In this podcast we discuss the recent MUBI showings of King Hu’s Dragon Inn (967) and A Touch of Zen (1971), its relationship to the Wuxia genre and its influence on films such Crouching Tiger/ Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000), Hero (Zhang Yimou, 2002) and House of Flying Daggers (Zhang Yimou, 2004,) its later influence on more recent Taiwanese cinema, so obvious in Tsai Ming Liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) and Hou’s own The Assassin (2015). We discuss the beauty of its widescreen images, try to relate it to the work of Sergio Leone in relation to its use of landscape, and ruminate on the filming of action as ‘pure cinema’. We also discuss the distinctiveness of its use of female action heroines, particularly in relation to Western Cinema.
‘The Man That Got Away’ number in the 1954 version of A Star is Born directed by George Cukor is widely acknowledged as one of the very greatest in the history of the musical genre.
There’s so much to admire: dramatically, the choice of a song of loss and longing as the moment that sparks admiration and love in the narrative is inspired — it’s at first unusual and original and later becomes prescient and structuring. The song itself, a Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin tune, written for Garland, given a great brassy orchestration by Skip Martin, and so wonderful it’s become a standard covered by a whole array of singers through the ages, including a sparse version by Jeff Buckley accompanied only on guitar; Garland’s performance of the song, both the singing and the acting of it, are, as I will demonstrate later to any who doubt, legendary and beyond compare. As is the choice to film it as a noir in colour but with most of the colour drained out and used sparingly but powerfully. Here director George Cukor acknowledges the contributions of production designer Gene Allen and legendary photographer George Hoyningen-Huene to the way the film looks. Sam Leavitt was Director of Photography.
What I want to deal with here is the direction, particularly in its use of the cinemascope frame: the fluid arrangement and re-arrangement of compositions, the forward move of the action, the creation of the illusion of three dimensional space and the way which the filmmakers manage to create a sense of horizon in a narrow rectangular frame. CinemaScope was relatively new then and, along with technicolour, prominently publicised in all the posters for the initial release. This number to me is a sublime example of brilliant use of it made even more gobsmacking by the singing of the number all being filmed in one extended long take.
If you’re interested have a look at the number, refresh your memory. delight in the brilliance of the singing, the acting, the direction, the look, the way the scene unfolds and the way the camera moves…
Shot 1 (14 seconds): Then let’s look at the first shot of the sequence. Note how the frame is divided into thirds, that the title of the club is the ‘bleu bleu’ — significantly narratively as a place one goes to drown one’s sorrows but ends driving the blues away and also as an indicator of the overall look and tone of the scene — advertised on different sides of James Mason’s back (see the first frame.) Then Mason advances towards the door, whilst the camera at first stays still, thus creating a new composition within the shot, now we have neon blue on one side, and a poster, pinkish with red overtones, advertising the band on the other. In the third reframing within the same shot, the camera has caught up with Norman Maine (James Mason) and as he opens the door to the club, the door occupies one third, the poster the other and Maine and the open door roughly occupy the centre. The open door gives a sense of horizon, the illusion of three-dimensional space so familiar from Renaissance painting, think of the Mona Lisa, and so hard to achieve in that narrowly rectangular cinemascope frame. The door opening coincides with the brass element of the orchestration trumpeting the refrain: something new is announced, a new space of possibility just beyond the horizon.
Shot 2 (3 seconds, see frame enlargement below): the second shot is only three seconds. It’s an establishing shot of Norman Maine looking. But note how the shot is almost drained of colour except for the neon red throwing its pool of light from outside to the inside of the club. Note also how the lighting is focussed on Norman Maine’s face, and how the furniture is arranged along with the post in the right hand side. This creates a triangular shape within the frame, a sense of horizon, this time from the reverse perspective that we saw in the previous shot and inside. What the shot establishes is Norman Maine’s point-of-view, which is what will anchor the whole sequence. His gaze on her is what’s important, it’s how she, through him, will demonstrate to us that she is in fact the great singer and star he will know her to be once the song ends and that we, the audience, already know. According to Patrick MacGilligan,
‘The marriage of Technicolor and the wide-screen CinemaScope (a process still in its infancy) was partly responsible for the delay and cost. Color-test scenes had been filmed and re-filmed until everyone was satisfied’ (p.226). One can see in this shot how all those tests with the format and the colour paid off. It’s sparse, elegant, dramatic, like the work of a great painter, or here a great director elegantly mobilising all the talents of his cast and crew to purposeful and meaningful expression that delights the eyes and ears.
Shot 3 (7 seconds, see frame enlargement below)
The third shot is Norman’s point-of-view. He looks in the previous shot and this is what he and we see. Note how Esther Blodgett, soon to be transformed into Vicky Lester, superstar, and played by Judy Garland is a pinprick in a pool of light at the centre of the frame with her band. Her importance is signalled by her centrality but not quite yet made overt. Note how the frame is also divided into thirds. How the chairs on the right are closer to the lens, how the two musicians are framed by that pink/coral light we first saw on the poster on the right side of the frame in the first shot, accented by the pool of light that follows Norman Maine’s entrance into the club in the second shot. Note how this arrangement helps create a sense of three-dimensionality, gives a horizon to the space that would otherwise seem flat. Note how there’ a sense of drama in placing those chairs so as to impede but not quite block our view of Esther and the band. She, and her talent, will only fully be revealed to us later. It’s not only gorgeous and artful but dramatic and meaningful.
Shot 4: (23 second, see frame enlargements below)
The fourth shot is as the French call it, a plan sequence, a longer take, which can have different sequences within it created by camera movement and which involves the orchestration of various elements. This shot begins where shot 3 left off (see frame enlargement below on the left), with Norman Maine at the entrance of the club, triangularly placed on the horizon, with that hint of neon red just above him. He moves towards the camera, which is towards the sound of the band, towards Esther, and through pools of light and darkness. As he sits on by the pile of chairs, a waiter enters the frame from the left (see frame enlargement below, centre). At this point the camera leaves Norman and accompanies the waiter through the club, past chairs and pillars (John Ford claimed that nothing created a sense of three dimensionality as moving the camera past trees. This has a similar effect) to deposit his tray by the band (see frame enlargement on the right). The touch neon red behind Norman Maine has become the quasi coral pink that engulfs Esther Blodgett and her band, and her face is bathed in pure white light. The dramatic advantage of filming it in this way is that Norman and Esther are united in space and time, that his attention is focussed on her, he is watching she is doing performing. Symbolically his darkness, his troubled moving through dark and light ends with a hope of pure light in a coral setting. How better to represent was Esther/Vicky will represent to Norman?
Shot 5 (4 seconds)
The fifth shot is a closer look, Norman Maine’s look, on where the camera had deposited us previously. ‘Take it honey’ says the pianist. Esther rises as you can see below, occupying the left third of the frame. As the pianist reiterates ‘Take it from the top’, Esther will come to occupy the right of the third of the frame, so in one shot there’s an elegant move across the wide Cinemascope frame, from left to right, once more leaving the frame neatly organised in thirds, whilst the pianist, chiars and glasses behind the bar, all work together to create an illusion of depth.
Shot 6 (1 second):
Shot six barely lasts a second. It’s a medium closeup of Norman Maine straining to see through the darkness of the empty club. The editing here reminding us that it is Norman who is looking, like us, but unlike us, and as was established in shot four, Norman and Esther are united in time in space. We’re reminded of us as the voice-over to this shot is Esther repeating what the pianist had said but as a question ‘from the top?’. The sound is Esther, the image is Norman. He is the big star, she is the unknown band singer yet it is he who is looking, she who is being looked at.
Shot 7: (3.26 seconds. The frame enlargements below are representative examples of each time the camera moves and re-calibrates the composition, except for figures Gand H which are the same composition but where Esther commands the image, the arrangement of things and figures in the frame created in the ‘good riddance, goodbye moment’ with a wave of her hand on the goodbye moment which makes all the musicians bring down their instruments)
As the DVD extras of A Star is Born inform us, ‘The Man That Got Away’ is arguably the most important single musical sequence in A Star is Born. It was photographed in 3 different costumes on 3 different occasions, in over 40 different partial or complete takes’. According to Patrick McGilligan ‘The director drove people to distraction with his unusual lighting and color demands. Some of the voluptuous effects were arrived at after much argument and costly experimentation’ and it was partly this (along with Garland’s illnesses) that helped turn A Star is Born into the second most expensive picture in Hollywood history up to that point. Its official cost of $5, 019, 777 made it second only to Selznick’s 1946 film, Duel in the Sun, recorded at 5,225,000′ (p. 226).
Every re-framing of ‘The Man That Got Away Moment’ can be analysed in at least as much detail as the shots discussed previously, which themselves can be discussed in greater detail than I’ve offered. I characteristically have run out of time just at the moment of greater interest so I just want to indicate certain things I marvel at. Note how Esther/Garland beckons the musician to her at the beginning. Throughout this sequence she will be in constant communication withe the various musicians (see figures A,E,L and Q as only representative examples), she will also be conveying the meaning of the song, losing herself in it, running to the camera (fig J), and fearlessly turning her back to it (fig K), whilst also conveying Esther, an insecure star-in-waiting, one of the boys in the band, who does this as if it’s nothing, yet giggling and winking at them at the end for the joy of a job well done (see figure Q). Garland must perform all of this whilst being conscious of always hitting her mark, always being in the light, always co-ordinating each of her movements with the band, which has been clearly choreographed compositionally. It’s a tour de force.
And it’s a tour de force of direction. Cukor performs a high-wire act of co-ordinating all the disparate elements because Garland is always at the centre, the camera will tilt upward or move slightly to ensure she’s always in the frame; yet on the other hand every stop in the camera’s movement has been designed to create an abstract geometric shape amongst the musicians, usually framing Garland, usually at the top (figs D, E) or bottom (figure M, O) of a triangular shape.
Every area of the cinemascope frame is deployed expressively. Each shape made seems beautiful, each is meaningful. In the world of the film, we are introduced, through Norman Maine’s to his love, who will not save him from all the darkness he’s encased in. Note how they’re both wearing variants of the same outfit, black suit with a white collar. They’re meant for each other. But she, encased in light and amidst coral pink will not save him from himself. We’re also introduced to a great talent which the film tells us is Esther Blodgett but who will become Vicky Lester but who we know to be Judy Garland. The Judy Garland who can do the extraordinary things we’ve just witnessed thanks to George Cukor’s extraordinary use of colour and composition in one of the greatest of long takes.
Some people have argued that the number is misplaced in the narrative that Esther doesn’t yet have the life experience to sing a torch song like this. That the number would have been better once it more clearly voiced Esther’s feelings in the narrative. But I disagree. Esther’s been on the road with a band going nowhere and knows musicians. She’s had the experience. On the other hand, it’s brave to make this the number on which they meet, brave and unusual, and of course totally foreshadows, what will happen subsequently. Moreover, note Esther going in and out of the song, ‘performing’ it, and the interactions with the rest of the musicians. The number has multiple functions, one of which is to show Norman Maine how great a performer she is, that she’s a star who can stop the show as easily as the giggle and the wink that ends the number and gives the impression that this is the kind of thing she can do at the drop of the hat, for fun, and anytime she wants.It’s a brilliant choice and as carefully thought through as any other aspect of this magnificent film.
In Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia, Jonathan Rosenbaum writes: ‘It’s almost twenty- two minutes into the 1954 A Star Is Bornwhen, along with Norman Maine, we enter the front door of a sleepy after- hours cabaret where swing musicians and a vocalist, Esther Blodgett, are performing exclusively for themselves. Esther casually slides into a chorus of “The Man Who GotAway,” and slowly she builds from there. Once again, a fi lm suddenly leaps to such a high level of intensity, in this case for about four minutes, that all the remainder of the fi lm—in this case, 150 minutes—can do is fitfully and wistfully remember that pinnacle, refer back to it musically and emotionally in a variety of ways’ (p.262). For Rosenbaum, the film peaks to early. I’m not sure I agree, though as he points out, the film was tampered with and even the ‘restored’ version has serious gaps. But even if the film suffers from peaking early, it’s still a peak moment in the history of cinema.