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The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005) is the second film I’ve seen by Jacques Audiard. I’ve also watched his later effort A Prophet (2009), which is quite simply outstanding. While the two films deal with similar sorts of criminal violence, the director’s remake of James Toback’s Fingers (1978) should be seen as more than just a prelude to A Prophet: it’s a terrific picture in its own right, a complex character study of the piano playing real estate broker Thomas Seyr (Romain Duris) which uses sound in sophisticated ways.
Tom’s love of music is handled with a delicacy that throws it into relief against the darker day-to-day tasks of his job. We see him struggle to balance the growing desire for something better (set in motion by the prospect of a successful audition) with the often violent demands of his job and his aging father, who seeks retribution against a Russian mobster. The same hands that carry a bag of rats or punch a squatter in the face also stroke the piano keys late at night and caress Aline (Aure Atika), his associate’s wife, in a stolen moment. His hands become a familiar and important image as they are often the focus of the frame. Sometimes they’re cut and occasionally they’re bleeding but most often they wriggle, frustrated, playing imaginary notes on an imaginary piano.
The tension between Tom’s life and his wishes is expressed through the music itself, principally in the modulation of Bach’s Toccata in E minor. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) comes to mind after hearing the opening section a few times: Bach’s piece becomes for Tom, like the titular conversation for Harry (Gene Hackman), not only a cause of his anger or happiness, but also an indicator of his mood. We’re reminded that directors can use mimetic music (sound in the filmic reality) to reveal, as well as influence, the psychological states of the characters. It is clear, though, that the role of such music is difficult to pinpoint when it functions both digetically and mimetically. Nonetheless, in the beginning, we hear Tom trip repeatedly over the opening few bars, trying excitedly to play the piece. While he does get better, we notice, along with his tutor Miao Lin (Linh Dan Pham), that his rhythm is out: he rushes through the notes and get frustrated, shouting, slamming his fists and stomping his feet. Eventually, he plays confidently and feels ready to make his dream a reality. So, then, it’s a sad disappointment when the nerves of real life overpower his fingers in the audition and he fails to get past those opening bars. Frustrated and embarrassed, he quickly leaves the room and, with space to breathe outside, puts on his headphones.
This moment is only one example of a general pattern in which other forms of music interrupt the key piece. The Bach in Tom’s head is repeatedly challenged by the bass of electronica or the voice of Kele (fronting Bloc Party) that spills from his mp3 player. The device, which he uses earlier in the film in an attempt to block out the world, confining his ears and confirming his passion, at this climactic moment of failure becomes a way of forgetting, rather than solidifying, his personal musical desires. We see with hindsight, though, that his headphones do not act as a barrier to the world at all: instead they help Tom to streamline himself against the demands of his job and his society. The rhythm of his life – the interaction between his classical dreams and his contemporary reality – is revealed in the orchestration of the music.
On the note of pianos, here’s a fun article about mad pianists and here’s Bach’s piece being performed by Clara Haskil:
Robert Benton’s 1979 picture Kramer vs. Kramer is up and down. The drama of the film and the dynamics between the characters are played out visually along the vertical axis of the frame: from the relative position of people in and outside of lifts (and the direction they’re moving) to the angles of glances, various spatial relationships contribute to the complication of meaning throughout the piece.
The opening exchange between Ted (Dustin Hoffman) and Joanna (Meryl Streep) ends with a decisive emblem of separation: the lift doors slide closed (with a clunk) and Joanna moves downwards, while Ted remains still. Emphatic in its splitting of the pair, the characters’ share of the power is nonetheless ambiguous. It’s a semantically complex moment because a series of conflicting impressions about the meaning of up and of down (and of a movement between them) are brought into play. On the one hand, Joanna seems to have made a determined decision to move from the confines of her apartment to the freedom of street level. She descends from her (enforced) domestic ivory tower to engage again with the real world and fulfil her own needs. As she says in her letter to Billy (Justin Henry): “I have gone away because I must find some interesting things to do for myself in the world.”
But, on the other hand, her descent is passive, as it is the lift, rather than her own legs, that carries her down. Retrospectively, the viewer is aware that this movement brings Joanna much trouble, rather than freedom: her suggested promiscuity in the intervening few months, as well as the desertion of her son, harm her attempt to reclaim Billy later in the film. Ted’s stasis, while for a time frustrating, is, in terms of movement, just as easy as Joanna’s descent: in a very real sense, both characters stand still during this exchange. Furthermore, he is left with his son, while Joanna must go without him. He remains with everything, while she must go with only a few dollars and fewer contacts. It is difficult to extract from the opening who comes off best. The apparent black-and-white dynamics (Joanna is in control; Ted is powerless) are frustrated by the specifics of the situation.
The lift becomes a structural motif that appears periodically throughout the film. This first movement is mirrored in a later lift exchange, when the pair have finished a court appearance. Joanna is exposed, almost pleading with Ted: “Please, Ted. I never would have brought it up if I thought…” Ted is now the one taken up by the lift and Joanna is left standing. A few scenes later Ted finds out he has lost the court case. Does the movement of the lift take on a moral dimension, signifying, in this case, moral superiority, if not rising fortunes?
The film comes almost full circle in the ambiguous closing scene. Joanna approaches to collect her son and Ted goes down to meet her. They meet at street level, with Billy remaining above them, separated physically from the conflict (though always functioning as a focal point for it). It is at this point that the expected course of action is reversed: Joanna reveals “I won’t fight for him anymore. He’s yours.” Ted is shocked: he has won his son. But it is Joanna who enters the lift to see Billy. She has relinquished her son but she goes upwards to see him. As she tries to compose herself, she asks “How do I look?” Ted responds truthfully with a word: “Beautiful.” Here, words and cinematic language blend to embody the ambiguity that surrounds the relationship: it is a comment that harks back to a happily married life, delivered by an ex-husband to an ex-wife whom he no longer kisses; the word is close to becoming little more than a verbal gesture of magnanimity. But they may precede a future happiness. The viewer will never know. The lift door closes and the film ends.
Rightly so, much has been made of the lighting in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975): it’s an impressive example of technical innovation which (perhaps more importantly) achieves a spectacular aesthetic, reminiscent of the works of Gainsborough (1727- 1788) and other eighteenth century painters. More generally though, the film is often respected but not loved: especially when first released, it was held up as unnecessarily slow and lifeless. The critical feeling is summed up by a quotation from a youthful Steven Spielberg, who believed the film was like “going through the Prado without lunch.”
A film about films, Jan Harlan’s Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (2001) reveals the extent to which Kubrick grappled with technical questions to achieve his desired aesthetic. For his candlelit interiors, Kubrick chose to manipulate the camera set up, rather than the light source. He experimented with a number of cameras, lenses and film stocks before finding three high-speed 50mm f/0.70 lenses and getting a custom mount built for them. These lenses (originally developed for N.A.S.A.) have enormous apertures which allow enough of the unique (and notoriously difficult to shoot) candlelight onto the film. The results really do speak for themselves:
But what of the shot choice, the dialogue and the pacing of the piece: why is the combined effect of these factors necessarily a weakness? I believe that Kubrick controls all aspects of the picture to create a deep sense of the period. The impressiveness of the lighting is met by the quality of the costumes and props, many being genuine antiques rather than replicas. The images generated by the carefully positioned and rarely moving camera embody the sense of decorum and an awareness of a public self that Barry Lyndon (Ryan O’Neal) strives for in an attempt to advance socially. While the tone of Kubrick’s film is in line with the gleeful cynicism of Thackeray’s novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844), the picture chooses to tell the narrative primarily through its images, reducing the dialogue to necessaries and converting the narration from an extensive first-person account to a cooly delivered (unnamed) third-person voice.
It should be noted too that, directly because of his aesthetic and emotional restraint, Kubrick raises the intensity of the rare moments of broken down decorum. So, for example, the viewer notices that the camera violently follows the erratic movements of Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson), as she screams for the death of her son; Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali) vomits before the duel with his step-father and there is a moment of utter despair, when Lyndon is first told he must suffer amputation and lose a leg.
Part Two begins with a notice: “Containing an Account of the Misfortunes and Disasters which Befell Barry Lyndon”; a dramatic irony hangs over the final half of the film. (The intermission does come at almost exactly half way.) The viewer becomes aware, then, that Kubrick’s portrayal of a life in the eighteenth century contains a paradox of wonderfully stylised set pieces and brutally realistic social dynamics. We know, perhaps, that the duel will end badly, that the poor Irish boy will not succeed, but we nonetheless feel revolted by the actions of Lord Bullington. Kubrick demands technical perfection not for hollow aesthetics: retrospectively, the once warm but flickering and quickly extinguished candlelight embodies the passions of men and the transitory nature of luxury. As the final title card says: “It was in the reign of George III that the above-named personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now.”
I found myself wondering recently why I laugh at Woody Allen’s films so long after watching them. There are certainly moments of physical comedy and lines perfectly timed and weighted: for example, in Sleeper (1973), when Miles Monroe (Allen) wakes from cryogenic freezing and struggles to walk or, later in the picture, when he is asked to explain a photograph: “This is some girl burning a brassiere [pause]: you’ll notice it’s a very small fire.” Equally, once the laughs die down in the theatre, there are lines which niggle the viewer: Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) asks in Manhattan (1979) “why is life worth living?”; in Deconstructing Harry (1997) life is summed up: “it’s nihilism, cynicism, sarcasm and orgasm.” Allen’s work seems to blend the comic and the philosophical in an odd way: the relationship between the two is ambiguous and hard to decipher.
Cliff Stern (Allen) says in Crime and Misdemeanors (1989) that “nobody committed suicide: everyone was too unhappy.” The remark is witty because it feels paradoxical and almost certainly yields a laugh but the mental state described is tremendously bleak. There is a fuller development of the sense in Anthony Cronin’s Samuel Beckett The Last Modernist: he cites “Paris in the 1920s” and Marcel Arland who “discusses self-destruction, remarking that just as the limit of daring was to be found in silence, so ‘the real despair lies in acceptance rather than suicide.'” The city had an effect on Beckett: it is “notable how much of his outlook and concerns are reflected in the outlook and concerns of the younger writers of the decade […] He was, in a sense, made for twentieth-century France.” He expresses this sentiment of despairing acceptance in the opening line of his (originally French) poem Dieppe: “Again the last ebb”. Woody Allen glances towards this last ebb starting again – this terrible inability to end – in the quoted line above. Beckett finishes The Unnamable without a full stop, only allowing the narrator to say “I can’t go on, I’ll go on”. Allen often voices equally grim attitudes but delivers them through smiling lips.
The Unnamable ends ambiguously, as the reader is unsure if the narrator is trapped as a puppet in the perpetual speech of someone else or instead performing joyous self-affirmation: Allen’s films are quite often less ambiguous at their closes, leaning more towards optimism. That last ebb may come again but it’s certainly a fun one at times. Deconstructing Harry offers pragmatism at its close, when the writer Harry Block (Allen) comes literally face to face with his characters: “life sometimes takes very strange twists and turns”; “Death is a natural part of life: you have to embrace them both”; “accept your limitations and get on with life.” It’s said in Manhattan that “the important thing in life is courage.” Allen suggests courage helps us to face this mix of “nihilism, cynicism, sarcasm and orgasm”. It can apparently make us laugh if we feel like we’ve made a mistake, if we feel like Holly Reed (Mia Farrow) in Crimes and Misdemeanors when she says: “My husband and I fell in love at first sight. Maybe I should have taken a second look.”
The address for this blog is, in part, a rehashed line from Woody Allen’s 1979 film Manhattan: “To him, no matter what the season was, this was still a town that existed in black and white”. I’m already thinking what Isaac (Allen) says a few moments later: “Uh…no. Let me start this over.”
I’ve not begun with Manhattan because it’s my favourite film. In fact, it’s not. If pressed, I’d have to admit that I’m not sure that I have one. Instead, the film, which I only recently watched in its entirety, was the one that first sprung to mind when I decided to begin a blog. I like the line “a town that existed in black and white”: its iambs could have come from poetry. It also encapsulates my belief that film is an art and not just a recording of reality. It may seem obvious, but while Manhattan exists in black and white, Manhattan remains in colour. Even films that attempt total verisimilitude are constructs and it’s enjoyable to consider these works as such. In later posts, I’ll try to clarify and build on what I mean but that seems to be enough for now.
I was introduced to Manhattan in a school English class a few years ago, during 2007. (We were studying F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1934 novel Tender is the Night at the time, as part of a paper on twentieth-century American prose.) Our teacher showed us the film apparently to bolster our notions of what it means to be American though also, perhaps, to take a break from teaching the class himself. My first viewing was fragmented: at most, fifteen minute chunks were separated by days filled with other lessons. Often, we would be rewarded with just five or ten minutes at the end of a particularly difficult class. We did not finish the film: our viewing ended mid-scene, just after Isaac and Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) have excused themselves from Mary (Diane Keaton) and Yale (Michael Murphy). I think it was around the point when Isaac exclaims: “Nervous? She was overbearing. She was, you know, terrible! She was all cerebral.” I remember that line made my teacher laugh.
Manhattan stayed with me for a while, the opening especially. The visual elegance of the series of black and white cityscapes is undeniably cool, as is George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which accompanies the images. The jazz, and this sense of cool, is undermined when Allen’s goofy voice attempts to put what we see and hear into words. The music’s status is toppled as it reenters the picture through Allen’s mouth: Isaac tells us that the city, what we see before us, “pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin.” We laugh when he admits: “Ah, corny. Too corny for a man of my taste.” When I returned to the film, recently, as I’ve said, the presence of this (not too) cool tone was reaffirmed for me.
I think such a tone extends throughout the film: the beauty of the visuals is restrained and balanced by the goofy wit of the dialogue. It is shot well. Beyond the iconic scenes of the Queensboro Bridge and the carriage ride through Central Park, another example is the scene in which Isaac and Mary escape the city for a few days. Our eyes are guided to the important figure through the camera’s gentle panning back and forth between Isaac on their bed and Mary typing in another room. Each character remains in their respective third of the screen, the other two being taken up by the dead, flat space of the walls between them. The limiting of the action on the screen to a third of the frame lends a cleanness to the resulting shots. The camera’s movement and the careful composition generate a meaning that runs concurrently to the dialogue which reveals little: Isaac begins “Boy, you’re really typing away” to which Mary replies “Yea, it’s a cinch.” The viewer is told visually that, while the pair may be on holiday together now, they are ideologically and emotionally apart.