Sonntag, 26. Januar 2014

Umberto D. (Vittorio de Sica, 1952)

A pensioned public employee is struggling to survive on a meager pension and tries to keep his dignity and moral values intact while his situation gets more dire by the day.

Although the story takes place in a big city the film is very good at conveying the feeling that Umberto is isolated by his age and his realization that society has no use for him anymore. His landlady is quite the monster - she rules the hallway of her apartment like a bitter queen. It's quite amazing how long Umberto holds on to the apartment, his only confidante is the naive and beautiful maid, who has her share of troubles to keep her position in the household.

(MANY SPOILERS) Sometimes Umberto could come off like a rather stubborn old man it's his agile little dog that keeps the viewer firmly rooted for him. At the end of the film, Umberto tries to give the dog (and his will to live) away, but even than he cannot find a suitable taker. So he decides to take the dog with him when he dies. But suddenly the little creature steps up, feeling the danger and becomes very "human" for a minute.

 The scene starts off with a wide pan, showing Umberto how he crosses the closed barrier and appraoches the tracks.
 A closeup of the tingling wires announces the arrival of the train.
Umberto stands and watches. The camera slowly tracks towards him and the music becomes louder and more dramatic.
We can see the train approaching - it is still small, but coming closer very fast.

 His reaction is from a lower angle, making it more dramatic (and closer to the POV of the dog)

 A frontal close-up on the dog shows him struggling, trying to break away from the danger.
At the same time as the locomotive arrives, the dog jumps to the ground and Umberto is confused enough not to throw himself in front of the train.

The train passes and in a fabulous shot, Umberto screams his dog's name through the dust. An astonishing visual moment. The world has turned dark.

The dog stands in the sun, watching his master with something that might be described as benign scorn. Obviously, it's what we'd like to see in the dog's face, but it works extremely well.

Umberto watches the train fade into the distance.  The sun has returned.

In the same wide shot as in the beginning he returns to his dog, who waits at safe distance from the barrier. 

Samstag, 25. Januar 2014

The Lion In Winter (1968, Anthony Harvey)

50-year old King Henry II wants to decide during a Christmas retreat which of his three sons would be his worthy successor. But his wife, his sons and the young King of France all plot against him and each other.

In a sort of prequel to Shakespeare's "King John", this is one of the most amusing films I have seen in a long time. There is not much visual wizardry or storytelling through images. The stage play which is the basis of the script can still be felt in every scene. But the dialogue is full of poisonous wit and the actors seem to have had the time of their lives. O'Toole comes on incredibly forceful (I haven't seen his other King Henry film yet) and playful just the same. Hepburn is just as amazing to watch and her Oscar well deserved - the age difference between the two actors is absolutely irrelevant. It is pure joy to watch these two characters going at each others throats.

The evil remarks that the players throw at each other is something to be marveled at in great detail. Some of my favorite scenes are - the aborted wedding scene, the King and Queen discussing him setting her free in their private chambers and the scene between Hopkins and Hepburn. Actually, I loved most of them.

I have picked the wedding scene for trying to figure out how the balance shifts back and forth between the players.

 Beat 1:

Henry II has dragged everybody to the chapel, where the bishop is waiting. He has decided that Richard (his second-eldest) should marry his mistress Alais. John is astonished because he  believes that his father might prefer Richard to him. Alais is aghast and Queen Eleanor does nothing to calm her.

ALAIS: I won't say the words! Not one of them! It makes no sense!
Why give me up? What do you get? What are you gaining?

HENRY: Why, the Aquitaine, of course.

Henry is completely open about his plans, which is in line how he likes to appear: straightforward, honest, and brutal. Obviously, he is scheming at something completely different with this move.

Beat 2:

Richard does not agree to this, as his mother promised the Aquitaine to him. He decides that he will not marry Alais. Henry dares his son to defie him. Henry asks the King of France, Philipp, to persuade Richard to do "something".

RICHARD: What's that again?

HENRY: Your mother gets her freedom, and I get the Aquitaine. (to Eleanor) That is the proposition, isn't it? You did agree.

RICHARD: Of course she did. I knew it. It was all pretense. I believed it all.

ELEANOR: I meant it all. 

RICHARD: No wedding. There'll be no wedding.

HENRY: But, my boy, look. Durham's waiting. Marry her, for my sake. It isn't much to ask. 


HENRY: But I promised it to Philip. Think of my position.

RICHARD: Damn the wedding and to hell with your position. 

HENRY: You don't dare defy me.


HENRY (to Philip): You're the king of France, for God's sake. Speak up. Do something.

All Richard can do here is simply refuse his father's wishes. As brave and swift as he may be on the battlefield, he is no match to his father's intricate scheming. Henry obviously knows how his son would react to his plans for giving Eleanor the Aquitane.

Beat 3:

Philippe amusedly remarks that Henry has never meant to have the wedding and that his anger is staged. The two kings snarl at each other - Philippe is not impressed by Henry's blustering and leaves the chapel angrily. Richard makes fun of the "old lion".

RICHARD:  Make a threat. Come on, frighten me. Am I? Dunce!

PHILLIP (to Richard): He never meant to have the wedding.

HENRY: Come again.  

PHILLIP:  You're good at rage. I like the way you play it.
HENRY: Boy, don't ever call a king a liar to his face.

PHILLIP: I'm not a boy... to you or anyone!

HENRY: Boy, you came here asking for a wedding or the vexin back. By God, you don't get either. It's no to both. 

PHILLIP: You have a pact with France!

HENRY: Then damn the pact and damn France. She never marries, not while I'm alive.

PHILLIP: Your life and never are two different times.

HENRY: Not on my clock, boy!

RICHARD: Listen to the lion! 

(Phillip off)

It is obvious that Phillip, although hot-headed is much more versed in the scheming of a royal court. He plays it mockingly, but can easily be angered by Henry until he leaves in scorn. Henry is only "checking him out", something that he tries to make use of later in the movie.

Beat 4:

Richard makes a remark about Henry (III), Henry's oldest son who has died. This is obviously something that hurts the king, as obviously he would have been the successor to the throne (also the use of close-up). Richard threatens him that he will take the crown by force. Henry threatens Richard to be imprisoned in the castle. Richard leaves in anger.

RICHARD: Come on, frighten me. 

HENRY: Don't spoil it, Richard. Take it like a good sport.

RICHARD: How's your bad leg?

HENRY: Better, thank you.

RICHARD: Your bad back? You're getting old. You'll have me once too often.

HENRY: When? I'm  50  now. My God, boy, I'm the oldest man I know. I've got a decade on the pope. What's it to be? The broadsword when I'm   ?

RICHARD: I'm not a second son now. Your Henry lies in the vault, you know.

HENRY: I know. I've seen him there.

RICHARD: I'll have the crown.

HENRY: You'll have what daddy gives you.

RICHARD: I am next in line!

HENRY: To nothing!

RICHARD: Then we'll only have the broadswords now. 

HENRY: This minute?

RICHARD:  No, on the battlefield!

HENRY: So we're at war?                 

RICHARD: Yes, we're at war. I have men at Poitiers. 

HENRY: Can they hear you? Call and see who answers. You're as close to Poitiers as you'll get.

RICHARD:  You don't dare hold me prisoner. 

HENRY: Until we're all agreed John comes next, I can and will. You're a king's son, so I treat you with respect. You have the freedom of the castle.

RICHARD: The castle doesn't stand that holds me. Post your guards. (off)

Richard tries to take the conflict to the physical level but Henry brushes him off. Only his remark about the king's dead eldest son seems to stir an emotional reaction from Henry. This leads him to escalate the conflict, albeit very cautiously - keeping his son as prisoner.

Beat 5:

John is happy: He believes that he will be king now, as the marriage is obviously off. Geoffrey congratulates him in a very patronizing way. They both leave the room. The bishop also leaves, as there no one around to marry.

Beat 6: 

Eleanor insists on Henry kissing Alais. When he does so, to spite her, the Queen seems deeply moved and in tears. She still seems to love the king despite her intrigues and scheming. (Another use of closeup)

This scene lays out all the characters in the play and their relations to each other. Henry is definitively the king of the situation, his weak point is his dead son. Eleanor is wicked but still has feelings for her husband. Phillip understands that he is supposed to play a certain part in this charade but he is too inexperienced yet to see through all of Henry's maneuvers. Richard, John and Geoffrey hope for the crown, but they are all politically and emotionally unfit to be a king. And Alais is just a pawn, naively in love with Henry.

The only weak spot that I felt in this scene (but happens often in the movie), that it doesn't fundamentally change the basic relationships. At this point in time the viewer is already familiar with the characters and their situation. But after the whole wedding drama, nothing really has changed in the actual situation, except that the conflict between Richard and Henry has escalated to a physical level. For fairness, I guess that this is the whole point of the play: Lots of smoke and mirrors and politics to hide the actual need for the involved men and women - the family as a safe emotional haven.

Montag, 20. Januar 2014

Saikaku ichidai onna / Diary of O-Haru (1952, Kenji Mizoguchi)

A courtlady falls in love with a man of lower social standing. As the two lovers are discovered the woman falls steeply through all social nets until she reaches rock bottom.

There is no change of direction in the downward spiraling tale of the continually humiliated Oharu, no matter how hard we wish for a bit of luck for the poor woman. She rarely gets any opportunity to take a decision that might influence her fate. Nevertheless, she ends up at the bottom of the ancient Japanese society with no hope of returning to any kind of standing. The brutality of the men in her life, including her father is maddening. The only glimpse of a cynical practicality is when all the outlawed women solidarise, sharing what little resources are available to them.

At one point, Oharu meets an older street musician who seems to have shared the fate of Oharu but has sunken even deeper. Although Oharu is polite to the poor lady you can still feel the importance of status to Oharu. Inside Oharu's character there seems to be a deadly combination of pride, traditional values and sheer desperation at work. It becomes clear that the woman has no chance of escaping her fate.

In what way Mizoguchi's film can be seen as a critique of modern vs. traditional Japanese values I can only guess. His view is very distant and documentary-like. I had the feeling that he carefully refrained from getting the viewer too much involved, or let him feel pity, with Oharu.

Mizoguchi's camera work is very fluid and the camera moves either in very long tracking shots or in slow pans. Although, on a second viewing I found that some of the camera moves can be surprisingly swift. Dialogue is rarely intercut with shot and counter-shot. Mostly, the characters change position towards the camera. A typical scene from the film would be the following.

The messenger of Edo arrives - the inhabitants of the house converse at the end of a hallway, preparing to receive the honoured guest.

CUT: An exhausted messenger is carried by the servants to the meeting room. The camera follows with a long sideway track. The messenger is set down comfortably and taken care of. All the characters face the camera.

The camera pans to the left, showing the arrival of the master of the house. He sits down with the back to the camera. He sends the servants away. The messenger explains his mission.

CUT: The messenger is in the center of the frame, as his host gets up and takes a new position. He sits in a right angle to the man. When the messenger gives a parchment scroll to the host, the camera pulls back slowly to frame the action on the floor. The frame is corrected when the host hangs up the picture on the back wall.

Then the camera moves back in again, while the two actors have their backs turned to the camera, ie taking the audience's position and marveling at the painting of the woman. The messenger explains the mission.

CUT: The camera starts with a close-up of the picture and pulls back, while the messenger explains the features of the perfect woman his master is looking for.

CUT: For the first time, the camera changes the direction and shows the two men upfront, as they stare at the picture. When they approach the wall, the camera swiftly moves around them and ends in the same position it started with.


Glory (1989, Edward Zwick)

A young commander in the civil war is asked to recruit and lead the first all-black Confederate battalion into the Civil War.

I am not too interested in details of the American Civil War but the film managed to stir my interest in some ways. I might want to look up the difference in treatment of the many Chinese laborers that were employed in the development of the West and what kind of legacy this particular group of people has to suffer from in contrast to the better-known fate of African-Americans.

There are some interesting scenes in the film. I decide to examine the battle scene in the beginning. It introduces Broderick's character as a naive and brave but inexperienced soldier - a great choice of casting, especially in contrast to the hardened appearance of Washington. According to imdb footage was used from re-enactment groups and intercut with the staged film.

Before the battle scene commences Broderick walks in row of soldiers and talks over the pictures of the gathering army, reading a letter to his mother. He introduces his character as a a young and idealistic soldier. He proudly mentions his promotion and we can quickly see his mother read the letter, then we return to the battlefield as the sun is rising.

After a couple of shots of soldiers walking towards the battlefield (South from the left, North from the right) the battle scene begins without slowing the rhythm of the editing with a quick title, announcing time and place: Antietam Creek, Sept. 17, 1862.

A battalion of soldiers marches toward the enemy, a close-up shows Broderick marching proudly upfront, his sword stretched towards the enemy. 

After having established the directions, the Southerners also shoot a canon. They hit only trees - implying that the weapons must have been way less than accurate. (I have no idea about the historical state of technology). Wood showers down on Broderick's people. But nobody seems harmed and they march on.

The next thread is a long row of rifles, pointed at the Union Army, ready to shoot. There is a revealing shot, where we see upfront on the Northern troops - the picture looks surprisingly empty compared to the earlier footage.

Looking over the heads of the troops as they approach the fence behind which the Confederates wait the rifles are shot at the same time, giving a rippling smoke effect. A few dead horses lie on the ground. The close battle begins.

An editing technique used quite often is the jump-in. A few seconds to establish the orientation, then a zoom-in, depicting for example soldiers being shot. This keeps the editing tempo up although the actual movement of the troops is rather slow. It seems that this technique is used throughout the battle scene. Sometimes the other side is cut between the long and the close shot.

The following shows the Southern Army moving into the battlefield ground, from behind - with a wide shot and very smoky environment.

Another special angle is the approaching Union as seen from over the shoulder of the Confederate riflemen. The following battle "beat" is also told in Wide-OtherSide-Close-Closer editing combination. Another pattern I notice is that the Confederates are shown in large groups shooting their rifles or firing a cannon, and the "reaction" of the Union army is appended in two or three short scenes.

The first dialogue of the movie is a two-person-shot of Broderick right behind his superior - followed by a closeup of his head exploding. We see Broderick's reaction. End of Beat.

The next 30 seconds depict the chaos that the army is in. The Confederates shoot and there are two or three very short scenes where the opposing soldiers die and scream in agony. Most of the shots are closing in on the soldiers and show some kind of explosion with wounded men falling to the ground.
The sense of left and right is disturbed, as the riflemen are shown from the front, shooting directly into the camera, involving the viewer more.

At the end of this very fast-paced sequence Broderick lies down and covers his head in panic. He realizes he's wounded.

While the Northern army suffers heavy losses in many shots of confusion and disorder the main shot is slowly zooming in on Broderick as he covers his ears and closes his eyes until his image disappears in a cloud of smoke. The battle is over. The camera returns to wider shots towards the end of the battle and re-establishes the left-right order.

Overall the editing on the scene is amazing and by keeping the strong sense of left-right it is clear which of the two armies is in a shot at any time. Even after repeated watching I find it hard to discern between the documentary and the staged footage. Steven Rosenblum deserved his Oscar nomination.