Wednesday, March 23, 2011


March 23, 2011

     I can’t shake the idea that Elizabeth Taylor has majestically (if drunkenly) swept past St. Peter and, while gazing upon heaven, made her pronouncement:  “What a dump!”  Those words -- her character Martha’s first in Mike Nichols’ production of Edward Albee's Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf -- were originally spoken on screen by Bette Davis in King Vidor’s Beyond the Forest.  It's a mark of Ms.Taylor’s greatness that her reading has all but eclipsed Ms. Davis’s.

     Elizabeth Taylor combined movie star beauty with amazing depth as a character actor.  So, while she was as much of a Hollywood “sex symbol” as Marylin Monroe or Jayne Mansfield, she tackled rich, complex roles those icons would never have attempted.  Her Maggie in Richard Brooks’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Kate in Franco Zefferelli’s Taming of the Shrew and Catherine in Joseph L. Manciewicz’ Suddenly Last Summer were mulitidimensional characters who spoke in poetry penned by the likes of Tennessee Williams and William Shakespeare.

     What’s more, Ms. Taylor held her own among truly heavyweight actors.  In Manciewicz’ picture, she stood out in a cast that included Katherine Hepburn, Montgomery Clift and Mercedes McCambridge.  Her portrayal of “Maggie the Cat” was as moving as performances by cast-mates Paul Newman, Burl Ives and Dame Judith Anderson.  And, of course, her work with Richard Burton in Taming of the Shrew and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf was astonishing. 

     Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Elizabeth Taylor's career, though, was its longevity.  From Lassie Come Home, National Velvet and Life With Father in the 1940’s; Father of the Bride, Giant, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof  and Suddenly Last Summer in the ‘50’s; Butterfield 8, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Taming of the Shrew in the ‘60s -- and right on through voice work on The Simpsons in 1989, Ms. Taylor’s work was known and embraced by generation after generation.

     In 1981, I got to see her on stage in a Broadway production of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes.  Live theatre is always the test of whether or not an actor is truly skilled; there are no re-takes, no editing, no tricks.  Indeed, Elizabeth Taylor truly “had the stuff.”   And, as in her films, she shone brightly in a stellar cast.  

     Austin Pendleton contributed a piece to The Los Angeles Times about directing Ms. Taylor in the play.  “I never met anyone more generous than she was,” he wrote.  “She was generous in every way -- emotionally, artistically.  She shared every moment on stage with the other actors -- she didn’t act like the star, which she was.  I never met anyone of her celebrity who could so instantly put people at ease.  I think she (was) known for that.”

     Indeed, Elizabeth Taylor was one of those rare Hollywood luminaries about whom no one ever had anything bad to say.  Even Carrie Fisher, who was two years old when Eddie Fisher left her mother to marry Ms. Taylor, issued the following statement:  “If my father had to divorce my mother to marry anyone, I’m grateful that it was Elizabeth.”



Sunday, March 13, 2011


March 13, 2011

     Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which premiered at the 2010 Toronto Film Festival and which opens theatrically at the end of April, is as powerful as any film I’ve seen.  Leaving a recent screening of the 3-D documentary and gazing upon a Wilshire Boulevard bathed in smog-refracted sunlight, I felt unsettled.  It was the same busy throroughfare I’d been on 90 minutes earlier, but it looked different.

     I was reminded of seeing movies on the big screen as a young child.  After watching Snow White and the Seven Dwarves at the Merrick Theatre on Jamaica Boulevard in Queens -- I might have been 4 or 5 years old -- I could never look at my mother’s sewing kit, or apples for that matter, as I had before the show.   Similar experiences as an adult film-goer have been rare: Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog,  Bergman’s Persona... a mere handful of exalted masterpieces have been truly transformative for me. 

     Herzog’s documentary belongs in that elite group.  Its intensity is emotional, intellectual and, yes, spiritual.  Using 3-D, the director makes viewers feel at once claustrophobic and exhilarated.  Stalactites and stalagmites in the Chauvet Cave he explores -- discovered by spelunker Jean-Marie Chauvet in 1994 -- seem within reach, even though they’re literally untouchable.  (The French government has imposed many restrictions on access, in order to preserve the site.)
     A visual strategy that one tends to associate with “tentpole” special effects movies Is perfectly suited to convey the wonder of Herzog’s exploration.  As his 4-person crew (director, cameraman, sound recordist and production assistant) go deeper and deeper into the cave, viewers feel themselves moving further and further into pre-history.  Filming only a few hours a day from narrow metal catwalks, with lights that emit no heat, Herzog’s team show the paintings in vivid detail and in relation to their environment.  

     Looking at these artifacts far from the mouth of the cave, it becomes clear that the paintings in these deep recesses were made by torchlight.  Exigencies of production result in an approximation of that same kind of illumination.  Small lights on crew helmets moving with each head turn, reflected by wet rock formations, set the ancient paintings aflicker.  And seeing them in this state -- close to the way their makers had seen them -- somehow enhances the awe-inspiring nature of the works’ very existence. 

     Goosebumps, arm hair standing on end, mouth agape in wonder -- all induced by Herzog’s imagery!  People... made pictures... 35,000 years ago!  Some were made with charcoal from the burnt torches (and, therefore, easily carbon-dated), some with red ochre.  All were preserved because a rockslide 20,000 years ago sealed the cave hermetically.  And this fortuitous act of nature enables us to connect to our progenitors with an intimacy unimaginable before watching Cave of Forgotten Dreams. 
     Interviewed by Herzog, Dominique Baffier, archaeologist and curator of the Chauvet Cave, draws viewers’ attention to something revealed by red ochre handprints on one of the walls:  their maker had a crooked right pinky.  Thus, looking carefully, we learn something about a man who walked the earth millenia ago that we mighn’t even notice about a co-worker or neighbor.  Wow!

     Particularly exciting for filmmakers and cineastes is the fact that a number of the charcoal paintings reveal artists’ attempts to create the illusion of movement, 350 centuries before our time.  Three such stabs stand out:  

    A bison illustration shows the animal’s four legs and, faintly, another four; clearly this is meant to suggest the creature in motion.  Even more sophisticated, though, is a succession of bison images, each with the beast’s legs in a different position.  It’s as though the pre-historic artists made animation cels eons before Disney, Fleischer and others we think of as motion picture pioneers.  And Herzog unites film and cave art by playing a delightful clip from Swing Time, in which Fred Astaire dances with shadows on the wall.

     The third attempt to depict movement on the cave’s walls isn’t referred to by Herzog as such:  A painting of two rhinos facing each other in battle brings to mind the “collision of opposites” formulated by Sergei Eisenstein in his theory of cinematic montage.  Viewers feel the same sense of dynamism from this picture that they get from the Soviet director’s films or those of D.W. Griffith.

     Indeed, Cave of Forgotten Dreams as a whole brings to mind classical film theory.  Andre Bazin, groundbreaking scholar and guru to several French New Wave directors, wrote, in “The Ontology of the Photographic Image” (1958), that the origin of representational art  lies in the quest to live on after death.  “By providing a defense against the passage of time,” he argued, “it satisfied a basic psychological need in man, for death is but the victory of time.”  Heady stuff!

     But the scholars Herzog interviews are not “all in their heads.”  Quite the opposite.  Archaeologist Gilles Tosello, for instance, was a juggler before he began to study prehistoric art.  Wulf Hein, also an archaeologist, is known for his reconstructions of Ice Age flutes and figurines.  And Maurice Maurin, who knows as much about the Chauvet Cave as anyone, is a master perfumer.

     In one of the documentary’s more visually arresting scenes, the director shows a laser genrated map of the site.  But instead of being wowed by the spectacle, he questions its value.  It reminds him of the Manhattan phone directory, the filmmaker says.  “4,000,000 people listed.  But do we do we know if they cry when they’re alone at night?  Do they dream?”

     Which brings us back to the title, Cave of Forgotten Dreams.   Like all artists, viewers realize, these pre-historic painters were dreamers.  We’ll never know precisely what was in their subconscious minds.  But Herzog makes us wonder if they dreamed about what we might think of them, long after they left their mark. 

     In a memorable epilogue, the director suggests how people thousands of years from now might perceive us.  Twenty miles from the Chauvet Cave, superheated water from a nuclear reactor is pumped into a nearby greenhouse where, now, there reside “radiocative albino crocodiles.”  Herzog films and discusses these mutants with the same sense of awe he brings to the cave paintings.  It’s as though he's visiting from the future, seeing the strange artifacts twenty-first century humans will have left behind to reveal who we truly were. 


Friday, March 4, 2011


March 4, 2011

     Josh Radnor’s happythankyoumoreplease, winner of the 2010 Sundance Audience Award, opens today in New York and Los Angeles, then goes wider on March 11th.  Editing the film with Josh was a genuine pleasure, despite budget constraints often (and rightly) associated with independently financed productions.  It was also a learning experience.

     Of course, one learns while working on any motion picture, as each presents an array of unique circumstances.  What I gleaned from cutting happythankyoumoreplease was that digital camera technology, used primarily to lower shooting costs, has aesthetic  advantages, too.  Before discussing them, though, l should say a word about the economic boon that comes from using gear like the Red Camera, Panavision’s Genesis and the Canon 5D.

     Savings accrued from shooting digitally are staggering.  Even with the best deals on film stock and lab processing, and hour of film costs around $3000.  60 minutes shot digitally is $25, less than 1% of that!   The chief selling point for eschewing celluloid, then, is price.

       And there are economic benefits of digital cinematography besides lower footage and lab costs.  For instance, filmmakers using the latest cameras can shoot for an hour without reloading.  A magazine of 35mm film, on the other hand, is empty after 10 minutes.  Thus less time (and, therefore, money) are spent changing camera rolls when shooting electronically.  What’s more, running out of film in mid-take  -- a frustrating, costly and not infrequent occurrence when shooting analogue -- is unlikely when using digital cameras.

      The abilitly to record for an hour before “rolling out” is precisely the financial advantage Josh turned into an aesthetic one while making happythankyoumoreplease.  Ironically, this directing breakthrough was first presented to me as a descent into lunacy.  Phoning from the film’s New York location, one of our producers exclaimed, with great consternation, “You’re gonna get a 40 minute take in tomorrow’s dailies!  For a two minute scene!!”

     But there was a method to Josh’s madness.  He wasn’t just shooting compulsively.  Rather, the director used long takes as a rehearsal process.  He refined performances while the camera was rolling.  As a veteran Broadway and television actor with an MFA in theatre, of course, Josh knew the value of rehearsing, and had to address the fact that low budget indies like happythankyoumoreplease don’t provide time for it.  

     He also wanted to restore the cut corner of rehearsals because of what he’d learned during his thoroughgoing study of filmmaking in the run-up to principal photography.  In addition to picking the brains of seasoned crew members and grilling How I Met Your Mother director Pamela Freyman, Josh read extensively about cinema.  One of the texts that inspired him was Sydney Lumet’s Making Movies, which begins with a memorable chapter on rehearsing for film.  Perusing this material convinces the reader (who is somehow left craving fresh rye bread, danish and strong coffee) that the rehearsal period is indispensible.

     So Josh Radnor incorporated rehearsing into each take, refining performances while the camera turned.  Yet with sound and image being recorded non-stop, unrehearsed moments of brilliance were never lost.  The work method was similar to that of jazz producers who, when making a record, roll tape even during warm-ups in order to capture any and all inspired playing.

     Undoubtedly, this production strategy changed my editing modus operandi, because the concept of a “take” no longer applied.  Working with film, a director and editor might agree that Malin Akerman’s “more please” monologue was best, say, in the third take of her close-up.  Shooting with the Red Camera, though, Josh could have 10 or more readings of that monologue (and sections thereof) in the digital entity slated “Take 3.”  So the old vocabulary ceased to apply.

     Using digital editing technology, I placed “locators” (colored markers) in a visual timeline of the material indicating starts and stops -- takes within takes.  Thus I could combine the fifth reading of the first part of a line in “take 6” with the third reading of the second part from “take 4” easily, mouse-clicking on well-labelled dots to move those sections into an assembly of the movie.  (Both Avid and Final Cut Pro have locacator “tools.”) 

     In addition to facilitating construction of happythankyoumoreplease, this work method lightened the mood in our editing room:  my speed-typing was so bad, it often gave Josh something to laugh about.  Locators guiding us to “Close-Ips of Ammie” or “Folly Shots of Nississippi” kept the director amused -- always a good thing during the intense process of cutting a film.  



Tuesday, March 1, 2011


March 1, 2011

    For political progressives, there were a few excellent moments during the Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday night.  One was Charles Ferguson’s acceptance speech for Inside Job.  Mr. Ferguson, director of the documentary about 2008’s financial meltdown, pointed out that not one banker whose illegal activities caused economic disaster has gone to jail.  He was eloquent, and the producers and directors of the broadcast let him speak his mind to an approving crowd without interruption or incident. 

     Equally rousing were shoutouts to union crews by Inception’s cinematographer, Wally Pfister, and its sound mixer Gary Rizzo (speaking for himself and fellow mixers Lora Kirschberg and Ed Novick).   Both reminded viewers that movies we love are made by union workers.  Their remarks, I believe, showed support for Wisconson’s public sector employees and for organized labor in general.

     Another high point for me, as a film editor, was Christian Bale’s acceptance speech for the Best Supporting Actor trophy.  Immediately after acknowledging The Fighter’s director, David O. Russell, Mr. Bale thanked the movie’s cutter, Pamela Martin.  This brilliant actor, whose portrayal of addict and boxer Dickie Ecklund is in a class by itself,  knows that performances are constructed in post production from raw material elicited and delivered during production And he comes by this knowledge through genuine committment to filmmaking.  Check Mr. Bale’s resume on IMDB; he worked as an assistant editor on Terminator Salvation!  For real!!

     One more sweet moment for filmmakers was Steven Spielberg’s insightful and compassionate introduction of the Best Picture nominees.  Mr. Spielberg reminded his audience that those who didn’t win that category’s Oscar would be in great company.  Among past nominated films that failed to earn the gold statuette were Raging Bull, Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  

     Philadelphia Inquirer critic and Flickgrrl blogger Carrie Ricky mentioned most of the above as highlights of the 83d annual Academy Awards in her February 28 post.  (How do you solve a problem like the Oscars? | Philly | 02/28/2011    She also identified a basic problem for those behind Oscar broadcasts: “to produce a three-hour awards pageant that engages the short attention spans of the twitterati while still entertaining people who actually like variety shows.””  

     Of course, reconciling the needs of two such disparate groups may prove impossible.  Most of the twitterati (I love that word!) have never seen a variety show such as Live From the Hollywood Palace or Ed Sullivan.  And those who, like me, enjoyed watching plate-spinners, ventriloquists, impressionists, stand-up comics and the Beatles, all on one stage in a single tv program,  don’t tweet much.