Wednesday, 21 March 2018

The Earrings of Madame de..., or sex, lies, and earrings

The Earrings of Madame de... has 2 main themes: the 1st one is a pair of earrings changing hands and changing meaning—the earrings are an action prop, a device, a symbol, and in some ways, like a character, the subject of the film. 
The earrings
- at the start belong to the jeweller 
- go to Madame de’s husband, the general (he buys them the 1st time)
- go to Madame de 
- go back to the jeweller 
- go to the general (buying them the 2nd time) 
- go to his mistress 
- go to Constantinople  
- go to the Italian diplomat (who later becomes Madame de’s lover) 
- go back to Madame de
- return to the jeweller
- go back to the general (buying them the 3rd time) 
- go to Madame de’s niece 
- return again to the jeweller
- return to Madame de
- go to a church 
It is a silly plot, developed from a ridiculous premise, especially with the coincidence (mentioned in my previous blog post). However, the ridiculous premise leads to the delicious set-up of a man giving a pair of earrings to the woman he loves, only to realise later that the earrings previously belonged to her and were her husband’s present after the wedding. The scene is well acted and wonderfully done. The realisation is twofold—that the object he sees as a beautiful demonstration of love for Madame de already has another meaning, a connection with the other man in her life; and that she has lied. Which of the realisations has struck him harder? 
It leads to the other theme of The Earrings of Madame de...—the film is about lies, games, and secrets. At the beginning of the film, Madame de lies about losing the earrings, her husband knows the truth but feigns ignorance and plays along with her lies. The jeweller has a secret with Madame de, but betrays the secret by telling the husband, thus creating a new secret between the husband and himself. 
Later, in order to wear the earrings in public, Madame de lies to both men at the same time. To her husband, she lies by carrying on with her previous lie and setting up the scene of finding the earrings, as she doesn’t know that her husband knows. To her lover, she lies that she lied to her husband about getting the earrings from a relative. The difference is that Madame de is dishonest to her husband, but her lie to the lover comes from sincere feelings and the concealment is motivated by her wish to wear in public what she sees as a symbol of her love, and not to hurt the man. However, Madame de is a good liar but an unlucky one. She lies because she doesn’t think that the lover would ever find out the truth, and because she doesn’t know that the husband knows she lied—because when he was joining in her game, he was lying (even though it’s an acceptable lie—it’s a lie not to deceive, but to hide the speaker’s knowledge of truth and to protect the jeweller). The husband consciously or unconsciously continues with his lying when she “finds” the earrings again—he is shocked and puzzled, but doesn’t say it, thus not letting her know that he knows. Because she doesn’t know, she goes on with her lie when the lover pretends not to know the truth, and when questioned, Madame de corrects the lie with another lie, before being forced to confess the truth. 
That is, I haven’t mentioned that having affairs is betrayal and deception. 
Ultimately, the film is not really about the earrings, but about the web of lies. In that sense, it is subtle, and an excellent film.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

The Earrings of Madame de… and the greatest film ever made

Film critic Andrew Sarris (a leading proponent of the auteur theory) called Max Ophuls's The Earrings of Madame de… the greatest film of all time, in 2007
Is it? 

The technical grandeur of the film is undeniable—the pans, the tilts, the tracking shots, the sweeping movements of the camera, the deep focus. The film dazzles. Most impressive of all is that the film is packed with mirrors—think of the combination of mirrors in shot, a moving camera, and the long take. The Earrings of Madame de… also has superb performances and lots of subtleties in its depiction of the aristocrats with their codes of behaviour, and adultery, with a scene that seems like a clear reference to Anna Karenina. The earrings are interesting—they are an action prop, a device, a symbol; they change in meaning according to the change in relationship and association. 
Despite all that, I find it hard to take the film really seriously, because in many ways it seems like a farce, a contrived story full of implausible coincidences. Either you believe in chance/fate, or you accept it as a kind of farce. I like that the earrings go back to the owner, and the film makes great use of the detail of 2 men giving the very same pair of earrings to the same woman, but it’s ridiculous that a foreign man becomes infatuated with a woman who happens to be the previous owner of the earrings he just bought in another country, and he also happens to know her husband. Perhaps I miss the point, perhaps the point is that it’s a comedy about a man who buys a pair of earrings 3 times (and gets asked to buy the 4th time). I just can’t reconcile the comedy and the melodrama about a doomed love affair alongside each other. 
It’s interesting to hear Andrew Sarris talk more about his list of the greatest films of all time. 
“When people have asked me to name the greatest film of all time—in my humble opinion, of course—my instant answer has been unvarying for the past 30 years or so: Max Ophüls’ Madame de … (1953).
Still, I usually answer questions about the greatest film of all time by immediately throwing in my two runners-up: Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) and Jean Renoir’s La Règle du Jeu (1939). Then, if I can grasp the questioner’s lapels long enough (much like Coleridge’s crazed Ancient Mariner), I rattle off the rest of my all-time ten-greatest list: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967), F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), Charles Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) and Buster Keaton’s The General (1927).
It must be recorded—as it probably already has—that back in 1963, I created a stir at the first New York Film Festival when I asserted in The Village Voice that Max Ophüls’ Lola Montès (1955) was the greatest film of all time […] 
And before Lola, in my pre-Bazin, pre-auterist period, my three favorite films of all time were Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out (1947), Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) and Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (1941).” 
It’s a curious list. The man is very different from me. 
There are a few films I haven’t seen, such as La Règle du Jeu. Ugetsu Monogatari can take that place even if it’s not on my own list—it’s a masterpiece. Same for Modern Times. It’s similar to the way I’m OK with Citizen Kane being called for years the greatest film ever made, even though my personal favourite is Persona
But Belle de Jour, instead of The Exterminating Angel, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, or The Phantom of Liberty
And Vertigo? Just the other day I had a discussion on fb with my friends Himadri and Dai about the subject, saying I don’t understand how Vertigo could replace Citizen Kane. I liked it, but I remember thinking that it’s a film of its time, with the technical stuff about vertigo and all that, while something like Citizen Kane or Persona doesn’t feel old and outdated. I also remember thinking the film has a mess of a structure, with many twists and turns, each time turning it into a different kind of film—interesting, but a mess nevertheless. 
Of course you can say such rankings are pointless. What after all determines the greatest film ever made? How do you compare very different films that have nothing in common and no basis for comparison? Do you prioritise techniques, style, narrative, structure, themes, scope, innovation, influence, or emotional impact on you personally? Would you choose as the greatest film ever made, a film that is not your no.1 favourite?   
It’s just that everyone loves lists. Your list says more about you than about the films themselves. It’s just fun in starting a debate on why one film is ranked higher than another.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Summer Interlude

Ingmar Bergman said: 
“For me Summer Interlude is one of my most important films. Even though to an outsider it may seem terribly passé, for me it isn't. This was my first film in which I felt I was functioning independently, with a style of my own, making a film all my own, with a particular appearance of its own, which no one could ape. It was like no other film. It was all my own work. Suddenly I knew I was putting the camera on the right spot, getting the right results; that everything added up. For sentimental reasons, too, it was also fun making it.”  
It’s the film where Bergman became Bergman, so to speak. 
You know what’s the interesting bit? It was his 14th feature film. 
I see Summer Interlude as a lovely companion piece to Summer with Monika (a later film, but I saw it last June). The 2 films have similarities—first love, summer, an island; and Maj-Britt Nilsson looks similar to Harriet Andersson from some angles. While the love story in Summer with Monika is built on romantic illusion and frivolity, and destroyed by the realities of life as well as Monika’s egoism and selfishness, the love story in Summer Interlude is destroyed by that inevitable fact of life—death. Harriet Andersson may be more fascinating and memorable, because of her wild sensuality and erotic charm, and because of the superficiality and selfishness of her character, but Maj-Britt Nilsson is also good, even haunting, in Summer Interlude, with a clear difference between the young Marie, carefree and flirtatious, and the older Marie, hardened, cold, and cynical. Summer with Monika is about love and ruin. Summer Interlude is about love and loss, and acceptance, or to be more precise, about coming to terms with loss, cherishing the memories but moving on, breaking the walls you’ve built for yourself after great pain, and opening up to someone else again. 
A beautiful film. 

This is perhaps the most beautiful shot in the film—like a painting: 

My favourite shot—look at the composition: 

Also, here is one of the shots of feet in the film, which I was very quick to notice as I’m making an experimental film with a feet-related concept:

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Citizen Kane and Rosebud

Watched Citizen Kane again the other day. 
1/ Citizen Kane, to me, is about 2 main things: 
- It’s about the rise and fall of Charles Foster Kane the newspaper tycoon, a great American man, about American history and politics, about the influence of media, about ambition and power and corruption… 
- It’s about the private Kane, about a man who got everything he wanted and lost it all, about the helplessness of a powerful man and loneliness of a great man who is loved by the public but not by anyone close to him, about his need and demand for love when he himself doesn’t know how to love, about selfishness and narcissism and a big ego, about control, about loss, about a life of failures, about his collection of stuff he can buy to make up for things his money can’t buy… 
- It’s also about the multifacetedness of a human being, and the inability to really know somebody. 
That is why it’s such a great film. Citizen Kane is perfect in form and techniques, and has influenced generations of filmmakers, but it’s a great film in itself, especially as an examination of a character. 
2/ Have you ever wondered what the film would be like, as a standard biopic instead of a fragmented story told by multiple narrators, none of whom has access to Kane’s private thoughts? 
3/ The only time we see his soft, private side is when Kane meets Susan (who later becomes his 2nd wife) the 1st time. 
4/ Everyone knows what Rosebud is, but what does it mean? A symbol of the loss of childhood and innocence, perhaps. Or simply a thing that signifies the moment that changed his life completely. 
5/ The 1st time Kane meets Susan, there is a snow globe on her desk. Perhaps Kane, when saying “Rosebud”, subconsciously puts together the 2 moments—the last time he’s a kid and with his family, and the only time he’s liked for who really is instead of his public image of Charles Foster Kane. 
In addition, he’s on the way to get his mother’s belongings. He himself says “in search of my youth”. 
6/ Or perhaps Rosebud means nothing and explains nothing—Rosebud is no more than a plot device, for the search for the real Kane. 
7/ Does anyone else notice that the patterns on the doors at Xanadu look like jigsaw puzzles? 
8/ According to the newsreel, 2 years after the divorce, Kane’s 1st wife dies in a motor accident with their son. What is the significance? Why is it never mentioned again? How does it affect Kane? 
9/ Another theory is that in his deathbed, when uttering “Rosebud”, Kane doesn’t think of himself, but his lost son.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Orson Welles and mirrors

1/ These days I’ve been watching some Orson Welles.
To me, the ultimate B&W films to watch if you’re interested in cinematography are, off the top of my head:
8 ½
Citizen Kane
Ivan’s Childhood

2/ Did Orson Welles have a thing for mirrors?
I watched The Lady from Shanghai last night. Don’t watch this if you haven’t seen the film, because it’s the reveal and climax, or if you watch it, mute the clip:

The mirror shoot-out is the most famous scene from The Lady from Shanghai, and perhaps the best thing about it. Orson Welles’s films seem to always have interesting visuals.
It reminded me of the mirrors in Citizen Kane:

It’s not a fancy scene that is all style and no substance. There seem to be different interpretations—that the large mirrors reflect Kane’s vanity and narcissism, or that the scene emphasises Kane’s loneliness and his inability to get away from himself. To me, the image is a metaphor for all the different Kanes in different people’s stories (the entire film, after all, is about the fruitless search for the real Kane, the hopeless attempt to complete the jigsaw puzzle).
Citizen Kane is, in my opinion, a perfect film. It contains all kinds of techniques, all the things you need to learn about cinema. But it’s more than a bag of tricks, Citizen Kane is a masterpiece.

Saturday, 24 February 2018

Run Lola Run

I love Run Lola Run, especially the editing. The story is simple: Lola has 20 minutes to collect 100000 deutschmarks to save her boyfriend’s life. She has to run, run, run, to get the money and meet him on time. However, the story is repeated 3 times in the film, each time with a few small changes that lead to an entirely different outcome.
The concept of Run Lola Run is that it’s like a video game—Lola races against the clock, avoids obstacles, tries to rescue her boyfriend, and each time the game is over, it goes back to the starting point of the phone call and starts all over again. Also in each run she seems to have knowledge from previous runs, e.g. in the 1st run, her bf Manni tells her how to use her gun, and in the 2nd run, she just knows. Using fast cutting and very bold jump cuts, the film bursts with energy; it’s thrilling, daring, and inventive. 
At the same time, because of the 3 runs, 3 different outcomes, 3 possibilities, Run Lola Run also makes us think about chance and fate, about free will vs determinism, and about chaos theory. 
Brilliant film.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

The favourite 3

Following the previous post, here’s a list of my 3 favourite films of some directors. I also note how many of the directors’ films I’ve watched. 
(I don’t include a director if I’ve only seen 5 films or less. You probably notice that I broke my own rule a few times). 

Woody Allen:
Annie Hall 
Crimes and Misdemeanors 
Love and Death 
(out of 18) 

Martin Scorsese: 
Taxi Driver 
Mean Streets 
The Aviator 
(out of 17) 

Ingmar Bergman: 
Cries and Whispers 
Wild Strawberries or The Seventh Seal 
(out of 15) 

Alfred Hitchcock: 
Dial M for Murder 
(out of 15) 

Billy Wilder: 
Sunset Boulevard 
The Apartment 
Witness for the Prosecution 
(out of 14) 

Federico Fellini: 
Nights of Cabiria 
8 ½ 
(out of 10) 

Clint Eastwood: 
Million Dollar Baby 
True Crime 
(out of 10) 

Zhang Yimou: 
Raise the Red Lantern 
To Live 
Red Sorghum or Ju Dou 
(out of 10) 

Stanley Kubrick: 
Dr Strangelove 
The Killing 
2001: A Space Odyssey 
(out of 9) 

Joel& Ethan Coen: 
No Country for Old Men 
The Big Lebowski 
(out of 9) 

Kenji Mizoguchi: 
Gion bayashi, aka A Geisha 
Ugetsu monogatari 
Akasen chitai, aka Street of Shame 
(out of 8) 

Luis Bunuel: 
The Exterminating Angel
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie 
The Phantom of Liberty or Viridiana 
(out of 8) 

Wong Kar-wai: 
Chungking Express 
Happy Together
(out of 8) 

Tim Burton: 
Edward Scissorhands 
Corpse Bride
Sweeney Todd
(out of 8) 

Akira Kurosawa: 
The Bad Sleep Well 
High and Low 
(out of 7) 

Francis Ford Coppola: 
The Godfather 
The Conversation 
The Godfather Part II 
(out of 7) 

Steven Spielberg: 
Catch Me If You Can 
A.I. Artificial Intelligence 
The Terminal 
(out of 7) 

Park Chan-wook: 
The Handmaiden 
(out of 6) 

Roman Polanski: 
The Pianist 
Knife in the Water 
(out of 6) 

Quentin Tarantino: 
Pulp Fiction 
Inglourious Basterds 
Jackie Brown 
(out of 6) 

Ang Lee: 
Sense and Sensibility 
Brokeback Mountain 
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
(out of 6)

Monday, 19 February 2018

High and Low and my 3 favourite Kurosawa films

Thought my favourite Japanese director was Mizoguchi, then I watched High and Low and fell in love with Kurosawa again. 
This is interesting:
Look at the renowned directors who have been influenced by him: George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Roman Polanski, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Satyajit Ray, John Woo, Zhang Yimou, Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro González Iñárritu, J. J. Abrams… He’s also praised by other masters of cinema such as Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky, Federico Fellini… 
But what I find really interesting is that people’s favourite Kurosawa films can be quite different. I imagine that if you ask people about their favourite Fellini films, the answers are pretty predictable: 8 ½, La Dolce Vita, La Strada, Amarcord. Perhaps someone would say Le notti di Cabiria (as I do), but those are the usual answers. With Mizoguchi, Ugetsu Monogatari would always be mentioned, then perhaps The Life of Oharu, Sansho the Bailiff, Miss Oyu, The Crucified Lovers
The 3 favourite Kurosawa films would be quite different—he after all made many masterpieces*. Personally, my choices are Ran, The Bad Sleep Well, and High and Low
What about yours? 

*: Same for Ingmar Bergman, actually. My 3 favourite Bergman films are Persona, Cries and Whispers, and either Wild Strawberries or The Seventh Seal.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Bird Bitten and other news

1/ My short film Bird Bitten is still in post-production. We haven’t done much these days as the new semester has just started and everyone’s preparing for experimental films. 
But this is the official fb page of the film, with updates, stills, and behind-the-scene stuff, including the famous 19 takes.
2/ Among the books I read last semester, there were 2 very good ones about directing: 
Film Directing Shot by Shot: Visualizing from Concept to Screen by Steve Katz 
Directing: Film Techniques and Aesthetics by Michael Rabiger and Mick Hurbis-Cherrier 
The former is useful for thinking in visuals, creating blocking and storyboard, and planning shot list. 
The latter is a comprehensive book about all aspects of the director’s job: vision, script analysis and development, visualisation, style, pre-production, casting, working with actors, shot list, directing on set, working with crew, post-production, the edit, working with sound and music, and so on and so forth. 
On a side note, lately I’ve been watching films differently—very often I find myself noting how many shots and camera angles there are in a scene. Fellini and Mizoguchi move the actors, and then move the camera with them.
3/ Currently reading Directing Actors: Creating Memorable Performances for Film and Television by Judith Weston. Also got home Friendly Enemies: Maximizing the Director-Actor Relationship by Delia Salvi and The Casting Handbook by Jennifer Granville and Suzy Catliff. 
A useful book, with advice on what to do and not to do in working with actors. It makes me realise that I’m quite controlling. However, as with all guide books, it shouldn’t be followed unquestioningly, and 1 of the things I learnt from Laurent Tirard’s Moviemakers' Master Class years ago was that there’s no definite rule in filmmaking and each director has a different way of doing things. 
4/ At the same time, after Nabokov’s The Gift, I’ve been reading Tolstoy’s trilogy Childhood, Boyhood, Youth. Childhood was his 1st published novel, but it already showed his power of observation and psychological insight. He sees and captures the nuance of feeling and the complexity of human beings, especially in his passages about grief—that the greatest grief is still never total and complete, that the depiction of someone completely immersed in grief and nothing else would ring false, that people are very often conscious of their own display of sadness and pain and thus show it even more… 
Reading Tolstoy at the moment is a good idea. 
Also his ability to convey the sense of joy, joy in being alive, is perhaps only matched by Herman Melville. 
5/ I also borrowed Andrei Tarkovsky’s Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema. Looks like an interesting read.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Untold Scandal and The Handmaiden

I like film adaptations. We all, I suppose, love great faithful ones, such as Gone With the Wind, Sense and Sensibility, Love and Friendship (from Lady Susan), Dangerous Liaisons (Stephen Frears version), The Godfather, The Silence of the Lambs…, but I have a particular fondness for loose adaptations, creative adaptations, especially those with a changed setting. Like Ran, loosely adapted from King Lear. Or Clueless, a modern adaptation of Emma.
Recently I’ve watched 2 excellent South Korean adaptations of Western texts, E J-yong’s Untold Scandal from 18th-century French novel Dangerous Liaisons by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, and Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden from Sarah Waters’s neo-Victorian novel Fingersmith
Both are beautifully shot and engaging, with fine performances; Untold Scandal especially has exquisite production design. Both have some sexy scenes, with a frank depiction of, and attitude about, sex. Both have elaborate plots, and even though Untold Scandal is about sex, sexual promiscuity (or infidelity), game, and ego, and The Handmaiden focuses on money, lesbians, and kink, both films tackle the same themes of love, lust, seduction plot, innocence, deception, betrayal, cruelty, and revenge. In Untold Scandal, a womaniser places a bet with a woman who was once his lover that he would seduce a young virgin and a moral and pious woman. In The Handmaiden, 2 Korean con-artists concoct a plan to seduce an innocent Japanese woman for her money. With the deceiver being deceived, the player being played, both films suggest the unpredictability of life and the irony of fate, and we can say, the power of love and how it makes everyone vulnerable. 
Good films. 

Some stills from Untold Scandal: 

The Handmaiden: