Saturday, October 13, 2007

Close-Up Blog-a-Thon #5

The immediately in-your-face eponymous terror of Tex Avery's MGM cartoon "Screwball Squirrel" (1944).

Close-Up Blog-a-Thon #4

Charles Bronson stares one of the cinema's most affecting arias in Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1969), photographed by Tonino Delli Colli.

Close-Up Blog-a-Thon #3

Princess Asa unmasked in Mario Bava's BLACK SUNDAY (La maschera del demonio, 1960), photographed by Bava and Ubaldo Terzano.

Close-Up Blog-a-Thon #2

Claude Jade tells her husband that she knows in François Truffaut's BED & BOARD (Domicile conjugale, 1970), photographed by Nestor Almendros.

Friday, October 12, 2007

For the Close-up Blog-a-Thon

Two from Brian De Palma's PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (1974), photographed by Larry Pizer.
I've already got some great examples of "The Art of the Close-Up" on this page (scroll down if you don't believe me), but here's my conscious contribution to Matt Zoller Seitz's Close-Up Blog-a-Thon (see The House Next Door for more details and links). More to come...

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Get To Know Your Rabbit

Last night, finding myself with a little in-between time, I decided to give Universal's recent WOODY WOODPECKER AND FRIENDS CLASSIC CARTOON COLLECTION a whirl. What most attracted me on Disc 1 were the five vintage B&W cartoons featuring "Oswald the Lucky Rabbit," an invention of Walt Disney that he lost in the late 1920s when his distributor, Universal, decided to cut out the middle man and hire its own animation department. Disney took the basic template of Oswald, it appears to me, and used it to create the overnight sensation that was the star of 1928's talkie toon "Steamboat Willie" -- and the rest was history, a history that has largely forgotten Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.
Speaking for myself, I believe I had seen only one Oswald cartoon before last night -- 1932's "Mechanical Man" -- and it's not included here, so I tucked into the set expecting to be educated rather than entertained. Boy, was I wrong. I sat down expecting to watch only the first of these Walter Lantz-directed cartoons but Oswald held my interest firmly through all five of his animated adventures. The first, "Hell's Heels" (1930), is comparatively crude with a surreal (indeed barely perceptible) storyline and lots of image cycling, but it has charm and points of surprise -- it's like a trip to Wackyland before Porky Pig ever got there.
Its even more macabre follow-up, "Spooks" (also from 1930), is remarkable for including an homage to Lon Chaney's five-year-old PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, which had been reissued a year before in a semi-sound version. (Chaney was still alive at the time of the cartoon's release; he succumbed to throat cancer a month after its premiere.) A character singing "How Dry I Am" taught me that the final line of that song is not the way it's usually heard when sung by drunks in the media -- the cartoon media, anyway; not "Nobody knows / How dry I am" but rather "Nobody seems / To give a damn." Today our American landscape is a veritable Beirut of F-bombs, but I can remember a time when even the word "Hell" was regarded as a word not to be spoken aloud outside the Sunday pulpit, so the very title of this cartoon is moderately risqué, but still more stupefying is a gag in which a black cat stiffens its tail erect and farts in the face of a skeleton.

Fred (later Tex) Avery was involved in animating a couple of these Oswald shorts, so we shouldn't be taken too offguard by things like this, but I was tickled when the third example "Grandma's Pet" (1932) incorporated not only Avery's trademark twists on beloved fairy tales -- in this case, "Little Red Riding Hood" -- but a hyperbolically surreal climax in which the Wolf (a perennial Avery character, of course) gains possession of a magic wand and uses it to transform Oswald's environment into a series of hilarious death traps. As if to further cement the cartoon's ties with Avery's later MGM masterpiece "Magical Maestro" (1952), Oswald gains control of the wand and turns the tables on his tormenter.

The last two Oswald cartoons, "Confidence" and "The Merry Old Soul"(both 1933), both find the Lucky Rabbit rallying to cheer audiences in the grip of the Great Depression. "Confidence" is the most amazing cartoon in this batch, opening with a dark spectral Depression arising from the steaming foment of a public dump and spreading its infectious gloom as it floats above a Fleischer-like, three-dimensional, turning globe. Oswald awakens one day to find his formerly happy farm animals "down in the dumps" and speeds off to fetch the doctor, who points to a posted image of US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and says firmly, "HE'S the Doctor!" Oswald flies to Washington DC by ingenious means (I won't spoil it for you), where he cartwheels into the Oval Office (how else?) and is greeted by FDR, who stands tall (!) and comes out from behind his desk to swing his fists with gusto while delivering the pep talk of all pep talks. Duly energized, Oswald cartwheels back out and flies back home by even more ingenious means (that would be telling) to spread the miracle cure of "confidence," which he administers by syringe.

"Confidence" is a masterpiece, if a delusory one; one of those fascinating amalgams of animation and patriotism like Chuck Jones' Porky-Pig-meets-Uncle-Sam opus "Old Glory" (1939), but even more interesting because Oswald embodies such trusting, homegrown, corn-fed American optimism while confronting what we now know to be a false, propogandic image of a US President who had, in fact, been bound to a wheelchair since 1921 with paralysis from the waist down.

"The Merry Old Soul" tells the same story in essence, though in a more disguised manner, as Oswald is alarmed by a radio report that "Old King Cole's got the blues!" He scurries off to round up the country's greatest comedic masters -- including Charlie Chaplin, W.C. Fields and the Marx Brothers (big-footed Greta Garbo sits this one out) -- and arrives with them at the castle, where Hollywood's assembled royalty seek to cheer the wan-faced King by any means possible, much to the conniving jealousy of his unfunny jester. When Oswald accidentally discovers that the secret to making the King laugh involves pie-throwing, the cartoon offers a valid historic explanation for the popularity of slapstick comedies in the 1930s and, in its hard-won wisdom about the need for comedy, anticipates to some extent the finale of Preston Sturges' SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS -- in which the laughs were generated, let us not forget, by none other than Walt Disney.

Speaking of Disney, one can't help but notice that there are a lot of little Mickey Mice running around and bouncing off of drumheads in these Universal cartoons. I don't know if Disney just wasn't big enough to be more litigious in those days, or if there existed in those times a greater brotherhood among different studios that made allowances for friendly jabs such as these. Disney's company reportedly recouped the rights to the Oswald character last year, but that doesn't explain how Universal is able to include a trademarked character here that people are now expressly verboten not to paint on their children's bedroom walls. Perhaps they're trading on Oswald's titular (but not always evident) luck?

I don't have the answer to this burning question, but one thing I do know: I want more Oswald cartoons! The list of "Oswald the Lucky Rabbit" cartoons on the IMDb amounts to 152 titles, but it doesn't include most of the titles included in this first set, so there must be even more where these came from. Happily, Walt Disney Home Video plans to release their own two-disc "Walt Disney Treasures" set of Oswalds on December 11, and I'm eager to be further educated and entertained by what it has to offer.

Monday, October 08, 2007

PERSONA: Roots of Captain Howdy

Bibi Andersson and Liv Ulmann in PERSONA.

I recently made a retroactive purchase of MGM's INGMAR BERGMAN SPECIAL EDITION DVD COLLECTION box set. Last night, I decided to begin my viewing at its beginning, with PERSONA (1966), the earliest movie in the set. I had seen it once before but, for some reason, remembered only its most soft-edged imagery; I had completely forgotten what a wrenching acid trip of a movie it really is, but I'm unlikely to forget this now. One of the reasons I resolved to write about the movie today is to better remember its traumatic impact, but there is also a more pressing reason for why I'm writing about the movie here.

PERSONA opens with a remarkable sequence deconstructing its own conveyance of images, beginning with the ignition of the carbon arc rods inside a 35mm projector and the rattle of perforated celluloid travelling through its gate. We are shown some subliminal images right away (including, shockingly for a 1966 film, an erect penis) and also during the subsequent main titles (including barely registering glimpses of a Keystone Kops comedy, or perhaps its Swedish equivalent). For some reason, during this procession of images meant to do nothing more than tap on my consciousness, I had the feeling of being in the presence of the same demonic energy I felt the first time I saw William Friedkin's THE EXORCIST -- probably because it, too, made potent use of subliminal imagery, as Mark Kermode and I first explored way back in VIDEO WATCHDOG #6, one of our earliest issues and still one of our best.

And then, about 46 minutes into this very involving but abstract "poem" about the mysterious bonding between a psychologically withdrawn actress (Liv Ullmann) and her attending nurse (Bibi Andersson), I was witness to something amazing. As some of you may recall, there is a pensive close shot of Andersson...

She is standing behind a sheer drape when, suddenly, the celluloid conveying Bergman's poem begins to disintegrate, along with the mind of the character. First, there is a scratch...

It follows the fluid form of the drape, but quickly is reassigned to other areas of the frame. Then portions of the frame disappear entirely...

And then even the anchored left side of the frame becomes unmoored and floats freely, the print seemingly destroyed and past the point of rethreading...

We fear the image has entirely disappeared, but it comes back just long enough to convey a penetrating glance from Andersson's eye that seems to burn from a place outside her performance.

The intensity of her gaze, her madness, seems to burn a hole into the celluloid, which grows like a cancer...

... until the nothingness of the burn engulfs the entire screen, turning it white.

The white lingers on the screen for several seconds. It is then followed by another sudden procession of intensive subliminal images, the first of which is this one:

It is there for no more than one or two frames, but I have a very good eye for subliminals. Many people would not have detected it, but I knew what I had seen. I had to stop the film at once and step back until I found the Devil in the details. My strange feeling, throughout PERSONA, from its opening subliminals and shock images of a hand being hammered to a crucifix, that I was somehow in the presence of THE EXORCIST was vividly explained.

For years, William Friedkin actively denied any knowledge of this subliminal image of Eileen Dietz as "Captain Howdy" in THE EXORCIST, but once the film came to home video and could be manipulated by those in the know, it became undeniable. (I should point out for the sake of interested historians that, even though Linda Blair's Regan refers to her inner voice/imaginary friend as "Captain Howdy" in an early scene of the movie, the epithet is never heard again in the movie and never mentioned in relation to her demonic possession. It was actually me who first identified this face as "Captain Howdy" in VW #6, and I note with some pride that the ID has caught on.) This is not the exact frame of the face as it flashes onscreen in THE EXORCIST, which you can see on the cover of the first edition of Mark Kermode's BFI Modern Classics book on the picture; the face in the movie bears much the same pallid, ogreish look as Bergman's Devil.

The brief appearance in PERSONA by a pasty-faced Devil is not the only instance I found of the Bergman film's influence on THE EXORCIST. Accompanying the flashing image of this Devil is a turmoil of sound effects, most particularly a chaos of tormented voices being played on tape in reverse. It sounds not unlike (in fact, quite like) the tape of Regan's nonsensical speech which is discovered to say "I am No-one!" when played in reverse.

Furthermore, as the culmination of an extended dialogue scene shown respectively as it plays on the face of the listener and then again as was communicated by the speaker, Bergman and his cameraman Sven Nykvist merge a disconcerting close-up of Bibi Andersson's face with an identically measured close-up of Liv Ulmann, combining their faces into one to accentuate their surprising likeness to one another -- indeed, their mutual "possession" of one another.

Here I gasped because, in this image, I recognized the seed of another dual image:

To the best of my knowledge, this relationship between PERSONA and THE EXORCIST has not been previously explored or detected. It certainly isn't noted by Bergman biographer Marc Gervais in his audio commentary for PERSONA. I would find it hard to accept that these shared images could have happened unconsciously on Friedkin's part; they are too studied. To me, this discovery does nothing to detract from Friedkin's brilliance as the mastermind behind the film of THE EXORCIST; any director could have taken William Peter Blatty's script and made a more straightforward film of it, but Friedkin had the sensitivity and the panache to recognize that PERSONA, too, in its own way, was a story of demonic possession. I not only accuse him of using this imagery knowingly, I also congratulate him for intuiting that PERSONA's extreme, nerve-flaying visual vocabulary was precisely what THE EXORCIST needed to rattle audiences -- a primary and wondrous instance of the commercial American cinema being secretly pollenated by the international art cinema.
BRAD STEVENS (VW contributor, author of MONTE HELLMAN HIS LIFE AND FILMS) writes on 10/9/07: "Enjoyed your blog comments on PERSONA. One thing you didn't make clear (or perhaps didn't realize) is that the devil who turns up in the subliminal image had already appeared in the film during the Keystone Kops-style sequence at the beginning. This sequence is actually Bergman's recreation of a (now-lost) silent film he recalls owning as a child: this recreation had already appeared, at much greater length, in Bergman's 1949 film PRISON."