Weekend Reel Reads: Origins of Cameras and Characters

Features
by Steve Greene
November 18, 2012 2:47 PM
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Weekend Reel Reads is a regular feature that gathers lengthier stories related to the world of film criticism you may have missed during the week. If there's anything you think would be ideal for future installments, please let us know at critic@indiewire.com.

Steadicam progress - the career of Paul Thomas Anderson in five shots

Many writers and cinematic thinkers put a tremendous amount of effort into figuring out how "The Master" connects to the previous work of Paul Thomas Anderson. Video essayist and frequent Press Play contibutor Kevin B. Lee composed a piece for BFI went in a slightly different direction, instead singling out one iconic Steadicam shot (a feature less prominent in "The Master") from each of Anderson's other films. The transcript alone from this essay is worth a read in the way it details the "flashier" Anderson. But for those curious to see how the video matches up, Lee documents each of these sequences with incredibly helfpul diagrams that depict just how those camera movements are composed.

"While The Master offers a couple of swirling tracking shots in a department store, and later a pair of straight-line lateral tracking shots to match the onanistic thrill of motorcycle joyriding, the film settles more often into shot/reverse shot dialogues in cozy interior sets. It seems that Anderson’s camera strategy here has less in common with Scorsese, Altman or even Kubrick (with all of whom he’s frequently compared) than with Jonathan Demme. Indeed, in the DVD commentary of Boogie Nights, Anderson expresses a profound emulation of Demme, though Demme himself couldn’t recognise a shot from Boogie Nights that Anderson claimed to have blatantly derived from him."

The Great American Unproduced Screenplay

Over time, development hell overtakes us all. Whether by procrastination or by the choices of others, the work we put into a project often becomes a sunk cost when it doesn't make its way to public consumption. But in the case of Len Dobbs' unproduced screenplay "Edward Ford," even work that doesn't reach its final fruition can still exist as an artistic achievement. Slate's Matthew Dessem penned an appreciation to the script that's bounced around Hollywood for decades, outlining its savvy bucking of conventional screenwriting trends and its insight into the industry through a main character struggling to make it in the industry.

"And in the meantime, thousands of people have read Edward Ford and seen the film in their heads. It could have been directed by Tim Hunter or David Byrne or David Lynch or Steven Soderbergh or Dobbs himself. It could have starred Woody Harrelson or John Lithgow or John Ritter or William Hurt or even Crispin Glover, all of whom approached or were approached at some point in the script’s history. All these potential Edward Fords are evoked every time the script is read, like cinematic Schrödinger's cats. But the instant any one director fixes it on film, the superpositioned versions will collapse and be gone forever. It’s hard not to see that as a narrowing of the road. It almost seems right that Edward Ford should be immortalized in a screenplay that never quite worked out as planned."

Indiana Jones' Tenure

Plausibility is the subject of many a feature these days. Whether it's plot holes or basic demerits for unbelivability, fiction is held to factual standards. Andy Bryan, in a piece published at McSweeney's, imagines this professional tenure review of Indiana Jones' teaching ability and academic record. It's an exercise that, aside from being hilarious, is a way to approach the elements of characterization and plot that don't quite add up (wouldn't Jones' students start to complain that he was never there?) while reminding the reader that we're discussing made-up stories, after all.

"Though Dr. Jones conducts 'field research' far more often than anyone else in the department, he has consistently failed to report the results of his excavations, provide any credible evidence of attending the archaeological conferences he claims to attend, or produce a single published article in any peer-reviewed journal. Someone might tell Dr. Jones that in academia 'publish or perish' is the rule. Shockingly, there is little evidence to date that Dr. Jones has successfully excavated even one object since he arrived at Marshall College. Marcus Brody, curator of our natural-history museum, assured me this was not so and graciously pointed out several pieces in the collection that he claimed were procured through Dr. Jones’s efforts, but, quite frankly, we have not one shred of documentation that can demonstrate the provenance or legal ownership of these objects."

Ang Lee: Of water and Pi

Roger Ebert's conversation with "Life of Pi" director has the comforting feel of familiarity. Rather than simply a one-sided gush, it's obvious that there's mutual admiration between Ebert and Lee. The two have known each other for over a decade, so the piece reads more like a friendly discussion of talent. The director discusses special effects and particular water imagery, but his overall musings on the film's representation and relationship with nature are particularly intriguing.

"That will help younger viewers, who think tigers are their friends. 'They watch too many Disney movies. In the movie, the father's lesson is specifically — if you think like that, you'll be killed. Survive and respect nature and respect animals is what you should do. However, at the end, the boy says, 'My father is absolutely right, but I see something else, something else I cannot prove it, but I see it, I feel it.' I think that's human emotion. To me, his love for the tiger is a one-way street, it's unrequited love.'"

Where to start with Jerry Lewis’ considerable, oft-misunderstood filmography

As Noel Murray concedes towards the beginning of his Jerry Lewis edition of the Gateways to Geekery column for AV Club, there are plenty of barriers to entry to the Lewis oeuvre. It's not all timeless comedy and there's a wasted-potential factor evident in many of Lewis' entries in his filmography. But Murray offers some potential starting points, including an explanation of why different parts of his on-screen persona appeal to different segments of the moviegoing populace.

"The sheer heft of Lewis’ filmography makes him a difficult artist to jump into, especially given that he made more than a few clunkers while he was at his most prolific. Also, comedy in general doesn’t always age well—and that’s not just a reference to Lewis’ occasional lapses into racist caricatures. Some modern viewers find Lewis’ mugging to be excessive, and find the manic, relentlessly silly quality of most of his movies hard to take for 90 minutes or more. But while the running joke that the French love Jerry Lewis is meant to be evidence of France’s dubious taste and strange pretensions, those French cineastes aren’t necessarily wrong. There’s real genius in many of Lewis’ films, even if it only appears in the form of one or two clever setpieces or a fleeting background gag. Lewis worked so fast and so often during his productive years that he never really took the time to fashion a flawless masterpiece, but he had masterful moments, and some of his movies are more generous with them than others."

How Steven Spielberg's Cinematographer Got These Eleven Shots

We've featured a few interviews and appreciations of cinematographers in this space over the past few months. With "Lincoln" gearing up for its nationwide opening weekend, Vulture's Kyle Buchanan looked at the work of frequent Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski, complete with commentary from the DP himself. Sometimes it's easy to forget that these images and sequences don't just make themselves. Even though these explanations aren't comprehensive, any peek into the process is fascinating.

Impressed by Kaminski's work on the Diane Keaton-directed Wildflower, Spielberg hired him to shoot a backdoor pilot he was producing for ABC called Class of 1861, about West Point cadets torn apart by the Civil War (which failed to earn a pickup, despite a now-starry cast that included Clive Owen and Laura Linney). Soon after, Kaminski got the call for Schindler's List. 'They told me it was low-budget, but to me, it was huge-budget,' laughs Kaminski. 'It was $22 million, but in Poland, that was a lot of money!' Kaminski shot most of the film on black-and-white emulsion, save for the sequences featuring the little girl with the red dress, which were shot in color emulsion and then painstakingly desaturated in a process called rotoscoping, which Kaminski describes as 'an old version of CGI, except each frame was done by hand.'"

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