LIFE’S WORK: THE FILMS OF ROMAN POLANSKI – Chapter 1: Polanski’s God

LIFE’S WORK: THE FILMS OF ROMAN POLANSKI – Chapter 1: Polanski’s God

Polanski's God from Serena Bramble on Vimeo.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Press Play is devoting much of its content this week to a study of the films of Roman Polanski, whose new movie Carnage opens the New York Film Festival this Friday, September 30. We will count down to the event by running a new video essay every day this week under the title Life's Work: The Films of Roman Polanski. We're kicking off the series with "Polanski's God," about the pessimistic, bleakly funny world view expressed in the majority of Polanski's films. This video essay is a collaboration by two Press Play contributors. Simon Abrams contributed the narration; Serena Bramble edited.]

By Serena Bramble and Simon Abrams
Press Play Contributors

TRANSCRIPT: "Polanski's God," narrated by Simon Abrams; edited by Serena Bramble

I think people who go to see [Roman Polanski's films] for escapism are not going to be necessarily disappointed, but they're going to have to tweak their understanding of what entertainment is. When you watch a Polanski film, you're watching this sense of abundance in them. They have very cheerful settings — deceptively cheerful. You get the sense that you're watching the seasons change from this brightness to this inner gray that takes over.

Violence in Polanski's film is psychological. It's largely implied and it's rarely explicit, and when it is explicit, it's for comedy's sake. When Jake gets his nostril slit in Chinatown, he looks ridiculous for the rest of the film, with the bandage on his nose.

[Clip from Chinatown]

Jake: But. Mrs. Mulwray, I goddamned near lost my nose. And I like it. I like breathing through it. And I still think that you are hiding something.

The aftermath of [the attack on Jake] is constantly rubbed in your face as very this silly thing to look at — whereas the lingering type of violence in [Polanski's] films is always something that's creeping and slow and under the skin that his characters have to deal with, with greater understanding of things. It's like the way that certain (H.P.) Lovecraft stories work. You get the biggest scares out of knowing things you didn't before. Well, that necessarily means that you have to build in stages to an ultimate sense of understanding, an ultimate sense of knowledge that will really destroy you, that will really violently upend you.

[Clip from Chinatown]

Evelyn Mulwray: She's my sister. She's my daughter. My sister. My daughter.

Jake: I said I want the truth.

Evelyn Mulwray: She's my sister and my daughter.

And that's why it's necessarily a creeping kind of violence. It's a kind of series of reversals, and really, implied actions.

Jake: He raped you?

With films like The Ghost Writer and The Tenant, you get the sense that these characters are dealing with their trauma as they're figuring out that it's happening to them. And that's fascinating.

There are no traditional good guys and bad guys in Polanski's films. They're typically much more ambiguous. But obviously there are exceptions that prove the rule. They're just people you don't want to spent time with. But, after a point, you just recognize that you're watching their lives disintegrate, and that's as close as you get to identifying with them, because you're watching them. You're sutured into the degradations of disintegration, and you can help but feel for them. But you don't like them after a point.

I don't think evil, in a traditional theological sense, exists in Polanski's films. I think you've got characters like John Huston's character in Chinatown. They are deeply self-interested. They are deeply self-involved. They are not necessarily out for anyone else's interest but [their own]. But, after a point, that [describes] everyone. The problem is that certain characters have more of an advantage than others, and those are usually the bad guys. Those usually the ones that are able to be more manipulative and exploitative than the little guys that Polanski's film follow with the understand that you want these characters to succeed very badly, even though they almost never can.

[Clip from Chinatown]

Jake: How much you worth?

Noah Cross: I have no idea. How much do you want?

Jake: I just want to know what you're worth? Over ten million?

Noah Cross: Oh my, yes.

Jake: Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat. What can you buy that you can't already afford?

Noah Cross: The future, Mr. Gittes! The future!

[Clip from The Ghost Writer]

Former Prime Minister Adam Lang: I've never taken orders from anyone. Whatever I did. I did because I believed it was right.

The Ghost: Even supporting illegal kidnapping for torture?

Adam Lang: Oh for God's sakes! Spare me the bleeding heart bullshit!

[The Ghost Writer] is a Polanski thriller through and through. It may be very similar in content to [Robert] Harris' novel — like the plot beats and everything. But the tone, and the way it moves, and the way the characters are essentially motivated and governed by the powers that be in that film, that's Polanski. Totally.

I think Polanski is not quite an atheist. But, I think that agnosticism is a lot closer to his belief system in many of his movies. You get this idea that [there] is something going on, there is some higher power or powers out there, and they're manipulating the characters in his films. But they're not always following a set plan, beyond the fact that they're gonna screw with these main protagonists. In that sense, for the longest time you can get the sense that there is no one up there, like in the beginning. And then, and then you get the idea that there is [someone up there] — and he hates you.

[The end of ] The Ghostwriter is the perfect example. The Ewan McGregor character gets hit by a car. We don't see it. There is not explicit violence. All the work that he did in the film doesn't matter. All the research, all the knowledge that he's accrued doesn't matter. It's all gone to pot, and he's dead.

Chinatown is another great example because it has that ending where the Jake character's totally resigned. He hasn't quite lost, but he knows he can't win. He has this absolute sense of certainly now that there is no viable way to continue with his investigation. He's not quite ready to throw in the towel, but it's so out of his hands that — that's it. That's the epitaph of his investigation. And beyond that, he just has to accept it. He just has to take it.

[Clip from Chinatown]

Walsh: Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown.

The interesting thing about The Pianist is that [it's about] a character that just wants to play his piano and be well off, to continue doing it on a steady basis. And he's not allowed that because of the historical context of the times. As Polanski had the impact of losing his wife to the Manson clan, that obviously informs this bleak, agnostic opinion, and that's why when you see The Pianist, survival is enough. Survival is its own victory, and I think [The Pianist has] one of most optimistic endings of any of his films, because you get the sense that [the hero] has won because he made it, as opposed to all the other films of his — especially Knife in the Water, where surviving is that much more hellish because all of these characters have been through a gauntlet and [gained] a greater sense of understanding is that there is no one up there, no entity that they can identify with.

There is something up there. But it's not understandable. You can't discern the motives of God, or of a deity like that. You just have to go with the fact that something's happening, wheels are in motion, and it's just like a giant Rube Goldberg machine, and you get out of it at the end. That's great. It never gets better. It just keeps going. That's life for Polanski.

Serena Bramble is a rookie film editor whose montage skills are the result of accumulated years of movie-watching and loving. Serena is currently pursuing a bachelor's degree in Teledramatic Arts and Technology from Cal State Monterey Bay. In addition to editing, she also writes on her blog Brief Encounters of the Cinematic Kind.Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in the Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, The Extended Cut.

VIDEO ESSAY: COWARDS BEND THE KNEE, directed by Guy Maddin

VIDEO ESSAY: COWARDS BEND THE KNEE, directed by Guy Maddin

EDITOR’S NOTE: Fandor's blog site, Keyframe, begins its Director of the Month series today with a week long tribute to Canadian director Guy Maddin. In addition to specially commissioned articles and an exclusive interview with the director himself, Fandor editor-in-chief and Press Play contributor Kevin B. Lee has collaborated with Matt Zoller Seitz to produce this video essay discussing the technical and thematic achievements of Maddin's 2003 feature Cowards Bend The Knee. But the centerpiece of the weeklong tribute is Fandor's first blogathon hosted on Keyframe called The Maddin-est Blogathon in the World. From September 19-23, Keyframe invites writers, video editors and artists to discuss Maddin's body of work on their own sites. Fandor will cross-link to newly published blog posts and give a special prize to the most creative endeavor. Click here if you would like to participate.

By Kevin B. Lee, Matt Zoller Seitz
Press Play Contributors

Cowards Bend the Knee (Guy Maddin) Video Essay from Fandor Keyframe on Vimeo.

You can watch Guy Maddin’s Cowards Bend The Knee for free on Fandor if you log on with facebook or subscribe to the service for a free trial. In addition, you can watch this video on Fandor here.

Kevin Lee is Editor in Chief of Fandor, a new video on demand website featuring the best of independent and international films. He is also a film critic and award-winning filmmaker. In addition to editing Keyframe, Kevin contributes to film publications and produces online video essays.

VIDEO ESSAY: The Mystic: the films of Nicholas Ray

VIDEO ESSAY: The Mystic: the films of Nicholas Ray

The Mystic: An Appreciation of Nicholas Ray from Serena Bramble on Vimeo.

It would not be a ridiculous endeavor to believe that before Nicholas Ray, there was never an American film director who better understood the unbearable fragility of being human. From Jesus Christ to James Dean, Ray always found a poignant humanity on the script’s page and a way to allow his actors to bare their souls in front of the camera’s gaze.

Considering Ray's name would be hailed by Jean-Luc Godard as symbiotic with cinema, it's fascinating to note his many professions before settling on film, all of which would help define his auteur trademarks. Studying architecture with Frank Lloyd Wright allowed Ray to understand the importance of set designs, as well as a love for CinemaScope. Traveling to the South during the Great Depression to record local music for the Library of Congress would later manifest itself through Ray's use of music. His time during the 1930s with the Group Theatre in New York gave him a first-hand experience developing a bond with actors — possibly the most useful tool he had coming into the movies.

With the help of sympathetic producers Dore Schary and John Houseman, Ray directed his first film in 1947. Adapted from the novel Thieves Like Us by Edward Anderson, They Live by Night is a unique inclusion to the genre of film noir because of Ray's deeper interest to drive the movie forward through the love story rather than the bank robberies. Due to the Howard Hughes takeover of RKO Pictures, They Live by Night wouldn't see the light of day for two years, but the professional freedom of its production was one Ray remembered fondly, and what remains are the markings of a natural born storyteller.

On the power of his private screening of They Live by Night, Humphrey Bogart asked Ray to direct a film for his newly established production company, Santana Productions. A drama about social injustice, the best service Knock On Any Door did for its cast and crew was allow Bogart and Ray to grow accustomed to the other's style of working, and build a trust that would become personal as well as professional. Few bonds between actor and director reach greater peaks than their did in their next film together.

Ray would always say that In a Lonely Place was perhaps the most personal film he ever made. It was he who insisted on casting his wife, actress Gloria Grahame, as Bogart's love interest. He maintained she was right for the part (which ultimately she was), but the ulterior motive he never told the producers was a hope in saving their crumbling shotgun marriage. It was this desire that fueled the doomed love story of Laurel and Dix to such a point that it influenced Ray to change the film's ending. The result is a finale in which the heartbreak comes from the director remaining true to his characters and their own very adult realization that even their deep love for each other cannot weather their own flaws and fears.

After the chaos of WWII, a new standard of normality was introduced in America. In Nicholas Ray's perspective, America was a land defined by its own emotional vagrancy, where words like "home" and "family" were becoming more nebulous by definition. The lonely place of Hollywood, the urban jungle of On Dangerous Ground contrasted with the transcendental snow-covered mountains, the deserts of vast, existential dread in Bitter Victor and the lonely roads of The Lusty Men — these were the landscapes where Ray's protagonists found themselves longing for a more gravitationally bound existence.

Most who are unfamiliar with Ray's trademark mise-en-scène might assume the film's aching heart came from James Dean, but Rebel Without A Cause is as much a culmination of Ray's ideals as it is an exhibition of Dean's powerhouse performance. Because whenever you felt you were the only 16-year-old left in the world, wanting to zip up your jacket and create your own perfect version of a family, this was the movie you remembered.

Having perfected the understanding of reckless teenagers, the ever-growing Ray now focused his gaze on American parents. Although on the other side of the wide generational gap, Bigger Than Life and Rebel are sister films. See how young actor Christopher Olson's red jacket matches James Dean's famous windbreaker? That's not an accident. Much like Samuel Fuller in Shock Corridor, Ray approached all-American family man Ed Avery's drug addiction and illness as a magnifying glass revealing deep cracks in the American dream.

A heart attack in 1962 brought premature retirement to Ray's directing career, but he continued to inspire a legion of film buffs, this time in a more direct way: with help from old friends, including Dennis Hopper, Ray taught acting and filmmaking at NYU. "The hell with a lecture!" Ray proclaimed during his first day on the job. "You'll learn by doing." And do his students did, crafting a unique student-professor film called We Can't Go Home Again, which was screened at the Cannes Film Festival.

Ray's life was interrupted again, this time by a cancer diagnosis. His final contribution to personal cinema came in the form of a documentary/dramatic narrative hybrid called Lightning Over Water, directed by Ray and Wim Wenders, about the last weeks in the life of a man named Nicholas Ray. Ray's life would be permanently silenced on June 16, 1979, but his movies live on, never-ending in their capacity to provide penetrating truths about America, violence, family or how the life and death of a relationship was the most painful and vital proof of our humanity. To watch his movies is to feel a sympathetic arm around your shoulder, reminding you that the world is not a cold, dead place. Maybe it was for this reason that he was fated to be a storyteller, to communicate when words became superfluous. Perhaps more than ever before, Nicholas Ray is, still, profoundly, cinema.

Serena Bramble is a rookie film editor whose montage skills are the result of accumulated years of movie-watching and loving. Serena is currently pursuing a bachelor's degree in Teledramatic Arts and Technology from Cal State Monterey Bay. In addition to editing, she also writes on her blog Brief Encounters of the Cinematic Kind.

VIDEO ESSAY: The New Wave and the Left Bank, or A Certain Tendency in Modern French Cinema

VIDEO ESSAY: The New Wave and the Left Bank, or A Certain Tendency in Modern French Cinema

A Certain Tendency in Modern French Cinema from Jose Gallegos on Vimeo.


“I need images, I need representation which deals in other means than reality. We have to use reality but get out of it. That's what I try to do all the time.”
– Agnès Varda

This video was a labor of love. Made for an undergraduate course on Avant-Garde movements in France, it attempts, as Madame Varda suggests, to use images in order to recreate reality. In this case, that reality is modern French cinema from the late 1950s to the late 1960s. Using Jean-Luc Godard’s trailer for Masculin Féminin (1966) as a template, this montage of French films, which date from 1958 to 1967, gives a visual and aural understanding of modern French cinema. Having stated this, it is important that the reader not confuse the umbrella term of “modern French cinema” to solely mean the French New Wave. While the New Wave was influential, and is a popular term to use for filmmakers of that time, it was one of two movements that coexisted in France at the time.

La Nouvelle Vague (The New Wave)

The French New Wave was an idiosyncratic movement that sought to revolutionize narrative structures, genres, characters, plots and film techniques. François Truffaut, one of the founding members of the New Wave, foreshadowed the arrival of this movement in 1954 when he wrote “A Certain Tendency in French Cinema,” a manifesto published in the film journal Cahiers du Cinéma. Truffaut argued that French films lacked individuality and self-expression. Citing such directors as Jean Renoir, Alfred Hitchcock and Roberto Rossellini, Truffaut called for a new group of directors to take the reins and follow in these men’s footsteps by creating films that unmistakably belonged to their respective director. Five years after the publication of Truffaut’s article, the Cannes Film Festival awarded Truffaut Best Director for his feature film debut, The 400 Blows (1959), which told the story of a hopeless boy named Antoine Doinel (Truffaut’s doppelgänger). The premiere of this work was an important event that introduced the first ripples of the New Wave.

A year later, Jean-Luc Godard, a fellow critic at Cahiers du Cinéma, premiered his own debut feature, Breathless (1960), that recounted the adventures of a Bogart-loving criminal and his American girlfriend. Cinema would never be the same. Éric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol and Jacques Rivette joined Truffaut and Godard in creating a slew of iconic films. The New Wave directors, like Charles Baudelaire, who a century before them invented the “poem in prose,” created works that crossed artistic boundaries by incorporating philosophy, theater, linguistics, journalism and painting into films. This band of cinephiles opened the door for the potential of cinema.

La Rive Gauche (the Left Bank)

While the French New Wave directors were making a splash in the international film scene, a second group of directors were making their own movement in France. In 1958, Louis Malle screened his first film, Elevator to the Gallows (1958). Revolutionary for its intricate plot, brilliant acting (especially by Jeanne Moreau) and jazz score by Miles Davis, audiences were introduced to the birth of a new movement: the Left Bank. Unlike the New Wave directors, the Left Bank directors focused on narrative-driven plots, experimentations in time and space on screen and transpositions of literary works, especially those of the Nouveau Roman, onto the screen. A year after Malle’s debut, Alain Resnais' Left Bank masterpiece Hiroshima mon amour (1959) drew praise for its ability to experiment with personal and collective memory, and its boldness in confronting the politics of the Hiroshima bombing. These two films solidified the reputation of the Left Bank as an important movement in cinematic history. Other directors, including Agnès Varda, Jacques Demy and Chris Marker, would join the movement and help the 1960s become a decade for modernization of cinema.

Yet like most artistic movements, the Left Bank, along with the New Wave, would slowly die out.

The “Waves” Begin to Crash

Around 1967, the New Wave and Left Bank had become outdated forms of expression. By May 1968, many of the New Wave and Left Bank directors became politically involved in the student riots. In the aftermath of this political revolution, the band of filmmakers began to disperse and pursue different paths: Truffaut began making commercial films that appealed to the masses; Godard explored the limits of the “film essay” genre and the philosophical potential of film; Malle went on to make films overseas; and Resnais explored other projects beyond his political works of the ’50s and ’60s. Although these two movements were short-lived, the influences of these men and women were (and still are) incalculable. Had it not been for these two movements, the films of Quentin Tarantino, Wim Wenders, Chantal Akerman, Pedro Almodóvar, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Bob Rafelson, Peter Bogdanovich, John Woo and countless others would be shells, devoid of the influences and energy they attempted to replicate from the two movements.

The images that the New Wave and the Left Bank provided did not just offer an alternative to reality, they created a “modern” reality for future filmmakers and audiences alike. This “modern” reality opened doors that would allow for other movements in other countries. The waves of the two movements may have crashed, but the ripples still linger.

Jose Gallegos is an aspiring filmmaker based in Los Angeles. His student films can be found on YouTube and you can also follow him on Twitter.

VIDEO ESSAY: Critic Manohla Dargis on Poetry by Lee Chang-dong

VIDEO ESSAY: Critic Manohla Dargis on Poetry by Lee Chang-dong

EDITOR'S NOTE: To commemorate today’s release of Lee Chang-dong's Poetry on the site Fandor, Fandor editor-in-chief and Press Play contributor Kevin B. Lee has produced the following video essay on the film. This text for the narration comes from Manohla Dargis' review of the film for the New York Times. So with all due acknowledgments to the author and the Times, here’s the video inspired by her words inspired by the film.

Manohla Dargis on POETRY by Lee Chang-dong from Fandor Keyframe on Vimeo.

You can watch Lee Chang-dong's Poetry for free on Fandor if you log on with facebook or subscribe to the service for a free trial.

Kevin Lee is Editor in Chief of Fandor, a new video on demand website featuring the best of independent and international films. He is also a film critic and award-winning filmmaker. In addition to editing Keyframe, Kevin contributes to film publications and produces online video essays.

VIDEO ESSAY: CHAOS CINEMA: The decline and fall of action filmmaking

VIDEO ESSAY: CHAOS CINEMA: The decline and fall of action filmmaking


Part 1


Part 2


EDITOR’S NOTE
: Press Play is proud to premiere a new video essay by Los Angeles scholar and filmmaker Matthias Stork. His video essay,
Chaos Cinema, should be a welcome sight to anyone who’s ever turned away from a movie because of a director’s shaky camera.

PART 1

During the first decade of the 21st century, film style changed profoundly. Throughout the initial century of moviemaking, the default style of commercial cinema was classical; it was meticulous and patient. At least in theory, every composition and camera move had a meaning, a purpose. Movies did not cut without good reason, as it was considered sloppy, even amateurish. Mainstream films once prided themselves on keeping you the viewer well-oriented because they wanted to make sure you always knew where you were and what was happening.

Action was always intelligible, no matter how frenetic the scenario. A prime example: John Woo’s classic Hong Kong action film Hard Boiled. Its action is wild and extravagant, but it is nevertheless coherent and comprehensible at all times. Viewers feel and experience the exaggerated shootout fantasy without ever losing their bearings. In terms of camerawork, editing and staging, precision is key. Woo’s film is in fact strongly influenced by the work of American directors such as Sam Peckinpah and Martin Scorsese. A similarly great American action film is John McTiernan’s Die Hard. Notice the economy of cuts and camera moves in the scene where hero John McClane fights the bad guy’s chief henchman, Karl. The fight itself is frantic yet clearly understandable, both riveting and stabilizing — the M.O. of classical cinema.

But in the past decade, that bit of received wisdom went right out the window. Commercial films became faster. Overstuffed. Hyperactive.

Rapid editing, close framings, bipolar lens lengths and promiscuous camera movement now define commercial filmmaking. Film scholar David Bordwell gave this type of filmmaking a name: intensified continuity. But Bordwell’s phrase may not go far enough. In many post-millennial releases, we’re not just seeing an intensification of classical technique, but a perversion. Contemporary blockbusters, particularly action movies, trade visual intelligibility for sensory overload, and the result is a film style marked by excess, exaggeration and overindulgence: chaos cinema.

Chaos cinema apes the illiteracy of the modern movie trailer. It consists of a barrage of high-voltage scenes. Every single frame runs on adrenaline. Every shot feels like the hysterical climax of a scene which an earlier movie might have spent several minutes building toward. Chaos cinema is a never-ending crescendo of flair and spectacle. It’s a shotgun aesthetic, firing a wide swath of sensationalistic technique that tears the old classical filmmaking style to bits. Directors who work in this mode aren’t interested in spatial clarity. It doesn’t matter where you are, and it barely matters if you know what’s happening onscreen. The new action films are fast, florid, volatile audiovisual war zones.

Even attentive spectators may have trouble finding their bearings in a film like this. Trying to orient yourself in the work of chaos cinema is like trying to find your way out of a maze, only to discover that your map has been replaced by a reproduction of a Jackson Pollock painting, except the only art here is the art of confusion.

Consider Michael Bay’s Bad Boys 2, an explosive mixture of out-of-control editing, intrusive snatch-and-grab shots and a hyperactive camera. Bay’s cacophony stifles the viewer’s ability to really process the film’s CGI-assisted skirmishes. The action is cool to look at, but it’s hard to discern in detail, and there’s no elegance to it. The shots are often wobbly. Sometimes this is due to the use of deliberately shaky handheld cameras. Other times, the filmmakers have made relatively stable shots seem much wilder and blurrier in post-production through the use of AfterEffects software. (This is not film grammar, it is film dyslexia.)

Considering all the deliberate insanity occurring onscreen, these movies should be totally unintelligible. Yet we still have a faint sense of what’s going on.

Why?

Because of the soundtrack.

Chaos films may not offer concrete visual information, but they insist that we hear what is happening onscreen. Ironically, as the visuals in action films have become sloppier, shallower and blurrier, the sound design has become more creative, dense and exact. This is what happens when you lose your eyesight: your other senses try to compensate. Consider how relentless machine-gun fire, roaring engines and bursting metal dominate the opening of Marc Forster’s James Bond entry, Quantum of Solace. The scene’s dense sound effects track fills in the gaps left by its vague and hyperactive visuals.

But the image-sound relationship is still off-kilter. What we hear is definitely a car chase — period.

But what we see is a “car chase.”

French auteur Robert Bresson rightfully stressed the importance of sound in the formation of atmospheric depth in movies. He even argued for its primacy, saying that in some ways sound might be even more important than picture. But in lavishly funded action films that wish to create an immersive experience, sound and image should be complementary, and they should be communicative. In Quantum of Solace and in other works of chaos cinema – image and sound ultimately do not enter into a dialogue, they just try to out-shout each other.

In contrast to Bay’s and Forster’s haphazard execution of action, consider the meticulously staged and photographed car chase in Ronin. In contemporary action cinema, such a sequence is, unfortunately, hard to find.

PART 2

Chaos cinema technique is not limited to action sequences. We see it used in dialogue sequences as well. We hear important plot information being communicated, but the camerawork and cutting deny us other pleasures, such as seeing a subtle change in facial expression or a revealing bit of body language.

This deficiency is especially discernible in the musical film, a genre that ordinarily relies heavily on clear-cut choreography and expressive gestures. But the woozy camera and A.D.D. editing pattern of contemporary releases clearly destroy any sense of spatial integrity. No matter how closely we look, the onscreen space remains a chaotic mess. For comparison, consider a scene from the classic Singin’ in the Rain. Long, uninterrupted takes allow us to see the extraordinary performances of the actors. No false manipulation necessary.

To be fair, the techniques of chaos cinema can be used intelligently and with a sense of purpose. Case in point: Kathryn Bigelow‘s The Hurt Locker. The film uses chaotic style pointedly and sparingly, to suggest the hyper-intensity of the characters’ combat experience and the professional warrior’s live-wire awareness of the lethal world that surrounds him. Bigelow immerses viewers in the protagonists’ perspectives, yet equally grants them a detached point of view. The film achieves a perfect harmony of story, action and viewer involvement.

But such exceptions do not disprove the rule. Most chaos cinema is indeed lazy, inexact and largely devoid of beauty or judgment. It’s an aesthetic configuration that refuses to engage viewers mentally and emotionally, instead aspiring to overwhelm, to overpower, to hypnotize viewers and plunge them into a passive state. The film does not seduce you into suspending disbelief. It bludgeons you until you give up.

Some film buffs have already grown tired of chaos cinema – especially the so-called “shaky cam,” which has been ridiculed even by South Park. Despite stirrings of viewer discontent, however, chaos is still the default filmmaking mode for certain kinds of entertainment, and it’s an easy way for Hollywood movies to denote hysteria, panic and disorder.

Chaos cinema seems to mark a return to the medium’s primitive origins, highlighting film’s potential for novelty and sheer spectacle – the allure of such formative early works as The Great Train Robbery. You can trace the roots of chaos cinema to several possible factors: the influence of music video aesthetics, the commercial success of TV, increasingly short viewer attention spans, the limitless possibilities of CGI, and a growing belief in more rather than less. Those who look closer, though, may wonder when cinema will recapture the early visceral appeal of the train pulling into the station at La Ciotat — truly a symbolic relic, powerful in its simplicity. Chaos cinema hijacks the Lumière brothers‘ iconic train, fills it with dynamite, sets the entire vehicle on fire and blows it up while crashing it through the screen and into the rumbling movie theater – then replays it over and over. And audiences are front and center, nailed to their seats, sensing the action but not truly experiencing it. All is chaos.

Matthias Stork is a film scholar and filmmaker from Germany who is studying film and television at UCLA. He has an M.A. in Education with an emphasis on American and French literature and film from Goethe University, Frankfurt. He has attended the Cannes film festival twice (2010/2011) as a representative of Goethe University’s film school. You can read his blog here.

DEEP FOCUS: Sidney Lumet’s PRINCE OF THE CITY (1981)

DEEP FOCUS: Sidney Lumet’s PRINCE OF THE CITY (1981)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Press Play is proud to premiere this video essay by New York based critic-filmmaker Steven Santos. His piece on Prince of the City is split into two parts and can be viewed above. It is a visual analysis of Sidney Lumet’s so-called “NYPD films”: Prince of the City, Serpico, Q & A and Night Falls on Manhattan.

by Steven Santos
Press Play Contributor

THE STORY

Prince of the City was released on August 19, 1981. Like so many of Sidney Lumet‘s movies, this one lives and breathes New York City, showing us everything from tenements to court rooms and everyone from drug addicts to district attorneys. The film has well over a hundred speaking roles and what I would consider one of the best casting of authentic New Yorkers in film, mixing professional and non-professional actors throughout. The look and feel of the movie would influence many films and television shows in subsequent decades, ones that strove for realism and a more procedural approach to the cop genre. One of those shows, Law & Order, even used one of the film’s most prominent cast members, Jerry Orbach.

Prince is a complex tale of police corruption in the 1970’s adapted from the book by Robert Daley and based on the life of narcotics detective Robert Leuci. Danny Ciello, played in a towering performance by Treat Williams, is an over-confident narcotics detective has skimmed money from criminals for years without it weighing on his conscience. The film’s title refers to his ability to make cases while working mostly unsupervised.

But from the opening scene, you begin to see the cracks in this prince’s facade. An argument with his drug addicted brother shows that there is someone unwilling to continue the charade that Ciello and his partners are somehow upstanding officers of the law. In a key scene, Ciello is forced to rob a drug addict to supply heroin to his informant. He begins to take pity on him, perhaps recognizing his own addicted brother. More importantly, he begins to witness firsthand the consequences his illegal acts as a cop have on others.Ciello remembers why he wanted to become a detective, and makes an effort to change because he can no longer see much of a difference between the cops and the criminals no matter how much he tries to justify his actions by blaming the way the criminal justice system works. Perhaps you would think that this film will be a simple tale of redemption, where a man acknowledges his wrongdoings and then helps to put the remorseless criminals behind bars.

But as we all know, but rarely care to admit, doing the right thing is quite a messy process. While Prince of the City may be a sprawling epic about how deep corruption runs in the New York City police department, it is as much about how we never can quite wash the slate clean of our own past corruptions, big or small.

SERPICO/CIELLO

Prince was not the first or last time that Sidney Lumet examined this subject. 1973’s “Serpico”, based on the real-life detective Frank Serpico, is the only one of his films about police corruption in New York City that he did not write or co-write. In real life, Robert Leuci was an acquaintance of Frank Serpico. Serpico begins with its main character graduating from the police academy and follows him from precinct to precinct, as he seems to run into a citywide problem of outwardly corrupt police officers. In interviews, Lumet has said that he made Prince because he was not satisfied with the way he portrayed cops in his earlier film. Watching Serpico today, one would be hard-pressed to disagree with him. While it features a terrific performance by Al Pacino, the film refuses to examine this real-life figure beyond making him a martyr. It’s not about a man struggling with doing the right thing, it’s about a man resented by the world for being a tortured saint. While both Serpico’s and Leuci’s stories occurred during the same time frame, the films about them seem to take place in different worlds.

The key difference between Serpico and Ciello is that Ciello does not necessarily stop lying when he decides to come clean, for fear of incriminating himself or ratting out his partners. Lumet’s Serpico does not necessarily challenge its main character’s righteousness, nor does it bring many shades of gray to its exploration of why the rest of the police department seems completely corrupt. Prince raises questions about morality and loyalty; unlike Serpico, it doesn’t make it easy for us to decide who the bad people are. Police corruption was the subject matter that Lumet kept revisiting and exploring, perhaps to find new shades that could not be contained in just one film.

LUMET’S NYPD

In addition to Serpico and Prince of the City, Lumet returned to the theme of police corruption twice more in the 1990’s with Q & A (1990) and Night Falls on Manhattan (1997). Of the four films, Q & A is the one that plays most like a crime thriller, as we watch a fairly degenerate cop (Nick Nolte) target drug dealers who had ripped him off at the same time that he’s is being investigated by an assistant district attorney (Timothy Hutton). Without a doubt, you can call Nolte’s character the villain of the film. But even so, Lumet allows this corrupt cop to explain his logic, almost daring you to empathize with someone who you know from the very first scene has committed the murder he is being investigated for.

In 1997’s Night Falls on Manhattan, also based on a book by Robert Daley, corruption extends to family members. The film centers on an assistant district attorney (Andy Garcia) whose rise in that office coincides with an investigation into police corruption that may involve his own father (Ian Holm). While the father’s partner (James Gandolfini) is clearly on the take, his own corruption involves fudging an arrest warrant to put away a drug dealer that he had been targeting for a long time.

Lumet is fascinated by the logic behind corruption. What is the thought process that causes people to lose their way? The key to Lumet’s success in exploring this theme is the degree to which he does not pass black and white judgment on his characters. The more we see ourselves reflected in people who justify their amoral actions, the more Lumet has made these people human. While Q & A and Night Falls on Manhattan admirably try to explore the gray zone of morality and corruption, it is Prince of the City that is Sidney Lumet’s masterwork on that theme.

ARE YOU THE DETECTIVE CIELLO?

While we may understand what drives Danny Ciello to help the special attorney task force make cases against corrupt cops, we are less sure how we feel about him. Much of what drives this man is his loyalty to his partners. As he puts it, “The first thing a cop learns is that he can’t trust anybody but his partners. I’ll tell you something right now. I sleep with my wife, but I live with my partners.”

Prince of the City takes the time to show us why that is. Even when Ciello finally admits to his partners that he is working to take down corrupt cops, they gather to not necessarily support him, but show concern for his well being. There is a loyalty among these detectives that Ciello will never have with all the attorneys he works for. The film further blurs the line between moral and amoral by showing Ciello’s mob-connected cousin as someone more reliable than the often ambitious attorneys. In one scene where a crooked cop and bondsman threaten to kill Ciello, it’s his cousin who vouches for him, saving his life.

Prince of the City is the Lumet film that truly makes you understand corruption by showing us this expansive group of people and the degrees they are willing to live with their consciences. Ciello’s final confessions lead to the destruction of people he considered family, people who loved him in a way that he will probably never experience again in his life. That is why you can see and understand the regret in his face when his partners eventually shun him. Doing the right thing is quite a messy process.

While Prince of the City has many admirers, the film has not gotten its due for its influence on the genre or the complexity with which it presents its subject matter. I consider it to be the Sidney Lumet film to watch to fully understand who he is as a director, a summation of all his work. With its large cast, the film creates a detailed world with communities of lawyers, gangsters, drug addicts and cops. At the center of it all is a performance by Treat Williams that ranks among the best, comparable to the greatest work of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, actors originally considered for the role.

What makes “Prince” essential is its universal and complicated take on how each of us cope with the moral choices we make. If we try to understand who Detective Ciello and how we feel about him, we begin to understand ourselves.

ADDENDUM:

This video essay has been in the works for a while. By coincidence, while I was editing it near the end of July, Prince of the City was given a rare screening at the Film Society of Lincoln Center with both Treat Williams and Robert Leuci in attendance. It was shown as part of the Film Society’s tribute to Sidney Lumet.

Williams and Leuci had a fascinating Q & A after the film in which they mostly talked about working with Lumet. Williams in particular showed pride in this film. It is clearly the highlight of his career. But it was odd to see the man the film was based on talk about it in the flesh, considering that film does not portray him heroically. Leuci had not even seen the film from beginning to end until that night, probably because reliving that experience could not have been easy. While he admits the film takes some dramatic license, Leuci lauded how Lumet had stayed true to his story.

As this was a tribute to Lumet, Williams and Leuci told stories about the making of Prince, talking about the long audition process Williams went through and how Lumet did not want Leuci around set due to the not-very-happy experience of having Frank Serpico on set all the time during the production of Serpico. Although Lumet is not acknowledged as a significant auteur by cinephiles because his almost invisible direction served the story rather than himself, the Williams/Leuci Q & A re-asserted that Lumet was a filmmaker with a true vision, and highlighted the choices he made that enabled Prince to be so effective.

According to Scott Foundas, who introduced the screening, Prince of the City was the hardest film of the tribute to locate a 35mm print for. Apparently, this print was borrowed from the Harvard Archives. In essence, on its 30th anniversary, Prince almost feels like a lost film. It wasn’t even released on DVD until about four years ago. I hope this video essay will shine a light on Prince of the City as well as Lumet, acknowledge its masterful filmmaking and storytelling, and perhaps help prevent the film from being lost in the coming years.

Steven Santos is a freelance television editor/filmmaker based in New York. He has cut docu-series for MTV, The Travel Channel, The Biography Channel, The Science Channel and Animal Planet. His work can be found at http://www.stevenedits.com. He writes about films at his blog The Fine Cut). You can also follow him on Twitter.

VIDEO ESSAY: The Inception of Movie Editing: The Art of D.W. Griffith

VIDEO ESSAY: The Inception of Movie Editing: The Art of D.W. Griffith

By Michael Joshua Rowin
Press Play Special Contributor

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Here at PressPlay we are all about video essays. Fandor just ran an outstanding package of clips, text and a video essay deconstructing the work of D.W. Griffith as it relates to the art of parallel editing. We are cross-posting the entire enterprise.]

Today marks the 63rd anniversary of the death of D.W. Griffith, one of the most influential filmmakers in history. To commemorate his passing, we are re-posting the following video essay and article, which originally appeared on Keyframe December 15, 2010.

Watch related video essay

This past summer audiences marveled at the complex structure of Inception, a film containing dreams within dreams, all taking place and affecting each other simultaneously. Director Christopher Nolan accomplished this sophisticated form of storytelling using the technique of parallel editing, in which separate scenes in different locations or periods are cut together to make it appear as if they are unfolding at the same time. But when compared to the work of a filmmaker who directed a hundred years before Nolan, Inception doesn’t look all that mind-blowing. Considered the father of narrative cinema, D.W. Griffith practically invented such techniques like parallel editing, pushing them to unprecedented levels of complexity and depth.

Griffith started with basic montage structures in early Biograph shorts like 1909’s The Sealed Room, in which the tryst between a cheating queen and her lover is cross-cut with a jealous and infuriated king’s macabre attempt to seal them off in their love nest. Here parallel action unfolds in adjoining rooms, the spaces and the action taking place within them related in the simplest of narrative and psychological terms.

Watch The Sealed Room on Fandor.

But just a few months after A Sealed Room, A Corner in Wheat would demonstrate a quantum leap in Griffith’s use of parallel editing. This short film cuts back and forth between three spaces, with each representing not only a different physical location, but also a different social class: working farmers underpaid for their labor, shop merchants forced to overcharge for the harvested food, and wall street tycoons manipulating the markets to earn profit at the expense of the rest of the economic system. Capitalist exploitation is indicted by way of basic comparison. A lively party held by a wealthy wall street player is immediately followed by a tableaux of hungry customers lined up at the merchant’s store, unable to purchase the bread that has recently inflated in price due to the speculator’s greedy machinations. These three spaces that geographicallyare at a great remove from one another are connected by a cinematic chain illustrating economic cause and effect. But Griffith doesn’t just create meaning through montage; he also creates contrasts through profound disparities in compositions and movement in each scene. Through montage, the customers’ theatrical stillness puts the brakes on the oblivious merriment of the swells in the previous scene, and expresses the debilitation of an entire social stratum.

Watch A Corner in Wheat on Fandor.

A year later, in The Unchanging Sea, Griffith would use parallel editing in a less ostentatious manner. He adds to his repertoire more artful compositions and more nuanced acting styles, further expanding the methods by which cinema could impart emotional and metaphorical meaning. The film’s story cuts between a fisherman who washes up on a foreign shore after an amnesia-causing boating accident, and his wife and daughter he has unknowingly left behind at home. Parallel editing isn’t used to generate suspense as in The Sealed Room, or to create conceptual associations as in A Corner of Wheat; it is used for lyrical storytelling. But just as lyrical are Griffith’s use of deep focus and multiple planes of action. The erroneously widowed mother rejects a courting gentleman in the foreground as her daughter plays by the sea in the background. There are various moments featuring action at the sides or corners of the frame while actors turn away from the camera. The viewer must make associations over the course of lengthy shots, must infer character reactions and emotions in compositions that emphasize realism over theatricality. The slow parallel editing rhythms of The Unchanging Sea necessitates a patient, well-considered understanding of the complex dramatic presentation.

Watch The Unchanging Sea on Fandor.

By the time of The Birth of a Nation in 1915 and Intolerance in 1916, Griffith had brought everything together. Parallel editing can unite detailed intimacy and epic grandeur; macrocosmic sweep and personal specificity; melodrama adapted from 19th century theatrical traditions and modern sensibilities developed in the cinema. Montage can compare and contrast, demonstrate cause and effect, and create via purely visual means structural patterns, ironies, and contrapuntal refrains. Often taken to task by critics—including admirer Sergei Eisenstein—for overextending Griffith’s talents, Intolerance not only deftly weaves action across four different spaces but four different centuries: ancient Babylon, the age of Christ, 16th Century France, and contemporary New York City. The connections and distinctions of these epochs are bonded not only through suspense, metaphor, and lyricism, but above all through the theme of intolerance and its disastrous effects throughout human history.

Watch The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance on Fandor.

Whatever one thinks about Griffith’s audacity and hubris in taking on this grand idea, one should pay reverence to his monumental ambition, which lay the blueprint for mainstream narrative cinema today. In this way we can say that the true architect of Inception is D.W. Griffith.

Michael Joshua Rowin writes about cinema for The L Magazine, Cineaste, Artforum, LA Weekly, and Reverse Shot. You can read this post on Fandor here.

VIDEO ESSAY: THREE REASONS why Criterion should release THE MAN WITHOUT A MAP

VIDEO ESSAY: THREE REASONS why Criterion should release THE MAN WITHOUT A MAP

Three Reasons: The Man Without a Map from For Criterion Consideration on Vimeo.

I can't recall exactly when I first saw Hiroshi Teshigahara's Woman in the Dunes, but it had a profound impact on my cinematic upbringing. It was most likely on 16mm or third generation bootleg VHS, and even looking past the grainy transfer and static I could see a beautifully crafted film, the likes of which I had never seen before. I immediately sought out Kobo Abe's original novel and any related material I could lay my hands on. The film also opened my ears to the music of Toru Takemitsu, the composer responsible for damn near every Japanese film made in the 60s. These three auteurs would ultimately become the holy trinity in Japanese film history, not to mention equally excellent in their own respective fields. So when Criterion announced a Teshigahara box set, I was ecstatic. Up until that point the other films were not available in the US, and I was anxious to see more. Once I had that gorgeous box in my hands I soon found that Pitfall and The Face of Another were equally great; the set boasted delicious array of supplements, including Teshigahara's short films on Hokusai and his father's avant-garde Sogetsu School for Ikebana (the traditional Japanese art of flower arrangement).

But I also found one glaring omission; the fourth film in their unfortunately short-lived collaboration, The Man Without a Map.

Based on Abe's novel The Ruined Map, The Man Without a Map would be the final collaboration between Teshigahara, Abe, and Takemitsu.  What separates it from the other three films is that it was shot in color and CinemaScope, which was somewhat of a surprise considering they had held out in favor of black-and-white long after the studios had shifted production to color.  Critic and film programmer James Quandt makes only a passing remark in his Criterion essay on Face of Another in regards to Man Without a Map; he describes how Teshigahara's adherence to traditional ratio and black-and-white film emphasized the arrangement of mise-en-scène, utilizing a strict visual design undoubtedly inherited from his training in ikebana, but the choice to use color and Scope reveals a "discomfort with both."  It has also been argued elsewhere that this film ultimately is inferior to the team's preceding films, perhaps due in part to the decision to adopt the CinemaScope fad.  While I agree this film may not be on par with the first three, Teshigahara's use of CinemaScope superbly enhances his stylistic determination.  As my Three Reasons hopefully exhibits, nearly every frame of this film is calculated and arranged beautifully, and at the same time provides the perfect visual equivalent to Abe's existential themes.

On paper, the plot sounds simple enough:  A detective is hired to find a missing person named Nemuro.  A series of seemingly meaningless clues are thrown at him wherever he goes, characters float in and out of his way as he desperately tries to make sense of why anyone would just disappear without cause or reason. Even as evidence is laid out (or manufactured?), our detective searches for a deeper meaning until finally he begins to question his own identity. Therein lie the common threads linking all the Teshigahara-Abe-Takemistu films; identity, alienation, existence. Who am I? This is not my beautiful wife. Why am I in this pit? What the hell is going on? In every film, characters struggle with these problems, but in the end there are no solutions.  In regard to Abe's narrative influence, Man Without a Map falls perfectly within the sensibilities of the other films. But its source, The Ruined Map, is straightforward compared to other Abe novels. Having the protagonist be a detective instead of an amateur entomologist is a helluva lot more accessible. The film benefits from this device as the audience tries to find meaning in the seemingly random events that our detective finds himself involved in. Fans of film noir will enjoy the playful subversion of the hard-boiled detective and femme fatale archetypes, and there's a surprising dream sequence that will throw viewers off if they don't pay attention to certain visual cues. This film was released years before Robert Altman's 1973 film of Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely,, but just like Elliot Gould's mumbling Philip Marlowe, our detective has a fondness for cats.

I'll admit, I'm tempted to just scold Criterion for not trying harder to include the film in the first place.  It is the final piece in an amazing body of work. To exclude it would be a travesty.  Travesty, I say!  But Criterion did an amazing job with what they had, even without Man Without a Map.  At this point the movie remains unavailable outside Japan, and there doesn't seem to be much acknowledgment of its existence in the West.  And since there is no Mayor of Movies to write angry letters to, we just have to wait for Criterion to correct the matter once the Teshigahara box gets Blu-graded.

Robert Nishimura is a Japan-based filmmaker, artist, and freelance designer. His designs can be found at Primolandia Productions. His non-commercial video work is at For Criterion Consideration. You can follow him on Twitter here. To watch other videos in his "Three Reasons" series, click here.

VIDEO ESSAY: Robert Nishimura’s THREE REASONS series is a Criterion buff’s fantasy

VIDEO ESSAY: Robert Nishimura’s THREE REASONS series is a Criterion buff’s fantasy


The Criterion Collection is known for delivering the highest quality standard in video distribution. Their mission statement says it all; it sells “important classic and contemporary films” to cinephiles of all genres and interests. For many DVD collectors, having the Criterion edition of certain titles justifies throwing other versions in the bin. From digital transferring to final package design, Criterion strives to bring the best possible elements to their buyers, often with the director’s own seal of approval. Naturally this kind of attention to detail inspires fanatical devotion among the company's audience. — and in the sincerest form of flattery, it has inspired imitators. Part of the appeal in seeing a Criterion release is its ornate packaging. The company has an amazing team of in-house designers, as well as a keen eye for independent illustrators who are brought in to give their own unique spin on projects. It truly feels like the golden age of DVD cover design, and with that, Internet forums and tumblr blogs sprang up seemingly overnight with their own fake Criterion covers; simply typing those three words in any search engine will provide hours of visual enjoyment (or disgust, if you are a cover art snob like myself).

In the beginning of this year Criterion began a video essay campaign called, Three Reasons. Each video highlights one title in their collection, providing three reasons why they think the film deserves your attention (and money). As soon as these videos started rolling out, fans were quick to make their own Three Reasons for their favorite Criterion titles. Being a fake Criterion cover artist myself, I felt it only natural that my disturbing devotion should extend to fake Three Reasons videos. And I am quite proud to proclaim the introduction of yet another cultural meme, Three Reasons For Criterion Consideration. These videos are, of course, intended to sway Criterion into acquiring titles for the collection that are not available in the US as of yet (if anything, for my own selfish benefit), but also to expose important films that are in dire need of critical attention.

Below are some of my personal favorites. I realize that I can be a bit glib in giving my three reasons, but rest assured my heart is always in each video. If you enjoy them, please check out my back catalogue at, For Criterion Consideration I will be premiering subsequent installments here at PressPlay, so any suggestions or comments would be greatly appreciated. And if you’re so inclined, I suggest you make your own videos.

Toshio Matsumoto’s Funeral Parade of Roses (1969)


Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974)


Ko Nakahiro’s Yuka on Mondays (1964)


Robert Nishimura is a Japan-based filmmaker, artist, and freelance designer. Born and raised in Panamá, he then moved to the US, working at the University of Pittsburgh and co-directing Life During Wartime, a short-lived video collective for local television. After fleeing to Japan, he co-founded the Capi Gallery in Western Honshu before becoming a permanent resident. He currently is designing for DVD distributors in Japan and the US, making short and feature films independently, and is a contributing artist for the H.P. France Group and their affiliate companies. His designs can be found at Primolandia Productions. His non-commercial video work is at For Criterion Consideration.