Thursday, December 23, 2010

Yo ho ho!

What better way to celebrate Christmas than with this heartwarming discussion about reindeers that I'm sure is being replicated in homes all over the world around now between curious children and their loving guardians, assuming, of course, that their loving guardians also happen to be drunken, amoral sons-of-bitches masquerading as shopping mall Santas, which I'm entirely confident most of them are.

Or we could just keep it old school. I am, sadly, old school enough to have seen Beat Street when it came out in 1984, along with that year's other rap-sploitation hit, Breakdance. For the first time we experienced what other generations before us had, that universal white boy infatuation with (American) black street culture. As with jazz and blues before it, rap and its cultural debris, graffiti and breakdancing, hit us hard. What a sight we must have been, gawky Irish boys trying to bust our moves on flattened out pieces of cardboard in our parents' driveways or spray-painting our names under bridges before heading home because it was getting dark. Watching it now though, it's easy to hear the political message we missed then, about what Christmas is really like for those unlucky enough to find themselves on the wrong side of the economic tracks. Happy Christmas y'all. Kiss my mistletoe!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Film Club Reviews #8

I'd like to think that the stunned silence that greeted the ending of Yorgos Lanthimos' Dogtooth wasn't just shock at its unpredictable violence and sex scenes but also that people were struggling to respond to a troublingly original film, one determined to confound expectations. This seemingly surreal story about a couple who keep their grown-up children isolated from the world in a walled compound on the outskirts of a city, has the unarguable clarity of a parable and the matter-of-fact courage of its low-budget convictions. It's about repression, social and family conditioning, language, trust, corruption, sex, violence and ultimately rebellion. It's a tribute to its marvellous deadpan that it could easily be used to argue opposing positions; that the parents are repressive monsters or that the introduction of outsiders into the controlled environment disrupts the previously blissful existence of the 'children'. Or possibly both. The one thing that's unarguable is the film's belief in the maleability of human mind, that without any frame of reference we are capable of believing anything, as easily conditioned and trained as dogs. However, throughout the film there are moments when emotional outbursts, sexual desires and natural curiosity find ways to express themselves. Not let out in normal ways, they find different, less socially acceptable ways to escape. It's nature vrs nurture as some kind of social experiment then, hinting at the contradictions and failures of Communist regimes or the repressiveness of closed religious communities. In this sense it has a lot in common with Haneke's The White Ribbon. But it's a very different film, funnier, stranger, a twenty-first century Bunuelian fable, as sharp and enigmatic as a razor blade, as hard to get rid of as a stubborn tooth.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Silent Music

In the last few years I've had the pleasure of watching classic silent movies on the big screen, usually with live musical accompaniment by post-rock Irish group 3epkano. I've seen The Passion of Joan of Arc, Pandora's Box, The Blood of a Poet, Sunrise, Battleship Potemkin and The Man With the Movie Camera. I always find the combination enthralling. It's easy to sense the hold the medium had on pre-sound audiences, somehow you're more attentive to the images, faces especially, radiant in the celluloid light in ways so far removed from modern cinema it feels like a different art form, closer to alchemy than the seamless science of digital technology. I've usually come away from these screenings elated, with the faces of Maria Falconetti, Louise Brooks or Janet Gaynor seared into my mind, indelible images, religious in their iconic power.

And the music is a vital componant to this. 3epkano's great strength is there understanding of film. A friend of mine saw Lambchop doing a live score to Sunrise and said it was a disaster because they essentially played their songs over the film with little reference to it. 3epkano never do this. At times they're completely silent, letting the significance of a scene work on the images alone, sometimes they fill the silence with just the barest brush of a cymbal, moody scrape of violin, waiting for the right moment, following the narrative rhythm of the film, before building to emotional crescendos. At its best, the combination is near overwhelming, the drum beats reverberating in your chest, the violins and guitars displacing the air, sonically entering your pores. It's something else, exciting. You feel like you understand what it was like when cinema was still new, still numinous with mystery, still giddy and awe-struck by its own power. Unfortunately, no-one has yet combined 3epkano's music with images of these films on Youtube but below is one of their pieces, Everybody Is Already Down Below from their album At Land.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Classic Scene #25

'Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.'

- from The Dead by James Joyce

Classic Scene #24

Sometimes, though, innocence is just that, not lost just pristine like the first fall of snow, the very first time children see it, when it's not a metaphor for anything, just pure wonder and fun, like Bambi's surprise at his own footprints in the snow or Thumper's infectious excitement at discovering the water is stiff and wonderfully slippy.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Classic Scene #23

As it's started snowing heavily again outside I suppose it's time for some more snow-related movie scenes. The most famous, of course, is little Charlie Kane and that sleigh in Citizen Kane, not to mention the snowflakes skittering through time in the smashed snow globe as old Charles breathes his last. Welles returned to snow as an emblem of lost innocence again the following year in this lovely scene from The Magnificent Ambersons. But in Jim Jarmusch's blank-generation hipster classic Stranger Than Paradise , snow becomes a white-out metaphor for the empty nothing of the characters' lives as they stare out at what's supposed to be Lake Erie, but is really the bleak reality of their future lives. Surely one of the worst tourist visits ever.

You Call This Snow? Why, Back In My Day...

As a little follow-up to the Phantom Ride piece below, I thought it would be nice what with all the snow round these parts at the moment to post this, another one of those excellent BTF shorts, this time from the big freeze of 1963, its editing reminiscent at times of the giddy ecstasies of Dziga Vertov's 1929 classic The Man With The Movie Camera.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Phantom Ride

Before there was cinema, there was the train. It might seem fanciful but I'd like to make the claim that train travel not only prepared people for the idea of cinema but may even have been a catalyst for its eventual creation. Invention is such a mystery, after all, something in the air of the times, a whisper of influences waiting to coalesce. Surely the idea that still images could move was born in the mind of someone sitting by a train window watching the world go by, or millions of people sitting by thousands of train windows watching endless fields and suburbs go by. It was in the air. Cinema the idea was already an invention of the imagination long before science and technology caught up. This was the era of camera obscura towers, magic lantern shows and experiments in capturing the secrets of motion by men like Eadweard Muybridge and Jules Maray. Cinema was the culmination of all these processes, all these primitive yearning mechanisms for capturing life.

The wonder of early cinema wasn't in stories or acting or montage it was just this; the mystery of suspended time, of captured motion. Just like train travel. Who, after all, hasn't been lulled into a time-forgetting dream-state by the clickity-clack rhythms of a train, the rolling cinema of carriage windows? The analogy was there from the start. They were kindred spirits, both symbols of progress, both promising journeys to other places, both foreshortening distance and time in ways society had never imagined before.

And so, naturally, it was to the train that the earliest filmmakers were drawn again and again, in homage and unconscious recognition. Between those famous train-centred milestones of early cinema, the Lumiere Bros panic-inducing L'Arrivée d'un train à La Ciotat (1896) and Edwin S. Porter's narrative breakthrough The Great Train Robbery (1903) lies a generally less well-known period of sensation, novelty and gradual evolution, when techniques were discovered that are still with us today. And one of the most popular and profound of these was the phantom ride, an evolutionary step forward for the fledgling medium, one in which it stopped simply recording motion and instead became motion itself.

In the typically cavalier fashion of the times the effect was achieved by tying a cameraman to the buffer of a moving train and having him crank away as it sped along the track. The means may have been primitive, not to mention dangerous, but the result was a sensation, a ghostly ride through the air, as if the viewer were floating above the track, a disembodied dream eye travelling into the darkness of tunnels and towards the light on the other side. Audiences couldn't get enough of these virtual thrill rides which were often, appropriately enough, shown at travelling fairgrounds as part of a programme of similarly short actualities, comedies and trick-films. The earliest known example, Biograph's The Haverstraw Tunnel (1897), was an instant hit, spawning dozens of imitators including Railway Trip Over The Tay Bridge (1897), View From An Engine Front - Ilfracombe (1898) and View From an Engine Front - Train Leaving Tunnel (1899). The latter was used by one of the most innovative filmmakers of the time, G.A. Smith, to create his influential A Kiss In The Tunnel (1899). It consists of only three shots; train enters tunnel, man kisses woman in the dark compartment, train exits tunnel. It might not sound like much now but this was a major advance in editing and continuity leading the medium towards more sophisticated story-telling.

Although single-shot phantom rides continued after this, well into the new century, taking in ever more exotic and far-flung places from the front of ships and trams as well as subway trains, it was soon just another technique in an ever-expanding arsenal of possibilities. The success of The Great Train Robbery had marked the end of simple awe and curiosity and the start of cinema as a serious art form with all the potential range of novels and theatre.

But there was to be one final hurrah for the pure phantom ride form, one which brought the relationship between trains and films to its logical conclusion. In 1905 a Kansas City Fire Chief named George C. Hale created a nickelodeon amusement called Hale's Tours and Scenes of the World. This 'illusion ride' consisted of mock train carriages showing ten-minute films of scenes from around the world. But they weren't just novelty cinemas. While the passengers watched these phantom ride films, projected onto the end of the carriage to create the illusion of actually travelling through these scenes, like they were looking through a window, the carriage would simulate the motion of a real train, rocking and swaying from side to side while steam and train whistle sound effects played and painted scenery rolled past the windows.

The Hale's Tour had finally made real what had always been implied; that being in a train and watching a film were essentially the same thing, that illusion and travel worked on the imagination in much the same way, creating intermediary zones away from the real world where people could dream and forget. Not surprisingly, they proved insanely popular. By 1907 there were five hundred all over the United States, and many more around the world in places like Melbourne, Paris, Hong Kong and London, which had no less than four, with others in Manchester, Blackpool, Leeds and Bristol.

Despite this success, the truth was the phantom ride had effectively been shunted onto a siding of cinema history, merely a passing fad, a necessary but primitive first step in the maturity of a great new art form. And watching the surviving examples today it's easy to dismiss these grainy, ponderously slow artifacts, to wonder how they could ever have had such an electrifying effect on audiences. But speed is relative and what would have given a Victorian a nosebleed barely feels like moving now. In 1962 a British Transport documentary called Let's Go To Birmingham revived the form to record the journey from London's Paddington Station to Birmingham's Snow Hill but with one crucial difference, they speeded it up so the entire journey takes only five minutes. It's still a blast and is probably a modern viewer's best chance at understanding what it was like to see the first phantom rides.

Today the phantom ride has become a standard cinematic device for putting audiences into the heart of the action, little different at times to its thrill ride origins (note its use in the current 3D craze, like the rollercoaster scene in Despicable Me for example). But it's also been used for the opening title sequences of films like Get Carter (1971), The Warriors (1979) and David Lynch's Lost Highway (1996), not just as a way to create an immediate sense of momentum and excitement but also to put us in the right frame of mind for the film to come, to lure us into the disembodied dream-state of film itself. One phantom ride, you could say, preparing us for another.

The Phantom Ride originally appeared in online arts magazine Oomska

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Crime City USA

I first came across RubyTuesday717 when I chanced upon her The Endless Night: A Valentine to Film Noir, a fan video so good it made me want to hijack an old cinema and watch nothing but film noirs day and night until that double-crossing blonde betrayed me to the cops and I died in a hail of bullets trying to shoot my way out. I didn't, of course, but I did watch The Endless Night over and over again. It was that good. Later I used her tribute to Notorious as the perfect ending to a piece I wrote about that fantastic film.
And now she's done it again, produced another absorbing tribute, this time to all the 'delicious, sinful crime films' set in San Francisco, piecing together images and moments from Dark Passage, The Maltese Falcon, Zodiac, Dirty Harry, Vertigo and Bullitt to name just a few, and adding inspired music, mainly Donovan's Hurdy Gurdy Man, with other snippets from Henry Mancini, Smashing Pumpkins and John Murphy. The result is not only exciting and ingenious, an admirable work in of itself, but it also invokes a love for its subject matter so intense it makes you want to watch all of these films, all at once, in a hijacked old cinema, of course, with a duplicitous blonde by your side, whispering sweet oblivion in the dark.