Tuesday, February 22, 2005

#5: The 400 Blows

The 400 Blows, 1959, directed François Truffaut, screenplay by Marcel Moussy & François Truffaut, story by François Truffaut.

François Truffaut is a polarizing figure—at least if you're William Goldman. Goldman blames him for auteur theory and for ruining Alfred Hitchcock's career by convincing Hitch that he was an auteur. He's right about auteur theory: Truffaut's writings for "Cahiers du Cinéma" set that whole mess up. Hitchcock, I'm not so sure about, but he does make a good case. Truffaut interviewed Hitchcock in 1967. Before that, he made North by Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds. Once he knew he was an auteur, thanks to François, he treated the world to Topaz, Torn Curtain, Frenzy, and Family Plot. That said, Marnie (1964) isn't so hot, either.

The 400 Blows precedes all that, and it's an exctiting and interesting film. It's easy to see, watching it, why filmmakers fell in love with this guy; it's subjective and idiosyncratic, but not self-indulgent. Truffaut's choices serve the story, not the other way around. (Wes Anderson, I'm looking at you here!) The 400 Blows comes from a French expression meaning, roughly, to sow one's wild oats. It's often described as a movie about a kid who's going wild, but this, I think, misses the point. For me, the movie was more about the ways children forge their own experiences, separate from the adults who surround them. The main character, Antoine Doinel, lives in a world where adults orbit in the distant background, inscrutible and best left undisturbed. In that sense, the movie captures early adolescence perfectly. Of course, Antoine is also a cipher to his parents, his teachers, and the other adults in his life. Jim Shepard has written beautifully about the ways the adults in The 400 Blows fail to understand Antoine; I won't retread that ground. Suffice it to say that Truffaut gets the wary relations between adolescence and adulthood perfectly right.

This movie's a good one to talk about point of view. Truffaut almost always limits his movie to the things that Antoine directly experiences and sees. In individual scenes, this is used to great effect; there's a scene, for example, where Antoine's parents come to school (they know he's been missing classes), drag him out of his seat, slap him in front of his classmates, and send him back to sit down. His parents have a conversation in the hall with his teacher, but you don't see it. The camera stays in the classroom as the teacher sees adults outside, steps out into the hall; we see Antoine's mother, but only through a window in the class door. It's an incredibly tense scene (which resonates with anyone who got in trouble in school; man, there's nothing worse than seeing your parents outside your classroom). It woudn't play as well if Truffaut hadn't let the audience stew in the classroom with Antoine. In a similar fashion, there's an amazing scene where Antoine overhears his parents fighting; the camera stays on his face, in close up, as we hear his (step-)father yell things like "I gave the boy my name! I put food on the table!" It's heartbreaking. I counted three times we see things Antoine doesn't; not bad. It's also pretty clear the camera identifies with Antoine; when his mother visits him at reform school, the camera focuses on the hat she is wearing as Antoine spaces out while she lectures him. This reminded me of Raging Bull; that scene in the locker room where Jake zones out staring at his spit bucket (if I'm remembering that correctly). Anyway, good use of first-person point of view. For a much better explanation of filmic point-of-view in general, I refer you to Terry Rossio.

The story is very good, but Trufaut's directorial style also commands attention. He could only afford black and white film stock, but he also went ahead and shot in Cinemascope. Ultra-widescreen black and white is not something you see very often. He loves long shots; the penultimate shot is nearly a minute and a half long (and it's not a Touch of Evil-style choreographed marvel, just a simple tracking shot). But check out the sequence in the Rotor (one of those spinning carnival rides where the floor drops out): he's cutting every five seconds or so. It's interesting; usually I think directors and editors that draw a lot of attention to themselves like that are hurting the stories they tell, but I feel like Truffaut really gets that to work for him; you're aware he's doing it, but his directorial choices are perfect for whatever scene, mood, or story point he's trying to get across. (I say "story point" like this is a tightly plotted movie—it isn't. It's still great). He's also an actor's director; he got an incredible performance out of Jean-Pierre Léaud. I also loved Albert Rémy as the boy's cuckolded father. All in all, well worth checking this one out.


  • The DVD has another film by Truffaut, Antoine and Colette, which was Truffaut's portion of a 1962 omnibus called Love at Twenty. Something like Four Rooms. It's Antoine several years later, falling in love with a woman he meets at a concert. I can't tell you how great it is; like The 400 Blows, it has a feeling of veracity to it. As someone who is well familiar with the sinking sensation you get when you realize that a woman's parents like you better than she does, I found it painfully amusing to watch. The best part; he writes her a love letter and gets a letter in reply that begins "Your love letter was well-written..." Ouch.

  • There are also a few interviews with Truffaut on the DVD; he's excellent. He was 27 when this film came out, and he's young and kind of goofy and charming. I hate him less than Orson Welles because he waited a few years longer to succeed magnificently. Still, I'm officially behind both of those guys as far as success goes. And as Truffaut says in one of the interviews, "Success is everything in America." (To be fair, he was criticizing Americans for neglecting financially unsuccessful, but great, films. But hey, I'm American, so what can you do?)

  • As a young man, Truffaut tried to read a set of classics (something like the Harvard Classics, can't remember the name), in alphabetical order. He made it to Balzac and quit. I can relate to that kind of obsessiveness, as you can see from this website.

  • There's a documentary about Cannes in 1959 on the disk that ends with the narrator saying of Truffaut, "Let's enjoy his films before he starts lecturing about them!" So I'm going to shut up now.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

#19: Shock Corridor

Shock Corridor, 1963, written and directed by Samuel Fuller.

Like The Naked Kiss, this movie has a lot to offer if you're looking for lurid camp. Peter Breck stars as Johnny Barrett, an ambitious reporter who goes undercover at a mental hospital to solve a murder. This is a great premise, well worth stealing; but Fuller takes it in strange directions. Johnny doesn't just pose as a garden variety manic depressive in order to get committed; he gets his stripper girlfriend (played by Constance Towers—what a great name!—who also starred in The Naked Kiss) to claim to be his sister and file a police complaint against him, getting himself put into the mental hospital as a hair fetishist with an incestuous obsession with his sister. When characters are thinking, you can hear their thoughts in voice over, while the camera pushes in. So, yeah, it's that kind of a movie.

I didn't think it was possible to create a more ridiculous and unlikely mental hospital than The Silence of the Lambs, but I guess I was wrong. It's shot well; it isn't a great set, but it reminds me a little of Avedon's photos of the East Louisiana State Mental Hospital (which I think he took in the sixties). When Johnny first arrives, an orderly walks him down the long hallway on the ward; sullen inmates are leaning against the walls, staring into space, shuffling around. None of them are talking. The orderly tells Johnny that he's lucky, because he's gotten there just in time for the "Make Friends Hour."

The murder mystery Johnny's trying to solve isn't very interesting and the guilty party is quite predictable. The witnesses he has to interview are excellent, though; taken together, they form a nice, if unsubtle, critique of post-war america. There's:

  • Stewart, who was captured and brainwashed by Communists while serving in Korea. After breaking with Communism and getting returned to the states, he was dishonorably discharged and rejected by the rest of the world. So he convinced himself that he was Jeb Stewart, Civil War General, and marches around the asylum in a CSA hat.
  • Trent, the first black student at a Southern university, who cracked under the pressure and switched sides. He gives moving speeches about how America is for Americans, and carries a sign reading "Integration And Democracy Don't Mix."
  • And Dr. Boden, a Nobel-Prize-winning nuclear physicist, one of the architects of the atomic bomb, who has regressed to the mental state of a six-year-old and does a lot of drawing with crayons.

Of the three, Trent is the most interesting, just because it's really disconcerting to see a black man say, in all earnestness, things like, "Now, they're all right as entertainers..." and "So they like hot jazz music, do they? Well, let's burn those freedom buses!" The other guys are too much, though; I think they must have played better in 1963, but even then, it bears remembering that the year before, this came out. So although Shock Corridor attempts to say a lot more about America than most B-pictures, it's not the most blistering critique of post-war America at the time. It's a camp classic, and a cult classic, but I'm not so sure I'd call it a classic. I certainly enjoyed it, though


  • When the other inmates are describing their dreams, which doesn't happen until maybe forty minutes or so into the movie, Fuller switches to color (and what I thought was stock footage, but apparently he shot it). It's really disarming.

  • Both this movie and Ray, which I saw last night, have a similar "nightmares about water" thing going on. It's more impressive in Shock Corridor, because Johnny imagines a downpour of rain inside the hospital; it's a really good sequence.

  • The trailer tries to sell this as a peek inside the inner workings of a mental hospital. It's referred to in the trailer as "incredibly realistic." This after showing us the main characters and having the narrator say, after each one, things like "Diagnosis: Erotic Dementia!" and "Diagnosis: Manic Sensualist" (but not, sadly, "Diagnosis: Monique!"). And, of course, at one point durring the trailer, the narrator says, "Then there was the day Johnny was trapped in the ward of love-maddened women..." So whatever critics may say about this, it's pretty clear that marketing saw it as pure pulp.

  • Peter Breck has a horror-movie-girl scream. I mean, he really screams like a woman in this movie; it's disturbing.

  • You know you're in good hands when your main character wanders into the female ward by mistake, sees a group of women, and thinks (in voice over) "Nymphos!" in an alarmed tone. And then gets surrounded, wrestled to the ground, and given a bit of the rough, presumably; the next time we see Johnny his face is all bruised.

  • And it doesn't hurt when you have someone ask, "How's he getting on?" and gets the result, "Very well. He's in Dance Therapy now."

  • Or when someone says, "Ever since I was a kid, my folks fed me bigotry for breakfast and ignorance for dinner."

  • But best of all, Fuller has a psychiatrist look sadly out a window and intone, "What a tragedy. An insane mute will win the Pulitzer Prize!" I could write a million screenplays and never top that line.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

#13: The Silence of the Lambs

The Silence of the Lambs, 1991, directed by Jonathan Demme, screenplay by Ted Tally from the novel by Thomas Harris.

The last time I saw this movie in its entirety, I was in high school. It's held up amazingly well over the years, and it was great to see it again. Clarice Starling is an FBI trainee who must enlist the help of serial killer Hannibal Lecter to catch another serial killer. Or, as the poster would have it, "To Enter the Mind of a Killer She Must Challenge the Mind of a Madman."

I have plenty to say about the movie itself, but I want to talk a little about adaptation first. This is a movie that was popular enough that the source material and the screenplay are widely available. The book, you can buy anywhere; you can find the second draft of the screenplay here. So I read the novel, then the screenplay, then watched the movie.

It's pretty much axiomatic when writing a screenplay that the shorter version is always the better version. The genius of Ted Tally's script is in its compressions, packing as much information as possible into as little space as possible. The second draft is still very faithful to the book; apparently Ted Tally knows Harris socially, which I guess would make it harder to cut. Still, some of it's there. An example: here's the end of Jack Crawford's briefing to Starling in the novel:

"Be very careful with Hannibal Lecter. Dr. Chilton, the head of the mental hospital, will go over the physical procedure you use to deal with him. Don't deviate from it. Do not deviate from it one iota for any reason. If Lecter talks to you at all, he'll just be trying to find out about you. It's the kind of curiousity that makes a snake look in a bird's nest. We both know you have to back-and-forth a little in interviews, but you tell him no specifics about yourself. You don't want any of your personal facts in his head.


"Do your job, just don't ever forget what he is."
"And what's that? Do you know?"
"I know he's a monster. Beyond that, nobody can say for sure. Maybe you'll find out; I didn't pick you out of a hat, Starling. You asked me a couple of interesting questions when I was at UVA..."

That's on pp 6–7, and I've already abreviated it greatly. On page 11, after introducing Dr. Chilton and the asylum, we get this exchange:

"...We tried to study Lecter. We thought, 'Here's an opportunity to make a landmark study'—it's so rare to get one alive."
"One what?"
"A pure sociopath, that's obviously what he is."

In the second draft of screenplay, it reads like this. N.B.: At the time the second draft was written, the rights to the characters hadn't been cleared (probably they were tied up because of Michael Mann's 1986 film Manhunter). So in this draft, Crawford is called "Campbell," Chilton is "Prentiss," and Hannibal Lecter is "Gideon Quinn." Here's the scene:

          Be very careful with Gideon Quinn.
          Dr. Prentiss at the asylum will go
          over the physical procedures used
          with him. Do not deviate from
          them, for any reason. You tell him
          nothing personal, Starling.
          Believe me, you don't want Gideon
          Quinn inside your head... Just do
          your job, but never forget what he

               (a bit unnerved)
          And what is that, sir?

                    PRENTISS (V.O.)
          Oh, he's a monster. A pure


CLOSE ON an I.D. card held in a male hand. Clarice's photo, official-looking graphics. It calls her a "Federal Investigator."

                    PRENTISS (contd., O.S.)
          It's so rare to capture one alive.
          From a research point of view, Dr.
          Quinn is our most prized asset...

Tally combined two exchanges where Starling has basically the same line, and used it to make an elegant jump in location. In the finished film, it's shorter and more elegant still. Instead of having Chilton begin over Clarice and Crawford in the office, his line is over an exterior shot of the Baltimore Asylum. Which is not a real asylum; I don't know what the building they shot for that exterior actually is, but it looks more like a castle than a building with any practical use. It looks like it would make you crazier. In any event, the point is that Tally does a great job throughout his script of getting the core out of every scene. By the shooting script, he had this down to a science.

One more perspective on adaptation. Terry Rossio writes that:

Your goal in writing an adaptation absolutely cannot be to 'preserve the source material onto the screen.' It must be to 'make an effective film based upon the source material.' Lorenzo DiBonaventura, currently in charge of Neil Gaiman's SANDMAN project at Warner Bros., put this quite succinctly: "Sometimes keeping too true to the material results in not doing justice to the material."

Tally's second draft "preserves the source material onto the screen." Cut and pasted into Final Draft, it clocks in at about 160 pages; it has all the subplots from the novel and most of the scenes. The movie's just under two hours long (generally, a page of script means a minute of screen-time, so this means about 40 minutes have been cut). The process of revising a screenplay, I'm coming to find out, is taking out everything you can spare from your rough drafts, until you're not wasting a single word. The result, in the case of The Silence of the Lambs , is a movie that feels like a more faithful adaptation than the second draft does; it's "an effective film based upon the source material," not "the source material onto the screen."

Enough with adaptation; the movie itself. The opening sequence was the first thing I ever discussed in a film class (once again, thanks, Shepard, Tifft, and Rosenheim!). The beginning is worth studying again and again, just for watching how cleverly the viewer is prepared to meet Hannibal Lecter. Here's how it works.

  • We start in Quantico, watching Jody Foster run the obstacle course. She is told to go meet with Jack Crawford, the head of Behavioral Sciences.

  • To get there, we track her inside the building: she walks through a lab where students seem to be learning to clean pistols, then down a hallway with other students. These rooms look like a normal school.

  • She takes an elevator down to Crawford's floor (which is, it would seem, in the basement). Here, the walls are blue cinderblock and the hallway is narrower.

  • She's shown into Crawford's small, windowless office. While waiting for Crawford, she looks over a bulletin board covered with crime scene photos and a tabloid headline reading "Bill Skins Fifth."

  • Crawford shows up and they start talking. Out of nowhere, he looks directly into the camera and says, "Do you spook easily?" The conversation ends with the exchange quoted above.

  • We see an exterior shot of the Baltimore hospital, which is insanely gothic.

  • We're in Dr. Chilton's office. He's shot closer than Crawford was, and he's really smarmy and creepy.

  • Chilton leads Clarice down to meet with Hannibal. They go down a flight of stairs.

  • They're on a hallway with two metal gates, manned by guards. As they rush down this hall, Chilton tells Clarice the elaborate rules for dealing with Lecter.

  • Chilton and Clarice go down another flight of stairs to a red metal gate. As they go through this gate, Chilton shows Clarice a photograph of a nurse Lecter brutalized.

  • They pause just past the red gate, bathed in red light, while Chilton and Clarice continue talking. Another metal door opens and they go into a guard area.

  • Chilton leaves Clarice here. She has two more gates to go through, which leads her to:

  • Another hallway of the asylum. This one has rough stone walls and metal cells, and looks like a dungeon. Clarice has been through six security checkpoints that we've seen, and the prisoners on this hall are behind bars.

  • But even that is not secure enough for the prisoner at the end of the hall. His cell has walls of inch-thick plexiglass. Clarice sees this as she approaches, and meets:

  • Hannibal Lecter, standing calmly in the center of his cell. He greets Clarice with a pleasant "Good morning."

The whole thing takes about ten minutes. In those ten minutes, the viewer seamlessly moves from the world we know to increasingly gothic and nightmarish surroundings. By the time we see Lecter, we believe him to be the most dangerous guy ever. Ever. Seven gates are not enough...this guy needs plexiglass. Plexiglass! The glass was apparently the production designer, Kristi Zea's idea. My writing partner Adam thinks it makes the movie, and I'm inclined to agree.


  • On the commentary track, Jodi Foster is really unhappy with one of her costumes; she says "Clarice Starling would never wear what she is wearing here to go to Hannibal Lecter's cell." I've never heard an actor disagree so violently with a creative choice someone else made, at least not on the record. So what do you have to say to that, Acadamy Award winning costume designer Colleen Atwood?

  • The deleted scenes on this one are transfers straight off of a cut made from the dailies, seemingly from an early workprint of the movie. They still have the timecode, but it's a timecode for a total run of the film, not the timecode you'd see on the dailies themselves. These sequences may have been taken from a tape that executives were shown, or one that was used for test screenings. My roommate Eric Rolnick pointed out to me that there are diagonal grease-pencil markings visible on some of the transitions, and explained what this means: when editing on actual film (instead of a computer), editors mark dissolves with a grease pencil (actually drawing across the film frame). When a cut of the film is locked, the actual dissolves are processed using the negatives; but this isn't done until there's a final version. Since the cut those scenes were taken from was never used, the dissolves were never printed; seeing these tells you that Craig McKay was editing on actual film, not using a computer.

  • About two-thirds of the way through the movie, Demme and Tally break a screenwriting commandment; when Clarice has been sent home to Washington and Lecter has escaped, we spend about fifteen minutes without seeing either Lecter or Starling. Instead, we have an extended sequence of the Memphis SWAT team trying to find Lecter. There aren't any main characters here. You couldn't do the movie without this sequence, and the payoff (Lecter in the ambulance) is entirely worth it, but it is weird; the audience hasn't spent any time with the SWAT team before, and here they have to carry the movie. Adam thinks, and I agree, that this is why Chris Isaak was stunt-casted as the SWAT commander. He's a recognizeable face, so the audience feels like they know him (he has maybe three lines); it makes this sequence less disorienting. It's a smart cheat.

  • The extras on this DVD include excerpts from the FBI crime classification manual; descriptions and case studies for Organized Sexual Homicide, Disorganized Sexual Homicide, Mixed Sexual Homicide, and Sexual Sadism. Fun reading. The menu to this section breathlessly informs us that Clarice Starling would have studied these classifications (actually, the extras have a lot of stuff that seems to assume that you're more interested in serial killers than filmmaking). Anyway, it's unclear what Harris would think of this being treated as useful information, but it's clear what Lecter would think. It doesn't come across in the movie, but in the book, the questionaire that Starling has brought Lecter is part of that classification system. Here's Lecter and Starling:

    "They're dividing the people who practice serial murder into two groups—organized and disorganized. What do you think of that?"
    "It's...fundamental, they evidently—"
    "Simplistic is the word you want. In fact, most psychology is puerile, Officer Starling, and that practiced in Behavioral Science is on a level with phrenology...Organized and disorganized—a real bottom-feeder thought of that."

Next up, Shock Corridor. No fooling this time.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

#18: The Naked Kiss

The Naked Kiss, 1964, written and directed by Samuel Fuller.

I'd heard of Samuel Fuller recently because a restored cut of The Big Red One was in theaters this year. I read the reviews; it's a WWII epic. So I was expecting something up Terence Malick's alley. Man, was I ever wrong. If you're planning on seeing this movie, the less you know the better; not because it's a surprise ending, but because it's the weirdest movie I've ever seen in my life. And I see a lot of movies. I wouldn't want to spoil anyone's slack-jawed disbelief at what's onscreen. So feel free to skip this and just rent the movie.

If you're still here, the opening scene: a woman beats the shit out of an extremely drunk guy with her purse. Jazz plays on the soundtrack, really insane bebop. And she's shot head on, swinging with the shoe; the first shot is her just pulling back and walloping the guy; you can't help but flinch. She's wearing a slip, heels, a strapless bra, and a scarf. Halfway through the fight, he grabs her hair, which all comes off; it's a wig, and her head is shaved. This just makes her madder. So now you have this really angry bald woman beating away at this guy; she knocks him down, sprays him in the face with a seltzer bottle (!), and steals $75 from him. Then she gets dressed and puts her wig back on; the minute she puts it back on, the music changes to weepy strings. Looking into the camera like it's a mirror, she carefully adjusts the wig, combs it, and makes experimental pouts at the camera over the opening credits. Then, the jazz comes back on the soundtrack while she walks over to a wall of photos, takes hers down, and rips it up. And if you think that's weird, you should see the rest of the movie.

The basic story is pretty straightforward. Kelly, the woman from the first scene, is a prostitute. She moves to a small town called Grantville, and after sleeping with a local police officer, decides to go straight. She then falls in love with the most prominent guy in town, much to the dismay of the cop, who's good friends with the guy. So far, this could be a late-fifties weeper. But the devil's in the really, really, really bizarre details. Kelly doesn't just go straight, she gets a job as a nurse at a local hospital for handicapped children. And she dresses them all up like pirates, for some reason. And teaches them to sing. Teaches them to sing Cab Calloway's "Little Child,"1 to be precise. So about an hour into the movie, you get a full-on musical number, starring a multiracial group of eight-year-olds in crutches and leg braces. Sample lyric: "Tell me where is the bluebird of happiness found?" And remember, they're all wearing pirate hats. I'm not kidding about this, it's really in the movie.

What else is in the movie:

  • An old woman who talks to a dressmaker's doll that she's dressed in her long-dead fiancé's military uniform. She calls him "Charlie." And he's in the credits: "'Charlie'...Himself."

  • A brothel called "Candy's," where the girls are called "Bon-bons," and a sign above the bar reads "Sweets Guarantee Indescribable Pleasure."

  • Unwanted pregnancy.

  • Child molestation.

  • A whole lot of Beethoven on the soundtrack, and a guy who has a Schroeder-style bust of Beethoven up above his reel-to-reel tape player.

  • The following line of dialogue, spoken without a trace of irony:
    I see myself by moonlight, by the lake of the Siene, in a boat wandering through a leafy alley, and Beethoven's hands playing the Moonlight Sonata. He carved that sonata out of moonlight.

So as you can see, Samuel Fuller is not the most understated writer you'll ever run across. The closest thing to the feel of this movie that I'm familiar with is David Lynch. Not too surprisingly, Lynch stole from Fuller; that brothel called Candy's shows up in Twin Peaks as "One Eyed Jacks," down to the design of the place. It's not theft, it's homage!


  • A recurring theme in coverage of Johnny Carson's recent death was that Carson gave kids the idea that adulthood was cool, and slightly mysterious; that at his height, he was an emblem of a certain kind of adult world that no longer exists. (Now, the meme goes, adults act like kids. I certainly do. I think it has to do with not wearing suits to work, or drinking every night, or being drafted). Anyway, this movie has that kind of adult in it, and that kind of adult dialogue. Some of it is nearly as good as Billy Wilder, but not quite. My favorite line; the cop to the prostitute: "You and me will get along like noise and a hangover." Nearly as good, Kelly saying that all she had to look forward to in life was "the buck, the bed, and the bottle."

  • There's a scene in this movie where Kelly makes Candy, the madame, eat $25 she'd offered to a local girl to get her to work in her brothel. Whacks her in the head with that deadly purse from the first scene, and shoves it in her mouth; leaves her with a mouth full of bills. (Her line is, "Ten. Ten. And five! Now you stay away from Bunny!") I'm going to steal that idea; I'm amazed I haven't seen it in more movies. Especially given the number of Se7en rip-offs that pride themselves on creative revenge. Anyway, in this movie, it works like gangbusters.

The next movie I'll be seeing is Shock Corridor, also by Samuel Fuller. He's insane! I can't wait.

1This song is actually referred to by any number of names. It's been called "The Little Child (Mon Enfant)," "The Little Boy and the Old Man," "Mommy Dear," "Daddy Dear"... and so on. Best reference ever: Tony Danza apparently had his daughter record a version, and then told Pat Sajak about it. See, the more I try to learn about The Naked Kiss, the deeper down the rabbit hole I go. To find out more, go here (the Who's The Boss Resource page, of course!) and search for "Bluebird." Googling monkeys forever!

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

#8: The Killer

The Killer, 1989, written and directed by John Woo.

On his commentary track for The Killer, John Woo explains several times that he is a devout Christian who believes that man should live in peace and harmony. Peace and harmony seem to be something of a problem for his characters, inasmuch as they can't stop shooting at each other. Well, actually, they do stop shooting each other, when it's time to join forces and slaughter anonymous henchmen by the score. I didn't try to keep a body count in this movie but it's easily over one hundred (the IMDB has it at 120). And these aren't implied deaths, they're squib exploading, body-jerking, blood-splattering-on-the-wall carnage. I don't want to question Mr. Woo's faith or optimism, but you sure wouldn't infer it from watching The Killer.

Chow Yun-Fat stars in The Killer as an assassin who mistakenly blinds a nightclub singer while on a hit. He feels guilty about it and sort of adopts her (she can't see him, so she doesn't know he's the man who blinded her). Hilarity ensues. No, wait. Carnage ensues: Chow Yun-Fat takes one contract too many, and is double-crossed by his manager, who is a retired hitman himself. On the run from the police and his former employers, Chow Yun-Fat stays alive the only way he knows how: by shooting lots and lots and lots of anonymous henchmen.

Although the structure of the plot is predictable, the character relationships are neat and easily to diagram: there are three friendships that make up the movie: Chow Yun-Fat is friends with his manager and mentor, Sydney. Inspector Li, the cop trailing Chow Yun-Fat, is friends with his partner and mentor, Chang. Inspector Li and Chow Yun-Fat come to be friends as well; so it's a rectangle; Sidney and Chang don't know each other but the other characters connect. And they all want to protect Jennie, the nightclub singer Chow Yun-Fat blinds in the second scene of the movie.

Which brings me to the problem I have with the film. Woo learned a hell of a lot from Peckinpah about how to set up and shoot action sequences. The balletic violence in The Killer is nearly as good as The Wild Bunch. But although they film it in similar ways, I think Woo and Peckinpah have fundamentally different ideas about what violence is and how it works, and I think Peckinpah got it right. My understanding of The Wild Bunch comes mostly from a fantastic lecture about the movie that Jim Shepard, Shawn Rosenheim, and Stephen Tifft gave (I don't remember who was actially talking that day). Anyway, the great thing about The Wild Bunch is that in that movie, in that moral universe, you can't control violence. No matter how carefully planned and executed it is, once guns start firing, things get very messy, very fast. You can see this in the opening sequence, where the well-thought-out robbery turns into an absolute bloodbath, with plenty of innocent people getting slaughtered. (If you haven't seen the movie, it opens on an out and out shootout between a group of bandits and a group of bounty hunters. The gunfight takes place on a street where a temperance group is holding a parade. It doesn't go well for the temperance marchers. Or the bank employees. Or the bandits, or the bounty hunters, or the town's buildings, or the horses). Peckinpah's movie stands in contrast to earlier westerns, in which the heroes are always able to use violence very precisely; what defines a hero is that he never hurts the wrong people. But in a Peckinpah movie, you can't help but hurt the wrong people when things get violent. You can't help but hurt everybody.

In The Killer, you have the same out-and-out bloodbaths as in The Wild Bunch . According to the IMDB, 60.000 blank rounds were fired during the filming of the last two fights. But both Chow Yun-Fat's character and Inspector Li never hurt the wrong people. In fact, Chow Yun-Fat goes to great lengths to clean up after the bad guys, when they do hurt the wrong people: early on in the movie, he takes great personal risks to deliver an injured child safely to a hospital. He didn't shoot her; they were aiming for him. But she shouldn't have been hurt. Jennie is the only person Chow Yun-Fat hurts by accident. I just don't think the world works that way. And for a character with such a strong sense of outrage when the innocent are harmed, Chow Yun-Fat has a tendency to turn everywhere he goes into an abattoir.

Leaving aside the morality of John Woo's movie, there's a lot of terrific filmmaking here. Watch for a great scene where Chow Yun-Fat and Danny Lee, guns pointed at each other, pretend that they are old high school friends for the benefit of Jennie. The shootouts, when they happen, are very well choreographed. And although John Woo has singlehandedly turned some of his favorite images into clichés (slow motion shots of birds flying, gunmen in churches), they became clichés because they worked at one time, and they work here.

Trivia and other thoughts:

The video on this one is kind of lo-res and tinted at times with red. It looks to me a lot like Mean Streets or Taxi Driver, in terms of the grainy texture it has. I think that makes the violence seem all the more intense because it looks illicit, like you're watching a snuff movie or the satellite channel in Videodrome. It looks seedy.

Worst line of dialogue: the cop is trying to describe the killer to a police sketch artist. He says, "He looks determined, without being ruthless. There's something heroic about him." I don't think that helps the sketch artist much.

Best line of dialogue: "Nostalgia is one of our saving graces."

On the commentary track, John Woo says of his leading lady Sally Yeh: "Sometimes she overacts a little. She did try very hard." Ouch. She also cut her schedule short and forced Woo to change the ending of the movie cause he couldn't shoot her last scene. So perhaps he holds that against her.

Guns are not legal in Hong Kong. And John Woo has never fired one (or hadn't when he recorded the commentary track).

Woo's advice for filmmakers is to work as an editor first; that forces you to examine exactly how a scene was shot, and learn how to piece it into something that makes sense. Which makes it easier to decide how to shoot something yourself.

I really liked the idea of hitmen having managers to set up their deals. They probably do, these days.

The actor who played Johnny Weng, the worst bad guy, was a property manager in Hong Kong. He has the face for it; you would not pay this guy late. Martin Scorcese also cast a real life landlord in Goodfellas; Chuck Low, who played Morrie, the annoying wig salesman.

Woo hates writing his scenes before he shoots them, because he gets bored with watching actors do something he's already imagined. I don't quite know what to make of this, except to point out that he was working for a studio where the executives didn't watch the dailies. At all. Contractually. The first frame of film they saw was the first workprint. So I think Woo had a bit more freedom to screw around on set than anyone working for an American studio.

Finally, there should be an equivalent phrase to "Tyburn Jig" for death by machine gun. I suggest "Hong Kong Shuffle."

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

#16: Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island

Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island. 1956. First, Eiji Yoshikawa wrote the novel. Then Hideji Hojo wrote the play. Hiroshi Inagaki and Tokuhei Wakao turned the play into a screenplay, and Hiroshi Inagaki directed it on film. That's the last time I'll have to summarize those credits. As you may have noticed, I'm a stickler for getting the writing credits right, cause I write screenplays. And my general impression is that unless the director wrote it as an original screenplay, auteur theory is kind of bullshit.

This is the last of the Samurai movies, and it's the best by a lot. And I liked the first two. I also think it would be impossible to follow without seeing the first two, so it's not an "If you see one movie in the Samurai series this year, make it Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island" type situation. But seriously: wow.

Duel at Ganryu Island opens with both Miyamoto Musashi and Kojiro Sasaki having parallel duels with men armed with spears. Miyamoto's fight gets broken up by a priest who wants to save the spearman's life; Kojiro's is more interesting. He is dueling as sort of a job interview: he wants to be the fencing instructor for a local noble. Using only a wooden sword (and fighting a guard with a metal-blated spear), Kojiro cripples his opponent for life. He doesn't get the job, because, well, he crippled his opponent in what was meant to be a demonstration match. So Kojiro increases the feudal lord's opinion of him by visiting and apologizing to his fallen opponent. That doesn't get him the job. So he decreases the feudal lord's opinion of his current fencing instructor by killing four of his students without provocation, in the street. And he gets the job. It's not a bad way to approach the hiring process.

Kojiro's real goal, though, is to provoke Musashi into dueling with him; no one else is a match for him, and he's bored. Musashi initially agrees, then doesn't show up, asking to postpone the duel for a year. Heroic! Kojiro agrees (though he doesn't have much choice; Musashi has fled), and in the intervening year, Kojiro works as a fencing instructor and Musashi settles down in a small farming village and tills the soil. It wouldn't be a samurai movie if the farming village weren't terrorized by brigands, and not too surprisingly, Musashi ends up defending the village. After a bloody battle with the attacking brigands, he finally sets off to Ganryu Island to duel Kojiro.

Women still get kind of badly treated by the characters in this installment, but they seem more aware of it. Akemi (who, remember, was sold by her mother to a wealthy man in the second movie) gets warned that if she crosses a particular part of the country alone, she will be raped by brigands. Her reply: "Men have made a plaything of me. I don't mind anything now." She knows what's going on, and she's bitter about it. Still, she directs all her hostility toward Otsu, her rival, rather than the men who have ruined her life; and when she dies, it's in Musashi's arms, content that he is finally holding her. So even if the women are more verbal in Ganryu Island about what's going on, they still pretty much buy into it.

The pacing of this movie is weird; the final battle between Kojiro and Musashi doesn't begin until 6 minutes before the end of the movie. Remember, this fight is the climax not just to this movie, but to three other movies, totalling 300 minutes of screen time. I would have liked a longer final duel. But even at six minutes, this sequence is very satisfying and visually beautiful. The two samurai fight on a sandy beach on Ganryu Island, facing west towards the mainland, at sunset. This must have taken a very long time to film, as the shots are in sequence, with the sun slowly dropping during their fight. (Actually, I just rewatched it, and the sun does go back up a bit in the last shot. But for the most part the continuity is right). They would have had about a ten minute window to shoot every day. For some shots, they would have had seconds: there's a shot where Toshirô Mifune's head perfectly blocks the sun, then he steps to the side, blinding Kojiro. Good luck getting that right.The light is this incredible soft pink, and as the sun goes under the mainland, it picks out trees on the hills across the ocean; it's fucking great.. The camera is shooting right into the sun most of the time, which I'm not sure how they accomplished; but with the exception of one matte shot, it all seems to really be outdoors. It's hard to fake an ocean.

The other strange thing about the last sequence is that it has lens flares, which I was led to believe everybody avoided like the plague until the late sixties/early seventies. Not that you could avoid them, shooting into the sun; maybe they decided it was worth it. Last thing about this: I haven't seen Kill Bill Vol. II, but I read the script a few years back. Isn't the last fight in that on a beach in Malibu at sunset?

Last thing: you know the scene in The Karate Kid where Mr. Miyagi catches flies with chopsticks? That's a straight lift from this movie.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

#15: Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple

Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple, 1954, directed by Hiroshi Inagaki, screenplay by Hiroshi Inagaki and Tokuhei Wakao, from Hideji Hojo's theatrical adaptation of a novel by Eiji Yoshikawa. I'm going to see if I can find a third way to describe those writing credits for the third part of the trilogy. Inelegant variation, thy name is Dessem.

So this is the second movie in the trilogy, and exists to set things up for the third installment; as such, I won't have as much to say about it as I would for an all-new movie. Usually, the second movie in a trilogy is my favorite; if there are any big reversals, that's where they happen (like the second act of a script. The best middle movies set you up to believe that the third movie will probably be the greatest thing ever created. Which means you're poised for maximum disappointment when they march out the Ewoks.

In Duel at Ichijoji Temple, Miyamoto Musashi continues his training, this time learning to temper his physical power with introspection and mercy. Which is kind of strange; in the first movie, he got locked in an attic with stacks of books for three years or so; one would think he'd already have mastered the introspecion stuff. And since there aren't any training sequences in either movie, it's not clear who taught him to fight—he wasn't bad with a sword in the first movie, but in this one he's using two katanas like he's been doing it forever. I don't think I could hold two blades like that one handed, much less swing them, much less swing them accurately. So here's to you, Toshirô Mifune!

There are three big fight sequences in this one; my favorite is the first, between Musashi and a guy with a ball & chain. The third one is the Duel at Ichijoji Temple from the title; it's Musashi v. 80 swordsmen from a samurai school that's gone to pot. I think the fight between the Bride and the Crazy 88 in Kill Bill drew a lot from this movie, although Musashi's fight is in a rice paddy (muddy!), not indoors.

In this installment, the female characters really come into their own. And by "come into their own," I mean, get alternately raped, imprisoned, and betrayed. And then they take it out on each other. Akemi gets sold by her mother to a man who rapes her, then locks her up when he finds out she loves Musashi. Otsu, abandoned in the last movie by Matahachi, gets abandoned in this one by Musashi. Both Akemi and Otsu get sort of passed around throughout the movie to a variety of male protectors; the only decisions they make are motivated by their desire for Musashi. And since they have so much in common, they loathe each other; Akemi nearly kills herself but decides not to, in order to make sure that Otsu doesn't end up with Musashi. I'm rereading Martin Amis's Money, and read this paragraph the day I saw this movie:

I've been told that men don't like women, period. Oh yeah? Who does then? Because women don't like women.

Anyway, the point: Japan circa 1605: not a good time and place to be female.

Other things in Samurai II: my roommate Eric asked me if I thought the second movie had a bigger budget than the first one (I'm not sure why this was his first question; he'd seen about thirty seconds of the first movie and less of the second at the time he asked). I didn't know, and still don't, but it did seem to me that the second one had a lot more stuff shot on soundstages, and some really bad matte paintings.I'm not sure if that would cost more than shooting outdoors (I suspect it would cost more if the weather was good, less if it was bad), but it certainly looked worse. I wonder about the production history of these movies; if the second one depended on the success of the first or if they were done as a trilogy to begin with. As I noted before, Inagaki had already made all three movies before in the 40's.

I can say one thing for certain; they weren't all filmed at once, a la The Lord of the Rings. Matahachi is played by a different actor in the second movie. But he's still a pansy; he spends a lot of this movie taking orders from his elderly mother. And he still gets the most ridiculous lines. This time around my favorite was, "Mother wants me to kill you. But I don't want to. Let's elope!" I've filed that away to remember if I ever propose: irresistable!

Kôji Tsuruta, who plays Kojiro Sasaki, has what may be the creepiest smile I've ever seen. It's not a classic villain smile, and it's not crooked or anything. But he looks like he's wearing a Noh mask whenever he smiles. He's a great villain. Duel at Ichijoji Temple sets up a big battle between Sasaki and Musashi for the third installment; I'm looking forward to it.