Tag Archives: close analysis

Capratastic

It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946)

In his autobiography The Name Above the Title, Frank Capra was straightforward in his self-assessment of It’s a Wonderful Life. “I thought it was the greatest film I had ever made,” he wrote, adding: “Better yet, I thought it was the greatest film anybody had ever made.” We might fault Capra for saying it himself, but the passage of time has largely vindicated his hubris. As fewer and fewer films from the middle of the twentieth century are revived, It’s a Wonderful Life remains one of the perennial standards, still widely loved by popular audiences rather than just a hard core of film buffs. Its impact on audiences remains strong: the dulling of impact usually wrought by the passage of time has not appreciably weakened the film. This is particularly surprising given the its firm footing in its time. The film expresses many of the fears and hopes of America after World War II, and is one of the most rewarding films to study in looking at the values espoused by Hollywood at the start of the post-war era.

We do the film a disservice, though, if we only consider it as a social document and forget its value as an entertainment. As a film designed to get an emotional response, it is about as effective as any made. This at first seems to be for straightforward reasons. It is a sentimental story of an impossibly good man – George Bailey, played by one of the twentieth century’s most charismatic actors, James Stewart – who gives up many of his dreams to support his family, friends, and community. Bailey falls on bad times, is mistreated, and loses faith… only to regain it at the conclusion of the film. Broadly speaking, it’s a classic Hollywood trajectory and the impact of the film might therefore seem not at all mysterious. The extreme goodness of Bailey gets us on-side, and we have a hissable villain to contrast him with in the corrupt developer Henry Potter. The misfortunes that fall upon our good character arouse our sympathies, and we can cheer when he overcomes them. Yet there’s something more going on here than this standard storytelling device. Beyond the broad sweep of the story, the film’s approach is actually highly unusual and rarely imitated.

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Stan Winston and the Monsters You Can See

While I was on holiday a couple of big names passed away. One was Cyd Charise, but I’d never try to pass myself off as qualified to write about her: I did enjoy Jaime Weinman’s commentary though, with some great YouTube clips, here.

Special effects artist Stan Winston, however, has his fingerprints all over the post-seventies Hollywood that I find so interesting. The market for special effects is so big now that nobody can really stamp their name on it the way old-school artists like Willis O’Brien or Ray Harryhausen did, but Winston was as close as we had to that kind of iconic effects artist in the past few decades. He was also the last of a breed, in that he was a master of physical creature effects – achieved through make-up, puppetry, robotics, and the like – in an age where such creatures are increasingly being done by computer. His career paralleled another great effects artist, Rick Baker, but where Baker was probably best known for make-up effects (as with his work on all those films where Eddie Murphy plays multiple characters) and had a sideline in creature work, Winston’s emphasis was the other way round.

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“It’s Not Called the Temple of Roses: It’s Called the Temple of Doom.”

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Steven Spielberg, 1984)

In the lead-up to the release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a longstanding argument was revived. Which is the second best Indiana Jones film: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, or Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? The two films split fans of the series down the middle; they are so different, and the qualities people value in each are so different, that there is no room for agreement. (It’s one of those arguments where both sides are surprised that the other could even pose such a question.) About the only thing that unites everyone is the unstated assumption that, of course, Raiders of the Lost Ark is the untouchable, streets-ahead best of the series. I, too, love that film: I can’t fault so much as a single shot, line-reading, or camera angle. It’s funny and exciting. Harrison Ford is awesome as Indiana Jones, and the supporting cast are all fantastic. A number of sequences – the flying wing fight, in particular – are amongst the most skilfully mounted in Spielberg’s extraordinary oeuvre. But here’s my dirty little secret… as time has gone by, I think I have come to love Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom even more than Raiders.

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Stills

Apologies for the absence of material for the website lately; apart from the usual non-filmy stuff, I’ve been working on an article / review for Senses of Cinema which has kept me occupied. Hence the cluster of minor items today as I post a few tidbits I hadn’t had time to address.

One thing I wanted to point out, for the academicy / bloggery type people who read this site, is this article by Kristin Thompson that reaffirms her longstanding argument in favour of the legality of using film stills – rather than publicity stills – in support of film criticism. I’ve relied on her reasoning for a long time, and it still seems sound to me. I just point this out because I still see a lot of books and websites still illustrated primarily with publicity stills (indeed, both the books I talked about in my SOS article rely largely on such stills). I’ve never had any interest in using such stills: I’d rather rely on images that actually come from the movie itself to illustrate my points.

For popular review type websites, use of publicity stills is usually harmless enough, but in the case of academic books, it’s another subtle factor that seems to encourage authors not to worry about close analysis of what is actually on screen (the primary factor in this remains laziness). So I just thought that Thompson’s article was worth a nod. Vive La Film Still!

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Close and Choppy

One of the best people writing about film is David Bordwell, co-author of the textbook Film Art, a staple of university film courses. It’s great to be able to read his writing for free, on a regular basis, and I’ve plugged one of his articles here before.

Slightly belatedly, I thought it was also worth pointing out his article on shaky camera / fast cut filmmaking, which focuses on Paul Greengrass’s The Bourne Ultimatum. The Bourne flick is long gone from cinemas, but the discussion of this style of direction should be with us for years: how many reviews of modern action films have you seen that complain about this way of shooting? (Certainly all mine do).

What’s notable about Bordwell’s article is that he pushes the discussion well beyond the usual grizzling about this style of shooting and analyses in detail what is going on. As he points out, it’s more than just the length of shots and the shakiness of the camera at work: it’s also about how shots are framed, the proximity of the camera to its subject, the way the camera focusses (and pulls focus), and the placement of cuts (as opposed to simply the length of the shots between the cuts). All this is done in some detail with very clear frame captures from the Bourne film as examples.

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Long Shots

If you had more respect for the idea of blogging than I do, you could really bemoan the influence that YouTube has had on the practice. It seems a lot of bloggers, exhausted by coming up with new content all the time, have been sinking back to what I do on this corner of my site all the time: just posting interesting YouTube videos. But there are times this trend to YouTube blogging is undeniably useful, as with this post on great long tracking shots, complete with many YouTube clips giving examples. These are the ultimate show-off shots (Jaime J. Weinman talks about their unobtrusive cousins, long uncut dialogue scenes) and it’s fun to see so many in one place.

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The Funniest Cartoon Ever?

Jerry Beck, co-author of the site Cartoon Brew and one of the most knowledgeable people on animation around, has let slip on the Golden Age Cartoon Forums that a collection of Tex Avery cartoons is potentially on the way:

At this time, there are no plans to release any MGM cartoons as collections on DVD – except for the TEX AVERY cartoons, which will hopefully be restored in time for release NEXT year (no promises however)…

Unlike the Tom & Jerry sets, George Feltenstein is personally overseeing this one.

Beck is in a position to know, being “in” with Warner Bros., who own the MGM cartoon library, so this is great news. (The significance of the reference to Feltenstein is that he oversees Warner Home Video’s classics division: if he is in charge, it means the DVDs are being given a respectful treatment, as happened for the Looney Tunes, rather than the more slapdash release given to the Tom and Jerry series. This is crucial not just for the quality of prints and extra features, but for the chances of seeing the cartoons uncut).

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Bob Clampett: It Can Happen Here

The second wave of Looney Tunes DVDs – consisting of The Best of Bugs Bunny Volume 2, All Stars Volume 3, The Best of Tweety and Sylvester Volume 1, and The Best of the Road Runner Volume 1 – is now in Australian stores. The documentaries in these are much better than the first round, and the best of them is a solid twenty minute documentary on Bob Clampett. This, and the inclusion in this wave of several of Clampett’s best cartoons (including Porky in Wackyland, Kitty Kornered, The Great Piggy Bank Robbery, and A Corny Concerto) should help raise awareness of Clampett’s work. Clampett is much better known than he used to be, but there remains, I think, a huge discrepancy in the way in which his reputation has grown. Amongst animation buffs he now rivals Tex Avery and Chuck Jones as the most revered American animator outside of Disney, and yet he has never become a household name in the way that Jones, Avery or Friz Freleng have. In the wider popular consciousness, fate has conspired to leave one of the major Warner directors a relative unknown, and it’s well past time for a more widespread rediscovery of his work.

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Sixteen Years and Counting

Ain’t It Cool News are carrying a small item that links over to The Indy Experience, which in turn links to an interview with Kathleen Kennedy at Now Playing Magazine. Kennedy, for those who don’t recall, has been one of Steven Spielberg’s chief lieutenants (usually as producer) since as long ago as E.T., and she provides the latest, most reliable update on Indiana Jones IV, which is now to be set in the late 1940s:

“We’re working on a screenplay,” says Kennedy, long-time producing partner of Steven Spielberg. “I know this sounds like something that we’ve been saying for 15 years, but I’m hoping that we’re going to see something in a couple of months. Jeff Nathanson is working on the script right now… I will say this: If it comes in and we’re all happy with it, it will be more than likely the next thing we do.”

Kennedy acknowledges that previous reports of Nathanson’s script being “approved” by Indy producer George Lucas and director Spielberg were true, but that doesn’t quite mean what it sounds like it does.

“It’s one thing to approve something, it’s another thing to say it’s greenlit and we’re shooting it. So we’re just in that sort of phase of finessing,” she says, before responding to a question about whether or not star Harrison Ford is too old for the part these days. “No, I don’t think so. Certainly we’re not writing the script as though he’s 20 years old. You know, Sean Connery spent a lot of time in the Bond role and whatnot. I think it’s great that we can go make another Indiana Jones movie and Indy can be a little older. I think playing with that is a good thing.”

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