Thursday, 7 May 2015

Lady From Shanghai

Like many viewers, I was introduced to The Lady From Shanghai from Woody Allen's Manhattan Murder Mystery through the famous and mesmerizing final sequences. When I finally watched the full movie as part of The Film Experience's excellent Hit Me With Your Best Shot series, the film proved to be just as mesmerizing.

One of my reservations about film noir has always been the protagonist's immediate weak spot for the femme fatale. As beautiful and seductive as the femme fatale may be, and Rita Hayworth is great, I can never truly believe. Unfortunately that is one of the mainstays of the genre, and I always have to suspend my disbelief.

What is more credible is the portrayal of modern relationships, modern society and in particular how its mores and laws can be manipulated. Once it is accepted that Michael has fallen head over heals for Elsa, the story moves through locales and relationships, establishing who is manipulating whom, and how the social structures around them allow that to happen. The film shows how to manipulate the laws of the time (in which a prosecution could not be made without the murdered body), and how Bannister easily manipulates the judge and jury during the trial with his farcical self cross-examination.

My favourite shot shows the relationship between manipulations and society, and the murkiness of our social conscience in this context:

In this shot, placed in the middle of the nervous waiting of the characters as the jury deliberates, the judge is playing a chess game with himself as his office overlooks San Francisco (and Shanghai perhaps in the distance?). I love how the white chess pieces are doubly reflected. First through the city backdrop, the bridge piers mirroring the two knights, the city buildings mirroring the pawns. The city is a symbol of civilization and justice, standing firm against the impending darkness of the clouds. In the background, the moral leaders, the king and queen (the government), the bishop (religion), and the castle (the military?) are in stasis, prominently mirrored in the window reflection. They are in shadow, a bit murky, more grey than white, letting the knights and pawns do the work for them.

And just above them, equally grey, is the judge's floating reflection. As one of society's figureheads, he is worrisome, indecisive, and ultimately, within the plot, ineffective against the manipulations of the protagonists. In the courtroom scenes, we see the Judge easily manipulated by Bannister's sophistic showmanship. Here, he is agonizing on how to play the game, his white team of justice trying to hold back the advancing and unseen darkness. Ultimately, it is up to the jury, his fellow citizens of the city, to decide Michael's fate. But even that too is elusive, as Michael and the rest take justice in their own hands, moving the chest pieces around at the own will. Sometimes justice will prevail, but only in the movies, and even then there will always be casualties.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Bright Star

It's been a while since I participated in The Film Experience's excellent Hit Me With Your Best Shot series (and in fact, a while since I've blogged at all). But I couldn't miss an opportunity to write about one of my favourite directors. I couldn't resist deciding my favourite shot from Jane Campion's gorgeous film Bright Star, but I almost didn't make it through the whole film - it was nearly over before it even began.

Campion's films are so visually textured and mesmerizing that this opening credit itself was almost enough to be the best shot for me. What is better than the promise of beauty and the sublime?

A 2 hour visual feast, as it turns out. What I love most about Bright Star is its ability to be a cinematic encapsulation of the poetry of John Keats. Early in the film, John explains to Fanny that a "poem needs understanding through the senses. The point of diving into a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore but to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out, it is a experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept the mystery." 

That may be also be Campion's mission statement for the film, and she succeeds abundantly. We are washed over with close ups of the lives of bees and butterflies, wide shots showcasing the exquisite beauty of fields of flowers, and tracking shots capturing the intricate designs of branches in wintry woods. 

Campion's camera is not only focused on nature, but also on the interior domesticity of her characters, and in particular Fanny. The opening shot of needle and thread symbolises the delicate detail that is the focus of Campion's eye. The following close up of the embroidery highlights how effectively the camera can convey tactile sensations, as well as celebrate arts of all different kinds. This revelry in art and detail, both exterior and interior, permeates the film.

Of the many wonderfully tactile images in the film, one of my favourites is this shot of Fanny looking out through the window.

From the camera's perspective, we, as voyeurs ourselves, are watching another voyeur discover something outside. What is it that she spies beyond the boundaries of her domesticity, fenced off by windows and hidden behind opaque curtains? What life is out there in nature? What curiosities and passions await to be discovered? For Fanny, all of that is answered in John Keats, lying on the grass, looking back at her.

It is no surprise that their first passionate kiss is outside in the gardens. Or that they symbolically play a game of statues afterwards, hoping to forever capture their bliss. And true to the understated ambiance of the film, Fanny does not run home and shout out her emotions. Instead, in what is my pick for best shot, she sits down in her bed, calming contemplating as emotions surely bubble underneath:

Trust Campion to not rely on words, but to instead let images do the talking. In this sublime scene, the curtains, once a barrier, now begin to softly wave into the room, allowing the refreshing breeze from outside to nourish the bare and plain interior. It blows and flaps until it almost weightlessly engulfs Fanny, until the breath of fresh air/love flows directly into her. For in this moment, she is on cloud nine, and all she can do is luxuriate in her emotions and her dreams of all the possible romantic possibilities that she can see beyond her window.

As an audience, we are also enraptured. Like Fanny, all we can do is sit up and luxuriate in the fresh air of Campion's vision, perfectly captured and framed, floating on the screen before our very eyes, soothing and emboldening our souls.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Throwback Thursday: Looking from the window above ...

Last week's episode of Looking ended with Patrick and Kevin tentatively exchanging I Love Yous with each other. The screen fades to black as the synthesizer sounds of Yazoo's Only You begins. It's the type of sweet 80s pop that usually resonates for me, hearkening back to my childhood. But for some reason, this song felt particularly special. What did this song remind me of? What memories did it trigger? It took a few days for me to work it out, but finally, it came back to me:


This was one of the most perfect moments I've ever witnessed on television. Sweet as the kiss is in isolation, the impact of the kiss increases because of the drawn out sexual tension of the previous two seasons, as well as because of the fact that it was the warmest moment of an otherwise (brilliantly) uncomfortable show. It just warms my heart.

I've been enjoying this season of Looking - it just gets better and better - but it's not there yet. Let's hope the final episodes bring everything to a climax.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Paris is Burning

If ever there was a perfect snapshot in time and place in the world, Paris is Burning was it. This amazing documentary captures a point in time in queer history, showing the world the exuberance, the passion, the struggles, and most affectingly, the vulnerability of the drag community of the late 80s New York. It taught, and continues to teach, the rest of us about balls, vogueing, shade, reading, Houses, and above all else, what the defiant sense of community looks like.

And like the period and characters it documents, Paris is Burning too feels short on time. Its brisk 71 minute length leaves you salivating for more of this world and its characters. The stars shine brightly and the flames burn intensely, but all too quickly and before their time. Nothing encapsulates that feeling more than this shot of Venus Xtravanganza.

By itself, it's a beautiful image, a wondrous snapshot of a person at a time and place. That defiant face and pose. The fashion. The graffiti. That boombox, which not only captures the time period but also symbolizes Venus's (and the other characters') voice that announces to the world that it must be heard.

Throughout the film, Venus, and many of the other characters, have been framed either intimately in private or as part of a group shot at the ball. The private shots expose their personal histories, fears and vulnerabilities. The group shots showcase the fabulous rambunctiousness of the balls and the solidarity and community of the Houses. So when scenes are later filmed in public, these characters, on the one hand, are reintegrated into the outside world, announcing that they too are citizens of this world. But on the other hand, these shots are also a graphic reminder that while they can build walls and Houses around themselves for protection, they too must brave the real world.

So here is Venus, outside in the real world. This twilight shot, by itself, may suggest that, between the harsh light of day and the foreboding shadows of night, there is some beauty in Venus' world. That beautiful pink sunset behind her captures the love, beauty, and perhaps the vulnerability, that she embodies, qualities that befit the goddess after which she has named herself.

But alas, upon the narration of Venus' death, it's not just a sunset that we see in this shot - we are witnessing the twilight of Venus's story. Like the tip of her cigarette, her life shines briefly before her fate draws near, her life shining briefly. In the foreground she defiantly draws her final breath, as in the background, her world is burning and scorching the sky.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

The Sound of Music

How do you solve a problem like choosing the best shot from a movie? How do you find one image that best represents a movie? In only the rarest of movies will one shot be designed to be, or over time grows into being, THE definitive image. Movies by their nature celebrate the beauty of multiple shots in successive motion. Sequences scroll by, images build upon images, dialogue layers over songs and music. The beauty and power of that one crescendo moment is really the cumulative result of numerous previous moments.

I find that there are always so many beautiful shots that define any movie, including The Sound of Music. So many shots and sequences have become iconic and ingrained into the collective consciousness. The amazing helicopter shot zooming in on Maria as she sings the opening lines of the movie. The children on Maria's bed during My Favourite Things. All of the images from Do Re Mi.

The beauty of this excellent HMWYBS series is that it allows us to revisit movies, to rediscover what drew us in in the first place and to allow us to find new hidden gems to be thankful for. What is the best shot may be the best shot always, or it may only be the best shot right now, changing in the future.

Growing up, I only watched this film on television. Punctuated by advertising, I could only stay up until around the wedding scenes. My memories are mostly of the joyful first half, full of song and dance. And while the more serious, Nazi filled second half gives the film a lot of weight, it will always be the infectious exuberance of the von Trapp family, led by Maria, that fills my heart.

So it was perfect that, upon this viewing, I discovered this glorious reaction shot:

Within the film, this shot captures Liesl's glee upon experiencing her first kiss with the seventeen-going-on-eighteen messenger boy. But that same unbridled glee could also belong to Maria in her celebration of life and music, or the children upon learning to sing and being able to play again, or the Captain upon watching his children during the Lonely Goatherd performance.

For many of us, it's also the same unbridled joy that we get from doing over favourite things, listening to our favourite songs and watching our favourite films. This shot may not be the most beautiful or well known from the movie, but it's the one that best encapsulates the run-into-the-rain-and-jump-for-joy-in-your-wet-clothes kind of glee that I feel when I watch it.