Movies

Giallo Essentials

A recurring theme on these Six Weeks of Halloween marathons has been the continuing exploration of the seemingly endless throngs of Italian Giallo films. Whether it be obscure, forgotten examples, movies from a specific year, a focus on directors, actresses (other actresses), or just random selections, I’ve watched a bunch of these movies but have only really begun to scratch the surface. As such, in prepping this year’s themes, I had one film already on my radar, and I noticed that it was part of this handsome Giallo Essentials (Red) collection from Arrow (physical media: also a common theme of the 6WH). As a collection, it actually covers the evolution of the Giallo pretty well, so let’s pour some J&B into a fucking highball glass and dive in:

The Six Weeks of Halloween: Week 2 – Giallo Essentials

The Possessed – A depressed writer visits a resort with the intention of finishing a book, but really it’s to reconnect with a woman he was infatuated with… a woman who worked at the resort. However, it appears she died under mysterious circumstances while he was away, and he must untangle a web of familial intrigue and jumbled memories to get to the truth.

The Possessed

This 1965 entry is an early example of the Giallo, actually more of a proto-Giallo that incorporates some tropes from Mario Bava’s earlier The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963, arguably the first “official” Giallo) or Blood and Black Lace (1964). Indeed, it feels more like an arthouse noir movie than a Giallo. Sure, the visiting writer unravels a seaside town murder premise is a surprisingly common one, the mystery is somewhat lurid and seemingly (but not really) convoluted, and there are other hallmarks of the genre like a short glimpse of a gloved hand wielding a straight razor. But it’s like the volume is turned down on all of these elements.

There is much more focus on fuzzy memories and dreamlike sequences, black and white photography, and arthouse ennui. Think of the deliberate, mannered films of Fellini and Antonioni more than the excesses of Argento or Fulci. This doesn’t make the movie dull or anything, but it’s certainly not the cavalcade of schlock that a lot of Giallo movies embrace. Director Luigi Bazzoni clearly has a good eye, and the stark, contrasting visuals of the black and white photography are striking, particularly when it comes to scenes that take place near the glimmering lake.

The dreamlike nature of the plot, as our protagonist frequently has daydreams or flashbacks or hallucinations or just straight up nightmares, has you wondering if any of what you’re watching is actually happening. The editing sometimes emphasizes this uncertainty, as you move from one conventional scene to a dream sequence and back again without much fanfare. Sometimes you get the standard jolting awake in bed to indicate a dream sequence, but the transition isn’t always that clear. That sort of disorientation is clearly part of the point, emphasizing the unreliability of memory and how an event can spiral out of control. It’s a difficult line to walk, but the artistry on display here is up to that task.

It’s an early, transitional example of the genre that does illuminate how the Italian cinema scene was evolving at the time. It’s probably not the best introduction to Giallo movies, but the elements are all there, even if they are somewhat restrained. **1/2

The Fifth Cord – A journalist investigates a series of attacks and murders that seemingly implicate him as the killer. Now this is a quintessential Giallo film with all the trimmings.

The Giallo sub-genre had been emerging in the 60s, but really took off with the release of Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage in 1970. This movie, which was also directed Luigi Bazzoni and came out in 1971, owes a big debt to Argento, and it represents a fascinating contrast with The Possessed. Lots of similar elements, but the volume is turned up to 11 here.

The Fifth Cord

All the standard boxes are checked: The gloved killer, fisheye POV shots, people chugging J&B Whisky, red herrings galore, a Hitchcockian “wrong man” premise, Franco Nero sporting a bitchin pornostache, a swanky Ennio Morricone score, and exceptional cinematography from the Oscar winning cinematographer of Apocalypse Now (amongst many others). Everything you could possibly want out of a Giallo is here, with the possible exception of an overly convoluted story with an almost nonsensical conclusion (and alright, maybe the title could be a tad more baroque). For a film with such a dense list of characters and relationships, it’s got a pretty conventional plot, but they compensate with the aforementioned visual flare.

You know how noir films are infamous for using Venetian blinds to symbolize the bars of imprisonment? Well The Fifth Cord amps that up to the nth degree – there are an absurd amount of shots in this film that emphasize the window blinds or other symbolic bars that surround and imprison the characters. One other thing that struck me about watching these films this weekend was how they contrast with the current overuse of greenscreen techniques – it’s a real treat to watch a movie that is clearly shot on location. And not just any location; these are all visually striking and memorable locations. These also play into the use of extreme wide shots, emphasizing the isolation of the characters.

A wide shot from The Fifth Cord

This is clearly the best film in the Arrow set, and it’s a pretty great example of the genre. It’s certainly not my favorite Giallo, but it still rips. ***

The Pyjama Girl Case – In Australia, a retired police inspector investigates a half-burned body found on the beach. Also, a woman named Glenda sleeps around, gets married, continues to sleep around, and complications ensue. How will these two stories connect?

By 1977, the Giallo was starting to flame out. Still plenty of examples being released, but the formula had grown stale and more and more films were deviating considerably. This is a pretty good example of that sort of thing, and it’s a movie that takes some pretty big swings. In particular the seemingly disconnected dueling plots are interesting, even if it does mess with the pacing a bit.

Ray Milland in The Pyjama Girl Case

The procedural bits are reasonably well done, especially Ray Milland’s performance as the grumpy inspector who’s seen it all coming out of retirement for one last case. The plot surrounding Glenda harkens back to a more arthouse character, albeit one with a much more horny and lurid bent than most such things. There are two big twists in the film, one of which happens midway through the movie and is genuinely shocking, while the other was not entirely unexpected but represents a worthwhile conclusion.

Along the way, there are several frankly bizarre sequences. The most famous sequence in the film is when the police, still unsure of the murder victim’s identity, put her nude, partially burned body on display for the public. It’s almost portrayed like an art exhibit, and the film is clearly trying to indict its audience for its lurid curiosity in watching movies like this. Or it just wants to be as sleazy and ludicrous as possible. This, in turn, speaks to the objectification that Glenda receives on her side of the plot. Another infamous sequence is when some guy hires a prostitute, says his nephew is too young to participate, but invites him along to watch anyway. So gross it’s almost hilarious. I don’t want to make too much of this film’s commentary on misogyny because there’s so much of it on display that it becomes an almost have your cake and eat it too situation.

Usually when someone says that a film takes “big swings”, the “and missed” is implied… and I don’t know that this is really any different. Maybe they made contact, but it was a foul ball? Or something? It’s one of those interesting failure type movies that could go either way. I’m not entirely sure it belongs in a “Giallo Essentials” set, but I’m also glad I watched it and there’s a lot to chew on here. **1/2

As usual, the Arrow discs are jam packed with special features, including informative commentary tracks (I have not watched/listened to all of them, but what I sampled was good), solid new interviews with experts and critics, and great looking transfers. I continue to be fascinated by the sub-genre, and you’ll probably see at least one weekly theme every year for a while (and Arrow has several other Giallo Essentials sets, hmmm). Anywho, stay tuned, we’ve got some recent releases coming up on Wednesday…

Quatermass

Professor Bernard Quatermass is a fictional scientist featured prominently in a series of early 1950s BBC science fiction serials. He’s the head of the British Experimental Rocket Group and he continually finds himself dealing with strange alien plots to take over the world or destroy humanity. There were three 6-episode serials aired on BBC television in the 1950s, and each of them were condensed and remade by Hammer Film Productions for the cinema. There have been a couple of revivals and remakes over the intervening decades, but it actually seems ripe for a more modern interpretation.

I first heard of Quatermass from an interview with John Carpenter a while back. I can’t find that article anymore, but Quatermass clearly made an impression on a young Carpenter, who would go on to make a few films that clearly show that influence (notably Prince of Darkness and maybe even The Thing). It all certainly sounded intriguing, so let’s take a look at a couple of these suckers:

The Six Weeks of Halloween: Week 1.5 – Quatermass

The Quatermass Xperiment – The first manned British spacecraft is presumed lost in space until it crashes into a farmer’s field. British authorities arrive, led by Professor Quatermass, and manage to pry open the craft, finding only one of the three crewmembers. The sole survivor is unable to speak and appears to be going through some sort of agonizing physical metamorphasis. What happened to the other two crewmembers? What will become of the survivor? Only Professor Quatermass can save the day!

The Quatermass Xperiment

An early example of British Sci-Fi, this does predate a lot of things that are more famous. For instance, the Cold War assimilation themes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers are featured here in a similar way (albeit, to my mind, in a less effective manner). There’s just something quaint about this era of science fiction film. Scientists in suits battling rubber monsters, luddite politicians and cops, retro futuristic technology, it’s all in good fun.

All that being said, it’s not the most exciting film, especially in the early proceedings. Lots of jabbering and exposition, which, to be fair, is a hallmark of the genre, but there are more effective versions of that sort of thing. The pacing gets a bit tedious and it doesn’t really pick up until the end, which is suitably engaging. There are some interesting ideas tossed off here and there that could certainly fire up the imagination, such that it’s easy to see how so many future filmmakers were inspired by this series. Fans of early Doctor Who will probably also get a kick out of this, a clear precursor to that more famous series.

The actor they got to play Quatermass was an American named Brian Donlevy, which may have helped Hammer sell the film more effectively in foreign markets, but was definitely controversial back at home. Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale infamously hated the decision, and I will say that I think I can see his point. Donlevy would reprise the role in the sequel, but was eventually replaced, and it does seem like a clear case of miscasting.

Ultimately, it’s interesting that this micro-budget British SF B-Movie casts such a long shadow and displays a considerable influence on the genre, but it does seem like one of those things that would only be of interest to students of the genre. There are pleasures to be had here, to be sure, but I was certainly hoping for more. **

Quatermass and the Pit – A construction crew working in the London Underground unearth an ancient Martian spaceship. As Quatermass and team explore its mysteries, it appears to exert a psychic influence on those around it. Will the same fate of these doomed Martians befall humanity?

Quatermass and the Pit

Made a dozen years later, this film boasts several improvements over the first movie. Quatermass is now played by Scottish actor Andrew Keir, who seems to be almost universally recognized as a better fit for the role. Director Roy Ward Baker also does a bit better with the visuals, despite a clearly limited budget. This is in color, which isn’t inherently better than black and white or anything, but it does look more appealing and you can tell why Hammer is known for its vivid colors. This does still retain that early Doctor Who hokeyness, and the pacing remains a bit sluggish at times as well.

Even though the effects aren’t particularly great, and the Martian creature designs are a bit lacking, the psychic playback of the last days of life on Mars is genuinely unnerving and even a little surreal. That otherworldly quality is captured a few times throughout the film, and it can be quite effective. As with the first film, there are some interesting ideas explored here.

Again, this is a favorite film of filmmakers like John Carpenter and Joe Dante and you can see the influence in their work for sure. While this is an improvement over the first film and is generally regarded as the best Quatermass, I still think it is mostly of interest to students of the genre or folks who want to trace influence within science fiction and horror. Which, like, I am, so I enjoyed myself well enough, but it’s not something I’d recommend over other classic 50s alien invasion flicks. **

I did not get to Quatermass II, but feel pretty confident that I would have a similar feeling about that one. This basically wraps up the Hammer Horror portion of this year’s Six Weeks of Halloween. Next up: Giallo Essentials, the cinema of my people! See you on Sunday…

Six Weeks of Halloween 2022: Hammer Horror

The word Halloween is a contraction of the words “hallowed” and “evening” (or “All Hallows’ Evening”) and dates back to 18th century Scotland. Naturally, there were several interim contractions on its way to the word we know and love, like the way “evening” became “eve” or “e’en” then eventually dropped the apostrophe in the eternal way that language mutates and evolves.

Around these parts, we celebrate that Hallowed E’en by watching a veritable plethora of horror movies (and reading some spooky books as well) for the six weeks leading up to the big day. Why six weeks? Well, that used to be two weeks better than most folks’ marathons, but it seems like people have been engaging in a little seasonal creep of late, and now this is just sorta de rigueur. Regardless, it’s always a fun time to engage in such a marathon, with the season already being festooned with mutilated gourds, decorative corpses, ornamental headstones covered with ironic puns, and picturesque cobwebs adorned with grotesque plastic spiders, amongst other nominally ghastly traditions. Not to mention that the pumpkin spice must flow. I look forward to this season more and more every year, and I’m so happy it has arrived.

It’s traditional to start the marathon with a theme that is a little more venerable and classy than usual. Which is not to say that it won’t be schlocky fun, just that there will be some element to the theme that hints towards respectability. Things like silent moviesforeign filmswell curated flicksclassic anthologies, and the like. This year, we begin our marathon with a series of Hammer Horror flicks. This was originally a planned theme way back in 2009, but I only really got to two of the more famous entries in the company’s catalogue.

Hammer Film Productions started as something of a generic studio built around “quota quickies“; cheap, domestic B-movies designed to fill gaps in cinema schedules. They are most famous, however, for their series of Gothic horror films and revivals of the old Universal Monster movies – now in vivid colour! Quite honestly, I’ve always been more interested in their non-Dracula/Frankenstein efforts. I’ve come to love the originals so much that the Hammer takes, while interesting, don’t do a whole lot for me. So we’ve got three Hammer originals and one Universal Monster update this week, let’s dive in:

Week 1: Hammer Horror

The Devil Rides Out – This textbook tale of Satanic Panic tells the story of two aristocrats investigating their protegé, who seems to have fallen under the spell of an occult plot to summon the devil. Fortunately, the Duc de Richleau knows his black magic and devises a plan to counter the deadly Satanist, Mocata. Hijinks ensue.

The Devil Rides Out

So we’ve got the standard Hammer horror gothic visuals, always effective, mixed in with a tale of mediums, mystics, Aleister Crowley-esque cults, and the goat-headed Devil Himself. Hammer regular Christopher Lee leads the charge as the suave but hard-edged Duc de Richleau, a surprising turn as a hero given Lee’s usual portrayal of sinister monsters. It’s all effective in its own, old-fashioned way, though I suspect it might not connect with modern audiences quite as well as it did at the time. This has a reputation of being top-tier Hammer, and I can see why, even if I’m not entirely in love with it. Still, there are lots of things to love.

For instance, the circle of protection sequence is visually striking and tense. The effects are clearly dated, but just the general geometry of the shots is effective enough. One of the funny things about this movie is that everyone is a filthy rich aristocrat, such that when they need to create this 20 foot pentagram on the floor, of course there’s a giant room in the house that’s seemingly tailor made for such a purpose.

There’s a long series of Duc de Richleau novels written by Dennis Wheatley and apparently Christopher Lee always wanted to reprise this role in additional adventures, but alas, no sequels were made. In any case, I enjoyed this quite a bit. Though it’s clearly an old-fashioned tale in many ways, it still has some effective stuff going on and it made for a good intro to the Six Weeks of Halloween. ***

Scream of Fear (aka Taste of Fear) – A wheelchair-bound young woman returns to her father’s estate after ten years away. She’s told that he’s away on business and that he’s been feeling ill of late. Suspicious, she explores the grounds at night and sees a vision of her father’s dead body. Naturally, no one believes her and it appears as if her seemingly friendly (but obviously wicked) stepmother and the local doctor are plotting something nefarious. Will she overcome their schemes?

Taste of Fear

Hammer is known for their vivid colors and gothic imagery, but this is more of a modern (er, for the 1950s) thriller and it’s filmed in black & white. It looks great and it channels more of a Hitchcockian feel than most of Hammer’s catalogue. Actually this feels even more like a play on Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Diabolique, what with the water-logged corpse and all (mild spoilers, I guess, sorry). Weirdly enough, I also got a pretty strong Giallo vibe out of this, especially the last 20 minutes or so, when the twists and revelations start flying with reckless abandon. There’s an absurdity to the whole thing that should annoy me and trigger nitpicking impulses, but instead I just found myself utterly delighted.

The first hour is perhaps a tad slow, though there’s a well established atmosphere of mystery and growing dread. The sequences where she sees her dead father, but then gets gaslit when she tries to convince everyone around her – they are effective but maybe a bit repetitive. But it’s all worth it for that ending. As the film’s tagline implores: FOR MAXIMUM THRILL . . . WE EARNESTLY URGE YOU TO SEE THIS MOTION PICTURE FROM THE START!

I don’t want to oversell the ending or anything, but this was clearly my favorite movie of the weekend and probably my favorite Hammer Horror flick too. It’s a shame it’s so hard to find – it doesn’t appear to be available on any streaming service. I watched it on Indicator’s excellent Blu-Ray, which has both UK and US versions and tons of special features. If you’re a physical media nut and you like this sort of stately thriller, it’s worth a splurge. ***1/2

Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter – When several young girls are found dead, mysteriously aged and drained of blood, the local doctor calls on his old army friend Captain Kronos, an infamous vampire hunter, for help. With the aid of the hunchbacked Professor Hieronymus Grost and a local peasant girl, Kronos and the good doctor set about ridding the area of the vampiric menace.

Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter

There’s this thing that lots of movies do where they scoff at the existing vampire lore that we all know and love, instead laying out a new series of rules that are treated as if it’s always been that way (e.g. “Of course vampires don’t care about garlic, you watch too many movies!”) But Captain Kronos takes a genuinely unique tact in positing that every piece of vampire lore you ever heard of is true, it’s just that they are attributable to different strains of vampire. As such, the first task of the vampire hunter is to figure out what type of vampire you’re dealing with, find its weaknesses, and only then do you strike. It’s a sort of have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too scenario, because it allows Kronos and his hunchback sidekick to throw out weird lore you’ve never heard of, while also not betraying what you already know. It’s actually a pretty effective approach.

In practice, this does sag a bit in the middle as they try to zero in on the vampire. On the other hand, there’s a great deal of swashbuckling and horse riding going on throughout which can be fun. There’s one sequence where Kronos is confronted by a local group of cutthroats that he quickly dispatches with his samurai sword. It’s one of those sequences where you only see him pull the sword, then almost immediately the sword is back in the sheath, cut to a wide shot, where you see the bad guys collapse from their wounds. Indeed, most of the action takes place in creative ways rather than utilizing special effects. A more modern take would have done the thing where one of the cutthroats staggers back and then the top half of his skull slides off and blood squirts everywhere. Blood and gore have their place, but this movie takes a more restrained approach and it’s actually kinda refreshing to see things happening in reflections or shadows.

Since we’ve reached the mid 1970s with this one, there’s also a fair amount of skin on display. Kronos spends a fair amount of time shirtless and hanging out with Caroline Munro, whose long hair is often… strategically placed (a la the Austin Powers gag), which I guess was somewhat risque for the time. At this point, Hammer was running into financial issues, so a Kronos series never materialized, but this does seem ripe for a sequel or remake for sure. This isn’t exactly top tier stuff, but it’s quite enjoyable. **1/2

The Mummy (1959) – Archaeologists discover the 4,000-year-old tomb of Princess Ananka and almost immediately begin to perish in mysterious accidents and murders. It appears that someone has enlisted the help of a mummy to take revenge on those responsible for the desecration of the sacred tomb, and the last remaining archaeologist must find a way to survive the mummy’s wrath.

The Mummy

It’s been a while since I’ve seen the Universal classic of the same name, but this does strike me as an improvement over that original film, even if it does fall victim to similar hammy tendencies. Still, Peter Cushing brings a classy refinement to the proceedings and Christopher Lee plays the mummy in an imposing and menacing way. I love Boris Karloff, but if I remember correctly, he spends an awful lot of time not in mummy form… Even George Pastell, who plays the keeper of the mummy, stands his own when facing Peter Cushing.

This is ultimately standard mummy fare, slightly elevated by better effects and the vivid Technicolor that Hammer is famous for. I’m glad I caught up with it for sure, though it’s not exactly top tier stuff. **1/2

A pretty great start to the marathon here, stay tuned for some more Hammer on Wednesday, and next week, Giallo Essentials!

Weird Movie of the Week: Brian and Charles

Last time on Weird Movie of the Week, Jesus showed us the way to the highway (whatever that means). This time around, we meet Brian and Charles:

Brian and Charles

Brian is a lonely inventor in rural Wales who spends his days building quirky, unconventional contraptions that seldom work. Undeterred by his lack of success, he soon attempts his biggest project yet. Using a washing machine and various spare parts, he invents Charles, an artificial intelligence robot that learns English from a dictionary and has an obsession with cabbages.

This was an audience favorite at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, and apparently represents something of a modern (seemingly more comedic) retelling of Frankenstein. It’s certainly a shoe-in for a Kaedrin Movie Award nomination for Best High Concept film, once I get around to actually watching the thing (it’s just hitting streaming now, but is still in the premium/purchase phase of release.) And who knows, maybe even the Hugo Awards would recognize it, if voters take a chance on indie stuff.

Tasting Notes

Just a series of quick hits on my media diet (and sometimes, uh, regular diet) of late:

Television

Obi-Wan Kenobi – Perfectly cromulent but completely unnecessary. It feels like a two hour movie drawn out to five hours, but I’ve always liked Ewan McGregor’s take on Kenobi and it’s fun enough hanging out with him. It’s a little weird that people being offed with light sabers seem to keep surviving and one of the things I’ve always been disappointed by was that all the Jedi were hunted down and killed by people other than Darth Vader. We do get some Vader though, and it’s all reasonably well done. Not disappointed that I watched, but again, it’s unnecessary.

For All Mankind – What if the Soviets landed on the moon first? This alternate history NASA chronicle is a little overheated and sweaty, a space program soap opera, but it’s quite entertaining. Now in its third season, having jumped through the space program from the late 60s through the 80s and now the 90s and with the race for Mars in place, it’s holding up reasonably well… except for an ill-advised subplot from the second season that they inexplicably doubled-down on in the third season (the weird Karen/Danny relationship is just cringe in the extreme, I can’t believe they are still trying to draw it out like this.) Recommended!

Only Murders in the Building – I initially resisted this, then when my Amazon firestick kept crashing during one of the first episodes (which I looked up and was apparently a known issue for several months at least) I kinda fell off the train. Once the second season rolled around I picked it up again and immediately binged the entire first season (I guess they fixed the bug). It’s quite fun, Steve Martin is great, Selena Gomez is fantastic, and they have a solid restraining effect on Martin Short’s excesses. The chemistry between them is unconventional but well done, and the story offers enough twists and turns and stylistic gambles that it all comes together in a balanced way. The second season is starting off alright, though I think Amy Shumer is a distinct downgrade from guest stars from the first season…

Stranger Things – Season 4 comports itself as well as ever, though the strain of characters and geography are starting to show. Too many characters being spread too far apart geographically is not helping, though they do manage to pull it off reasonably well. As usual, the Steve/Robin/Dustin thread is the best (perhaps because they quickly link up with Max/Lucas/Nancy), while the Mike/Will/Jonathan/Argyle crew is clearly the worst. Eleven is separated from most for the bulk of the season (leading to amusing “we usually rely on this psychic girl we know to fight these things” moments), but her story is illuminating and you can see the overall arc of the series taking better shape (maybe a little retconny, but still). The initial 7 episodes play pretty great and lead to a solid finale, but the next two feature-length episodes are perhaps less successful, in part because there’s so much maneuvering to get people back together for next season, but then, I’m looking forward to the next season, in part, because a lot of the characters are back together, in one place.

Movies

Hustle (2022) – Solid Adam Sandler Basketball movie (not a recipe guaranteed for success at Kaedrin HQ, to be sure, but they pulled it off). It’s got some fun little procedural elements of a basketball scout, and it’s largely set in Philly, which is always a plus. Not perfect, by any means, but a solid underdog sports flick that’s worth a watch. **1/2

The Princess (2022) – An inverted medieval take on The Raid‘s episodic, video-game-esque battle through a tower. There’s a bit of a fairy tale component to it and the whole story is cheesy, but the action sequences and choreography are great and quite entertaining. **1/2

Stone Cold (1991) – A last gasp of 80s action tropes that I’d definitely seen bits and pieces of back in the day, but had never sat down and watched from start to finish before. Totally ludicrous cops and criminals action genre comfort food. Brian Bosworth felt a bit hokey at the time, but looking back at his absurd excesses is fun enough these days, and boy, they don’t do car crashes and explosions like they used to anymore… ***

Electra Glide in Blue (1973) – A quintessential 70s movie, riffing on an inverse Easy Rider premise about a highway patrol motorcycle cop in Arizona angling to become a detective. Apparently derided in its time, it seems like it’s due for a revival. Really great filmmaking and visual style throughout, with set pieces ranging from an action car chase, to tense cops vs hippies confrontations, to a woman emasculating a corrupt cop at a biker bar.

Electra Glide in Blue

It’s deeply cynical stuff, which usually isn’t my bag, but it’s well made and interesting in a lot of ways. Recommended for fans of that sort of 70s dusty crime road movie sub-genre. ***

What’s Up, Doc? (1972) – Pretty much the complete opposite in tone to Electra Glide in Blue, this is something of a screwball comedy starring a young Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal, with supporting turns from lots of folks you might recognize, like Madeline Kahn and Austin Pendleton. The whole thing revolves around four identical suitcases and the various wacky schemes people are going through to get their hands on one or the other of these bags, only to find it’s been inadvertently switched with another. It’s really fun! ***

Mad God (2021) – Famous effects guy Phil Tippit spent decades hand crafting the stop motion animation for this sprawling passion project filled with visually spectacular imagery…

Mad God

Almost no plot or dialogue, but lots of squishy sound design and creative creatures and monsters and gross out body-horror-esque sequences. I generally prefer more plot or story meat on the bone, but it’s hard to deny the visually spectacular imagination at work here (definitely a shoe-in for the Most Visually Stunning Kaedrin Movie Award). **

Ambulance (2022) – Alright, who let Michael Bay get his hands on a drone? Pretty great action flick about a heist gone wrong with a few robbers hijacking an Ambulance and driving it all around LA to avoid the cops and so on. There’s some typical Bay style macho dudebro posturing, but Jake Gyllenhaal, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, and Eiza González are a compelling trio, and the action is the real standout here. Clocking in at 136 minutes, it maybe overstays its welcome a bit, but this sort of non-green-screen action is worth celebrating these days (and this was definitely underseen in theaters). Worth a look for action fans.

Books

The Kaiju Preservation Society, by John Scalzi – The usual enjoyable Scalzi experience, snappy and fun, but clearly middle tier at best, perhaps in line with his Lock In or Head On offerings. Actually, that comparison is quite apt, as that series also had clumsy worldbuilding and a protagonist whose gender is unclear. The plot of Kaiju takes a while to formulate itself and relies on a cliched, shortsighted corporate CEO villain, but even when the story is bogged down in establishing various Kaiju protection schemes (ranging from mildly clever to outright silly), Scalzi’s page-turning ability, likeable, competent characters, and zippy dialogue keeps everything afloat. I still generally look forward to all of Scalzi’s releases and while this is hardly his best, it’s entertaining and fun.

The Broken Room, by Peter Clines – A young girl escapes from a government science project and enlists the help of a former CIA operative. Decent little thriller with some nice procedural spy business and a supernatural body-horror element that gets more pronounced as it goes. Nothing particularly new here, but it’s brisk and nimble with a few twists and turns and solid action.

Into the Black Nowhere, by Meg Gardiner – A minor improvement over Gardiner’s first Unsub novel, this is another serial killer thriller that strikes that page turning airport novel balance, but isn’t especially doing anything special. Still, it’s entertaining enough and I’m looking forward to Gardiner’s co-written sequel to Heat coming soon.

The Finer Things

I’ve recently been covering my annual hiatus from beer, including some thoughts on Pétillant Naturel wine, Mead, a local Southeastern PA wine, Bourbon, and just to show that it’s not all alcohol, all the time, I also reviewed a whole slew of August Uncommon Tea offerings.

Naturally, Beer is still on the menu, and most recent reviews include: Westbound & Down Bourbon Barrel Aged Stout (and thoughts on packaging size, sip tests, and New Coke) and East End Gratitude Barleywine (we put birds on things).

Weird Movie of the Week: Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway

Last time on Weird Movie of the Week, we engaged in a private-eye-led Witch Hunt. This time, um, well, I guess we’ll just say that Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway:

CIA agents Palmer and Gagano are tasked with the perilous mission of destroying “The Soviet Union!” As they enter the system using a VR simulation, their mission quickly turns into a delirious trap, far more complex than expected, as the fabric of reality starts unraveling around them.

Longtime readers know that this series of posts is somewhat inconsistent in that I don’t always watch the weird movie in question (usually due to availability), but this one was on Amazon Prime Streaming, so while the description above sounds a little funky, this was how I summed it up:

Imagine Adult Swim commissioning Alejandro Jodorowsky to make a Too Many Cooks style pastiche of a late-era Philip K. Dick fever dream inflected novel. I’m still not sure if that’s good or bad, but it’s certainly not boring.

Ah yes, that gets to the weirdness.

Stop motion characters from Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway

I’m just going to quickly list a few things that are in this movie, just to give you more of an idea:

  • A good portion of the film is stop-motion animation where our heroes run around wearing paper masks of famous people in a virtual reality world
  • There’s a cocain snorting black Batman who is referred to as “Batfro”. I think he’s the mayor or something?
  • Stalin is portrayed as Scottish?
  • There are 3 ninjas called Spaghetti, Ravioli and Baltazar
  • At one point a pair of fly monsters show up. One of them shoots laser beams from its eyes and accidentally immolates itself. The other fly creature pulls his hand off and candy comes pouring out like he’s some sort of piñata.
  • I know my description involves Philip K. Dick and a lot of people throw that out as a descriptor, but it’s very clearly an influence here – one of the characters is even named Palmer Eldrich.

And there’s lots more where that came from. As you might intuit from all of this, the film is a bit of a mess. It’s certainly not beginners fare, though I suspect there’s a very specific type of person who will get a lot out of this. Who those people are, I have no idea. I found it interesting from an almost anthropological observational standpoint, but that sort of detached reserve is obviously not what’s driving this whole thing. Anyway, if you’re a veteran of weird movies, this one might due the trick.

Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, Part 2

This is a continuation of last week’s discussion of the book The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film. This sort of nuts-and-bolts stuff is endlessly fascinating, so let’s get back to some quotes from the book:

M: In film there’s a costume department interested in showing what it can do – which is only natural – so, on the smallest pretext, characters will change clothes. The problem is, that locks filmmakers into a more rigid scene structure. But if a character keeps the same clothes, you can put a scene in a different place and it doesn’t stand out.

… there’s a delicate balance between the time line of a film’s story – which might take place over a series of days or weeks or months – and the fact that the film is only two hours long. You can stretch the amount of time somebody is in the same costume because the audience is subconsciously thinking, Well, I’ve only been here for two hours, so it’s not strange that he hasn’t changed his clothes.

Page 162

This makes me wonder about films where characters are constantly changing outfits. Is there a point where, if you change costumes often enough, the disadvantages boomerang back to being flexible because every scene has a different costume anyway? Probably not entirely, but maybe there’s something to that…

M: I guess I am drawn to stories where you have to get under the skin of rather unlikely and sometimes unlikeable characters.

How you do that, as an editor, ultimately comes down to selecting the shots, and moments within shots, where the character looks appealing yet problematic at the same time – conflicted, in other words. If you have a choice of seven different shots, which one shows that conflict best? There are many tiny but telling details the editor includes or eliminates in order to make the audience aware of the deeper aspects of character.

For instance, if you are wearing a hat, as soon as you tip the hat slightly back on your head, it gets noticed – you’re sending a message via the angle of the hat: I’m a happy-go-lucky guy. Or if you ram the hat down on your head, you’re saying, I don’t want to talk to anybody. Or if you tip it forward, you say, I’m aggressive…. But if you’re trying to be earnest, the tipped-back hat doesn’t quite send the right message.

In film there are endless versions of this, where a look, an aspect, an attitude, a gesture is fortuitously correct or incorrect, and either amplifies or contradicts the message the filmmakers want to convey.

I’m using “hat” as a metaphor: one moment is always going to be the most revealing, in the best sense, of the inner character, at that point in the film.

Page 174

Sometimes when you read criticism of a movie, people read a lot into the smallest detail and there are certainly times when that sort of extrapolation is inaccurate, but then you read stuff like the above and it isn’t always as far-fetched as it might seem.

Gene Hackman and an Air Freshener in The Conversation

They reference a scene in The Conversation where Gene Hackman’s character blows on a little air freshener – it’s a tiny moment, but revealing.

M: There’s a wonderful quotation from Goethe – he must have been frustrated at some point about the difficulty of communication. He said, “Utterly futile trying to change, by writing, someone’s fixed inclination. You will only succeed in confirming him of his opinion, or if he has none, drenching him in yours.”

O: There’s a poet in Vancouver who said, “I’ll see it when I believe it!”

M: Exactly. I’m sure Goethe didn’t think that way most of the time, otherwise he wouldn’t have kept writing. He was talking in black-and-white terms: Agree with me or not! The richest zone of communication is in the grey area, around things like your staircase, where the reader is somewhat receptive to what the author writes but also brings along his own images, and ideas, which in a creative way do violence to the author’s vision and ideas. A synergy results from what the writer presents and what the reader brings. That communication, initially present in neither the sender or the receiver, is greater than the message of the writer alone or the thoughts of the reader alone.

Page 209

There’s a lot here that’s relevant to the current state of discourse in the world. That rich zone in the grey area is obliterated by most of what passes for discourse these days. Everyone’s so afraid of being misinterpreted that the sort of synergy that Murch is referring to here becomes difficult. A lot of people complaining about making things “too political” are talking about this sort of thing. It’s not that politics exist that’s the problem, it’s the lack of potential synergy…

M: There’s a great game… Negative Twenty Questions. … It was invented by John Wheeler, a quantum physicist who was a young graduate student of Neils Bohr’s in the 1930s. … he thought up a parlour game that reflects the way the world is constructed at a quantum level. It involves, say, four people. Michael, Anthony, Walter, and Aggie. From the point of view of one of those people, Michael, the game that’s being played is the normal Twenty Questions – Ordinary Twenty Questions, I guess you’d call it. So Michael leaves the room, under the illusion that the other three players are going to look around and collectively decide on the chosen object to be guessed by him – say, the alarm clock. Michael expects that when they’ve made their decision they will ask him to come back in and try to guess the object in fewer than twenty questions.

Under normal circumstances, the game is a mixture of perspicacity and luck: No, it’s not bigger than a breadbox. No, you can’t eat it… Those kinds of things.

But in Wheeler’s version of the game, when Michael leaves the room, the three remaining players don’t communicate with one another at all. Instead, each of them silently decides on an object. They call Michael back in.

So there’s a disparity between what Michael believes and what the underlying truth is: Nobody knows what anyone else is thinking. The game proceeds regardless, which is where the fun comes in.

Michael asks Walter: Is the object bigger than a breadbox? Walter – who has picked the alarm clock – says, No. Now, Anthony has chosen the sofa, which is bigger than a breadbox. And since Michael is going to ask him the next question, Anthony must quickly look around the room and come up with something else – a coffee cup! – which is smaller than a breadbox. So when Michael asks Anthony, If I emptied out my pockets, could I put their contents in this object? Anthony says, Yes.

Now Aggie’s choice may have been the small pumpkin carved for Halloween, which could also contain Michael’s keys and coins, so when Michael says, Is it edible? Aggie says, Yes. That’s a problem for Walter and Anthony, who have chosen inedible objects: they now have to change their selection to something edible, hollow, and smaller than a breadbox.

So a complex vortex of decision making is set up, a logical but unpredictable chain of ifs and thens. To end successfully, the game must produce, in fewer than twenty questions, and object that satisfies all of the logical requirements: smaller than a breadbox, hollow, et cetera. Two things can happen: Success – this vortex can give birth to an answer that will seem to be inevitable in retrospect: Of course! It’s the ______! And the game ends with Michael still believing he has just played Ordinary Twenty Questions. In fact, no one chose the ______ to start with, and Anthony, Walter, and Aggie have been sweating it out, doing these hidden mental gymnastics, always one step ahead of failure.

Which is the other possible result: Failure – the game can break down catastrophically. By question 15, let’s say, the questions asked have generated logical requirements so complex that nothing in the room can satisfy them. And when Michael asks Anthony the sixteenth question, Anthony breaks down and has to confess that he doesn’t know, and Michael is finally let in on the secret: The game was negative Twenty Questions all along. Wheeler suggests that the nature of perception and reality, at the quantum level, and perhaps above, is somehow similar to this game.

Pages 210- 212

Murch then applies this to filmmaking and the collaborative process of constantly adjusting due to various aspects of the production. This sort of collaboration can be precarious, but Murch argues that it’s preferable to a monolithic vision.

M: One of the reasons I lobby for the increased collaboration of everyone who can have a voice on a film is that through collaboration you add facets to the work. The work is going to be seen by millions of people, over many decades and under very many different circumstances, and even though the film is a fixed thing, you want it to be multifaceted so that different people will see different things in it, and come away rewarded.

The best, easiest way to get that multifacetedness is to allow the collaboration of lots of people, as well as Chance, which is sometimes Fate in costume. Each of those moments of collaboration, each contribution by someone other than the director, adds a slightly different perspective to the work, some chisel mark slightly at an angle to the central vision. And each of these moments, these facets, has the potential to make the work “sparkle” in a creative sense, and make it more accessible to a greater variety of people over a longer period of time.

If, instead, the film is a single, monolithic vision, the viewer has no option other than to submit to it on its own terms, bow down to it, or turn away from it.

Page 242

Easier said than done, for sure, and you’re inviting that catastrophic failure element from Negative Twenty Questions, but when it works? Seems worth it.

M: In film, at the moment of the cut you are juxtaposing one image with another, and that’s the equivalent of rhyme. It’s how rhyme and alliteration work in poetry, or how we juxtapose two words or two images, and what that juxtaposition implies. Either by emphasizing the theme or by countering it, modulating it, like an invisible Greek chorus. What’s being stated may be one thing, but by juxtaposing two different images at the moment of the cut, and makin them as striking as possible, we can say, Yes, but there’s something else going on here.

The trick is to make that flow an organic part of the process. Editing is a construction, a mosaic in three dimensions, two of space and one of time. It’s a miniature version of the way films are made, which is an artificial, piece-by-piece process.

Page 268

Murch has being doing this long enough that he says he knows when to cut because he almost involuntarily flinches when watching a shot, and he knows that flinch moment is when to cut. He apparently does this down to the frame (i.e. 1/24th of a second), which is astounding and seemingly tedious.

M: … what he meant was, How are you doing? … So I answered, Oh yeah, I’m very happy. Things are great! But later that evening I kept mulling over that question, thinking, What I said was the right social response, but what’s the real response to that question – from one director to another? The closest I came was, No, I’m not happy, but I would be absolutely miserable if I were prevented from doing what I’m doing now. Don’t stop me – I’m miserable, but don’t stop me. I’m miserable in the amazing, cosmic way that a director is miserable.

There’s a phrase from something Martha Graham once said about that process. She calls it “blessed unrest.”

Pages 282 – 283

That’s a great phrase and gets at a core contradiction of the human condition. It reminds me of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. The “flow” state is difficult to get into and often involves very hard work that doesn’t seem like it would be enjoyable, but once you get there, you lose track of everything else and never want to leave. “Blessed unrest” seems like a good descriptor of that sort of thing.

M: … films, when they work, are functioning at a complex level of harmonic interaction – of sounds and images and acting and costume and art direction and photography and on and on. At the beginning we have a script which, complex as it may be, is like a simple melodic line, but we don’t yet have an orchestrated score. The director – who is the closest we have to the conductor of the piece, visually speaking – doesn’t have a way of orchestrating all these things except through talking and instruction by example and sometimes, it seems, through some kind of divine intervention. If every decision that had to be made on the film had to be articulated, spelled out in detail, the film would never get done…

O: But surely on one level, the lack of rules and codes,and the lack of a too pre-meditated theory is what keeps film alive. Obviously film is an art form and it’s a made form, but what’s wonderful about film is how it also catches an uncontrolled reality. There’s the chance of the accidental, which then can be selected, chosen, and shaped by the director and the editor. But to begin with something too controlled… it’s why I cannot stand cartoons, which are a hundred percent premeditated, totally manipulative, and therefore completely artificial.

Pages 306 – 307

Alrighty then, I think I’ve mined this book enough for now. though there’s lots of other fascinating topics discussed throughout (for example, I didn’t even get into Murch’s attempts to develop a sorta Movie notation like music has, based on the I Ching). Suffice it to say that it’s a highly recommended book for anyone interested in how film actually works.

Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, Part 1

A few weeks ago, the Academy Awards were wracked with controversy. I speak, of course, of the decision not to air several important categories during the broadcast, among them Best Film Editing and Best Sound. Nothing else of note occurred during the ceremony. Anyway, by pure coincidence, I happened to be reading a book about just how important Film Editing can be.

During the making of The English Patient, the author who wrote the book the movie was based on, Michael Ondaatje, was able to observe the whole process. He met the editor of the film, Walter Murch, and the two became friends. Ondaatje became fascinated with film editing, sound, and sound editing, and decided to write a book about those subjects with Murch. The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film basically consists of several in-depth interviews with Ondaatje and Murch. For the uninitiated, Murch is something of a legend in the Editing community. He doesn’t have the cache that the directors he worked with have, but you’ve almost certainly seen (or heard) his work. Between editing and sound, he’s worked on all three Godfather movies, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now, American Graffiti, The English Patient, and the famous re-edit of Touch of Evil, amongst others.

It’s a fascinating book and recommended for those who want to understand the lesser discussed aspects of filmmaking. I took note of interesting passages and discussions throughout the book, which we’ll cover now. The first concerns the interrogation (and torture) scene from The English Patient. It was apparently a particularly grueling shoot for the actors, so there was a lot of footage to work with.

And what did Walter Murch do with this scene?

Well, he had been reading the Italian writer Curzio Malaparte on the “Nazi character,” and he plucked from his reading the fact that the Nazis hated any demonstration of weakness. This idea was certainly not in my original paragraph, not in Minghella’s script, nor in any of the hundred minutes of footage that had been shot and that somehow had to be cut down to a nerve-racking three or four minutes. Every scene, every film, for Murch, needs to have a larger science of patterns at work within it, and this would be the idea or concept that governed how he cut the scene.

At one point Caravaggio/Dafoe says, before he even sees the razor, “Don’t cut me.” He says it once. Walter has the interrogator pause in his questioning when he hears this, extending the time of his response. He has threatened the spy with the idea of cutting off his thumbs, but only in a casual, not serious, way. When Caravaggio says, “Don’t cut me,” the German pauses for a second, a flicker of disgust on his face. The interrogation continues. Walter found another take of Dafoe’s line, this one with more quaver in the voice, and decided to put it in again, a few seconds later. So Dafoe repeats his fear. And now time stops.

We see the look on the German. And now we know he has to do what he was previously just thinking about. To emphasize this, Murch, at that very moment, pulls all the sound out of the scene, so there is complete silence. And we, even if we don’t realize it as we sit in the theatre, are shocked and the reason is that quietness. Something terrible has been revealed by the spy, about his own nature, and now something terrible is going to happen.

Page xx

But sure, editing isn’t important enough to reward on the broadcast. Apparently Murch liked to quote French filmmaker Robert Bresson to the effect that a film is born three times – in the writing of the script, in the shooting, and in the editing. In the case of The English Patient, there was also a fourth, which was Ondaatje’s original novel. The above anecdote, about Murch injecting a repeated line that wasn’t in the script and wasn’t shot, is a good example of Bresson’s notion.

Willem Dafoe in The English Patient

In discussing a re-edit he did for Robert Duvall’s The Apostle, Murch makes a fascinating observation about the perceived length of a film:

M: … Linearity does sometimes present its own problems, however, particularly regarding a film’s perceived length. That was true with The Coversation, and The Talented Mr. Ripley as well. Those three films are told from the point of view of the central character: the Apostle, Harry Caul, Tom Ripley. FIlms with a single point of view are on borrowed time if they are more than two hours long. Since there’s only one point of view, there’s no relief if the audience is not one hundred percent with the film, and it can subsequently seem too long even if it isn’t objectively so.

O: When you say point of view, in terms of film, you’re talking about focusing on just one character –

M: In The Talented Mr. Ripley, everything the audience sees is either Tom Ripley or something Tom Ripley sees. There are no scenes where we go off with other characters – as is always happening in The English Patient, for instance, where you have a complex dance, different people with different attitudes to the same events. But Ripley is about Tom Ripley. Likewise The Apostle – there’s only the Apostle’s story.

O: And that’s deadly, you think?

M: No, no, it’s not deadly, it’s just that the clock runs faster with that kind of film, and unless there’s something wildly unusual or different about it, it’s better not to have those films be more than two hours long. The Conversation is only one hour, fifty-two minutes. Even then, some people think it’s too long. With more points of view, you can sustain that juggling act for longer, just because it’s richer and more complex. A symphony can be longer than a sonata.

Pages 33-34

Not so much editing, but more on framing:

I’ve never thought about it quite like that, but as I get older, I do seem to keep thinking that a given movie (or book) is too long. This sort of perception could certainly play a role, and I’ll have to keep it in mind.

It’s a rule, of course, that normally you never allow anyone to look into the camera unless you want to “break the frame” and have the characters directly address the audience, usually for laughs.

Yet in Apocalypse Now, you’re right, actors look into the camera quite often and it seems to integrate effortlessly into the flow of the film. … In that briefing scene where Willard gets his mission, the characters are looking straight at the camera when they talk to Willard. If they are doing that, the mathematically correct thing would be to have Willard looking at the camera too. Instead he’s looking to the left side of the lens, which is correct according to conventional film grammar. Yet you never feel the general is looking at the audience: you believe he’s looking at Willard. But when Willard finally does look at the camera, at the end of the scene, you feel he’s looking at us – at the audience – and thinking: Can you believe this?

Pages 70-71

Again, there’s not editing here because Coppola apparently never shot the scene in a conventional way, but it’s interesting nonetheless. It speaks to the collaborative nature of filmmaking though, and Murch has some interesting thoughts there too:

M: … How do you get 150 temperamental artistic types to work together on the same project, and make something that not only comes in on schedule, on budget, but that has an artistic coherence. It’s simply beyond the ability of a single person, a director or a producer, to cause that to happen by any series of direct commands. It’s so complicated that it just can’t be done. The question is: How does it happen?

If you’ve ever remodelled a house, you’ll know how difficult it is even to get four or five carpenters to agree on anything: billions of people have been building houses, for thousands of years – “houseness” should almost be encoded in our DNA. And yet when you remodel, it’s very common to go double over budget and schedule. By comparison, we’ve only been making films for a hundred years, and a film crew is made up of sometimes hundreds of people, yet somehow, miraculously, at the end of “only” a year, there is, one hopes, a wonderful, mysterious, powerful, coherent, two-hour-long vision that has no precedent – and the more original the vision, the more the process is amazing. And yet studios are furious with us if we go ten percent over budget and schedule!

Pages 84-85

As someone who is currently working on some large scale software development efforts, I can say there’s something similarly complicated going on there. It turns out that predicting effort, predicting the future, is kinda difficult, especially as a project grows in size and scope.

Murch also does a lot of sound editing, and there are similar dynamics at work:

M: … Not having music also gives the emotional effect of not cutting away.

When music makes an entrance in a film there’s the emotional equivalent of a cutaway. Music functions as an emulsifier that allows you to dissolve a certain emotion and take it in a certain direction. When there’s no music, the filmmakers are standing back saying, simply, Look at this. Without appearing to comment.

Page 103

One of the observations Murch and Ondaatje make about The Godfather is that the music almost always punctuates at the end of the scene.

The Godfather

For instance, the scene at the restaurant is mostly played quietly, without music, until the deed is done and Michael is walking away.

M: And also all this is predicated on Francis’s decision to not have music during the scene. In the hands of another filmmaker, there would be tension music percolating under the surface. But Francis wanted to save everything for those big chords after Michel’s dropped the gun. Even after he shoots, there’s silence, and in your mind you hear Clemenza saying, “Remember, drop the gun. Everyone will be looking at the gun, so they won’t look at your face.” So Michael shoots them and then there’s this moment of silence and then he drops the gun.

O: He doesn’t even drop it, he tosses it! It’s a much more extraordinary gesture than a subtle drop.

M: Yeah, as if to say: Look at this gun! The gun hits the ground, and then the music finally comes in. It’s a classic example of the correct use of music, which is a collector and channeler of previously created emotion, rather than a device that creates the emotion. …

Most movies use music the way athletes use steroids. There’s no question that you can induce a certain emotion with music – just like steroids build up muscle. It gives you an edge, it gives you a speed, but it’s unhealthy for the organism in the long run.

Page 122

Music is often overused or used as a crutch for removing ambiguity from a scene and heightening the emotion, but ambiguity can be a good thing…

O: It’s an odd thing: I’ve heard you talk before about the importance of ambiguity in film, and the need to save that ambiguous quality which exists in a book or painting, and which you think a film does not often have. And at the same time in a mix you are trying to “perfect” that ambiguity.

M: I know. It’s a paradox. And one of the most fruitful paradoxes, I think, is that even when the film is finished, there should be unsolved problems. Because there’s another stage, beyond the finished film: when the audience views it. You want the audience to be co-conspirators in the creation of this work, just as much as the editor or the mixers or the cameraman or the actors are. If by some chemistry you actually did remove all ambiguity in the final mix – even though it had been ambiguous up to that point – I think you would do the film a disservice. But the paradox is that you have to approach every problem as if it’s desperately important to solve it. You can’t say, I don’t want to solve this because it’s got to be ambiguous. If you do that, then there’s a sort of haemorrhaging of the organism.

Page 105

In case you can’t tell, Murch is something of a renaissance man, and that comes out in these conversations, like this one about seiche tones:

M: I did think of an experiment which would be fascinating to do. To record the bell tone – the carillon, in fact – of San Francisco Bay. Every body of water – it doesn’t matter whether it’s a puddle or Lake Superior – has what they call a seiche tone. Even if you can’t see it, the water is vibrating, undulating at a resonant frequency that is keyed to the size of the body of water. San Francisco Bay I think has a seiche tone of one hour and forty three minutes. A wave will cross the bay and then come back in that time period. These are very large waves, undetectable by our normal senses.

On top of that are the waves – the chop – that we can see, and then little micro-waves that are just part of the texture of the water. If you set up a pole at some point in the bay, and has a laser beam that reflected off the surface of the water and continuously measured the distance between the tip of the beam and the surface of the water, you would be plotting a series of curves. You could print that out as a series of wave forms, like the record of an earthquake seismograph. One of the wave forms would be this big seiche tone, which would vary over a long period of time, hours. Others would be quicker and more obvious.

Now you can take that wave form and speed it up and render it audible as a series of tones. I don’t know what it would sound like, but the bay would have a (hums) tone. Then superimposed on that would be all these other tones of the smaller and smaller waves. It would be some kind of music.

Page 110

Jeeze, why didn’t I think of that?

M: … Renoir in particular was extremely interested in realistic sound. He went so far in one direction that he almost came around the other side. There’s a wonderful quote by him where he says that dubbing – replacing the original sound with something else – is an invention of the devil and that if such a thing had been possible in the thirteenth century, the practitioners would have been burned at the stake for preaching the duality of the soul!

Renoir felt that a person’s voice was an expression of that person’s soul, and that to fool around with it in any way was to do the devil’s work. The devil is frequently represented as having a voice at odds with what you see. In The Exorcist, the voice that the girl speaks with is not her own voice. This idea of devilry and duality and dubbing, there’s something to be explored there.

Page 113

I don’t think Renoir would have liked the Italian filmmaking of the 70s.

M: … At a certain point during the editing of The Godfather, Francis cut it down to two hours and twenty minutes. But it was clear it didn’t work at that length. Then, when we restored the length, somehow, having gone down so deep, it didn’t come back exactly to where it was before – we had learned things by going that far.

Page 130

Interesting how taking things to extremes can recontextualize the whole process and result in something better.

O: You developed a wonderful theory about editing a few years ago, in your book In the Blink of an Eye: that often the best place to cut from one shot to another coincides with the actor’s blinking, especially if the actor is good – since a blink naturally signals a closure to a thought.

M: From my early editing experiences I became convinced that there was a connection between the patterns of a person’s eye blinks and the patters of their thoughts. That blinks are the equivalent of mental punctuation marks – commas, periods, semicolons, et cetera – separating and thus providing greater articulation to our thoughts. I owe the equation Cut = Blink to the director John Huston – he put forth the idea in an interview with Louise Sweeney in the early 1970s.

The upshot of all this is that I believe the pattern of cuts in a film, to be at its best, needs to reflect or acknowledge the pattern of thoughts of the characters in the film – which ultimately means the thought patterns of the audience. In arranging the sequence of shots, the editor is in effect “blinking” for the audience, and the resulting cuts will seem most natural and graceful when they fall where the blink would fall in an exchange between two people in conversation.

Pages 141-142

This seems like the sort of thing most of us would notice subconsciously, but because an editor has such a difficult job, it has to be more conscious.

I’ll end this post here for now, but there’s plenty left in the book to cover, which I’ll save for next week….

Weird Movie of the Week: Witch Hunt

Last time on Weird Movie of the Week, we noshed on Champagne and Bullets. This time, we engage in a private-eye-led Witch Hunt:

Detective Philip Lovecraft lives in Los Angeles in the 1950s when an ambitious Senator is holding hearings, on Magic. Magic is the new influence in Tinsel Town. Lovecraft is unique in that he is the only one who refuses to use magic in his work. Shortly after he is hired, he finds his client, Kim Hudson, accused of the murder of her husband, a film executive. Philip uses the talents of a local witch, Kropotkin, to explain what is happening only to see her accused of the murder and sentenced to be burnt at the stake. Reminiscent of Roger Rabbit, without the toons.

It’s a made-for-HBO movie from 1994 (i.e. before they kicked off the whole prestige cable drama thing) that is directed by Paul Schrader, stars Dennis Hopper as Detective Lovecraft, and Penelope Ann Miller as the femme fatale. With music by Angelo Badalamenti. It’s a sorta sequel to Cast a Deadly Spell (directed by Martin Campbell and starring Fred Ward as the detective), which was actually a pretty fantastic mashup of 40s gumshoe noir and Lovecraftian horror.

Witch Hunt

By all accounts this sequel is not as good, but the frustrating thing about it is that it doesn’t appear to be available to watch anywhere (there’s a VHS on Amazon for $54). I know that movie productions are complicated legal constructs and that rights can get messy, but it was made specifically for HBO, how is it not on HBO Max? Well, you can watch Cast a Deadly Spell on HBO Max, so there is that (and I’d recommend it if you’re in the mood for this sort of thing).

A 4K Wish List

The recent release of the 4K Godfather Trilogy boxed set has prompted me to think of other movies from my 4K Wish List. I know it’s deeply uncool to be interested in physical media, the various competing formats for HDR, and so on, though I guess streaming services also benefit from 4K restorations and HDR (even if bitrates can’t really compete with physical, but there I go again with the uncool focus on technical details).

The Godfather Trilogy 4K Boxed Set

Anyway, physical media is clearly in a weird place right now. On the one hand, it’s clearly on the decline. The sheer convenience of streaming can’t be overcome by the marginally better quality of the image, and it makes sense. On the other hand, boutique physical media shops like Criterion, Arrow, Shout/Scream Factory, Vinegar Syndrome, Severin, Kino Lorber, and others are other here releasing special editions ranging from current releases to screen classics to the most obscure exploitation trash from the 70s and 80s that you’ve never heard of…

Even weirder, though, is that while you’ve got pristine, 4K UHD special editions with commentary tracks and other special features of something like Tammy and the T-Rex, lots of popular, classic movies don’t have anything nearly as impressive (please don’t interpret this as a slight against Tammy and the T-Rex, which is great and absolutely deserves the treatment…)

Up until a few weeks ago, The Godfather was #1 on my list, but they finally put out a release aligned with the 50th Anniversary and it looks fantastic. So what else am I pining for? Some of these are just generally unavailable, but some are infamous for having many double-dip releases and so on, so it’s weird that they haven’t made the leap to 4K.

  • The Terminator – This might be the movie I’ve seen the most times in my life, talking at least triple digits here. And yet, even the Blu-Rays that are available are the barest of bare-bones releases. James Cameron movies in general seem to be lagging behind in terms of releases. Aliens is also lacking 4K, though there are rumors that it’s coming sometime in 2022. I wouldn’t mind a 4K of The Abyss or, really, any of Cameron’s other movies. There is a 4K of Terminator 2, but they had done the restoration for a theatrical 3D release a while back, and so the colors are apparently all off from what it should be (and I hate 3D in general, so…) Still, if I could only choose one Cameron, it would be the original Terminator.
  • Pulp Fiction – And again, most of Tarantino’s catalog in general is missing from the 4K world, and I’d probably go for… all of it? I know Tarantino doesn’t want to do commentary tracks on his own movies (and I get it!), but they’re so infused with cinematic references that they could really benefit from one of them film historian commentaries that are common on a lot of these boutique physical media releases…
  • Heat – This was supposed to come out last year, but got delayed. It’s “in limbo, but is still expected to arrive on the format sometime” in 2022. Fingers crossed.
  • Star Wars – Duh. Of course, there are 4K releases of the trilogy, but not on physical media and they’re the whole Special Edition that no one likes.
  • Raise the Red Lantern – And once again, we have a director (Zhang Yimou) whose whole early filmography is largely absent from US releases. Indeed, even the old, poor quality DVDs are out of print and ridiculously expensive. I blame China, but hopefully someday we’ll get some Zhang releases…
  • Sleuth – As far as I know, the rights are all tied up by some gigantic pharmaceutical company who thinks the money to be gained by a release of a good movie like this is small potatoes (which, when compared to the multi-billion dollar drugs they make, is probably true). Not sure why they don’t just sell off their library of films that they have no interest in… (I believe this same company owns the rights to The Heartbreak Kid, which is why there’s no good release of that either).
  • The Driver – And yes, most of Walter Hill’s early filmography (there are some Region 2 Blu-Rays out there, but they’re not great). Dude’s got an interesting filmography, would be great for one of these boutique companies to resurrect. Who doesn’t want a 4K of Streets of Fire?

I’ll stop it here, but there’s tons of movies that could really benefit from that 4K bump in quality, and honestly, there’s lots of stuff (particularly foreign movies) that could just do with any release whatsoever.