 47, 61 and 80. Yes, four frames this time. Kong is special. Holy mackerel, what a blog…
Fay Wray could never get away from the legacy of King Kong. With over 100 screen credits, some of them pretty damn good, such as Mystery of the Wax Museum and The Most Dangerous Game (shot after hours on the Kong sets), the most common publicity photographs show her cowering in terror at the sight of some offscreen horror, or dangling like a ragdoll from the big ape’s fist. One might get the impression of a passive figure, prostrate and helpless, and to some extent this is true – Ann Darrow needs rescuing, and screams her way through most of her later scenes, showing little in the way of fleeing ability. She is a beautiful object at the centre of a four-way contest, between film-maker Carl Denham, who wants to use her to attract dumb, slavering audiences to his documentary film, Jack Driscoll, who wants to domesticate her, the Skull Island natives, who see her as an invaluably exotic sacrificial artefact, and King Kong himself, who wants to keep her and stroke her and smell her on his fingers. She is subject to a multi-pronged attack of desires, into which her own impoverishment has led her to blunder. Where is the space for her desire? I’m pulled between chiding the film for its objectification of its leading actress, and acknowledgement of how it lays those processes of objectification completely bare, showing her complete disempowerment amidst the pull and push of rampant masculine exploitation. This particular shot tilts me in favour of the latter interpretation. Ann has just been kissed by Driscoll, and their romantic bond is forged: for the rest of the film, it is his duty to rescue, protect and eventually marry her. Everything else in the plot is an obstacle to that union, but their connection is never in doubt. But check out the look on her face. Holding up her hand in the same swooning gesture that accompanies her helplessness in the face of Kong-sized threat, she is overwhelmed by a sexual thrill that leaves her not defenceless, but wanting more. The camera doesn’t follow him offscreen, but lingers on her lascivious look of erotic desire. The blank blackness of the night sky behind her, the diagonal perspective and the straight line of the side of the ship (plus the instructive lighting that makes her glow), all lead the eye to her face. That is a look of lust. Everything that follows is a catalogue of male ignorance of that desire, and her simple wish to select a man to gratify her gets lost amidst their inflated battles to use her for their own fulfilment.
Kong is ready for his close-up. The camera pushes in to a full-frame view of the monster’s visage as it breaks through the trees. It looks to me like they’ve got some three-point lighting going on the big guy, like any other star being introduced. The facial expression is meant to be fearsome, but the raised eyebrows make a little quizzical. If you didn’t know the context of the film, and I told you this was a shot of a big monkey who’s just seen something terrifying through the bushes, it wouldn’t be too hard to believe, I bet. There are only a few shots like this in the film, using a large-scale mechanical model of the beast’s head (they also made a giant hand for shots where we see Fay Wray sitting in his palm), and the technique doesn’t really blend effectively with the more nuanced physical performances given by Willis O’Brien‘s stop-motion miniature version. This shot attempts to impress with its sheer scale, while O’Brien’s modelwork tends to emphasise Kong’s gait, his pugilistic skill and his proud but sometimes reluctant responses to threat. Everytime I see Kong this effect is jarring, like they’ve used an inappropriate stunt-double or overdone the soft focus on a homely lead. But it is a big reveal, so whatever makes it happen, it at least has an eye-opening impact. The push-in close-up, emphasising Kong’s massive teeth (for the rest of the film it is usually his arms that do all the damage), is a good way to mark him out as the monster of the piece, but it is at odds with the film’s reception and legacy. Who doesn’t sympathise with Kong? There’s little in the film’s construction to show him as anything other than a mortal threat – he abducts a woman and destroys all who try to take her back. He stomps on innocents and trashes public property, and there’s little ceremony about gawping over his smashed corpse on the street. It is only in the emotional clues and complex mannerisms given to Kong by Willis O’Brien that the spectator can come to see him as a fully-rounded character, an aspect that was probably not built into the script, which keeps referring to him in the bluntest, most fearful terms. The big scary head of the giant Kong model is residue of those original intentions, fixed in a rigid expression, captured in a conventional monster mugshot, and unable to fully communicate his plight to the audience.
One of the aspects of King Kong that will always remain extraordinary is the creation of a complete, enclosed fantasy world on Skull Island. This dreamlike space, a fantasy imagining of a lost world rather than a geographically specific location (the position and ethnic constitution of the place is obfuscated in the plot, hybrid in the visuals), is rendered with immaculate set design: see how the backgrounds extend into a dense, misting distance as one layer of jungle gives a glimpse into the next and so on. The variations in vegetation create an overwhelming sense of vivacious biodiversity: vines, trees, leaves, moss, fronds all growing in different directions. It’s easy to imagine all kinds of creatures hiding in those complex pile-ups of shadow and foliage. The visual effects are masterful (must stop gushing, sorry…), precisely combining the elements to make it look as though Kong can really reach out and clutch Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), even though they are filmed as separate elements in separate time zones. Lacking a snappier term for it, I’ve referred in the past to this as “transphotographic” contact, one of those moments where an illusion of co-existence is reinforced by having figures, photographed separately, appear to touch or interact. By playing on the awareness of their essential difference (one live, the other animated), yet flaunting their apparent proximity, the spectacular effect is heightened, even as it purports simply to depict a narrative event. Cabot, though, is reduced to the status of a scuttling pest, a little thing to be grabbed and squashed. Kong is not predatory, in fact he is contrasted with the more insidious dinosaur attackers that share the island with him – he is consistently aggravated by disturbances of his peace.
I didn’t recognise this shot at first, perhaps because of the unusual perspective, which looks down on the scene as from Kong’s-eye-view. It is a view of the village on Skull Island as Kong pounds on the doors (I’m sure there’s a good proverb along the lines of “those who do not wish to be visited by giant apes should not put giant-ape-sized doors on their property”). It is from the top of this gateway that the shot is taken. The villagers are rushing to the barricades in defence of their homes while, in the centre of the frame, Bruce Cabot and Fay Wray are walking away: you can just see him in pale shirt and dark trousers, his arm around her shoulders. The battle is not over, but they are already leaving it. With Ann rescued, Jack wants no further part in the scene. It could almost be the end of the film, with the lovers’ unity encapsulated in their movement against the stream of bodies, setting off into a metaphorical sunset, from the darkness at the bottom of the frame, to the light at the top, but of course, there is much more to come. Their isolation from the action might also say something about the visitors’ attitude towards the island: they show up, cause mayhem, then walk away. For a film of ballyhoo, bluster and big boasts, there’s a remarkable sensitivity to subtleties of shadow in King Kong, with deep dark areas in so many frames punctuated with outcrops of architectural or natural scenery, all of it potently artificial and nightmarishly inescapable: there is only temporary flight from one danger to the next.
What better way to ease myself back into the blogging routine after a forced absence than to return to a series that I very much enjoyed, the Randomised posts. In case you don’t know what this means, check out some of the others in the category’s archive. In short, I use a random number generator to give me three figures which will automatically decide three frames from a film, and these frames become the basis for a (hopefully) asymmetrical discussion of the film. It stops tired critics like myself from banging on about the best bits from their favourite films while ignoring the more interesting corners of a well known film. Of course, because it’s random, you might get the most famous, or the most banal images from your chosen text. That’s the fun. You just never know…
Probably because it’s familiar to me, and partly because the orange case makes it jump out at me from the DVD shelf, I’ve chosen Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) this time around. It’s admittedly an orthodox choice, so much so that it’s easy to forget that its masterpiece status is well-earned. It’s haunting and dreamy, unfurling as many strands of meaning as you want to drag out of it: that’s Hitch’s real achievement – making populist packages that entertain but which can also explode with jack-in-a-boxes of complex perversity if you look even slightly deeper.
The randomiser has given me 17, 37 and 111. And the first image, from the 17 minute mark, is…
… ablaze with red. Scotty (James Stewart), a retired, traumatised detective, has been hired as a private investigator by Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) to follow his wife around San Francisco in an effort to explain her odd behaviour. Elster has set up a scene where Scotty will get a good look at his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) as the pair have dinner. In this shot, Scotty watches her leave. The stately, prowling camera is not quite Scotty’s point-of-view, but the embodiment of his increasingly inflexible gaze. It also stands in for our own fascination, allowing you, dear viewer, an out-of-body float through spaces where people look you in the eye but don’t know you’re there. In this shot, Madeleine is leaving, approaching the camera. Her husband looms behind her (fortuitously positioned in a manner that visualises his manipulation of his wife from the shadows), and the vivid decor plunges back into a distance of nested spaces. If these are not mirrored zones, they certainly look as if they might be. The green of Madeleine’s dress, and the gold of her hair, not to mention her central framing, make her the undoubted focus of the image: the rest of the composition has been cleared of any similar colours, and her skin is lit to glow brighter, blonder than anyone else in the room. At the right of the frame, though, is a tiny insurgence of green in the leaves of the pink rose. It’s an inkling of the importance of flowers in the iconographic identity (flowers, paintings, hair, jewellery) that Scotty gathers up and pegs on her.
At 37 minutes, we’re in the Argosy bookstore, where Pop Liebel (Konstantin Shayne) is telling the sad story of Carlotta, the mysterious woman with whom Madeleine appears to be fixated. I’m sure that, even before I’ve finished typing this sentence, you’ve noticed that all three of the carefully staged figures in this composition are looking in different directions. Ever more disconnected, Scotty listens while facing away. He holds his hat as if in reverence. He’s a strange investigator. Rather than interrogating his lead he passively takes the information, concentrating on selecting the bits that can be moulded to match his suspicions, his desire not uncover the truth but to confirm Madeleine’s desirous vulnerability. Ever-faithful Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes – hey, trivia fans, did you know that Jimmy Stewart starred with both Miss Ellies from Dallas? Bel Geddes’ replacement, Donna Reed, played the love of his life in It’s a Wonderful Life) is shunted into the shadows, intently watching the storyteller. She also is not necessarily interested in the truth, but in anything that might rationalise Scotty and bring him back into the scope of her fond attentions. Her simple love for him has a stifling insistence about it, but it’s never at the ferocious level of his obsession. It’s the most consistently touching aspect of the film, I find. Midge (another “M” name, but a witheringly diminutive one, loaded with unprecious overfamiliarity) enacts a simpler form of romantic love built on protective concern and stable availability. Scotty is already away, though, in pursuit of a beautiful ghost. The stillness, and dimness of the scene (the bookshop is a place of deep, arcane knowledge) is contrasted with the brighter lateral activity on the street outside. As with the previous image, the background action is oblivious to Scotty’s fixations, which find stillness and purpose by latching onto objects and making them stand out amidst the busy surroundings.
We finish in one of the unsettling scenes where James Stewart grimly, palm-sweatingly attempts to make over his new girl, Judy, into a perfect replica of Madeleine. It’s discomfiting to see America’s favourite actor so fixated on the finer points of female couture, and his needling, pathetic need is similarly shocking. It’s as if Madeleine’s fixation on a phantom presence from her past (all a fabrication anyway) has passed on to Scotty like an infectious dream. In describing this shot, I feel suddenly redundant. So efficient is the signification, through mirrors, of Judy/Madeleine’s duality and the crossfire of dishonest gazes at, but not really at, one another, that it seems trite to point it out. Mirrors are cinema’s most portable symbolic props, but here it is precise, as Judy retreats to a corner only to be confronted by the image of her own duplicity even as Scotty tries to reduce her to a mirror image of his absent object of desire. Note also the brown colour palette in this shot, in stark contrast to the earlier shots of Madeleine as a Vistavisioned semi-divinity. It is only when Judy’s transformation is complete that the screen once again explodes with colour.
Obviously, I can’t cover everything, so if you have any further observations about these images, please feel free to comment below.
- Star Wars Randomised
- Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back Randomised
- Star Wars: Return of the Jedi Randomised
- Star Wars: The Phantom Menace Randomised
- Star Wars: Attack of the Clones Randomised
Finally, we come to the end of an extensive Star Wars fest. I feel like I’ve settled into the Randomisation thing now, so perhaps it’s time to turn it towards some more challenging films. It’s not all that difficult to find something to say about narrative feature films, especially ones that spill over into so many intertexts and parallel strands of a franchise – each shot seems designed to resonate across a range of media. With Star Wars, for instance, even bit-part players might wind up with their own spin-off episode of a comic book or video game.
Before that happens, the saga must come to an end, or more, accurately, an end that sets up the beginning of the next/original trilogy of films. George Lucas might want us to watch them in order, 1-6, but there’s no doubt that Episode III: Revenge of the Sith plays on the dramatic irony of characters not knowing the significance that they will have later in the story; if it doesn’t require you to know what’s coming next, it certainly winks in the direction of those who do.
The random number generator will give me four numbers. I take frame grabs from the DVD of the frame that sits at the beginning of the minute-mark corresponding to these figures. They provide the starting point for discussion of the film. The numbers are 30, 77, 83 and 110. Let’s see what happens…
How often do we see people in bed in the Star Wars films? I’m sure there are some devotees who can give me an exact number, but I bet it doesn’t happen often. That sort of domestic necessity (we see people asleep, but rarely tucked up at home) is a rarity when there are more exciting things to show, and little interest in the private lives and thoughts of the characters. This is an unusually moody shot. The blinds cast noirish shadows on the wall (these people have discovered hyperspace but nobody took the trouble to invent curtains?) as Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) wakes to find her husband gone, tormented by a bad dream (premonition?) of her death. Throughout the prequels, Portman has been dressed up in some astonishing finery, at times ceremoniously decked out in Geisha style make-up and restrictively decorative robes, speaking in a cod-regal British accent through pursed lips. The story of her development as a romantic heroine (sadly, she has little to do in this film, though she does get to utter one of the only decent lines in all of the prequel scripts: “This is how liberty dies: with thunderous applause”, which really jumps off the soundtrack with its unaccustomed relevance) is told through the gradual lightening of her wardrobe load, destricting her personality in the process. But she still sleeps in jewellery with her hair up, it seems. Critics mocked the lack of chemistry between Portman and Hayden Christensen, and this is probably fair comment – they’re not given much poetry to spout to make us feel that their love is really making the blood flow, but this may be, accidentally or not, the point; could it be that the Queen has blundered into this relationship and stays with her husband out of pity or fear, discomfited by his developing violent tendencies but trapped by convention or shocked into inaction? The luxurious surroundings of the palace (those embroidered cushions don’t look very cuddly) can’t be very conducive to a mutual understanding between a monarch and a freed slave, after all.
To paraphrase Wittgenstein, “Dude, WTF?!” This frame is so crowded with stuff I hardly know where to start. Obi-Wan is addressing one of the clone troopers, riding like a cowboy on a big, spaniel-lively lizard. Under their helmets, all of the clones look like their source material, Temuera Morrison; George Lucas even redubbed Boba Fett’s scenes in the Original Trilogy with Morrison’s voice. But, for reasons which are a mystery to me, Lucas decided that he didn’t want to make any actual, physical outfits for the troops, so they’re all digital animations. Morrison’s head has been superimposed onto a digital body. It looks ropey in places, but at least it matches the sense of manufactured soldiers, their uniformity and their slightly grotesque otherness, even if this flaw in the special effects is only inadvertently smuggling in such thematic reinforcement. The lizard looks pleasingly rubbery, giving me warm remembrances of Ray Harryhausen monsters, but the level of detail is overwhelming, with multiple planes of movement, destruction and colours that jostle for attention.
What’s under Darth Vader’s mask? As a youngster, these kinds of questions felt important. The amount of human left behind beneath that machinic shell was a matter of urgency, a mystery that needed solving. Eventually, I got to see what was under there, and it was quite satisfying, but Revenge of the Sith promises to show you how Vader came to be that way. So here we come to the near-conclusion of Episode III, with Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker duelling to the death on a beam that stretches across an infernal chasm filled with raging lava. Anakin’s eyes have gone all Emo on us, conveying a deep angst that we’re supposed to equate with a turn to the darkside. Personally, I was a little disturbed to see this tormented, child-slaughtering fascist, with or without his photogenically precise facial scars, adorning children’s lunchboxes and birthday cards. Red is obviously the dominant colour here, but the lightsabers cut through the frame strinkingly – usually, combatants fight with different coloured blades, but on this occasion the two friends fight with similar coloured weapons. I’ve heard George Lucas espousing the merits of Jordan Belson’s colourful abstract animations, and sometimes the lightsabers duels in darkened spaces transform into semi-abstract bursts of violent colour, but it’s still a couple of dudes having a swordfight. Maybe that’s going to be my final comment on the Star Wars saga – however innovative, adventurous and yes, experimental its technological showcasing might become, it remains resolutely old-fashioned in its cultural references and its commitment to showing its fans what they really want and expect to see in explicit detail, instead of shaking things up with plot twists and formal subversion.
Finally, the last frame grab from this long-running series of Star Wars Randomised posts. The 83rd minute throws out the image below. Fittingly, it’s a departure. I’ll save you some time and point out the obvious E.T. pastiche as Yoda flies off in his little pod, but I’m hoping you can add some comments on this particular frame: