Archive for the 'Classic Film' Category

02
Feb
15

Buried Alive With The Bride

I remember the first time I saw Kill Bill Vol. 2 in the theater in 2004. I remember it vividly because it contained one of the scariest scenes I had ever seen. I physically reacted to the scene in which Budd (Michael Madsen) buries The Bride (Uma Thurman) alive. But that scene was scary for me not just because of what was happening but also because of how director Quentin Tarantino shot the scene:

From The Bride’s point-of-view, as she lays tied up in Budd’s truck bed, we see Budd and his hired hand digging up a grave, obscured in darkness. An open coffin, with a rotted corpse tumbling out of it, lies next to them. This point-of-view shot is an extended take (it lasts maybe a minute), and it’s a long shot (the perspective is from several yards away). The camera never cuts or provides close-up’s as it might do in a standard horror movie that usually shows every last horrible thing that’s happening in minute detail from all angles. This POV shot provides a deepening of identification with The Bride character as well as a sense of dread, helplessness, and uncertainty; we think we know what’s coming. But do we really know for certain and can we control it?

Kill Bill long shot

This shot reminds me of another repeated shot, which also creeped me out. In Roman Polanski’s The Tenant, Trelkovsky, played by Polanski, sees strange human figures, including one that resembles himself, staring back at him from the bathroom window across the apartment courtyard.

Tenant

The next Kill Bill Vol. 2 scene then shows The Bride in a wooden box (it’s a close-up profile shot of her that will not cut away for awhile). Budd is hammering the box’s lid shut. He has given her a flashlight, which she accidentally drops, and then the screen goes dark for a pretty long time. At this point, we only hear what’s going on: Budd and his helper lower the box containing The Bride into the ground. They shovel dirt one clump at a time onto the box, and drive off. The Bride is now alone except for the flashlight, which she eventually finds and turns on. In addition to the lack of visuals for an extended period, the other remarkable aspect of this scene is that, like the wedding chapel massacre scene (from Kill Bill Vols. 1 and 2) and the Japanese massacre scene (from Kill Bill Vol. 1), it’s black and white. Why? Does the use of black and white tie these scenes together? What do these scenes have in common?  They are all “iconic” scenes narratively and stylistically, as well as character-defining moments for The Bride in both films. They also play up the stylization of Tarantino’s homage to genre films and showcase the beauty of black and white. However, while emphasizing the stylization of Tarantino’s use of violence, the use of black and white also paradoxically dilutes the gratuitous amounts of blood and violence.

Kill Bill box shot

15
Oct
14

When Weeds Went Tarantino

I’ve been binge-watching the Showtime series Weeds over the past few years. I’m up to season six of this bizarre yet entertaining show about Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker in a Golden Globe-winning performance), a widow who becomes a drug dealer to keep her family afloat. Spoiler alert: The show’s sixth season finds Nancy, her two teenage sons (Silas and Shane), and her brother-in-law (Andy) on the run after Shane has killed the publicist of Nancy’s drug-kingpin husband, Esteban. This season’s criminal plot element and this particular episode (“A Shoe for a Shoe”) have underscored some interesting (possibly intentional?) connections with director Quentin Tarantino.

In an act of retaliation, Shane has been kidnapped by Esteban’s henchmen. In an effort to find Shane, Nancy shoots one of the henchmen, Cesar, with a crossbow in a skee-ball hall of fame museum. In its size and emptiness, the museum resembles the abandoned warehouse in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. In Dogs, criminal Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) ties up and tortures a police officer in the warehouse. Elsewhere in the film, criminals Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) and Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) hold guns on each other. Keitel is standing up, while Buscemi is lying down; this is the same formation as Nancy (standing with a weapon) and Cesar (lying down but without a weapon).

Steve Buscemi and Harvey Keitel in Reservoir Dogs

Steve Buscemi and Harvey Keitel in Reservoir Dogs

The Weeds director, Michael Trim, also seems to mirror Reservoir Dog’s famous truck shot, in which we see three of the criminals open a car trunk from the point of view of the cop inside the trunk. Tarantino, who proudly and frequently borrows from other films, also uses trunk shots in his work, including in Pulp Fiction and Inglorious Basterds. In the Weeds episode, we see Nancy open her trunk from the point of view of the crossbow she has stored in there. These trunk shot also seem to pay homage to Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and has become pretty standard in other films and television shows, including Breaking Bad’s final season.

The trunk shot from Reservoir Dogs

The trunk shot from Reservoir Dogs

Much of the episode takes place in a diner, another consistent setting throughout many of Tarantino’s films.

The Weeds episode even has a reference to its fellow Showtime series, Dexter, when Silas talks about becoming “a serial killer who kills serial killers.”

20
Aug
13

Brief Encounter Part 5

Stanley Holloway as Albert and Joyce Carey as Myrtle in Brief Encounter

Stanley Holloway as Albert and Joyce Carey as Myrtle in Brief Encounter

Brief Encounter is an exploration of the repression of the British middle class. Words that keep coming up in dialogue between Laura and other characters as well as in Laura’s voiceover include “ordinary,” “uncomplicated,” and “sensible,” which emphasizes the normalcy and boredom of Laura’s everyday routine. Director David Lean’s use of actual locations and actress Celia Johnson’s natural appearance and acting style add to the cinematic realism of some of the scenes; scenes, such as in the rowboat, look as if they could be taken straight from a home movie, which also adds a level of nostalgic romanticism. And Laura’s life seems to be mundane until Alec enters the picture and disrupts her routine and repressed emotions.

Albert and Myrtle are the comic, working class foils to Alec and Laura. Albert and Myrtle’s earthier, more overt expressions of affection directly contrast Alec and Laura’s more subtle, repressed romance. In addition to adding humor to an otherwise serious movie, it seems that Lean and Coward are also advocating Albert and Myrtle’s outlook.

Before its official release, Brief Encounter had a bad preview in front of a working class audience; the audience members just couldn’t understand Laura and Alec’s repression, and some shouted at the screen for them to go ahead and kiss. (For more discussion about working class reaction to the film, see Neel14’s astute comment of my previous blog post, “Brief Encounter Part 2”.) Lean took this rejection personally and subsequently considered the film a failure. History has shown us otherwise.

12
Aug
13

Brief Encounter Part 4

sheet musicBrief Encounter screenwriter Noel Coward chose Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 2” for the film’s soundtrack. The piece experienced a surge in popularity after the film’s release.

The concerto not only provides actual ambient music from the living room radio during Laura’s flashbacks but also punctuates the flashbacks. This was groundbreaking use of classical music in a non-musical setting as a dramatic device. It was also groundbreaking in that the film uses the music as more that just unobtrusive background music; it actually becomes part of the viewer’s primary level of consciousness, signaling (alongside the flashback structure) that what we are seeing is through Laura’s eyes. The music as a window into Laura’s soul is further emphasized by the fact that although the concerto was written by a man and chosen for the film by a man, it is played on the soundtrack by a female pianist named Eileen Joyce.

30
Jul
13

Brief Encounter Part 3

Laura on trainAlthough made by a male director and a male screenwriter, Brief Encounter includes a groundbreaking use of flashbacks as a way to access a woman’s psyche, a new experience for audiences in 1945. Brief Encounter’s flashbacks don’t distance the viewer as in other films but rather bring the viewer into Laura’s mind completely. This component makes the film especially meaningful for women, although there are some instances where Laura’s narrative reliability could be questioned, especially when she possibly overestimates how much other people, especially authority figures, suspect her.

However, there is one scene in Brief Encounter that is a logical flaw in relation to how flashbacks should work. It’s the scene between Alec and his colleague, Dr. Stephen Lynch, whose flat Alec wants to use to be with Laura. When Stephen arrives unexpectedly, Laura leaves through the service exit and therefore, can’t know what Alec and Stephen say after she leaves. All other scenes up to this point have been in her presence.

Next to be discussed will be Brief Encounter’s music, which is very connected to the use of flashbacks. 

22
Jul
13

Brief Encounter Part 2

This is the second part of a five-part series on Brief Encounter.

Brief Encounter on set

Celia Johnson, David Lean, and Trevor Howard on the set of Brief Encounter

I’m always been fascinated by the different personalities involved in film projects, and Brief Encounter is no exception.

David Lean, the director of Brief Encounter, started his career as an editor in the first sound films. Brief Encounter, an early work, is where he first uses elements (some of which will be explored in future posts) that would show up in his later, more mature works. As previously mentioned in my most recent post, while Lean’s career was on the way up toward the Hollywood epics for which he would become famous, Brief Encounter playwright and screenwriter Noel Coward’s career was on the way down toward a nightly Vegas act. A 2002 British Film Institute Sight and Sound poll, which asked film directors to rank other directors, named him the ninth greatest film director of all time. Lean was nominated for the Best Director Oscar seven times, including for Brief Encounter, and won for Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia.

Coward created the part of Laura specifically for British film and stage actress Celia Johnson. She had performed in previous Lean films (as well as in other roles on the stage and screen), but “Laura” would become her most famous role. In addition to being nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for Brief Encounter, she won BAFTAs (the British Oscar) for her work in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and a TV production of Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont. She would reunite with her Brief Encounter co-star Trevor Howard for a 1979 television movie.

The unknown Trevor Howard (Alec) was cast in Brief Encounter after Lean saw him in a small role in another film. Howard had a long career, which included The Third Man, co-starring Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles and directed by Carol Reed. He won a BAFTA for his performance in The Key and was nominated for an Oscar before becoming more well-known as a character actor (Superman, Ghandi).

Brief Encounter marked Stanley Holloway’s first major screen role, although he had smaller roles in previous Lean pictures and was a popular comic stage performer. Portraying the working-class train conductor in this film, Holloway was mostly known for Cockney roles, even though he was born into a middle class family. Movie buffs best know him as Eliza Doolittle’s father (a Tony- and Oscar-nominated role) in the Broadway, West End, and film versions of My Fair Lady.

My next blog post in this series will concentrate on Lean’s use of flashbacks in Brief Encounter.

17
Jul
13

Brief Encounter Part 1

Thanks to the members of my DVD discussion group, for whom I initially prepared these notes. For more information about and exploration of Brief Encounter, I recommend the Criterion DVD’s audio commentary with film historian Bruce Eder and the British Film Institute’s monograph by film professor Richard Dyer. If you’re not familiar with the basic premise of Brief Encounter, here’s the imdb.com version: Meeting a stranger in a railway station, a woman is tempted to cheat on her husband. 

BriefEncounterPosterThe 1945 British film, Brief Encounter, is probably on many women’s (and gay men’s) top-ten romantic movie list. However, to call it a “chick flick” would be to underestimate how groundbreaking it was for audiences then and the impact is still has on audiences now.

Directed by David Lean, with a screenplay by Noel Coward**, Brief Encounter is based on a 1936 one-act play by Coward called Still Life. Although the play is confined to a refreshment room in a railway station, the film opens itself up to more locations, characters, and plot points. Brief Encounter would mark Lean and Coward’s third and last collaboration. While Lean’s career would bloom with his more famous 1950s and 1960s epics (Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, Bridge on the River Kwai), as time went on, Coward would be forced to accept gigs in Vegas to bring in money.

Brief Encounter’s plot revolves heavily around trains and train schedules. Much of the film was shot in a railway station in Lancashire, England, far from major cities that were still subject to World War II blackouts.

Brief Encounter was a moderate success upon its release, especially in art houses. However, it was banned in Ireland because it supposedly portrayed an adulterer in a sympathetic light. The film shared the 1946 Palme d’Or with 10 other films at the Cannes Film Festival. Celia Johnson (Laura) won a Best Actress Oscar, while David Lean earned his first Oscar nomination as Best Director. In a 1999 poll, the British Film Institute would name Brief Encounter number two of the top 100 British films.

I anticipate this to be a five-part series. Stay tuned for Part 2, which will explore Brief Encounter’s director and actors.

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**In his BFI monograph, Richard Dyer compares the situation of the film’s hidden lovers to the plight of gay men at a time when homosexuality was illegal in the U.K. Noel Coward happened to be gay, so this parallel is plausible.