Not with a bang but a whimper

In my eternal effort to keep the film industry afloat, I picked up the new dvd of Francis Ford Coppola's 'Apocalypse Now'. I must confess to having bought this film a few times now and will admit that I am a sucker. As for the dvd, it's a gem and worth every penny. For me 'Apocalypse Now' is one of the greatest films ever made. It is rich in both theme and idea and it transcends cinema and comes closer to literature. And if I might confess again, I do think that literature transcends cinema most of the time.

Why then do I love the cinema?

The answer is easy, films like 'Apocalypse Now' are the reason I love the cinema. It represents the potential of what cinema can be. Film is much more of a poetic medium than it is literal. We combine images with sound and, often with a narrative structure, search for feeling and emotion. Film doesn't express complex ideas terribly well but it expresses emotions and feelings better than any other medium. I find that when a film becomes sublime is when it works on both an emotional level and an intellectual level. This is what makes Apocalypse Now so great - it's a film that walks the line between philosophy and emotion.

Having listened to Francis Coppola's commentary track (the reason for buying the umpteenth edition), I must admit that I'm inspired. What was so inspirational is the fact that Coppola says the film was a product of creative process. The film you see isn't the film he intended to make. While going on the journey to make the film he realized that his original ending was not appropriate. The film itself began to suggest it's own structure and style. It's fascinating as a writer when you start to write a story and no matter what you thought it should become, the piece starts to shape itself and dictate to you what direction it should take. This is the creative process. Despite our appetite to finish things, it is the process that makes the journey so interesting.

For Coppola, Apocalypse Now was a harrowing experience but the journey is what seems to have made this film so great. There was no cinematic manipulation or clever turn of story that could have saved him. He had to face the story that he began telling and let it lead him to it's own conclusion.

I truly admire Francis Coppola as a filmmaker and I think that any student of film can learn so much from his films and his DVD commentaries. He doesn't approach films in the same way as many other filmmakers. He doesn't rhyme off influences and superficial elements, he talks about the story and the process of creating the story. For Coppola, it's about the film and the ideas behind the film as opposed to the style. Style, as he says in the 'Apocalypse Now' commentary, was dictated by the story, it was something that came to him as opposed to him imposing it on the film. This is how filmmakers should approach storytelling - let the process dictate to you.



There is an interesting article on Wikipedia on BBCNews today. If you don't know Wikipedia, it's one of those great things that have come out of the internet and the evolution of information. It's a free encyclopedia that allows users to publish articles and information on any topic.

The BBC article is about the proposed changes to the way that users can publish information on the site. Instead of allowing registered users to edit and publish articles, the site has proposed that each new article and user edits will have to be approved.

Wikipedia is such an interesting site and represents the democratization of information in the modern day. We are not limited to what elite scholars or publishers hold as truth or important. We are allowed to participate in the scholarship that has been inaccessible in the past. It is also what makes blogging a powerful and rich tool as it allows regular people to publish ideas and information, free from editors or publishers with social or political agendas.

Wikipedia doesn't come without it's share of problems and as pointed out in the article, is a target for pranksters and vulnerable to misinformation. The problem with a source like Wikipedia is that 'truth' may be distorted and must be used with a degree of caution. I don't find this to be an argument against this exercise in free information just as I will not watch the nightly news and believe the stories to be 'true'. All information even if it is from the hand of a respected scholar or journalist must be held up and examined. Every good historian knows that you must cross reference every piece of information you present as 'fact'. Wikipedia simply demands the same care and attention and requires it's readers not to take everything at face value. Like all scholarship, it is dynamic, changing all the time as new information comes to light.

I found it a bit amusing how some people reacted to the news that Pluto was being removed from the list of planets and reclassified as a 'dwarf planet'. Some people don't want change and changing the classification of Pluto seemed to challenge what they held as truth all their lives. For me it confirms the idea that the world is dynamic just as we are dynamic. I quote Emerson again:

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think today in hard words, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today."


Missing DVD

The move from VHS to DVD has been a true blessing for movie fans. Every movie company has reached into their vaults and have released so many of their treasures. Topping it off is the quality of the prints - the new telecines of old prints have given us a chance to see films in such high quality.

I make a regular trip to amazon and look up some films that are missing. One missing film is Bernardo Bertolucci's spectacular 'The Conformist'. If you don't know it, the story is set in facist Italy where the protagonist, Marcello Clerici takes on an assignment with the secret police to murder a political dissident in France. 'The Confomist' is one of those rare films that blends a unique visual style with a depth of themes and ideas. Storaro's brilliant cinematography uses colour and contrast of shadow and light to lift up and support the stories themes. Clerici is a shell, a man of no courage or conviction, a true conformist. The characterization is quite profound and interesting and Bertolucci explores it through politics and sexuality. Anthony Minghella's 'The Talented Mr. Ripley' is another great film that explores similar themes and ideas. The theme was encapsulated in that great line 'I'd rather be a fake somebody, then a real nobody'.

I read on IMDB that Paramount no longer holds the rights to 'The Conformist' so the release is up in limbo. I believe that Orson Welles 'Chimes at Midnight' is in the same holding pattern. It's a shame as these great films should be able to find a new audience. Maybe the Criterion Collection will be able to broker a deal as they did with Orson Welles 'Mr. Arkadin' and 'F for Fake'. Criterion has done a wonderful job with both of those films.


Inspired Casting

Vince responded to my post about miscasting and proposed the opposite question of some examples of inspired casting.

Peter O'Toole came to mind as the star of David Lean's classic 'Lawrence of Arabia'. O'Toole was a relatively unknown at the time and one would think that it was a bit of a chance casting him in such a huge role.

Fred MacMurray was perfectly cast against type in Billy Wilder's 'Double Indemnity'. MacMurray played an insurance salesman who falls in love with a femme fatale and conspires to murder her husband and run off with her and the insurance money. MacMurray also appears in Wilder's 'The Apartment' and plays Jack Lemmon's boss, Sheldrake. Sheldrake uses Lemmon's apartment for romantic rendevous with his lover (not wife) played by Shirley MacLaine. Both roles play against the squeaky clean image that he later developed in 'My Three Sons' and Disney films like 'The Shaggy Dog'.

Casting is a funny thing as it's very hard to be able to imagine a finished film without its final cast. Imagine Tom Selleck as Indiana Jones (his audition is on the dvd). I'm sure 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' would have been just as entertaining but it certainly would have felt different. Imagine Harvey Keitel as Willard in 'Apocalypse Now', or 'Jaws' without Richard Dreyfuss. Apparently Francis Coppola had to fight for both Al Pacino and Marlon Brando for 'The Godfather', a move that seems like a no-brainer today.

Film is a collaborative medium and it is important to step back and look at how every decision you make can have a profound effect on the final picture. Choosing talent is that intangible element that can make or break a picture. This means the director, cinematographer, editor, costume designer, production designer, art director, writer etc... Each piece of the puzzle effects the final picture. There is enough ego in the industry that people want to believe in the theory of the 'Auteur' but I think you can't separate the director from the talent. A great director moulds the film but also knows to use the assets of talent.



In the age where everything is possible using digital special effects it's pure magic watching a film like Fitzcarraldo. It's magic is that there are no special effects and what you are seeing is real, pure and simple.

If you don't know the film, it's story involves a failed entrepreneur (Klaus Kinski) who comes up with a brilliant idea on how to tap into an unused rubber tree forest. There are two rivers and only one is accessible, the other river has impassable rapids. Kinski's character, Fitzcarraldo, sees a point on the map where the two rivers are very close together so he schemes to take a boat to that point, drag the boat over the mountain and then be able to run a river boat above the dangerous rapids. He would take the untapped rubber trees up to the same point, take the trees over the mountain and down the safe river.

Exasperating his problems, the point at which the rivers meet is in the land of a tribe of natives known for headhunting. Fitzcarraldo ends up using the tribe for labour but isn't sure of the reasons behind their assistance. It is a great source of tension throughout the film.

Behind all of this ambition is Fitzcarraldo's love of the opera. His real dream is to make enough money to build an opera house deep in the Amazon.

The film is one of those great movies that, despite it being too long and meandering, transcends it's flaws. Part of this is from Herzog's insistence that he puts reality before the camera. No special effects allowed. Having seen it and knowing what you were seeing was real has a profound effect. Herzog even strips his style down where it often feels like a documentary. It doesn't take much imagination to see how difficult it would be to pull a river boat over a mountain and to top it all off, the river boat ends up running down the other river and through the rapids. This sequence was simply riveting as Herzog had cameras in the boat as it ran violently down the river.

It's easy to forget in the modern day just how exhilarating real images are. I think back to those huge films of the past where armies of people gathered to make a film. I think of Lawrence of Arabia where thousands of men clash in immense battle sequences. Or the Jungle exploding in Apocalypse Now and even the intimate scenes of the drunken Martin Sheen breaking down. Herzog is quite right in attempting to capture a large degree of reality as reality is powerful.

Fitzcarraldo's story is about dreams and one's own obsessions. It is a classic example of man vs man, man vs nature and most of all, man vs himself. How do we overcome our own obsessions? How do we accept our own failures and limitations? It's hard to know if Fitzcarraldo is mad at the beginning of the film or if he's going mad on the journey. He's an eccentric and maybe Herzog's point would be that we are mad for not chasing down our own dreams, for not allowing our own passions to consume us.



I was just thinking about the previous post and thought of Demme's remake of 'Charade' as 'The Truth about Charlie'. Mark Wahlberg was cast in the role that a mature Cary Grant had played in the previous film. Again, there was a maturity and worldliness about the character in the story that was missing from the youthful Wahlberg.

Anybody else have some examples of miscasting?

Red Dragon

I brought up 'Silence of the Lambs' in my post about the effects of sound on film. Tonight I caught 'Red Dragon', the prequel to 'Silence of the Lambs' and began to notice the difference between a great film and an 'ok' film. I think Jonathan Demme's 'Silence of the Lamb's' is a textbook example of filmmaking. Everything came together perfectly for the film - writing, casting, sound, cinematography, art direction, wardrobe and music, all under the superb direction of Jonathan Demme.

Red Dragon sees the return of the writer Ted Tally and actor Anthony Hopkins who played Hannibal Lector in 'Silence of the Lambs'. These two talents are not enough to elevate this picture to the original.

The first thing that stands out is the miscast of Edward Norton. Norton is a terrific actor but the lead role demanded an older and more experienced FBI agent and Norton looks younger than Jodi Foster did when she played the 'student' in the original. Sometimes you can get away with this reversal but it works against this film. They really needed to get a more mature actor to play the role.

The second thing is the films soundtrack. Where 'Silence of the Lambs' was textured and creepy, 'Red Dragon' is overstated and bombastic. That subtle tension that wouldn't let up in 'Silence of the Lambs' is replaced by a more obvious horror soundtrack that sacrifices the creepy for overwrought jolts.

Great films tend to have a great mixture of all elements - they are not made in a vacuum. Casting isn't something that is talked about much but it is something that can push a film into becoming a classic. The original 'Red Dragon' was made by Michael Mann as 'Manhunter'. Lector was played by Brian Cox and he did an admirable job but Hopkins brought the role to an entirely new level. Sure, 'Silence of the Lambs' had some hokey bits but overall the film is a masterpiece of macabre fiction.

For me, it goes to show you how important the crew is to the director and how important the director is to the crew. Demme benefits from a great crew and exquisite casting and the film benefits from his abilities to use those people.


I Am Trying to Break your Heart

I just finished watching a documentary about the making of a record by the band 'Wilco'. The film was made during Wilco's recording of the album 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot'. I've been a fan of Wilco for a few years and have listened to this terrific album many times. Little did I know that the story behind the album was quite fascinating and telling of the entertainment industry.

The basic story behind the album is that Wilco was given the green light to make an album of their choosing. There would be no interference by the record company and they were to deliver the album by a certain date. Up to this point the band had made a few albums, all of which were seemingly leading the group to a commercial success. Their music walks the line of pop, rock and country and the band has written many good pop songs.

Wilco enters the studio and, un-hindered, proceed to experiment with their music and push themselves into all sorts of interesting places creatively. After months spent at their loft they mix the record and get it ready for the record company, Warner Music. They send it in but get no response. Eventually a response trickles down and the record company isn't happy, they want changes. The band refuses and Warner eventually drops them from their roster. However, the band has a following both critical and fan-based and pressure is on Warner not to bury the record. Warner washes their hands of it and allows the band to walk away with the album with no strings attached.

The album is shopped around and, nine months after the original release date, the album is bought by a new record company. The irony is that the new record company is a subsidiary of Time Warner who happens to own the original backer, Warner Music. The corporation pays for the album twice!

I have to say that it was great timing for the filmmaker as he was able to capture both the creative process in the making of the music but also the frustrations of dealing with big business and the 'bottom line'. It also highlights the conflicts within the entertainment industry. Warner Music had it's interests focused so much on the bottom line that they missed the opportunity to contribute to the musical culture by releasing this terrific album. Often the people who run the business aren't the people who appreciate or get behind great and interesting music. 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot', we are told by the music executive, was too difficult for the marketing department. They didn't understand it and they couldn't see a way to sell it. The odd thing is that the music is quite original but also quite accessible. It's not bizarre experimental music. It might not have been the hit record that Warner was looking for but it's a terrific album. And that is the nature of the 'business' of art... It doesn't always wear it's packaging the way you thought it might.

The film ends with a title card that states that Time Warner has spent three times their original investment on the album. One might say that bureaucracy and incompetence kills the bottom line...


I'm Agnostic.... really. And a liberal (disappointed or otherwise).

Ok. I'm back watching Vision Tv. As bizarre as the channel seems to be I find myself drawn to their programming. In the last week I'm watching 'Casablanca', 'War Games' and now the documentary 'The Corporation'. I hadn't seen the documentary so I thought I would check it out. Initially I thought the film was quite interesting but not groundbreaking. Then, as it went on, I felt that sinking feeling of propaganda. Now, instead of the fear of 'Nuclear War' as last night's film exposed, I'm treated to the liberal fear of the 'corporation'. The film seems to take the view that we are all automatons and are helpless to the influence of corporate greed and coercion.


Sure, it's rubbish with a lot of interesting points but it stands as propaganda and the advertising of fear. The film constantly vilifies MacDonalds, Starbucks, Nike etc, presenting the point that these corporations manufacture society's desire for their products. I take offence for every individual with a brain in their head. Sure, MacDonalds has it's own propaganda wing (aka advertising) and it tries to coerce the public into wanting a Big Mac or a McChicken sandwich. However, MacDonalds didn't become a behemoth of a corporation by making a crappy sandwich. The general public likes MacDonalds. So MacDonalds does what every corporation does, it advertises and tries to manipulate people into wanting to eat at their restaurant. Is this unethical? Do we try to protect our weak by denying them something that they've already made successful by their patronage? At what point do we allow the 'customer' to make a choice for themselves? It's an elitists view that we should protect them from themselves. Look at all of the companies that have failed over the years. Is it because they didn't advertise or manipulate as good as the others? Or is it that the public didn't like what they were selling?

Douglas Rushkoff wrote "Coercion', an interesting book that dealt with this topic. I've used the title word in my little rant here. Rushkoff is a media theorist (among other things) who wrote a great book called 'Media Virus'. Media Virus explored the idea that things are injected into the 'media space' and in an interesting phenomenon, would self replicate. The OJ Simpson trial and the Rodney King case are great examples of things that came to light in the media and, like a virus, self replicated until they invaded the public conscience. After the book was published, Rushkoff was approached by advertising and marketing people to help them find a way to create their own 'media virus'. What Rushkoff discovered was a deep network of corporations that meant to wield this device for it's own profits. He sat in and made notes and got payed gobs of money to 'consult' with them. In the end he wrote 'Coercion' and subverted this found knowledge to expose and explore these ideas.

Rushkoff is notorious for his optimism and it's something that I really like about him. Instead of reading it all as 'evil' or fear propaganda, he approaches the subject like a philosopher. He asked the most important question of them all... If we are to believe that 'they' (the corporation) are out to get us, who constitutes the 'they'? It's the fear of the unseen enemy. The fear of the 'rich'. It's all conspiracy but we can't identify the conspirator as 'they' or 'them' or 'he' or 'she'. The unseen enemy is easier to deal with than the complicated issue of supply and demand. No demand. No supply. I don't buy the public as absolute lemmings. Whether the elite like it or not, people like Walmart, MacDonalds, Nike, Tim Hortons, Best Buy, Gap etc.

I must counterpoint now as I'm sure you might be livid and possibly boiling with my semi-conservative rant. There are many good points brought up in the documentary about corporate abuses. What happened with Enron was simply evil. Greed, pure and simple. The issue with BP today highlights the abuse of the environment. Child labour and human exploitation is rampant. And we drive our SUV's and buy cheap goods made at the hands of the exploited. We. Not just the corporations who apparently brainwash us. We support it. We are guilty. I'm not a fan of left wing propagandists that treat adults as simpletons and act like they know best. Why hold the faceless corporations soley responsible when we support them? I know... they manipulate us and tell us lies. And 'we' are not responsible to check the facts. 'We' are just lemmings, mindlessly doing what we're told.

If the view is that 'we' are just a bunch of idiots following whatever guides us on the television then why not make a scathing documentary about that? Expose 'us' for what 'we' are...


'War Games'

I caught John Badham's 'War Games' on Vision Tv tonight (religious tv... their choices are interesting). One of the things I like about watching 'old films' is the glimpse you get into the fashion, trends, psychology, thoughts and ideas of the times. Normally I wouldn't have considered the 1983 'War Games' as old but it is fascinating to see the obsessions of the day. Fear is rampant. Fear of technology, fear of the Soviets, fear of one's own military and fear of nuclear war (a fear we will visit again). It is interesting as it is near the end of the cold war but highlights American uncertainty.

'War Games' isn't alone as the early eighties saw the release of 'Red Dawn' (1984), 'The Terminator' (1984) and 'The Day After' (1983). James Cameron also explored his nuclear holocaust fears in 'Terminator 2' and 'The Abyss' (more in the directors cut). These films don't stand alone as they follow in the footsteps of Sidney Lumet's 1964 'Fail Safe' and Stanley Kubrick's 1964 satire 'Dr. Strangelove'. What's interesting here is that these films are twenty years apart and all in the third or fourth year of the decade. There doesn't seem to be much made about the topic in the 1970's. What's also interesting is Cameron's shift of fear in the 1994 'True Lies'...

As an aside, 'Ally Sheedy', the co-star in 'War Games' apparently became an obsession of some of the hacker community in the early eighties. If you are interested in phone phreaking or hacking you should check out Jonathan Littman's non fiction novels 'Fugitive Game: Online with Kevin Mitnick' and 'Watchman', a book about the famous hacker 'Kevin Poulsen'. Both books make for entertaining and fascinating reading. The subjects of the those books do make claim that Littman's truths are flawed and I can understand their point. However, if Littman unwittingly combines truth with fiction or legend, it doesn't detract from the sheer enjoyment you get from reading the books.


For you Superman fans...

I was at the bookstore on the weekend and went over to the 'd' section to see if Tom De Haven had written anything new. Low and behold, he has gone and written a book on Superman! For those of you not familiar with De Haven's work he wrote a terrific trilogy that revolved around the evolution of the comics.

He started the series with 'Funny Papers' which takes place at the turn of the century. In this book a newspaper sketch artist hits it big time with the creation of the comic strip 'Pinfold and Fuzzy'. I still get a kick out of the bit where the ventriloquists dog hasn't said a word since the ventriloquists death...

The second book fast forwards to the nineteen thirties with 'Derby Dugan's Depression Funnies'. 'Pinfold and Fuzzy' have been transformed into Derby Dugan and the story revolves around the life of the comic's ghost writer. This book features one of the great curmudgeon characters of all time, Walter Geebus.

'Dugan Under Ground' is the third book and takes us to the modern day. Derby Dugan as it was known is no longer. However, it is being kept alive in subversive form by Roy Looby, a contemporary of the likes of Crumb.

One of De Haven's talents is the superior ability to conjure up the feeling and atmosphere of these time periods. He also seems to just roll along through the story, spending his time examining his characters. These books are not page turners, they settle in and move at a leisurely pace. Then, as it all starts to culminate to the finish, he hits you with some profound ideas and emotions.

The trade paperback of 'It's Superman' is out at the end of the month and I'll be picking it up for sure.


Film Sound

A few years ago I was asked to teach an introductory film course on sound. I am not somebody who enjoys teaching but what I do like about it is that you have to consolidate your own thinking and ideas in order to present them to students. I agreed to the course and what I discovered was that sound was an incredibly difficult course to teach. Of all the film disciplines it was often the hardest for the students to grasp. On a technical level students were often confused by all of the 'measuring' of sound. They had to learn to observe sound levels and often with everything that was going on during a shoot, it was the last thing that was on their mind. When it came to mixing they were often confused by all of the sliders and technical requirements of the equipment. Sound wasn't something you could see or grasp.

The other problem with sound was trying to describe how it affects people. Often when filmmakers make a film they use sound practically (ie sound effects) and then add music to fill in the emotion. This is where the topic becomes both difficult and interesting...

Walter Murch, the multi-talented film and sound editor once said that if the picture was the 'liminal' element of the film then the sound was the 'subliminal'. He felt that people watching a film are very critical of what they saw but would rarely tune into what they heard. The ears are not critical nor are they particularly discerning. The picture is obvious to the eye where the sound is a mixture of many sound elements all mixed together to help give the story feeling and drama.

This is where Murch has made part of his fame. Unafraid to experiment, he doesn't contain his sound ideas to what is practical or what is on the screen. He uses it to manipulate the audience. In the academy award winning 'The English Patient' Murch uses the sound to tell the story, to create transitions and memory. A sound echoes in the patients mind and transports us through the story. In 'Apocalypse Now' Murch creates both a war soundtrack, full of glory and violence and then folds the sound back to reveal a personal soundtrack, one of self doubt. In one of the most stark and famous examples Murch places the sound of a screeching train into the scene where Michael has to decide his fate in 'The Godfather'. This is the use of sound for emotion.

Another film I like to cite is 'Silence of the Lambs'. What struck me when I first saw the picture was the level of intensity of the film. It never lets up. The dread is thick and if you deconstruct the soundtrack of the film and it is easy to see why. The terrific score by Howard Shore is less about melody as it is about soundscape. The music serves the story. It is funny how unmemorable the film's music is as it is so deeply entrenched with the picture that you don't even notice it. Watch the scene where Jody Foster goes to see Lector for the first time. There are all sorts of sounds on the soundtrack that have no practical use. Nothing in the set seems to be making these noises. Instead, they are working on the 'subliminal' trying to unsettle the audience. As Foster walks down the hall towards Lector, Howard Shore is working on low level trying to keep that feeling of fear and dread. Ron Bochar, the sound designer describes it as this:

"Here's how Jonathan described Jodie Foster's first trip down to visit Lecter in the dungeon: "This is the bowels of the building. Let me hear howling and let me hear bowels.' So that's what you got. I can' t begin to list the material that went into all that. But there were animal screams and noises built into the ambience itself downstairs there. From a little movie I had made years ago called Little Monsters I took this lunatic kind of screaming that I had recorded; I took track, processed it, slowed it down, and played it in reverse. That became one of the ambiences in the room, too. It's the room tone, but the room tone has been made from some guy screaming in pain. Whenever you're down there with Lecter there's this element--it's a low tone that rises and then comes down again. It's very organic as opposed to something you can create electronically. I don't like taking sounds that start electronically; I like sounds that start organically. It' s a lot more fun."

In Ralph Rosenblum's autobiography "When the Shooting Stops..." he describes his experience editing Woody Allen's first film 'Take the Money and Run'. According to Rosenblum, he was hired to recut the picture as it was testing horribly and no one found it particularly funny. What Rosenblum discovered was that Allen had been working in the wrong 'tone' and that Allen was far to critical of himself and had removed many of his good jokes. In addition to reintroducing elements that had been cut and rearranging the film's sequences Rosenblum describes several instances when 'scenes could be salvaged by simply replacing the music'. In the orginal cut maudlin music was added in order to give the picture a 'chaplin' quality. A sense of drama. Rosenblum realized that it wasn't working and added music that would counterpoint the maudlin picture thus creating a very funny scene. He recognizes the soundtrack's ability to completely alter the tone and feel of a scene by simply changing the music. It's a powerful tool.

Sound and picture make for an exciting combination. There are many ways to accent the soundtrack whether it be musical or practical sound. It is an area that is often left unexplored as we are bombarded with the soundtrack instead of manipulated by it. It is also the element that is left for last. Everyone, often including the composer, is brought on as an after thought. They work to the finished picture and are not included enough in the development of it. It really is the least understood elements of filmmaking.

For a good primer and some great articles go to


The Narrow Margin

I watched 'The Narrow Margin' for the first time last night. It's a Noir thriller that involves a police officer having to transport a key witness in a mob trial across the country by train. It begins with two cops escorting the woman out of her house when they are attacked and the partner is killed. The protagonist of the film (played by Charles McGraw) doesn't like the witness (played by a sultry Marie Windsor) who is testifying against her husband. Mob hit men follow them to the train and we are stuck in a claustrophobic game of cat and mouse. It's the kind of film where no one is who they seem and McGraw is left trying to do the right thing as they bully him and attempt to bribe him.

This enjoyable film was shot in 1952 and would be considered on the latter end of the film noir period. The photography is exquisite and the staging is more involved than many of the low budget thrillers that proceeded it. The director Richard Fleischer constructs a lean thriller full of surprises and like other Noir films, the language of the film is stylized and hardboiled.

There are plenty of flaws in the picture that keeps it from being in the same class as Billy Wilder's 'Double Indemnity' (my favourite) or Lang's 'Scarlett Street' but there is a lot to like about it. It's an interesting film as it does have a different feeling than the 40's films. I suspect it has to do with the change of society and attitudes towards sexuality and violence. This becomes much more apparent in Orson Welle's 1958 thriller 'Touch of Evil'. In 'Touch of Evil' sexuality and decay are much more obvious. There is a definite change in tone with suggestions of drugs and rape. Like the previous discussion about the differences between 'No Way Out' and 'The Big Clock', there is a sense in 'The Narrow Margin' that film and society had started to shift. By the end of the decade (1959) Otto Preminger releases 'Anatomy of a Murder' and it really feels like Hollywood is starting to loosen it's hold on tough topics and things that were only hinted at previously are starting to be stated.


Pirates of the Caribbean

I just came back from 'Pirates of the Caribbean 2' and I must admit that I have mixed feelings about the film. Before I start I have to confess that I love a great high sea adventure especially a pirate adventure. The year that the original 'Pirates of the Caribbean' came out was a great year as it also saw the release of 'Master and Commander', the terrific Peter Weir film. If 'Master and Commander' was the entree, certainly 'Pirates of the Caribbean' was the dessert. The elegant but brutal 'Master and Commander' was contrasted nicely by the humourous and imaginative 'Pirates'.

Fast forward to this year and the Pirates are back - bigger and... well bigger. After a clumsy start trying to find it's tone again, Captain Sparrow and crew were off on their next adventure. There is a lot to like about the film with it's terrific visual effects, imaginative characters and playful script. Despite this I would have to say that the biggest flaw of the film was it's length. It was too long. I'm not sure if it's the director or writers at fault here although I'm sure it's a bit of both. Having said that, the director has final say and it felt to me that Verbinski spent too much time working on 'set pieces' as opposed to good and simple storytelling. I enjoy the choreography of these amazing action sequences but they do end up being technical exercises when they start to become the focus of the film. This is where the film strays; these action sequences are just that, sequences. At some point the director has to stand back and look at the flow of the story and begin to pare it down to make sure that the focus is on story and characters.

Pirate movies are fun and it feels like everyone involved are like kids in the candy store, they indulge every fantasy and try to pack in every drop of fun into the film. It just requires an editor. First the director as editor and then the editor as editor. I wonder what pressure there was on Verbinski when the production has spent unimaginable amounts of money on these 'set pieces'? I imagine it's very hard to drop millions of dollars onto the cutting room floor. Having said all this, I did like the film but I didn't love it. For my pirate loving tastes, it was a bit too much of a monster movie but I can't hold that against it - that's my taste. It is also shaping up as the second film in a trilogy. The only problem with this is that the first act (the first film) provides us with the characters but not with the story. It's all a bit of patchwork trying to tie in a film that existed on it's own. It's not terrible patchwork but it is a bit of patchwork nonetheless.

As a note: The films writers are Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot. This writing team is responsible for such films as 'Aladdin', 'Shrek' (1 & 2) as well as the original 'Pirates of the Caribbean'. They host a terrific site, Wordplay where they give advice to screenwriters and share their experiences. They even published their version of the 'Godzilla' script that wasn't fully used by the production.


Tigga & Togga

Just wanted to post a link to an episode of 'Tigga & Togga' which will be airing on TV Ontario in September. The concept of the show was to introduce preschoolers to music and musical ideas. We focused the show on creating a musical experience where the characters helped make the music using found items etc.

You can also check out the interactive website.


Annie Hall

I screened "Annie Hall" again on the weekend. Sylvia hadn't seen it before so I jumped at the opportunity to watch it again. It's the kind of film that has grown on me with every viewing.

Woody Allen films tend to exist in a strange universe belonging to himself and his characters. The characters in his films are usually questionable in their behaviour and morals. In 'Hannah and Her Sisters' one sister has an affair with the other sisters husband. In 'Manhattan' Woody Allen's character is dating a teenager and takes up with the woman his best friends been having an affair with. In 'Crimes and Misdemeanors' one character pays to have his hysterical lover murdered. 'Crimes and Misdemeanors' is the most pointed of the previous examples in that it directly explores themes of religion and morality. By remaining in a sort of amoral universe Woody Allen allows himself to explore themes and ideas that other filmmakers rarely go to. Certainly mainstream Hollywood films tend to favour protagonists that are righteous and likeable. This is where Allen tends to split his audience. Some people give in to the fact that the characters are all 'flawed' while others need to connect with the characters and have trouble with the lack of morals and ethics. This is no more apparent than in 'Hannah and Her Sisters'. It's very hard to have empathy for someone who cheats on his wife with his wife's sister. And it's very hard to feel for a sister who cheats on her husband with the husband of her sister. At least it's very hard to feel for these people in a normal universe. In the worlds created by Allen these kinds of people can be met with some sympathy and understanding. But most of all, they exist so that we can look at the different facets of human nature and sexuality. Allen is the guide into areas that we don't need to go in our personal lives but can benefit from his insights and his humour. This is poignant escapism.

In terms of direction, Allen is distinct in American Cinema. There is never any doubt that you are watching a Woody Allen film. He uses terrific stage direction techniques and moulds them into cinematic techniques. Often he sets the camera up and allows his actors to flow though the spaces. 'Manhattan' is a terrific example of how he uses space as the camera is often a stationary voyeur. We become a fly on the wall in the drama. In Annie Hall he effortlessly plays with film form, creative editing and unconventional story techniques. He breaks out of conversations to address the audience directly. He cuts to flashbacks where he is present as both adult and child. He uses a split screen where the characters talk to one another through the split. Rarely do you see American films break time and space so freely. He hits the perfect tone and it doesn't ever feel contrived, or style for the sake of style. He pushes the boundaries even more a few years later with 'Stardust Memories' which seems to be heavily influenced by European filmmakers like Fellini. I stress the word 'influenced', not 'stolen'. Woody Allen is Woody Allen.

He has had a prolific career, that is for sure. There are only a few living filmmakers that come close to the amount of films Allen has made especially when you consider that he is writer and director and often the star. Some lament that his talents have waned over the past few years. Some question why he keeps going. I whole heartedly disagree with these detractors. Despite some misfires I respect his creative drive and can understand his desire to keep going. At some point he's not making films for us, he's making them for himself. And he should milk it as long as he can still get a budget.


I'd like to explore more 'time and space' ideas later but if you are interested in the technique you might check out Steven Soderbergh's 'The Limey' or Mike Nichol's 'The Graduate' for great examples. The dining room sequence in Citizen Kane is also a perfect example of breaking 'time'. Welles shoots an entire relationship from beginning to end in a single sitting at the dining room table! Brilliant.