Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Catching Up

So remember how, at the beginning of the month, I said I'd have a lot of content relating to Ingmar Bergman up? Well, that's true, I just forgot to link to all of it. And, honestly, I did hope to have some stuff here, but life being what it is, it got in the way. Anyway, be sure to catch up with my new Hulu-centric column at Criterion Cast, this month looking at some exclusive-to-Hulu (at least in the U.S.) Bergman films by clicking here. Longtime readers will notice it's basically a port of my attempt at a regular column here, now with the benefit of deadlines to keep me in check!

Additionally, I've written a series of reviews for Battleship Pretension, including Frank Capra's Lady for a Day on Blu-ray, Criterion's new Blu-ray releases of The War Room and Letter Never Sent, Visconti's Bellissima (discussed further at this very blog in the post immediately below this), and the wildly captivating My Joy.

That should just about get us caught up, I'd say. Also of note is that I'll be attending the TCM Film Festival this year for the second time, and more excitingly for the first time as press. As exciting as your SXSW, Toronto, and certainly Cannes (someday...) festivals sound, TCM Fest could not be more up my alley, presenting as they do an array of classic films in magnificent Los Angeles theaters along Hollywood Boulevard (including the Cinerama Dome this year!) for four full days. I'll have more to say once we get there (it starts April 12th; my coverage will begin around the 10th), but the films that have already been announced are already so enticing, and if they keep up with last year's pace, there are still many more to come. If you're in the Los Angeles area (or can be), I highly recommend attending at least a couple screenings - individual tickets are available at the door for $20 a pop, which isn't cheap, but considering what you can get for that money (say, a Q&A with Kirk Douglas preceding Spartacus at Grauman's Chinese, which happened last year), it isn't ridiculous either.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Visconti's Film Theory

Too often we film critics get a little lost in discussing the macro and micro that we forget to mention just how many pleasures a film can give us. This scene from Luchino Visconti's Bellissima (discussed further in such macro and micro terms here) went a long way to remind me of that. In it, Maddalena is taking a break from deciding her daughter's dreams for her to take in the outdoor cinema, and she's fortunate enough to be viewing a film of infinite pleasures - Howard Hawks' Red River. I'll let the unfortunately-colored subtitles do the rest of the talking. I excised two lines that didn't really affect the conversation, but this is otherwise the precise construction.

(I swear, Clift was on the screen before she turned her head!)

In a few seconds of screen time, Visconti re-invogorated the cinema for me, while adding considerably to it himself (Bellissima isn't exactly an ignored classic by any definition, but it's well worth seeking out). May we all keep in mind these oft-overlooked pleasures.

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Sound of Noise (dir. Ola Simonsson, Johannes Stjärne Nilsson)

After spending the past week or so soaking in Ingmar Bergman, and looking ahead to more of the same, I couldn't have asked for a more different product of Swedish cinema than this. But boy, what a treat. It's a not uncommon sentiment to feel that sound design is a little overlooked when it comes to film production. After all, as a professor once said, you always say you went to see a movie, or watched a movie, but never listened to one. Obviously that seems like nitpicking, but the point is well taken, especially when a film like Sound of Noise comes along to open up our ears.

Sound of Noise is sort of a musical extension of Exit Through the Gift Shop, examining the responsibility of the artist in society (and especially the confines of the law), and even at what point something ceases to be art. When the film you're watching practically opens with a woman speeding down the highway in a van while her passenger loudly plays a full drum set before launching that same set at a pursuing police officer, you know you're in interesting, but exhilarating hands, and it only gets wilder from there. The central drive of the story revolves around Detective Amadeus Warnebring, the ugly duckling in a family of musicians, and his quest to find the people responsible for a series of musical terrorist acts, the effects of which last much longer on him than on others. And this will all make sense in the end.

What's so unusual is that a film so obsessed with the beauty of finding music anywhere and everywhere would turn to a protagonist who loathes the art form, until it's slowly revealed that his preferences actually fuel that thematic undercurrent. Amadeus may be a police officer, but his personal attachments don't owe any allegiance to his badge, and while his moral negotiations aren't perhaps as thrilling as the film would have us believe, his quiet transformation is very nicely handled. Directors Ola Simonsson and Johannes Stjärne Nilsson, who co-wrote the film with Jim Birmant, have such a passion for, well, the sound of noise that they take pleasure in wallowing in the inescapability of music. That they communicated it so well, not just aurally but visually too, makes for a thrilling, aggressively subversive cinematic experience.

Don't wait for the DVD, or even Blu-ray (uncompressed audio!) release - see it big; see it loud.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

What's In and What's Out

For all his many, many faults, I still find Jeffrey Wells of Hollywood Elsewhere to be a compelling read. I don't always agree with his points of view or even his tactics in discussing them, but he does put it all out there, so to speak. One of the points he hammers on insistently is that there exists a secret brain trust, which he refers to as the "fascists," dedicated to to eradicating 1.33:1 ("full frame") transfers in favor of the HDTV-friendly 1.85:1 ("widescreen") aspect ratio.

Granted, home video does currently favor something closer to widescreen, but I've yet to see an instance of reverse pan and scan in which a film definitely, irrefutably intended for 1.33:1 gets hacked to 1.85:1. More common is that a film from the 1950s was shot in 1.33:1 with the intention of being matted down to 1.85:1 for theatrical showings, and this wiggle room has made it possible for DVD/Blu-ray distributors to frame those films to suit the times (in the era of boxy TVs, we got full frame transfers; now, we get the versions people would've actually seen in theaters). In this set of films, I've generally found the widescreen transfers more aesthetically pleasing, but moreover have noticed that great directors  (the ones who made films most likely to end up on Blu-ray at this juncture) just tend to frame for both, knowing full well by then that their films would eventually play on television in the full frame ratio.

Buried amongst the Otto Premigers, Charles Laughtons, Sidney Lumets, and Stanley Kubricks of this era was another director whose rise to prominence took a decidedly different course - Edward D. Wood, Jr.

Okay, that's Johnny Depp as Wood in Ed Wood, but it's really hard to picture the guy any differently.
I had the opportunity to look at Legend's new Blu-ray release of Plan 9 from Outer Space (out today), and while the transfer is, on the whole, commendable, I found their choice of aspect ratio...interesting. The film is presented in 1.33:1, which was the film's shooting ratio, but like the films discussed above, it was intended to be matted for 1.85:1, and like those same films, it was eventually shown on television. Unlike those films, Plan 9 was not widely seen theatrically. Like most cheaply-made genre flicks of the day, it played from town to town with no real promotion to speak of, but found new life, yes, on television, and yes, in its shooting ratio of 1.33:1.

So in one sense, Legend is preserving the best-known and most-beloved version, but in another, they're actively ensuring that Plan 9 is as bad a film as it could possibly be, even if that means indirectly disparaging the little talent Wood possessed. Wood's shortcomings were many, granted, and unlike the directors noted above, he didn't account for what a television presentation would reveal. Look at this scene below, first in the shooting (and most widely-presented) aspect ratio, which is on the new Legend disc:

This shot is frequently mocked for the absurdity of the airplane controls, or rather lack thereof - apparently all that's required to control a commercial aircraft is a steering wheel that looks like a piece of cardboard. Now let's look at that same shot, but cropped to (roughly; I had to do this myself) the theatrically-exhibited 1.85:1 ratio, which is arguably what Wood intended.

It's still not a very well-framed shot, but it is designed to cover up Wood's limited budget. Not only are the steering wheels gone; so too is the near-cavernous negative space at the top of the frame. Further, the 1.85:1 version makes the space feel much more cramped, much more, well, like an actual airline cockpit. Other scenes would play out similarly - shadows on backdrops, visible boom mics, and more would be eliminated entirely. Even if Wood wasn't forward-thinking enough (or perhaps just didn't have the money) to account for Plan 9's eventual life on television, he at least knew, perhaps only in a rudimentary sense, that what Martin Scorsese said is true - cinema is a matter of what's in the frame and what's out.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

New Assignment

When I moved to Los Angeles, I made a mental list of websites for which I wanted to write. Battleship Pretension was high up there, and I'm extremely proud to be a part of that ever-growing team. Now, I can check off another one - CriterionCast. It's no secret that I'm a huge nerd for The Criterion Collection, so I'm very happy to join an enterprise that serves as both an outlet for that nerdiness while still maintaining a very high level of quality of writing.

First up, check out my piece on this week's additions to Criterion's Hulu Plus channel, and roam around the site for awhile, whydoncha. Not unlike Battleship Pretension, they're known primarily for their podcast, but have some truly great content on the website as well. You'll find news both about the Collection and anything loosely pertaining to it, as well as tons of reviews of new Blu-rays and DVDs and David Blakeslee's exceptional Journey Through the Eclipse Series.