Untouchable

Movies have different ways of communicating with the audience, some prefer to stick to heavy loaded dialogue, others rely mostly on poetry and metaphors, others use music and physical gags, others are founded on story and plot, and finally, there are those that target the audience with only one single element: visuals. Movies are motion pictures, they are an art form that specializes in capturing movement on camera, they are known for manipulating reality and cramming it into a digital screen that projects the image to the audience, be it in a theater or someone’s living room. However, if one were to look back at most mainstream films that have come out in the last decade or so, one will start to notice a pattern: most films focus on what is being said rather than what is being done. Directors and producers feel a lot safer when the script is the focal point of the project rather than a story, or even worse, an abstract idea because what’s written on paper will always guide in some way, some direction, be it a description of an object, tone of voice, a look, a character’s line or even a setting, as in INTERIOR – JOE’S OFFICE – NIGHT. Today’s major studios want safe options, blockbusters  that are easy to make and follow a set narrative formula which means there is an entire generation of directors who spend their time jumping from one franchise to another, from Planet of the Apes to Star Wars to Jurassic World and The Avengers,  without ever being able to clearly reveal their true identities as artists, storytellers. That is now, but what about forty, thirty, even twenty years ago? Back then  studio influence was just as powerful in some cases if not more (re: Apocalypse NowHeaven’s Gate), but there were certain filmmakers who were allowed to do whatever they felt like doing, and who were always able to make the most out of any source material. One of these talented dudes was a man named Brian De Palma, a director who based his entire career on chasing the ghost of Alfred Hitchock, and by doing so, he learned how to seduce his audiences with the simple help of visuals and nothing else.

tumblr_p3gkbu41VC1qetb0ho1_1280
You will not dare to look away.

When it comes to watching a De Palma movie forget plot, forget dialogue and character, simply focus on what is on screen. The first thing one will notice is De Palma’s immediate need to drag you into his world. He often does this by opening his movies with a 5-10 minute long tracking shot, like in Bonfire of the Vanities or Snake Eyes, during which the main characters are introduced and set within one specific world. In Snake Eyes, for example, we follow Nicholas Cage as Detective Rick Santoro walking around a boxing arena, waiting for a big fight to take place. Through De Palma’s eyes we’re quickly thrown into the world that Santoro is immersed in, a world of scumbags, dealers, call girls and gangsters, who all happen to know him. Considering the traditional structure of a screenplay I doubt such an opening was written specifically for De Palma to follow. The director, instead of introducing his protagonist through various conversations and interactions, decided simply to use the camera to track the protagonist’s movements, way of walking, capturing the energy around him, the excitement in the arena building and slowly but surely building tension within the viewer’s mind, preparing him for something significant to happen in the following minutes.

bonfire_contact-0-1080-0-0
The opening to Bonfire of the Vanities sweeps you for 5 entire minutes with the sizzling energy of upper class New York.

Another example of De Palma using mostly camera movements and angles to grab the viewer’s attention can be found in his systematic use of long tracking shots (6-12 minutes) at the movie’s midpoint in order to build the stage on which the climatic midpoint event (a fight, a chase scene, a murder) will eventually take place. This is mostly used to full effect in Dressed to Kill (the museum scene) and Body Double (the shopping mall). In both scenes a character is spying on another character and the single take is used for two purposes: 1) to build an elaborate map of the setting, be it a museum or a shopping mall, so that the viewer can easily follow the character’s movements and predict certain scenarios (for example, a dead end that prevents the character from escaping, or a wrong turn that will lead the character into the other character’s path); 2) to force the viewer into assuming a character’s point of view, be it the one being spied on/chased (Angie Dickinson’s character in Dressed to Kill) or the one spying/chasing (Craig Wasson’s character in Body Double). This way, De Palma has the artistic freedom to exploit one single location to its fullest potential instead of shooting multiple scenes, switching settings and time of day, distorting the viewer’s attention and awareness, following a formulaic development. In The Untouchables this method is even clearer in the scene where a gangster is trying to break into Malone’s (Sean Connery’s) home and follows him from the street, onto the window into the apartment. Had it been filmed any other way, this scene would have lost its energy and the quality of a ticking bomb, yet De Palma perfectly uses the limited space of a cop’s apartment to turn this scene into a real nail-biter.

35f4fb875da126e06155b1cc2bf63648
De Palma’s art lies in making something ordinary stand out.

As mentioned in the introduction to this post, De Palma is well known for his fixation with Hitchcock. Some might even call him a cheap copy of Hitchcock, but that would absolutely be a false claim. De Palma’s style is unique precisely because he follows certain patterns and uses certain elements that were previously introduced by none other than the man behind PsychoVertigoNorth by Northwest and Birds. Most De Palma movies use Hitchcock’s teachings to make the most out of nothing, for example, by foreshadowing a dramatic, bloody resolution like in Dressed to Kill to make the actual finale even more shocking. In Dressed to Kill the audience is bombarded with violent images showing the gruesome slaying of a middle-aged woman (Angie Dickinson) at different moments of the movie, finally culminating within the one hour mark with the full depiction of the murder as witnessed by the prostitute played by Melanie Griffith. Certain lighting patterns, like in the first minutes of Carlito’s Way, will foreshadow the character’s end but also give a sense of what is about to follow. By using different shades of purple, gray and blue, De Palma paints Carlito’s Way‘s introduction with a sense of nostalgia, a sense of accomplishment even though the movie has just started. We realize the character is dying not because Carlito says it in his voice over narration but because of the way he is introduced on screen, eyes wide open, staring upwards, right into the camera, his body being slowly pushed in a stretcher by a group of nurses, the world around him fading out, leaving him alone with his story that he’s about to tell the audience.

beginning_carlitosway
A dying man staring right at us, this is Carlito’s story.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the key to De Palma’s visual seduction of the viewer lies in his untamed love for genre. You will often find yourself wondering what you’ve just watched when the credits to a De Palma film start to roll, was that a thriller (Blow Out) ? A horror (Body Double)? A black comedy (Scarface)? Or a Western (The Untouchables)? These questions are extremely valid since the director is always trying to mask his films with multiple layers of genres in order to make the most accurate representation of his own intricate vision. The scene in The Untouchables where the group of policemen lead by Elliot Ness and Malone (Kevin Costner and Sean Connery, respectively) charge a column of vehicles driven by mafia members on horseback wielding shotguns and pistols is something one would expect to see in a Western by John Ford, not a gangster movie written by David Mamet and directed by Brian De Palma, and yet that’s what makes the entire scene, and not a minute of it feels silly or unnecessary, it simply is a De Palma moment, something so unique, original and full of life that you, as an audience member, cannot help but appreciate the sheer passion that went into the production of that particular scene.

The-Untouchables-1987-Union-Station
And what about The Untouchables railway station sequence? A mix of Eisenstein and Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.

De Palma will keep making many people shake their heads in dissatisfaction, be it with his ‘male gaze’ (re: Femme Fatale from 2002 where the character played by Antonio Banderas is literally taking pictures of women from his balcony) or simply with his fixation of turning every moment into a big, loud celebration (the fireworks in Blow Out ‘s ending). This, however, should not be held against him as De Palma is one of the very few directors who is capable of making movies by using a ton of style and a grain of substance, something other fellow filmmakers (yes, I’m looking at you, Nicolas Winding Refn) are simply not up to, or at least, not on De Palma’s level. Having watched a lot of his movies lately, some with repeated viewings, it is safe to say that sometimes studying a cheap copy of Hitchcock might even be more beneficial and worthwhile than studying the real thing. Bet on it.

Blow-Out-FEATURED
Sometimes too much is exactly what a film needs.
Advertisements

The Father

There’s a new movie coming out this year, which I’m particularly eager to see, entitled First Reformed starring Ethan Hawke in the role of a morally broken priest. As I sat watching the movie’s trailer I noticed a critics’ praise for it: ”A fierce film from Paul Schrader. One of the crucial creators of the modern cinema.” This positive remark left me quite surprised. Sure, I knew who Paul Schrader was; longtime friend of Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, director of one of the most important movies of the 90s, Affliction, director of the cult classic, American Gigolo, and screenwriter of Raging Bull and the Last Temptation of Christ. But as I read through his artistic credits I realized how little I had seen from him. The man’s body of work spans across four decades of fundamental shifts and changes. And that’s why I decided to dive into the man’s early body of work; to finally be able to comprehend the genius that stands behind modern cinema: Paul Schrader.

Paul-Schrader-01
Paul Schrader.

First of all, Schrader is in no way, shape, or form a remarkable director. Yes, that may sound odd since this post is dedicated to the artist himself. However, what I aim to focus on is the man’s voice, which comes through the attitude of his movies, rather than the form of the movies itself. Schrader has produced numerous films, especially in the last decade or so, but it is his early work that speaks volumes not only of Schrader as a man and artist, but about the society Schrader made these movies in, the chaos, confusion and turmoil that created the atmosphere that was needed for the screenwriter turned director to convey his vision to movie goers. It is this eternal state of confusion, madness and anger that makes Schrader such a crucial figure in the founding of modern cinema, because what is modern cinema? It is a hard question to answer. We all see different movies. We see what we like and it does not necessarily have to be considered modern cinema. At the time of Schrader’s rise in the mid 70s, American cinema was starting to acquire a certain power. Unlike the 60s, where experimenting with the technicalities of filmmaking such as improvisation, shooting on location or the use of handheld cameras was the main focus, the 70s focused on the attitude that was felt on the streets of American cities, mainly New York and Los Angeles, two metropolitan areas that differed enormously both in their landscape as well as their attitude. Around those years a new wave of young film directors emerged, all of them willing to change the course of cinema, willing to introduce a sort of spirit that cinema hadn’t been able to capture before. There was Scorsese, Lucas, Spielberg, Coppola and De Palma. The five amigoes who grabbed cinema by the throat and produced some of the most revolutionary pictures. Schrader, on the other hand, did not make the cut. Perhaps because he came from a different part of the United States (Grand Rapids, MI), or perhaps because he simply wasn’t as talented and as well-liked by the studios of the time. But one thing is certain: Schrader had the same thirst to talk about the issues that troubled him and his generation, the issues that rocked his world.

tumblr_onp43flmQ81qetb0ho1_1280
The openness of violence in Taxi Driver.

Schrader’s thirst and need to be heard might have probably been the result of years spent working as a cab driver in Los Angeles, where he faced off with his demons on a nightly basis. His own depression, loneliness and anger translated into what we now know as Scorsese’s masterpiece – Taxi Driver.  Indeed, one of Schrader’s earliest credits is writing the tale of a lonely cab driver in New York named Travis Bickle who decides to kill the favored presidential candidate. In this case, Schrader’s credit might only be that of a writer but the overall frustration with society comes through like in no other of his own feature films. PS creates one of the most complex characters ever portrayed on screen using every single characteristic that would have been considered vulgar and X-rated ten years prior to the release of this film; a lonely, dirty, mentally disturbed war vet in search of nothing, wanting nothing, enraged with the state of things, with tendencies of self-harm and sociopathic behavior. Travis’ world is the world we now know from numerous recent crime films such as Good TimeCollateral, American Gangster and Training Day. The idea of using an anti-hero as the protagonist and placing him in the middle of a sewer such as the filthy streets of East Village, populated by pimps, murderers and prostitutes, is a clear outcry for society to wake up, for cinema to start showing the real problems, the human issues that can trouble and be relevant even among the lowest members of our social hierarchy. The concept of having the anti-hero try to save a young, underage hooker, played by Jodi Foster, was at the time an idea that made countless heads shake in disgust. Taxi Driver showed everyone how low cinema can reach in search of an important story, a vital element of today’s cinema: a unique, unsettling atmosphere of threat and discomfort that can be found in some of the most popular movies of recent years including Nightcrawler, a prime example of today’s openness toward extravagant, borderline uncomfortable storytelling.

615800
Travis Bickle. A character for the ages.

Finally, in 1978 and 1979 Schrader managed to get the required budget for two excellent directorial efforts, which aside from his later Mishima and Affliction, are his best work to date. The two films are Blue Collar and Hardcore. Both features come at the viewer in waves, like rapid machine gun fire, grabbing the viewer by the throat without letting go until the final second. Blue Collar, unlike Hardcore, focuses on the unit of a group, and more accurately: a group of three autoworkers and the union looming over them. It is about the force and at the same time, the powerlessness of a group that faces a clear rejection from the rest of society. The three protagonists, all behind their dues, wanted by the tax-man, committed to their families, are a representation of the underbelly of America, the common man struggling to make ends meet. Schrader tortures his characters with confrontations and challenges that can either make them or break them. There is no middle line for Schrader, it is all about the determination to succeed mixed with the awareness of the fact that the American Dream is nothing but a fairy tale for kids. The three men, played by Pryor, Keitel and Kotto are trapped from all sides; these are men whose lives have lost meaning, and yet they have to push forward, which leads us to interpret this film as a social commentary sparked by a heartbreaking character study of three imperfect individuals who belong to an imperfect society.

0_xW4QVJ57YBHih9Gm
Three men unable to escape their reality.

Hardcore, on the other hand, is a film solely focused on one character, Jake VanDorn, (played to perfection by George C. Scott), and this character’s individual quest to find his missing daughter. Sounds familiar, huh? Indeed, Schrader’s violent, psychologically disturbing film about a desperate midwestern businessman looking for his daughter in sex shops and titty bars can be described as an accurate precursor to the Taken series, as well as other modern-day depictions of an individual standing up to a system, even in blockbusters like John Wick. Again, it is Schrader’s ability and fierce determination to dive into the most disturbing social environments that set him apart from his contemporaries. The contrast between VanDorn’s religious background and the pornographic underbelly of LA and San Diego that he has to go through make of him the quintessential modern character; strong yet weak, stable yet capable of losing his mind very easily, innocent yet incredibly violent, religious yet lacking in true faith. This was a character that at the time was not wished to be seen or even acknowledged since it clearly pointed in the wrong direction; a direction Hollywood was not willing to take considering its strong and permanent will to remain a conventional medium, a medium of traditional, conservative characters. Schrader, known for being a blunt artist, said to hell with it! and rolled the dice, and what mattered was not the final outcome of the dice, but the sheer act of rolling it.

George
The state of confusion of Jake VanDorn and his descent into madness.

The act itself, rolling the dice in a dark alley, made of Schrader a voice worth listening to, similar to the raspy voice of a disturbed individual on the street, talking to himself, preaching to the crowd of passers-by. The voice, distinct, angry, loud, made of Schrader an under-appreciated and often forgotten figure of modern cinema. He wasn’t the one setting the rules like Spielberg and Scorsese; he was simply someone who taught viewers and aspiring filmmakers to always speak in their own language, articulate their own thoughts, profess what they feel is important and be personal. Because at the end of the day, that is what modern cinema is all about; having different voices be heard, as loud, or as shy or even as vulgar as they may be. Let them be heard.

tumblr_n5y2j37pfk1rt1r5ro3_1280
It may be worth looking out for the next cab driver.

King of Independence

Today’s topic: the man who keeps independent filmmaking alive.  In an era where Hollywood blockbusters have taken over every big cinema theater in every country, independent cinema is starting to take a new turn and progress with time. Think about it, back in the day some of the biggest names were making movies for themselves instead of making them for big time producers. Quentin Tarantino himself started off by directing Reservoir Dogs with initially a budget of a mere $30.000 and then raised it with the help of actor Harvey Keitel to a more impressive but still low $1.5mln, this way creating what is hailed today as “the greatest independent film of all time”. The Coen Brothers made their first few movies – Blood Simple, Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing – with a just few bucks using either at the time unknown actors (Nicolas Cage, John Turturro)  or washed up stars like Gabriel Byrne. Sure, other directors like veteran Michael Haneke, newcomer JC Chandor, Lisa Chodolenko, David Gordon Green, Lynne Ramsay are all skillful players of the same trade, but it seems like there is one voice that has done nothing but serve cinematic gems in a day where movies are usually overstuffed or overcooked with  clichés and banalities. His tiny filmography gives us a glimpse of a man whose name someday will resonate across all audiences and whose signature will be visible in every book that belongs to film literature. His name is Jeff Nichols.

Jeff-Nichols
No fancy suit and tie, no director’s chair, plain T-shirt. This is Jeff Nichols.

The boy from Little Rock, Arkansas, grew up to become a true master at his craft, a young mind who sees what other choose to ignore. His filmography of just three films (other two coming out in 2016) has had a huge impact on movie buffs and the way we think about independent filmmaking. Nichols chooses topics that are easy to relate to and makes them much more profound than what we’d expect. His debut, the 2007 Shotgun Stories, about family members fighting each other, gave critics such as the late mighty Roger Ebert a reason to take an eye off Hollywood for a moment and focus on something smaller, more delicate but just as dynamic. Nichols’ choice of settings is very particular and probably very personal to the director: the American countryside. Again, what other directors choose not to look at, Nichols prefers to study under a microscope. Cornfields, abandoned farms, ruined backyards, outdated cars, conservative communities, it’s all there. The environment his movies are wrapped in is unpredictable, hostile, presenting a tough life for any age and gender. It’s the poverty and the thirst for a better life in a better place that is unreachable, which make the viewer swallow every bite of his tasty food with great difficulty. It’s the raw images that Nichols throws in the audience’s face. However, it’s not a grim vision. There is also a lot of good in his movies; fatherly love, friendship, parents’ devotion, sacrifice. There is always something worth fighting for.

Shotgun_Stories
A family on the edge of destruction – Shotgun Stories.

Nichols’ camerawork is steady. The movements are controlled, there is no rush in them, no shaking, the images he captures are almost a photo album filled with beautifully composed photographs. In his, in my opinion, best movie – 2011 Take Shelter – Nichols tells the story of a blue collar worker, a loving family man (played by Nichols’ friend and regular collaborator, the great Michael Shannon) who starts to have nightmares about an apocalypse, which to him becomes a reality. His goal? To save his family; his sweet wife (Jessica Chastain in top form) and his hearing-impaired daughter. Nichols manages to turn family love into a vehicle of danger and conflict. The man begins to build a storm shelter in the backyard, hurried by the dark visions that slowly start to take over his mind, making him a victim of his own fears and fantasies. It’s a small idea that takes over the screen, and turns into a giant, menacing vision of a society, which can’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality. The scenes where the husband, Curtis, sits down at the dinner table with his beautiful wife, Samantha and his daughter, Hannah, are the centerpiece of the action. Nichols chooses not to let the outside world creep into the plot, but rather mask a possible danger with the help of a loving unit – the family. What Curtis sees, hears and says at the dinner table, is what motivates him to drive further into the direction of insanity. Yes, it’s what it is. A brilliant example of minimalistic cinema bashing our heads in.

Take-Shelter_film-still_02
Your family is worth making you lose your mind – Take Shelter.

Nichols as a writer. Not only can he direct a tense scene with great ease and impressive simplicity but he can write too. Every character he creates is someone that feels so close to us, and yet so distant. A scary familiarity. That’s the case for his third and up until now, last movie – 2012 Mud. This time the writer/director explores the ruined villages located on the edge of the Mississippi. A merciless land where you either you make your living out of the river, you drown in it along with your debts. The titular Mud, is played by Matthew McConaughey (before the “McConaughey age” started, in some way Nichols introduced him to Oscar success), a square jawed, dirty man whose past is as mysterious as the fact that he lives on a boat trapped on top of a tree located on a river island. Mud is friendly and smokes a lot, and the only people he trusts to form a friendship with are teenage boys Ellis and Neckbone. Mud’s slurred speech and short sentences make of him a ghost, someone who may be there or may not, someone who isn’t entirely real. But Mud is, trust me. Nichols writes a friendship for the ages, three different individuals working on the same objective: take the boat off the tree and then… go on an adventure. It’s almost a romantic ballad, because Mud is looking for his old love that’s gone missing. As Nichols unwraps Mud’s past in front of our eyes we can’t help but ask for more.  And in the end, it’s all worth asking.

Mud-banner-e1365261041835
Three lives connected by a river – Mud.

Nichols may be someone who prefers to stay low-key, work on small productions and shoot on a limited budget, but his stories are bigger than life and filled to the brim with raw truth. He’s an artist whose work is unique and very personal, both qualities that are very rare and precious in a world of mindless Marvel movies and cheap television. One day, his name will be cited in film classics. Maybe not. Nichols doesn’t make movies for that. He makes them to put a smile on his own face. That’s admirable.

still-of-matthew-mcconaughey-and-jeff-nichols-in-mud-(2012)-large-picture
He’ll keep doing what he’s doing, ride on.