All posts by NotesonFilm1

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 123 – Roma

Much to Mike’s disdain – he throws tantrums about Netflix films – we settled in with a KFC to discuss Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, a semi-autobiographical film about the live-in housekeeper to an upper middle class Mexican family. Carefully composed and inflected with a neorealist aesthetic, it’s been making countless year-end lists and is being touted as potentially Netflix’s first Best Picture nominee at the Academy Awards, so Mike wasn’t allowed to say no.

The film is remarkable for depicting modern-day indigenous Mexicans, people to whose existence many outside the Americas might not have ever given any thought. Yalitza Aparicio, Roma’s star, is a non-professional actor of Mixtec and Triqui origin, and simply her appearance is interesting, let alone the film’s use of Mixtec language (Mike gets this name wrong at first but don’t hold it against him) and its development of the indigenous population as lower class workers. We consider the use of black-and-white imagery – José questioning what it brings to the film – and the ways in which the sound design and long panning shots attempt to place the viewer within the film’s environments. Mike explains a prejudice he holds against “personal” films, and José considers Roma‘s place alongside Cuarón’s previous work, and the melodrama of the birth scene.

Mediático, a film and media blog focused on Latin American, Latinx and Iberian media, took an immediate and deep interest in Roma and marshalled eight academics to each write a short essay on the film, and we refer to some of the points raised throughout the podcast. The dossier is well worth reading, will enrich your experience of the film, and can be found here: http://reframe.sussex.ac.uk/mediatico/2018/12/24/introduction-to-the-special-dossier-on-roma-alfonso-cuaron/

(The links to the essays are on the right hand side of the webpage.)

In addition, the dossier refers on several occasions to Richard Brody’s review of the film in The New Yorker, in which he is critical of the lack of a voice given to the main character and finds the film asks more questions of the world it depicts than it answers. We refer to this, too, and you can read it here: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/the-front-row/theres-a-voice-missing-in-alfonso-cuarons-roma

As for us? We find areas of interest, things to both agree and disagree with, in all the articles we read. José was deeply riveted by Roma despite a reservation or two and continues to see Cuarón as a great director. Mike was less interested, admitting that had he been watching the film alone, he would likely have turned it off before the halfway point; an issue with watching things at home that isn’t as pressing at the cinema (he wouldn’t have walked out of a screening). But that’s a tantrum for another day.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 122 – Aquaman

DC’s search for a cinematic tone continues to lurch between monochrome gravity and Technicolor frivolity, James Wan’s Aquaman firmly occupying the latter end of the spectrum. Although Mike has long been amused at how feeble is the concept of a superhero whose power is fish telepathy, the film has a good sense of humour about itself (even if some of the specific jokes are a little clunky) and hugely enjoyable freedom in its design, the giant seahorses a particular charm.

We discuss what’s to like and dislike about the film’s visual design and action, its message that violence is the least good solution to any problem, the welcome wisdom and calmness brought by Willem Dafoe and Dolph Lundgren (yes, really), and its adaptation of Arthurian legend and how it fits into a recent spate of films and television programmes fascinated with monarchy, bloodlines, divine rights and so on.

Jose is overall more reserved than Mike but still announces that he enjoyed himself, and the golden rule holds true: the key to happiness is low expectations.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 121 – Mary Poppins Returns

Mary Poppins is back after a mere 54 years since the first film. The kids have grown up, life has grown difficult, and a magical undying supernatural flying nanny is precisely what they need.

What they don’t need are new ideas. Mary Poppins Returns copies the structure and concepts of the first film almost to the point of parody, today’s Disney operating in a world in which people apparently want low-effort, straight-up nostalgia (as their spate of CGI-laden remakes of their animated classics can confirm). However, the film has its charms, in time the songs may become memorable – one can rarely tell on first viewing – and children are sure to love it as previous generations loved the last.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Biographies by Sheridan Morley

 

 

Robert Morley flashed by on the TV yesterday and I remembered how much I loved him. Does anyone remember him in Who´s Killing The Great Chefs of Europe? Since I had a rare day with no other commitments I went on to read Sheridan Morley´s biography of him, very funny and well-written. You certainly get to know more about him but you don´t get to know him any better. After I read Morley´s biography of his father, I went on to read that of his grandmother, Gladys Cooper. And the same thing. It´s like eating brioche, satisfying and delicious but without much substance.

John Lehr is a contemporary of Sheridan Morley´s and he also wrote a biography of his father Bert, which makes for an interesting comparison, both as works of biography but also about cultural differences. John´s bio is all about finding interiority, psychological complexity, motive. Sheridan´s is all about jokes, attitudes, ways of being. Very enjoyable reading nonetheless.

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I carried on with Sheridan Morley´s book on James Mason, and cumulatively the biographies led me to reflect that there once was a market for light, brief books, written by someone seemingly in the know, on film stars. This book is on James Mason but like most of his others it´s a bare outline of a life and career; very well-written but critically deficient; peppered with interesting anecdotes from people who knew the subject and who were willing to contribute to a portrait the subject would be happy with. ´Research´in Morleyland is having tea or cocktails with interesting people willing to share a piquant story that doesn´t cross the boundary into potential embarrassment. This one, like the others, provides 250 odds pages that make an afternoon disappear in a vague haze of pleasure and leaves no residue, rather like afternoon tv now. No wonder they could be churned out annually at considerable profit.

José Arroyo

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 120 – Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

It’s colourful, friendly, packed full of visual energy and wit. It’s also light and just a little forgettable, like a straight-to-video movie that’s made it onto the big screen. But we had a good time and find lots to praise about Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 119 – Disobedience

Rachels Weisz and McAdams soar in this delicate, passionate, complex drama of social pressures and forbidden love. Set in the North London Jewish community, Disobedience tells the story of two women whose love for each other is reignited when one returns home following her father’s death.

Everything is rendered complex, nothing is simple. Weisz’s anger at having been cast out of the community, McAdams’ subjugation and repression into a way of life she doesn’t desire, and Nivola’s denial and ambition are all expressed deeply and combine in intelligent and subtle ways. José is spellbound by the depth of feeling from the very beginning; Mike feels the lack of context early on is disappointing, seeing the film’s clichés rather than its originalities. And we share a certain reservation as to the film’s visual qualities, Mike suggesting the Jewishness of the story is reflected in its understatement, but again there is complexity present in its aesthetic and we appreciate its coherence.

We also like the seriousness with which the film treats its setting, the lack of condescension with which it depicts Jewish ceremonies and customs, Mike in particular finding it exciting to see authentically represented all manner of occasions and nuances of English Judaism. And the synagogue’s choir sings beautifully.

Though we don’t agree on everything, we are deeply moved and find it an enriching film. It’s very much worth your time.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

The Museum´s Disdain for Cinema

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Do museums disdain cinema? One need look no further than the uses they make of it. A recent visit to the Queen Sofia Museum demonstrated that it deployed cinema throughout its various exhibits and in various ways. But nowhere in the museum is the cinema exhibited so as the equal of any other art work. There’s a lip service paid to cinema as an art. But the museum’s practices in relation to it convey quite another message.

There was Gene Kelly in a snippet of An American in Paris in the ´Lost, Loose and Loved: Foreign Artists in Paris 1944-1968 exhibit (see picture above), which, by the way, is one of the worst instances of translation I’ve ever come across. The original ´Paris pese a todo´translates more closely to ´Paris in Spite of Everything,´a sexier, catchier, more accurate title. And there was an audience around it, finding it just as captivating as ever, in spite of the light dimming its images, the sound barely heard.

There was Yves Montand in Costa-Gavras´L´Aveau (1970) at the entrance of ´The Eruption of the 20th Century: Utopias and Conflicts´exhibit; and Gilo Pontecorvo´s The Battle of Algiers at the entrance of  the´Is the War Over: Art in a Divided World´ exhibition (see below). The clip frames the entrance to the exhibit but merely as something undeserving of attention, something one walks through to get to the ´real´art.

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There was a little makeshift cinema were the public wandering around the collection of surrealists might sit for a while and wonder at the Dalí/Buñuel Un chien Andalou (see below). And again, a small audience sat rapt. The museum keeps showing films as something for audience to glance at or pass through; yet, the walked at a fast clip through all the Dalí paintings whilst sitting for the film (though to be fair, seats are always at a premium in museums).

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There were snippets of Hans Richter and Chris Marker and animated films and documentaries on the artists showcased by the museum such as Dorotea Tanning. Cinema was everywhere as document, as illustration, as complement to the more important art and artists. But never there as art in and of itself, the greatest produced in the last 150 years.

A museum that will spend hundreds of thousands of pounds transporting, insuring, hanging, lighting, designing a visual showcase for any old Warhol piss painting treats cinema like shit.

Nothing demonstrated this better than the space given to Almodóvar´s Entre tinieblas/Dark Hideout in the ´The Poetics of Democracy: Images and Counter-images from the Spanish Transition.´ As you can see below, the film gets a whole room. The poster is well represented. The work of Ceesepewho designed the poster, is well represented…

But the presentation of the film itself, as you can see below, is disgraceful:

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It seems that when a museum conceives of an audio-visual project as high art, no expense is spared. One need only see the room and context which houses Christian Marcla´s The Clock currently on at the Tate Modern, though even there all aspect ratios of the original works are eliminated in the interests of having the edited collection fill in the same amount of space, the beauty and value of the original popular art sacrificed in the interests of the type of art that is considered to rightly belong in the museum.

This is not just a disdain for the form itself, and I reiterate, the very greatest of the popular arts, but of the people who watched it, people of all walks of life who sat moved, enthralled or bored, who found beauty and relevance in the works so cavalierly treated by what are meant to be the repositories of our collective culture. Why don’t they just pin a photocopy of a Monet, with the colours changed the way they do in the postcards they sell at the shop museum? The idea is appalling no? Well so is showing film in this way. Pricks.

José Arroyo

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 118 – Three Identical Strangers

A documentary in the hard-hitting, extraordinary revelations, true-story-you’ve-never-heard mode, Three Identical Strangers follows three identical triplets, separated at birth, discovering each others’ existences at the age of 19. At first a joyous reunion, the story takes dark twists as the triplets and their families investigate the reasons behind their separation. That’s all for your summary – we won’t spoil the story for you!

Suffice it to say, we have severe reservations about the film, and in many respects. José is particularly unimpressed with the storytelling and weak focus – there are significant obstacles that the film has in understanding what happened to these men, obstacles that are no fault of its own; however, the things the film could investigate, such as their life experiences, it shows little interest in pursuing.

Mike, more forcefully, takes significant issue with the film’s ethics and failure to build a convincing case for most of what it wants to argue. Some of what the film decries is already self-evidently bad, requiring no elaboration; in other aspects, the film seems to assume we’ll all concur, doing the bare minimum to put across a point of view, expecting us to uncritically agree rather than arguing its case. And he finds it a deeply cynical and manipulative piece of work, accusing it of unethical behaviour just as it accuses some of its subjects.

As the conversation goes on, Mike takes against the film more and more, in what can surely be described as a hard-hitting and dramatic podcast worthy of many many awards.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 117 – Sorry to Bother You

A surprising, imaginative comedy full of dark twists and scathing observations, Sorry to Bother Youfires us up. There’s so much going on in it that we love. It builds a forceful critique of modern capitalism, drawing on black stereotypes, animal imagery, and factory cities to develop a thesis of 21st century capitalism as thinly veiled slave labour. Everything is available for commodification and absorption by the establishment; the system is able to tolerate dissent by co-opting it. But there is a vital resistance movement, embodied exceptionally by the coruscating Tessa Thompson, and though the film depicts a deeply unfair world in which power is entrenched, there is plenty of room for hope and joy, even through something as simple as a sigh when confronted with the latest absurdity.

The film is a kaleidoscope of ideas, always on its toes, always unpredictable, absolutely restless, and although we feel it lacks a certain visual finesse and overall coherence, the benefits of its madnesses far outweigh their costs.

Hugely recommended.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 116 – The Marvellous Mabel Normand

Flatpack’s Silent Night series continues with a screening, at Birmingham Cathedral, of The Marvellous Mabel Normand, a programme of four silent comedy shorts from the BFI National Archive. Normand was the leading silent comedienne of her day but neither Mike nor José was familiar with her, and the programme provides a great introduction to her work, as not just a star but also a director.

We saw Mabel’s Blunder (1914), which she directed, Mabel’s Dramatic Career (1913), His Trysting Place (1914) and Should Men Walk Home? (1927). Each stars Normand, and alongside her are such names as Mack Sennett, Oliver Hardy, Eugene Pallette and one Charlie Chaplin.

José finds himself in thrall to Normand’s magnetism and emotional openness, finding her incandescent with screen presence. The nuances she brings to her physical and facial performances, the way she types or jumps out of the way of an onrushing car, light up the screen and make her memorable.

Mike, it must be said, is less impressed, suggesting that she doesn’t elevate some weak material as a better actor might, though that’s not to say he sees nothing to appreciate about her performances. But what he takes away above all else is how seeing one Chaplin film amongst other silent shorts provides incontrovertible proof of his comedic genius, His Trysting Place a geyser of creativity and comic charm.

We also consider how key figures of silent comedy are remembered or not, particularly thinking of the disparity between Mack Sennett’s importance and name recognition, and how Chaplin remains a worldwide icon perhaps to an extent comparable only to religious figures. José holds forth on the talents and career of Leo McCarey, director of Should Men Walk Home?, and we discuss the programme’s newly commissioned score by The Meg Morley Trio, who performed it live during the screening.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 115 – Shoplifters

Intriguing, calm, witty, touching. Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters, winner of the 2018 Palme d’Or, is a modern-day Oliver Twist with real depth of feeling and naturalistic charm. Deceptively simple, it asks big questions of its audience, questions about family, love, loneliness, and how to live a good life.

It’s largely free of significant plot points – it begins with a very young girl, abused by her parents, being taken in by a motley crew of a family living on the poverty line, but from there takes an approach to story that is driven by character and situation. Everything is rendered complex – on the one hand, the young girl is taken in by a group of rescuers who care for her; on the other, they are kidnapping her. It would be true to say the aren’t easy answers to be found, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s a harsh watch. It isn’t. There’s an impressive lightness of tone, the film refusing to wallow in victimhood, instead focusing on getting on, day to day. And it has a great sense of humour and keen eye for the romantic and emotionally open. It’s truly moving.

Amongst our praise for the film, we find time to discuss the projection and atmosphere at The Electric, a cinema we’re probably a little unkind to at times, and José orates on the relative lack of circulation of films such as these to a cinephile culture that does exist outside London and would gratefully receive more arthouse and foreign cinema.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 114 – Robin Hood (2018)

We argue about a film that neither of us can possibly claim is good, but in which one of us found things to like. Hot on the heels of watching Errol Flynn’s Technicolor classic a few weeks ago, we catch the latest telling of the Robin Hood folk tale, fittingly titled Robin Hood, a desaturated, guns and geezers-inflected version that transports us to a somewhat otherworldly, sci-fi-ish version of the medieval Midlands. Church and state are in cahoots, the poor are exploited – and it doesn’t look like they have much left to exploit anyway – and with Sherwood Forest nowhere to be seen, the only green thing around is Robin of Loxley.

We can both agree that no matter the intention, the film is poorly directed, though José would decry it more than Mike, who tries to look beneath the incoherent camerawork and dull set pieces to find areas of interest, such as the tangible sense of growing revolution and the charming Black Hawk Down version of the Third Crusade, complete with shoulder-mounted arrow bazookas, why not. We have good and bad words to say about the performances in equal measure, Jamies Foxx and Dornan standing out but Ben Mendelsohn and star Taron Egerton failing to meet expectations set by their previous performances. And Tim Minchin, with the best will in the world, isn’t an actor.

Mike takes issue with the film’s conception of Robin; a character learning to become the hero is one thing, but simply being nudged and told by everyone around him how to do so makes for poor character development. Little John is so significant he’s known here only as John, José speculating that as the biggest actor in the film, Jamie Foxx had the role improved at the expense of balance. We do find common ground in praising aspects of the world and visual design, but it’s always with the caveat that the direction generally works better to obscure than exhibit it.

All this and more in an edition packed with disagreement. Arguments and quibbles aplenty!

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Verticality and the Academy ratio in Phantom Thread

For those wanting to follow threads on Phantom Thread

Writing About Film

I twice discussed Phantom Thread in my podcast, and this brief post is a development of an observation I brought up in it. You can listen to the discussions here (the second screening involved my brother who was already an obsessive fan of the film, having seen it five times at the cinema, by the time I’d seen it twice): Part 1, Part 2.

When I saw Phantom Thread in the cinema I was struck by how it visually emphasised verticality and compressed the frame horizontally. It felt like an Academy ratio film. The film is certainly echoing or adapting classic Hollywood style, with its period setting, rich romantic plot, extraordinary orchestral score and closing credits that conspicuously fade over the top of each other. But Paul Thomas Anderson only went so far; he didn’t shoot in black and white or Academy ratio (in evoking the milieu…

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Eavesdropping at the Movies: 113 – Mildred Pierce

We’re joined by Birmingham blogger Laura Creaven (www.constantlycurious.co.uk) for a discussion of our fourth Michael Curtiz film, the film noir Mildred Pierce. We’re glad of her perspective, as this is a film all about women, their relationships and desires.

We discuss the film’s flashback structure – though it helped the film get made in the Hays Code era, would the film be even stronger with a simple chronological plot? Class is everywhere too, motivating the mother-daughter conflict that’s central to the film, and we consider America’s class system and social mobility, and whether you could tell this story in Britain.

We look closely at Curtiz’s use of shadows and mirrors to imply off-screen space and create meaningful, poetic images. And there’s a lot to discuss in the construction of the characters, both male and female – we think about how masculine and feminine characteristics are deployed in both, and how roles are reversed.

Mike and Laura talk about how they each had differing attitudes to the framing device of showing the climax first, Mike wanting to know how the film would tie its plot up and Laura not caring very much. It reminds Mike of discussing Carmen Maria Machado’s brilliant short story The Husband Stitch (free to read here: www.granta.com/the-husband-stitch) with previous podcast guest Celia, and finding a similar difference in the experience. Mildred Pierce is without question a film aimed at women, but as a film noir does the framing device work to capture their interest?

And indeed, how much is the film a noir? With shadows and murder and intrigue, it’s inseparable from it, but there’s a lightness to the image and combination with family drama that serves to adjust it. To José the film is unambiguously noir; to Mike and Laura, the noir elements invade an otherwise normal world in interesting ways.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

José Arroyo in Conversation with Helen Hanson on Hollywood Soundscapes: Film Sound Style, Craft & Production in the Classical Era

helen3.jpgHelen Hanson is a Professor in Film History at the University of Exeter as well as Academic Director of the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum. I’m a great admirer of Hollywood Soundscapes: Film Sound Style, Craft & Production in the Classical Era,  her new book. Hollywood Soundscapes not only provides us with new knowledge on the craft and production of film sounds styles in the classic era but is also an inspiring example of how to produce methods through which to do so.

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Professor Hanson came to Warwick to talk on Lela Simone, the music supervisor of the great Freed Unit at MGM, and thus responsible for the sound of some of the greatest musicals of all time: An American in Paris (1951), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), The Band Wagon (1953) and many others. I sought Professor Hanson out to talk at greater length about her superb book.

The discussion touches on how her initial research question, ‘who were the most significant people working in sound in the classic era?’ changed into an account of how style is framed around structures that develop from group work and the sharing of knowledges. We touch on how the structures surrounding the work and practices of a sound editor in the 1930s might be shaped not only by the technologies that he or she was using but also forms of knowledge, professional networks and the conventions and expectations of the work.

One of the wonderful aspects of Hollywood Soundscapes is how we get detailed accounts of stereophonic sound systems that did not quite succeed. We touch on the Vitasound system which added speakers and amplified sound and also on the Fantasound system Walt Disney developed for Fantasia, two examples on which there is a much more extended and detailed account in the book itself.

The discussion ranges from  what constituted ‘ear appeal’ at any point in time to what she would advise a beginner to look for if he or she wanted to analyse and better understand the ways in which sound is created and deployed in film.

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The conversation touches on generic expectations in relation to the crafting of soundscapes. Sound technicians had a sense of how to shape the sound for different genres. When mixing the sound for a drama, for example, they looked for high contrast sound. For comedy, there was a tendency to seek a louder sound mix. But different studios had different practice conventions. Warners, for example,  liked to record wild sounds.

Hanson notes that, ‘The networks of professional and personal relationships made me understand how multi-talented technicians were. They understood aesthetics, technologies and economics. They understood how to please management.’

I hope the podcast sparks an interest in reading Hollywood Soundscapes, a very considerable contribution to what we know about sound in the classic era and an equally great contribution to methods of how to go about finding out more. The podcast can be listened to below:

 

José Arroyo

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 112 – Widows – Second Screening

I drag a somewhat recalcitrant Mike to the cinema for a second go at Widows, joined by Lee Kemp (@leekemp), a Birmingham-based filmmaker and founder of Vermillion Films. And wow, we cover a lot!

Mike and Lee both agree that some of the cinematic technique is distracting on the first viewing, whereas second time round, knowing what to expect, it’s easier to appreciate the art of some shots and evaluate them more intimately. I simply luxuriates even more deeply than before in the visual splendour and tone. We agree that it’s a heist film that isn’t really about the heist, though what we then make of that – how clever we think that is – is up for debate. What isn’t up for debate is the film’s economy, both visually and in dialogue. It’s so, so elegant and deliberate, and that all becomes clear as we compare things that struck us.

The film’s use of the Church comes into focus – morality and God is almost never in question when it comes up, the film instead framing it in political, corporate and corrupt terms. The film equates the worlds of politics and gang crime, one white, the other black, a theme expressed through the two opposing political candidates and their associates.

We take time to consider the similarities and differences between the central female characters; how, for instance, the two black women are members of very different social classes. We praise how the film depicts how they deal with grief, the lack of connection they so desperately feel, and the way it affords each of them their scene to express it. Mike has, since the first podcast, watched the first Prime Suspect (written by Lynda La Plante, creator of the original Widows) and talks a little about it; I find it interesting that an originally British television programme adapted in part by a British filmmaker should yield such a sharp commentary on American society, and in such a condensed form.

We also consider wider questions of how to watch films critically. Mike goes on a brief rant about why the lack of seriousness with which media studies education is still taken has resulted in a world of Trump, Brexit, and fake news. Methods of analysis come in for scrutiny; we mention the video essay series Every Frame a Painting and discuss how one of its episodes in particular, the one on 2011’s Drive, is or isn’t a good example of textual analysis. We discuss the scene in which we see the protagonist’s son’s death; would we have watched it differently ten years ago, when it’s set?

All this and even more in a discussion that’s full to the brim. Mike is begrudgingly forced to concede that he misjudged the film the first time. I love it even more than I thought I could. And many, many thanks to Lee for joining us. And check out War of Words, the UK battle rap documentary on which he worked as executive producer, now on iTunes!

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Mirrors in Mildred Pierce

The use of mirrors is also a key component of mise-en-scène in Mildred Pierce.  The film begins with the shooting of Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott). There are several shots, some land on the mirror, he falls over. The mirror teases us with off-screen space but in this case angled so that we don’t see the perpetrator. Screenshot 2018-11-24 at 08.40.05.png

Mirrors are used for expressive purposes. Here at the beginning Mildred (Joan Crawford), having led Wally (Jack Carson) into the beach house is planning to leave him on his own so the police may find him and he can take the rap. The duplicitous action suggested by Mildred being doubled for us through the mirror.

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Mirrors, of course, also appear simply as part of household or office decor, fulfilling no other function than to make a room seem ‘real’. See the office mirror here in the centre of the frame on one wall reflecting the painting kitty corner to it.

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But usually mirrors are used to much more expressive and narrational ends in Mildred Pierce, like in this moment where the dress her mother’s bought her does not at all fit in with the kind of woman Veda (Ann Blythe) wants to become; and how both Mildred’s and Veda’s differing ideas of a pretty dress and the notions of femininity it might help project  are contrasted with Kay (Jo Ann Marlow), happy in her overalls.

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Curtiz makes use of any reflecting surface to mirror and creates a striking image with it as here below. Mildred, walked off her feet and needing a rest before she enters the cafe. She’s elegant in her hat and coat, potentially too elegant for the for the type of  job the sign is advertising (though we know she’ll take it). The fact that the reflection is from below expresses something of how low she’s willing to go to work, no job is really beneath her. A striking image conveying lots of story information, densely condensed.

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We get some of this also in the scene where Mildred goes swimming with Monte and goes to the wardrobe to find a bathing suit. We see her doubled with Monte off-screen but as she opens the wardrobe, eliminating him from the picture, she sees that she’s far from the only woman Monte’s brought there. As Mildred and her reflection open the wardrobe, Monte gets effaced by what the contents of the wardrobe reveal:  all the ‘sisters, ‘ all to be scantily clad, he’s brought to the beach house before Mildred. The mirror here is used dramatically, as revelation.

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Here below, the mirror is used as a kind of narrative punctuation. Monte and Mildred are embracing, the record ends, the camera pans to the record continuing to spin whilst the mirror shows us they’re too hot for each other to bother to change it. The embrace starts and ends the shot and at the end is framed next to and against the record player. It’s a brilliant piece of visual direction, made more so if one also remembers this is the mirror is not unlike the one behind Monte as he was shot at the beginning of the film. Thus the initiations of an uncontrolled passion are already linked with death from the beginning.

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Whilst Momma’s been playing, baby’s been dying. In the next scene, the finality of Kay’s death is brought home by the mirror. Mildred, her husband Bert (Bruce Bennett) and Veda are mourning. And we see that there’s no hope as the doctor and nurse recede and disappear through the mirror.

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Sometimes, mirrors are used to anchor context and create atmosphere. Here below, the main function seems to be to make us aware that Monte and Mildred are at a party — they’re surrounded by people whilst nonetheless allowing for a private conversation: one about money. They’re in public, the moment is private, but the private is always threatening, on the verge and in danger of becoming public.

 

 

But of course we mustn’t forget that this use of mirrors, potent, as it is constructed so as to appear incidental and that, although I’ve extracted still images above, it usually takes place in motion and as part of other elements of mise-en-scène. In the scene below, which is really about Monte and Mildred getting together and Bert granting Mildred her wishes, all encased in the break-up of a family. The mirror behind the bar first appears discretely and then gains in dramatic force helping to shows us how Bert and Monte are at odds, how the appearance of Bert onto the scene underlines the break-up of a family.  The conflict is generated by who appears facing the mirror, the whooshing of the camera movement from the mirror following Mildred and onto Bert which begins around 45 second into the clip below and shows Bert appearing in the mirror onscreen whilst following her, past Monte and as she’s pictured between them onscreen. At 1.29, after he says, ‘I’m doing fine’, the scene cuts onto Bert and Monte exchanging challenging gazes through the mirror. The composition once again indicating that the ‘private’ word is being played out publicly, or at least within Monte’s sight (through the mirror).

 

I wanted to include the whole clip above rather than still images so you could see how important  motion is to the potency of the pictures. They’re moving pictures. And in relation to other elements of mise-en-scène. Thus in the clip above I’ve made the cut after the swish pan to the left, which brings us out of the flash-back, and also underline the inverse rhyming of the camera movement from the last scene in the bar to the first shot at the police station.

It’s extraordinary work by Curtiz, and only a tiny example of his astonishingly imaginative mise-en-scene for this film.

 

José Arroyo

 

 

 

Mirrors in ‘Angels With Dirty Faces

After writing on the consistent use of shadow play throughout Michael Curtiz’ work, Brian M. Faucette urged me to look at his use of mirrors, mentioning he’d written a whole master’s thesis on this subject, one I’d be eager to read. Sure enough, a cursory look at Angels With Dirty Faces proves him right. In the first set of images below, Rocky (James Cagney) is walking with Laury Martin (Anne Sheridan) when he suspects he’s being followed, pretends he’s got something stuck in his eye, and goes look in a mirror to see what’s behind him.

 

In the second trio of images below Rocky holds up James Frazier (Humphrey Bogart) in order to see what’s in his safe. In the first image, we get an expressive use of the mirror: Bogart surrounded by a set of Cagneys. In the second, Curtiz and cinematographer Sol Polito use the reflecting surface of the safe’s door to frame Cagney’s gloating face, again offering us a set of beaming Cagneys whilst Bogart, supporting player that he is at this point, gets seen only from the back. In the third image, Curtiz uses mirrors so that the frame can encompass off-screen space and we can keep the crooked lawyer played by Bogart in the picture.

 

Curtiz, also uses mirrors, to enhance production values. The image below is part of a shot that begins filming a reflection, making the room look bigger and fuller and as it pans from the two women on the left re-arranging themselves cue us in on having just watched a reflection rather than the room itself.

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Mirrors are also handy dramatic devices. They can be exploded, shattered, shot at in ways that are visually exciting (see below right). Again this is part of a moving shot that tracks back (see below left) so we have an image shattered in front of our eyes, the camera tracks back and our field of vision is re-drawn, re-arranged in a dramatic manner that makes the shot richer and more exciting.

 

And of course mirrors frame, re-frame, create frames within frames, and thus can hide as well as reveal. here Curtiz shows a shootout which begins with Cagney drawing the gun but the camera pans to his face, framing Rocky’s reaction/Cagney’s face; moving attention from an action to a reaction,  framing feeling on an action, whilst of course creating a very striking image.

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Curtiz is indeed a visual wiz.

Thanks again to Brian M. Faucette for bringing this to my attention,

 

José Arroyo