Gutbrain Records

Friday, 22 July 2005

I was listening to Led Zeppelin's How the West Was Won the other day. Isn't it kind of cruel that they don't play "Livin' Lovin' Maid" after "Heartbreaker"? Did they ever play that song live? Anyway, in Jimmy Page's guitar solo in "Heartbreaker" he quotes the first section of BWV 996, the Bourrée from Bach's Suite No. 1 for lute.

I'm somewhat familiar with that particular Bach piece because for years I've thought it has an uncanny similarity to Luiz Bonfá's "Manhã de Carnaval". It's almost as if the first few bars of the Bourée had been extracted and mutated to create the famous bossa nova tune.

To change the subject, I think William Shatner is a really good actor. People laugh at his acting, but didn't people used to put down Monk's piano playing? (I'm not trying to compare Shatner and Monk, but Shatner deserves a critical reappraisal.)

A couple of days ago I watched this movie, The Intruder (1961), in which Shatner plays a sleazy, bigoted hatemonger who comes to a small Southern town on the eve of integration and jumpstarts a lynch mob. Shatner is great and the movie, which was produced and directed by Roger Corman, is well made and has an impressive visual style. I would guess it was made for peanuts, and could be an inspiration to anybody trying to make an independent, low-budget feature.

Another movie which has a startling performance by an actor who will never shed an association with a popular TV show is Murder, Inc. (1960), in which Peter Falk delivers a devastating performance as a ruthless mafia hitman. (It got him an Academy Award nomination.) Falk's nuanced and riveting performance is like the original manuscript of a legendary text: the blueprint for Marlon Brando in The Godfather and Robert DeNiro in Goodfellas and other Scorsese movies.

The movie itself, however, is not very good and is only exciting when Falk — or Sarah Vaughan, in a nightclub scene — is on screen. Fans of old TV shows will be startled by the scene in which Peter Falk kills Morey Amsterdam with an ice pick.

Sunday, 07 July 2005

Does anybody compose images anymore? I sat through Ripley's Game yesterday and there wasn't a single moment that suggested the filmmakers appreciated that they were working in a visual medium. Like most movies these days, it looks like it was filmed by motion detectors. Okay, technology has reached the point where a scene of somebody swinging a lasso can now be shown from the point of view of the lasso, regardless of budget. This is neither good nor bad, but all I see in movies these days are moving cameras, not moving pictures.

(By the way, Ripley's Game is not a satisfying or faithful adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's novel. The American Friend, Wim Wenders' film of the same book, starring Bruno Ganz and Dennis Hopper, was much better. Ripley is supposed to be a real person, not the superhuman, mincing spaz that Malkovich delivers. I spent most of the movie wishing that the filmmakers had gone all the way and hired Larry David to play Ripley.)

I find the image above to be very inspiring. It's from a movie called I Wake Up Screaming, starring Betty Grable and Victor Mature. The only performance of any note, though, is that of Laird Cregar (left), whose creepy, sadistic cop steals the show. This is not a great movie, but it's not bad. It's just a standard genre flick without any great ambition other than to deliver an entertaining vehicle for its two stars. What the title is supposed to mean, I have no idea. As I recall, nobody wakes up screaming.

The reason I find this image to be so inspirational is because it shows how much thought went into making this garden-variety movie. That shot of Laird Cregar looking out the window lasts 7 seconds. It's part of a scene which lasts less than a minute and a half. Yet the filmmakers went to a lot of trouble to show you something that's interesting to look at. In fact, just about every single camera shot in I Wake Up Screaming is a joy to behold, demonstrating the importance of mise en scène.

Does mise en scène mean anything to anybody anymore? Lighting, camera placement, framing, image composition and balance — it used to be taken for granted that these things matter. Few people making movies now seem to give them any thought at all.

Advice to film students: you're likely to learn more about the art of filmmaking from watching the Diana Rigg episodes of The Avengers (brilliantly crafted on a modest budget) and the pilot episode of Mission: Imposssible (photographed by John Alton!) than from most of what they'll show you in film school. For instance, when I attended NYU Film School, they had us watch Back to the Future: entertaining, but without a single memorable image.