Blog Directory CineVerse

"I am a human being"

Sunday, February 18, 2018

David Lynch's "The Elephant Man" is a moving and visually memorable movie set during a turning point in man's history--a time when the English monarchy was becoming more symbolic and less political, an era when the Industrial Revolution and the machine age were gaining momentum, a time when ignorance and superstition was giving way to science and intellectual thought. This simple story of a doctor's compassion for and faith in a man cursed by disfigurement and shamed by society still resonates with viewers and packs a strong emotional punch. Much was discussed about this film at our recent CineVerse meeting, including the following:


WHAT SURPRISED YOU ABOUT THIS FILM?
  • It was directed by David Lynch, a filmmaker known for strange, surrealistic visions and twisted narratives that can be difficult to follow. By contrast, this narrative is straightforward, linear and mainstream. 
  • It was filmed in black and white. Arguably, that was the right decision, imbuing it with a period piece authenticity and antique sheen. What the year of this release is 1980, a time when black and white was certainly out of fashion and a commercial liability that would likely hurt box office appeal. 
  • The movie has a life-affirming, positive message and vibe, despite a character and subject matter that can be depressing, dark and sad. In the words of DVD Savant reviewer Glenn Erickson, “The Elephant Man has just about everything: a human story, told with remarkable sensitivity it’s a nightmare film we can all relate to, even if the leading character is a once-in-a-century freakish aberration.” 
  • It was actually produced by Mel Brooks, standing as the initial project for his newly formed Brooksfilm company. It says a lot about Brooks that he chose this story for his first foray as a producer. 
  • The sound design of the movie features a disturbing cacophony of machine noises and unnerving sounds meant to get under our skin. 
  • The film has all the trappings of a classic horror movie: high contrast lighting and dark shadows in a black-and-white universe, a physical monstrosity worthy of our sympathy like the Frankenstein monster, the gothic romanticism of Victorian England, etc. Yet, this is not a horror film – it’s a humanistic portrait of a doctor and his patient. 

WHAT THEMES ARE ON DISPLAY IN THE ELEPHANT MAN?
  • The dark side of the Industrial Revolution and the machine age. Consider that Dr. Treves perform surgery on a man terribly mangled by a machine; the filmmakers also continually depict dark Victorian machines and men who try to wield them. 
  • The dangers of ignorance, insensitivity, intolerance, social cruelty and premature first impressions. 
  • Man’s inherent right to dignity, respect, and freedom from ridicule. 
  • Our humanity is partially defined by the way others treat and perceive us. According to blogger and essayist Norman Holland: “It is not reason, but people’s reactions to Merrick that define him and them as human – or not. It is when Treves treats him as a man, not just some weird thing to be shown to the medical society, it is when the nurses stopping terrified by him and relate to him as a patient, it is when two beautiful women speak to him kindly, it is in the finale when the theater audience admires his courage, that both Merrick and those reacting to him acquire humanity.” 
  • Trying to build a holy house—a temple of peace, grace and beauty. Merrick attempts to construct a paper cathedral, which he has to use his imagination to make and finish. The cathedral could be a wish fulfillment object that embodies his desire for a more perfect temple (body). 
  • Life is a “show”; Holland said: “The Elephant Man is one long series of (shows): 
    • Bytes shows Merrick as part of a freak show. 
    • Treves shows Merrick to “society” (medical society). 
    • Treves shows that Merrick can recite the 23rd Psalm. 
    • The night porter shows Merrick to a girl. 
    • Treves shows Merrick to his wife. 
    • Merrick shows his mother’s portrait to Mrs. Treves. 
    • Merrick shows Nurse Kathleen his model of St. Phillips’ church. 
    • Merrick is shown to the actress Mrs. Kendal. 
    • Merrick shows Mrs. Kendal his mother’s portrait. 
    • Merrick is shown to “society” (London elite). “He’s only being stared at all over again.” 
    • Treves feels guilt about his own showing of Merrick, even as he is surrounded by “shows,” i.e., objects d’art. 
    • Princess Alexandra makes an appearance and shows a letter from the Queen. 
    • Merrick is shown to the drunks from the tavern. 
    • Bytes shows Merrick in a European freak show. 
    • Merrick goes to the theater, sees a pantomime show, and is shown to the audience. 
    • Lynch “shows” us Merrick’s dying moments. 
    • One long string of “shows” by a master showman. And that final audience applauding in the theater— that includes us, doesn’t it? 
OTHER FILMS THAT THE ELEPHANT MAN REMINDS US OF:
  • Mask 
  • The Miracle Worker 
  • Freaks 
  • La Strada 
OTHER FILMS DIRECTED BY DAVID LYNCH:
  • Eraserhead 
  • Blue Velvet 
  • Wild at Heart 
  • Lost Highway 
  • The Straight Story 
  • Mulholland Drive

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Fantasia, Italian style

World Cinema Wednesday returns to CineVerse on February 21 with a special from Italy: “Allegro non troppo” (1976; 75 minutes) directed by Bruno Bozzetto, chosen by Mike Bochenek; Plus: enjoy the Nutcracker Suite segment and Sorcerer’s Apprentice segment from Disney’s “Fantasia”; and a trailer reel preview of the March/April CineVerse schedule.

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Pinch yourself: David Lynch directs a straightforward narrative movie

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Plan to join CineVerse on February 14, when we'll be celebrating Valentine's Day with “The Elephant Man” (1980; 124 minutes), directed by David Lynch, chosen by Dan Quenzel

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Same as it ever was: a great concert film

Thursday, February 8, 2018

To conclude our current quick-theme quintet, we took a bit of a departure from the conventional rock doc last night at CineVerse, choosing instead to spotlight a long-beloved concert performance film: "Stop Making Sense," the Talking Heads' unforgettable 1984 movie that, for many, is the benchmark against which rock concert flicks are judged. Here are the main takeaways, based on our CineVerse discussion:

IN WHAT WAYS IS THIS FILM MORE CINEMATIC THAN OTHER CONCERT PERFORMANCE MOVIES AND HOW DOES IT LOOK, FEEL AND RESEMBLE A CLASSIC NARRATIVE HOLLYWOOD FILM?

  • Like a carefully constructed classic screenplay, “Stop Making Sense” is a three-act story.
  • The band members function as characters that each have unique musical personalities and serve a role that forwards the story or “narrative”.
  • The band members are introduced gradually. The first number starts with David Byrne alone; one by one and with each successive song, more musicians join the story until the first act ends with all musicians together on stage performing “Burning Down the House.” 
  • Act 2 concludes with arguably the band’s most famous song, “Once in a Lifetime.”
  • Act 3 builds to a strong climax with its final three show-stopping numbers, the first of which, “Girlfriend Is Better,” showcases Byrne in the famous big suit costume.
  • Because the film appears to gradually build in intensity, in terms of its songs, band size and cinematic techniques, you can make a case that “momentum is itself a character in Stop Making Sense,” according to Slant Magazine critic Chuck Bowen.
  • The filmmakers employ stark, expressionistic lighting, endemic of film noir, horror and mystery movies. 
  • This film is referential to cinematic history and classic movies: consider how the opening credits resemble those for “Dr. Strangelove” (the same title designer, Pablo Ferro, worked on both movies); Byrne riffs on dance moves made famous by Fred Astaire in movies like “Royal Wedding” (Byrne dances with a lamp like Astaire dances with a coat rack) and “Swing Time”; Byrne staggers around as if shot during “Psycho Killer”, similar to how Jean-Paul Belmondo staggers in “Breathless.”
  • Like an A-list Hollywood musical, this film is meticulously choreographed, not in terms of dance moves but in its editing style, shots and camera angles, lighting and cinematography. This is a carefully crafted work that was tediously planned and staged.
IN WHAT OTHER WAYS IS STOP MAKING SENSE A VAST DEPARTURE FROM OTHER ROCK CONCERT FILMS YOU’VE SEEN?
  • Rarely is the crowd shown; many concert movies prominently pepper in shots of the audience and their fawning reactions to the performers.
  • Smack dab in the early MTV era, when music videos were known for rapid-fire cutting, this picture veers away from a fast-paced editing style, instead choosing to linger on extended shots of one or more musicians.
    • “We didn’t want the clichés. We didn’t want close-ups of people’s fingers while they’re doing a guitar solo. We wanted the camera to linger, so you could get to know the musicians a little bit,” said Talking Heads drummer Chris Franz in an interview about the movie. 
  • David Byrne is an enigmatic, unpredictable and fascinating performer. His sheer kinetic energy and infectious enthusiasm powers this film. Think about the offbeat, unusual and sometimes unnerving body movements, gestures, poses, and dance moves. We see him writhing and spasming about on the floor, jogging around the stage, flailing about like he’s being electrocuted, dancing with a floor lamp, making playful shadows on the screen in back of him, and trying to look rhythmic and natural inside a gigantic suit that makes his head looked tiny. 
  • “The actual physical impact of the film is…exhilarating: Watching the Talking Heads in concert is a little like rock ‘n roll crossed with “Jane Fonda’s Workout,” wrote Roger Ebert.
  • About the big suit, Byrne said in an interview: "I was in Japan in between tours and I was checking out traditional Japanese theater — Kabuki, Noh, Bunraku. A fashion designer friend said in his typically droll manner, ‘Well David, everything is bigger on stage.’ He was referring to gestures and all that, but I applied the idea to a businessman's suit. I wanted my head to appear smaller and the easiest way to do that was to make my body bigger, because music is very physical and often the body understands it before the head."
  • Director Jonathan Demme and his collaborators were careful to film three different Talking Heads concerts from virtually every angle possible using multiple cameras. The result is an abundance of coverage and interesting angles and close-ups that you typically don’t see in your standard concert movie.
ARE THERE ANY THEMES THAT CAN BE EXTRACTED FROM STOP MAKING SENSE?
  • The title speaks for itself: the music, lyrics and style of this avant-garde band will require viewers to abandon logic and reason and just give in to the music and energy. Put another way, trying to make sense out of everything can kill art, spontaneity, mood and magic.
  • Revenge of the nerds: David Byrne in particular looks like the ultimate 1980s adult geek, but one who has found salvation and purpose in exploring different musical genres – including funk, gospel, country, reggae, new wave, punk and rock ‘n roll.
  • Rock ‘n roll doesn’t always have to be sexy: Byrne certainly doesn’t exude any sex appeal, nor do his songs; yet, Talking Heads’ music can be quite alluring and ecstatic.
  • According to Bowen: “Byrne’s theme, and his empathy, meshes with the theme of many of director Jonathan Demme’s other pictures: life as a fleeting, varied ride of odd little things, too texturally varied to invite self-pity. Byrne, especially in “The Big Suit,” is a potentially dwarfed white man who finds catharsis in everything.”
OTHER NOTABLE FILMS BY JONATHAN DEMME:
  • The Silence of the Lambs
  • Melvin and Howard
  • Something Wild
  • Philadelphia
  • Rachel Getting Married
  • Married to the Mob
  • Swing Shift

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And you may find yourself...coming to CineVerse on February 7

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Bring your toes and be prepared to tap them on February 7, the date that CineVerse concludes its Quick Theme Quintet with “Stop Making Sense” (1984; 88 minutes), directed by Jonathan Demme. Plus: watch a trailer reel of other renowned rock docs.

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Seventies swan song

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Many film critics and scholars consider Martin Scorsese's "The Last Waltz" the greatest of all rock docs and concert movies. A big reason is the high production values and cinematic structure employed, with the songs performed and interviews rendered providing a dynamic narrative that is both entertaining and fascinating in its construction. Below is further proof of this picture's fine pedigree, as discussed last night at CineVerse:

HOW IS THE LAST WALTZ DIFFERENT FROM OTHER CONCERT FILMS YOU’VE SEEN?

  • This movie features direct interviews with the band members as well as expected concert performance footage. 
  • This was the first feature-length concert movie actually shot on higher-quality 35mm film as opposed to cheaper 16mm film. The filmmakers also employed multiple 35mm cameras to cover various angles for each performance. 
  • Director Martin Scorsese carefully planned this production – in contrast to the “capture whatever you happens” style of guerrilla filmmaking utilized in Woodstock, Monterey Pop and other previous concert films. He wanted this to be a controlled environment, and he went so far as to storyboard each song and create a script detailing the set list and lyrics to every song. 
    • He hired excellent technical talent to achieve his vision, including Boris Leven – production designer on The Sound of Music and West Side Story; and ace cinematographers Laszlo Kovacs (Easy Writer, Five Easy Pieces, Ghostbusters) and Vilmos Szigmond (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Deer Hunter, Deliverance). 
    • He meticulously choreographed camera moves using cranes, rolling tracks the cameras moved along, handheld cameras, and stationary cameras, and he planned dramatic stage lighting – elements that correspond with certain songs and even lyrics to a song or guest appearances. The filmmakers also focused on recording better sync sound that didn’t rely only on the camera’s microphone. 
    • The set, located in the Winterland ballroom in San Francisco, was carefully dressed and appointed with decor like eye-catching chandeliers used in Gone With the Wind. The backdrop was borrowed from a San Francisco Opera recent production. 
    • In fact, the filmmakers even recalled many of the performers back to the stage months later to shoot additional performance footage. 
    • As a result, the rock artists had to relinquish spontaneity and organic performing in exchange for a precisely edited, more cinematically appealing film that attempts to capture virtually everything – priceless expressions, smiles and winks passed between the performers, transitions to solos, etcetera. 
    • Consequently, this picture is more cinematic, fluid and rhythmic than earlier concert film efforts that appeared ragged, improvisational, and raw. 
    • “Although he sometimes acts as if the final show were a bit overproduced, Scorsese’s use of Hollywood professionals to dress up the movie was a very good move,” wrote DVD Savant reviewer Glenn Erickson. “Frankly, most earlier concert films tended to become repetitious and boring, unless one were a fanatic music fan. The carefully planned lighting changes and nicely designed stage sets give the show an edge. For once, a concert film isn’t a poor substitute for really being there.” 
    • Erickson further wrote: “Scorsese’s filming didn’t imitate the camera clichés of television variety shows, swooping past meaningless decor, pulling focus on blurred lights, or combining close-ups and full body shots in double exposures. His angles are straightforward and powerful, brightly lit and sharply focused.” 
    • Rolling Stone’s David Fear wrote: “There’s an incredible sense of the community onstage that gets captured by making this a performance film first and foremost, and that was exactly what Scorsese was after. The director wasn't interested, he said, in showing two girls giggling and then cutting to Rick Danko looking like a Tiger Beat pin-up; he wanted to see Helm shooting Danko a glance as they lock into the beat and go into the bridge of "Ophelia." It's as cinematic a rendering of the alchemy that musicians – and especially those five Band members – produce when they're caught in that spotlight.” 
  • Interestingly, the subject matter of the film is a rock group who arguably wasn’t as well-known at the time, or even now, then many of the subjects of other famous rock docs or, for that matter, most of the guests who appear alongside them in this movie. Also, the kind of rock that The Band played and was known for isn’t as popular a sub-genre: roots/folk rock, alt-country, or “Americana.” 
  • Other concert performance movies often feature ample crowd shots and close-up reactions from fan attendees. This movie is all about the performers on the stage and the statement they’re trying to make. 
  • Surprisingly, the movie begins with its encore, showing the concluding number that was filmed and then segueing to the concert’s earlier moments. 
WHAT THEMES STAND OUT AFTER WATCHING THE LAST WALTZ?
  • The end of an era: this is meant to be the swan song farewell for The Band, who want to go out on a high note. 
  • Tribute and homage: rock royalty come to pay tribute to a lesser known but highly respected and appreciated group; their presence in the film elevates the occasion and the stature of this rock doc. 
  • Performing music well is like a graceful dance – hence the significance of the title of the movie. A waltz is also considered a more formal, regal and traditional dance appreciated by the cultured and sophisticated, just as this movie arguably has a more formal and traditional structure and cultured and sophisticated sheen about it. 
OTHER FILMS BY MARTIN SCORSESE
  • Mean Streets 
  • Taxi Driver 
  • Raging Bull 
  • The King of Comedy 
  • Goodfellas 
  • Casino 
  • The Departed 
  • Hugo
  • The Wolf of Wall Street

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Take a load off, Annie, and come to CineVerse

Sunday, January 28, 2018

"A Block of Roc Docs," our current CineVerse Quick Theme Quartet, hits a high note on January 31 with “The Last Waltz” (1978; 117 minutes), directed by Martin Scorsese.

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The day the sixties died

Thursday, January 25, 2018

It's hard to turn your eyes away from a train wreck, airplane crash or terrible car accident. Such is the viewer's fascination while watching the ultimate bad vibe epic "Gimme Shelter," which chronicles the build up to and dark unfolding of the Rolling Stones' free concert at Altamont Speedway in December 1969. Our major discussion points of this film during last night's CineVerse meeting included the following:

WHAT’S DIFFERENT ABOUT THIS ROCK DOCUMENTARY COMPARED TO OTHERS?

  • It carries with it a negative legacy based on the event it chronicles: the free Altamont concert, during which four people were killed and many injured. There’s a feeling of foreboding and doom from the very start because we know what’s going to happen by the end of the movie. 
  • It’s very meta – constructed as a movie within a movie; we see Mick Jagger and other bandmates watching footage of the concert, which makes for a strange dynamic and perspective. 
    • “The film takes as its subject not only the events it covers but the experience of watching those events on film, and thereby implicates the viewer in its tight mesh of art, crime, and evasion,” wrote Godfrey Cheshire in another Criterion Collection essay. 
    • “By using the structural device of having the Stones witness the footage, the filmmakers break the illusion of seamless omniscience -- an illusion they're skillful enough to maintain if they want to -- and raise the question of their own complicity. Why are they showing this chronicle to the Stones? Are they themselves looking for the Stones' approval -- and our blessing? "Gimme Shelter" is a self-reflexive movie in the best sense: While presenting a chronicle of a catastrophe, it implicitly asks the audience to keep one eye focused on the chroniclers,” wrote Salon’s Michael Sragow. 
  • Despite being remembered as a film that documents the Altamont show, the actual concert only takes up the second half of the film. The first half is devoted to the Stones’ triumphant Madison Square Garden performances a few weeks earlier, recording sessions for their album Sticky Fingers, and the planning and buildup to the Altamont gig. 
  • Arguably, the filmmakers and the Stones (who presumably had to approve of the final cut) chose to begin the film with the MSG concert footage and Sticky Fingers sessions footage to show the band in a happier, more creative light; this helped balance a movie otherwise weighed down with the darker second half. It also provides a more positive contrast to the negative vibes of the actual Altamont footage. 
  • Other than the opening songs of the film shot at Madison Square Garden, the actual music and performance isn’t as important the understanding and appreciation of this movie; arguably, the viewer becomes more consumed with what’s going on off the stage or peripheral to the music then the songs or the concert performances. This is in contrast to the effect produced by the Woodstock or Monterey Pop films. 
  • There are no direct interviews and no narration via text or voiceover. This picture was considered part of the “direct cinema” movement of the 50s and 60s; followers of this movement attempted to chronicle events as they happened organically instead of examining the subject matter via interviews, voiceover narration, reenactments or other traditional documentary tactics. 
  • Despite the sentiment of many that the event tainted the Rolling Stones’ legacy and underscored the band’s culpability in the violence, this movie tries to remain objective. 
    • Criterion Collection essayist Amy Taubin wrote: “Gimme Shelter neither blames the Stones nor lets them off the hook, although compared to the Angels and the kids crowding the stage, stoned on bad acid and speed, they seem like the good guys. “It’s so horrible,” says Jagger toward the end of the film, watching the shot of Hunter’s murder running forward and backward in slow motion on the editing table, as if—as was believed of the Zapruder film—it could show us the truth. There is a multiplicity of truths in Gimme Shelter; putting them together is up to us.” 
SOME CRITICS, INCLUDING THE LEGENDARY PAULINE KALE, CHARGED THAT GIMME SHELTER’S FACTS ARE “MANUFACTURED FOR THE CINEMA” – THAT THE FREE CONCERT WAS STAGED AND LIGHTED TO BE PHOTOGRAPHED AND THE FILMMAKERS WERE COMPLICIT IN THE VIOLENCE BY HAVING FILMED IT AND PROFITING FROM ITS RELEASE AS A MOTION PICTURE. DO YOU AGREE OR DISAGREE?
  • Consider that the Maysles brothers responded to Kael by saying: “The filmmakers were not consulted and had no control over the staging and lighting at Altamont. All the cameramen will verify that the lighting was very poor and totally unpredictable.” 
  • The filmmakers were paid by the Stones to film their intended free concert, which got moved to Altamont Speedway, and would have had no idea that it would be such a disaster. They were merely ready to capture what they saw by virtue of having many camera and sound recording personnel on hand. Then, they leave it up to us the viewer to judge what happened and who was responsible, especially by filming the band watching the disturbing footage weeks later. 
WHAT THEMES STAND OUT AFTER WATCHING GIMME SHELTER?
  • The end of an era: Altamont marked the literal end of the 1960s and the figurative end of the peace, love and counterculture movement for many people, suggesting that the consciousness raised and socio-cultural gains made in the previous years – which seem to reach an apex at Woodstock months before – were dashed. 
  • Hubris: the arrogance and naïveté of the band to think they could top Woodstock, beat that film to theaters with this movie, and get away with hiring the Hells Angels as security – a motley crew that they likely presumed would help sustain their bad boy outlaw image – with no negative consequences. 
  • The human fascination with disaster and chaos. Not only are we fixated on this mess and its aftermath, but so are the Stones, who we watch watching the footage. 
  • Some scars never heal: consider the infamous freeze-frame final shot of Jagger as he stares at the camera, suggesting perhaps his guilt, remorse, indifference, shame, or otherwise. That image is for the ages, and it has become the central image of the movie poster. 
OTHER FILMS DIRECTED BY THE MAYSLES BROTHERS
  • Salesman 
  • Gray Gardens 
  • Running Fence 
  • Muhammed and Larry
  • Islands

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"I mean like people, who's fighting and what for?"

Sunday, January 21, 2018

On January 24, CineVere's Quick Theme Quintet rolls on with “Gimme Shelter” (1970; 92 minutes), directed by Albert and David Maysles. Plus: excerpts from “Let It Be” (1970), directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg

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