Wednesday, August 29, 2012
DIDJA KNOW: Part VI
...why editing is so important?
In his conversations with Francois Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock discussed the experiment, popular among cinema students, regarding Russian director Lev Kuleshov. In this study of the montage-- now known as "the Kuleshov effect"-- Kuleshov investigated the use of images to evoke a psychological reaction from the audience. It occurred thus: he provided an image of a little girl's coffin to a set of viewers and then showed an unrelated shot of actor Ivan Mosjoukine's face (left). Yet, because the two separately filmed moments were played one after the other, the audience read Ivan's alleged reaction as that of compassion or sorrow. In another test, Kuleshov showed an image of soup, then played the same clip of Ivan's face. The audience reaction interpreted his face this time as displaying "hunger." Oh, what a little film cutting can do... Hitchcock marveled at the technical implications Kuleshov had discovered, and put them to use in all of his films through specific angles, reaction shots, and most importantly editing-- especially when it came to his masterpiece, Rear Window. While this experiment revealed a great deal about the necessity of skilled editing, it also raised questions about film acting. If you had a good director, cameraman, and film cutter, it appeared that a good actor didn't seem to be all that necessary... But then, Hitch considered all actors to be "cattle," didn't he? Look left, look right, turn, stare, scream, etc. Are film actors real actors or merely talking props at the mercy of behind-the-scenes, cinema tacticians?
Greta Garbo was, of course, a phenomenal actress, who proved that she could deliver complicated and deeply felt performances so effective that her audiences were moved to tears or even lustful panting. However, even she participated from time to time in Kuleshov's methods. When filming the final scene in Queen Christina, Greta was uncertain how to proceed. Having just lost her lover in the film, she was to stare at the sea from the helm of a great ship as she makes her voyage to a mysterious new life. She conferred with director Rouben Mamoulian. What reaction did he want? Courage or sorrow? Hope or despair? Rouben instructed her not to give anything away. "Just stare," he said. The audience, he asserted, will fill in the blanks with whatever emotion they choose. Greta doubted, but delivered. Thus, after she walked from her lover's death-bed to the front of the ship, she stood and looked forward blankly (right). Rouben was correct. No acting nor tears were needed. The audience projected their own emotions on Greta's face and saw her great pain over her past and equally uncertain future. It was hailed as a brilliant moment of exquisite acting! Had Rouben inserted an image of cheesecake, the audience probably would have sensed her hunger too.
...what Garbo found so funny?
Queen Christina is notorious for another reason in Garbo's history. While Ninotchka is hailed as the film in which "Garbo Laughs" (left), Greta had actually laughed before, and often. Of course, most of her guffaws were lost to silence in the pre-sound era. However, the first sound film in which she truly "yucked it up" was Queen Christina. Obviously an innovative and skilled director, Rouben Mamoulian knew the importance of this moment. Greta's Christina is supposed to happen upon John Gilbert's hopelessly snowbound carriage and laugh it up at his expense. Naturally, both Greta and Rouben were nervous about the moment. Greta was known for her childish and delightful laugh among friends, but her screen persona was pretty much the opposite of light-hearted. She began putting a great deal of pressure on herself and was a ball of nerves. Rouben devised a plan to help her out. He pulled John and Akim Tamiroff aside and told them that when Greta rode up on her horse, they were to make childish and absurd faces at her off camera. In turn, he told Greta that, no matter what happened during the scene, she was to just continue on as scripted. She complied... and got a surprise! Thus, when Greta turns the corner atop her stead and starts laughing uproariously, she is not acting: she is truly cutting up at the twisted faces and outstretched tongues of John and Akim. Her little girl delight is as honest as it gets.
...the connection between Sean Connery and Dick Van Dyke?
Certainly no two actors could seem further apart, but it turns out that these two very different performers starred in different adaptations of a certain author's books. Ian Fleming is most popularly remembered for his creation of the character "Bond... James Bond" in his series of 007 novels. Mr. Connery (right) brought Bond to life on the screen in 1962. Yet, despite his thorough knowledge and interpretation of sex and espionage, Fleming is equally noteworthy for another literary offering, which was geared toward a very different audience: children. Indeed, Fleming penned Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: The Magical Car, which was published mere months after his death and transferred to the screen, with the help of Roald Dahl, in the 1968 film starring Mr. Van Dyke. One would hardly draw a comparison between the international man of mystery, who preferred things "shaken, not stirred," and a flying car, but there are parallels. After all, Bond had all sorts of sweet gadgets and weapons that made him a much more elegant looking-- and English-- Batman of sorts. One could imagine him getting his hand on a flying car, albeit a much sleeker one. Then, of course, from the man who gave us "Pussy Galore," the name "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" has a sort of sexual connotation that one could easily transfer to a Bond film... Perhaps we should all re-read the children's book and look for secret clues that Fleming hid within its pages. Maybe the Bond trail didn't go cold at Fleming's death after all???
...Margarita wasn't the only famous Cansino?
Before Rita Hayworth became Rita Hayworth, she was just a little girl touring in a dance duo with her father, Eduardo Cansino (left). An ambitious man of questionable moral character, Eduardo was determined to make something of himself, which he eventually vowed to do through his talented only daughter. However, he too had his day in the sun. Despite his lackluster human recommendations, Eduardo was a phenomenal dancer. When he moved his family of five to New York in the late 1910s, it was his effective feet that got him noticed. In fact, Rita's pop appeared in the movies long before Rita herself. He and his sister Elise were featured doing their tango in a special Warner Brothers exhibition that preceded the premiere of Don Juan, starring John Barrymore, in 1926. Eduardo also used to be one of the go-to choreographers for formerly extravagant film premieres, which at that time included more than just "light's out, start film." The massive pre-shows, with themes, costumed dancers, and actors, were almost as impressive as the increasingly awe-inspiring movies themselves. To make money for his family, in addition to giving dance instruction and continuing his regimental rehearsals with Rita, Eduardo directed many of these shows. Eduardo was such a recognized talent at the time that the likes of Fred Astaire and James Cagney were his fans. However, he never made it as a superstar. His last cinematic effort turned out to be the choreography he provided in Dante's Inferno, which Rita danced with partner Gary Leon in one of her first film performances.
...that Spike Lee is a copycat?
Well, that's putting it harshly... Let's just say that he made it clear that he was a Charles Laughton fan when he made an homage to the actor's sole directorial effort, Night of the Hunter, in his own Do the Right Thing. In Lee's film (1989), one of the main characters is the boom-box toting "Radio Raheem," who wears four-fingered rings on both of his hands that read alternately "Hate" and "Love." In a film centering around racial tension, prejudice, and the cataclysmic mayhem that misunderstanding can induce, the themes of man's inner and outer brutal battle between these two emotions is violently made. However, what few novices (cough, cough) know when watching this picture, is that the same imagery was used by Laughton 34 years earlier in Hunter. In 1955, Robert Mitchum starred as the murderous preacher conning his way through his latest batch of victims, whom he lures into his trust with his great orations of the eternal battle between good and evil. Tattooed on his fingers, which he balls into fists, are the self-same words "Love" and "Hate" (right). Another theme in this film more obviously broached is that between the evil that comes with knowledge versus the purity of innocence, displayed by the two child actors-- Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce-- who are left to combat Mitchum's Hellish monster. Clearly, Lee saw a bright idea and decided to marry it to his own opus. The use of the conflicting fists is effective in both films... but Laughton got there first!
...the identity of the Lady in Red?
Red has so many connotations. It indicates passion, romance, evil, anger, or even embarrassment. One thing's for sure, the fiery color tends to stand out. This is something Norma Shearer (left) knew very well, and she put it to use. At the 1936 Mayfair Ball, the dress code was specifically decreed as formal and white. Every one agreed to the stipulation and showed up bedecked in an assorted variety of white, off-white, egg-shell, etc. Everyone, that is, save for one. Norma conversely showed up in a sultry crimson gown! So impudent did many see the action that even the ever-mild and lighthearted Carole Lombard was left seeing red: "Who the f*ck does she think she is, the house madam?!" One can draw a parallel between the effect Norma caused and the stir that Bette Davis's character caused in Jezebel, when she showed up to a demure party in brazen scarlet, while everyone else was dressed in white. Of course, her character seemed to have a tinge of regret about her decision, which Bette indicated in her nervous, sidelong glances on the dance floor. Norma on the other hand??? It's pretty safe to say that she spent the whole night smiling and laughing at the uproar she was causing. Hey, the film business is tough. If you want to get to the top, you have to make your presence known. Norma's unstoppable ambition wasn't going to be ignored by anyone! With the combination of her chutzpah and her more than fortunate alliance to husband Irving Thalberg, Norma pretty much had fame and fortune in the bag. No wonder she made so many women heated... and so many men hot under the collar!