Soaring Spectacle: 10 Reasons to Watch Wings (1927)

sterBig budget movies from any era typically don’t do much for me. Give me snappy dialogue and recycled sets over earthquakes and casts of thousands any day.

There are, however, a few exceptions to my dislike of big bottom lines… and William Wellman’s Wings, which cost a whopping $2 million to make, is exceptional in almost every way.

The story focuses on two young men who enlist as combat pilots during World War I: middle class, happy-go-lucky Jack (Buddy Rogers) and wealthy, contemplative David (Richard Arlen), both of whom love the same woman (Jobyna Ralston). The fact that neither man is in love with Clara Bow as Mary, Jack’s vivacious neighbor, taxes my suspension of disbelief, but the plot all makes sense in the end.

As Jack and David train and join the fight, they form an unlikely friendship, a mutual loyalty that will be put to the ultimate test by their romantic rivalry and by the sobering sacrifices of war.

If you haven’t seen it, remedy that as soon as you possibly can. I can hardly conceive of a better way to spend 2 hours and 20 minutes. It’ll probably cost less than whatever you paid to see any Oscars contender this year, and it’ll be way better.

In case I need to convince you of the glory of Wings, here are the reasons, in order of ascending significance (does that sound official enough?), why I consider it a great and historic film.

Warning: this post does contain some spoilers.

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10. It won the first-ever Academy Award for Best Picture.

On May 16, 1929 in the Blossom Room of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, industry professionals gathered at a banquet to celebrate excellence in contributions to American film from 1927 to 1928.

The event included practically none of the pomp or the fixtures that we associate with the Oscars today. It wasn’t recorded or broadcast. Douglas Fairbanks Sr. hosted a program consisting of about 15 minutes of award presentations.

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The winners, selected by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, had been announced far in advance. Studios received congratulatory telegrams in February of the previous year.

A welcome prestige nod for Paramount, Wings won the prize for “Outstanding Picture,” claimed by producer Lucien Hubbard. William Wellman, the film’s director, wasn’t even invited to the ceremony!

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9. You’ll see both male and female nudity. In a general admission film.

Do you have a friend who thinks silent films are boring? Well, first off, you need to make better friends. Second, you should sit the aforementioned loser down (use restraints if necessary) and play Wings for his or her benefit. Don’t worry: there’s a little something for everyone.

Want to see 3 naked men standing in a row? Keep your eyes wide open during the first 15 minutes of the film.

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Interested in the prospect of topless Clara Bow? You’ll see exactly that, briefly but unmistakably, about halfway through the runtime.

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Yeah, I went there. The things I do to encourage people to watch old movies.

And remember, no ratings system existed for movies in 1927. Audiences of all ages could enjoy what was, ahem, on display. It really was a simpler time.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I shall try to recover my dignity (doubtful) and proceed with my post.

8. Would-be filmmakers could learn a thing or two about how to balance spectacle with story.

A popular epic and a technical miracle, Wings glides above the clouds but never loses sight of its human dimension. The film’s reputation today primarily (and justly) rests on the scale and innovation of its airborne sequences. Yet all that derring-do would be meaningless if we didn’t care about the characters. And Wellman worked hard for the viewer’s emotional investment.

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Wings could serve as an instructive example for the industry today. It demonstrates that a colossal movie (and a box office juggernaut) can and should have a heart. As many recent blockbusters show, spectacle for the sheer sake of spectacle just doesn’t cut it as art.

7. It catapulted Gary Cooper to stardom—even though he’s onscreen for less than 5 minutes.

Even before the public knew his name, the female employees at Paramount sure did. When Coop walked by their offices, a collective sigh rose from the secretarial pool. As B.P. Schulberg’s secretary described the actor, he was “the most beautiful hunk of man who ever walked down this hall!”

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Cooper had already distinguished himself in a supporting role in The Winning of Barbara Worth, but remained a relative unknown.

It’s not exaggerating by much to say that if you blink during Wings, you might miss the ‘Montana Mule.’ Nevertheless, William Wellman tested dozens of actors for the small role of a pilot who dies during training before he chose Cooper to play doomed airman White.

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When White crashes, the shocking incident exposes the shadow of fear and peril that airmen lived under, even before they squared up against the enemy. Cooper’s strange blend of casualness and intensity spurred audience members all over the country to swoon over the bit player.

6. Buddy Rogers was adorable… and quite brave, to boot!

Due to the limitations of cameras and the instability of planes in flight, the leading actors of Wings both flew their planes at times and turned on the cameras to film their own close-ups. This wasn’t a big problem for the ruminative Richard Arlen who had aviation experience.

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But Buddy Rogers, a 22-year-old rising star from Kansas, had never flown a plane before. After each flight—and he spent almost 100 hours up in the air—he would vomit out of anxiety and motion sickness. Then he immediately got back to work.

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Even tough customer Wellman had to admire Rogers’s persistence and courage. But he had another trick in mind for the poor kid.

For a rowdy drunk scene set at the Folies Bergère, Wellman opted to make Rogers’s performance as genuine as possible. As the actor recalled years later, “Here I am this little boy, never had a beer or champagne, and Billy says, ‘Why champagne’s good for you, Buddy. It’ll relax you.’ And so he relaxed me, relaxed me, relaxed me. And he said, ‘Do the scene this way.’”

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Rogers carries the film on his narrow shoulders. We watch him convincingly transform from a carefree teenager to a traumatized hero redeemed by love. His sparkling boyishness and irresistible charm give way to abject despair and guilt. A beloved, important star of the 1920s and 1930s, Rogers is undeservedly forgotten today and due for rediscovery.

vlcsnap-2015-02-21-15h48m42s169 Looks like somebody’s not in Kansas anymore.

5. Even during earthbound scenes, the cinematography will astound you.

Wings dazzles the viewer with so many fluid camera movements and multi-plane shots that it would take far more space than I have here to go through them all.

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Perhaps the most impressive shot occurs during the Folies Bergère scene when the crane-mounted camera swoops over several tables of carousing couples (including a same-sex couple!), finally ending up on the rim of Jack’s champagne glass as he stares agog at the bubbles.

4. Clara Bow will awe you with her talent and range.

Sex symbol, 1920s icon, flapper ideal: sure, Clara Bow was all of those things, but first and foremost she was a tremendously gifted actress. Saucy romantic comedies made Clara Bow the biggest star in the world, but she proved just as adept in dramatic situations.

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Playing the girl-next-door who goes overseas in the female volunteer corps for the chance to see her sweetheart again, Bow lends beguiling credibility to a rather expedient part. Although one could argue that her role merely serves to add gratuitous helpings of ‘It’ to an otherwise manly war drama, her poignant performance justifies every second of screen time she gets.

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Her incandescent naturalness wins you over from her first entrance, parting a pair of bloomers on a clothesline and bursting with joy at the sight of Jack, her childhood crush. Few actresses in the history of cinema could exude such enthusiasm and energy without seeming strained. Even doing something as mundane as driving an army transport truck, she doesn’t fail to hold our attention with her wondrously animated face.

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Bow also evokes much of the film’s piercing melancholy. She imbues the movie’s wild centerpiece, the Folies Bergère scene, with a moral resonance and establishes a special bond with the audience. As the hero loses himself in an unselfconscious haze of alcohol and oblivion, she reflects his innermost sorrow to the viewer. Mature beyond her years, she understands the sadness of his pleasure far better than he does.

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3. William Wellman claimed it as his masterpiece. And that’s saying something.

Before he took on Hollywood, Wellman graduated with honors from the school of life by joining up with the Lafayette Flying Corps as a combat pilot during World War I—and coming home to tell the tale. Although 29-year-old Wellman had only directed a few movies by the mid-1920s, Paramount executives knew he possessed the real-life knowledge of military aviation necessary to oversee the massive production of Wings.

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Wellman would go on to direct a staggering run of great films. He helmed the virtuoistic gangster saga The Public Enemy (1932), the gritty, unforgettable social drama Wild Boys of the Road (1933), the uproarious screwball comedy Nothing Sacred (1937), the much-imitated Hollywood satire A Star Is Born (1937), and the seminal Western The Ox-Bow Incident (1943).

He’s also the man you can thank for the ass-kicking, scantily clad Barbara Stanwyck vehicle Night Nurse (1932), so hip-hurray for ‘Wild Bill’!

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Towards the end of his life, when asked to name the film of which he was most proud, he mentioned Wings. In fact, it was not only his best, but his most personal film, the perfect expression of all that he’d experienced and all that he could help others to experience through cinema.

Wellman makes a cameo appearance in the movie—but not in the air, as you might expect of a venerated pilot. Instead, he dies during the big attack at Saint-Mihiel, looking up towards the sky at the planes decimating the enemy. He croaks his last words as a blessing to those men in their flying machines, “Attaboy! Them buzzards are some good after all!”

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2. It conveys the bitter irony of war.

Over the course of the film, Jack mistakes his friends for strangers twice. The first time, he confuses Mary with one of the French floozies at the Folies Bergère. The second time, he mistakes David for a German flyer. And kills him.

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Shot down behind enemy lines and presumed dead, David hijacks a German plane and heads back to the base. On the way, he encounters Jack, mourning his comrade’s “death” and bent on revenge.

To me nothing looks like hell with the lid taken off more than Jack’s impossibly pretty face contorted in blooddrunk triumph and fury… not realizing that he just shot down his best friend.

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Similarly, after mowing down swaths of his German counterparts, we can read Jack’s lips as he callously mutters, “Bastards!” By dehumanizing his enemy, Jack lets his own humanity slip. No one can blame him for doing so; we would all do the same in his situation or perish.

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The point isn’t merely that Jack kills his friend, but rather that he remorselessly kills men who might’ve been his friends, who aren’t substantially different from himself and David. Put a cross or a tricolore on your plane and you become anathema to the other side. The irony of David’s death begs the question, why invest so much hate in symbols? Why take lives because of them?

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And, lest the film end on a note of victory, Wellman deals us another gut punch of sadness. When Jack returns to his hometown, his car passes through a street of jubilant neighbors who toss flowers at him. Wellman cuts to an unusual low angle shot from beneath the car’s steering wheel. The hero is looking down at something, but what? Then a cut to a higher angle divulges what Jack holds in his hand: a miniature teddy bear, David’s good luck charm, and the medal he promised to return to David’s mother.

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Meanwhile, David’s father stares blankly out at the celebration from behind a memorial flag. David’s girl Sylvia sits catatonic on the swing she once shared with the man she was going to marry. And Jack will have to trudge through the rest of his existence missing his friend, the man he gunned down. The loss of a single young life palpitates in the forlorn final images of Wings. As WWI poet A.E. Housman wrote:

Life, to be sure, 
Is nothing much to lose,
But young men think it is,
And we were young.

1. You won’t find a more stunning and authentic recreation of WWI in any film.

It is not easy for a modern mind to grapple with the awe-inspiring realness of Wings.

Its battle scenes use no rear projection, no models, and, obviously, no CGI.  No tricks of any kind. Just frame after frame of clouds, aircraft, and men risking their lives to execute a brutally beautiful aerial ballet.

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220 real planes and 13 cameramen were drafted into the fray. Thousands of soldiers participated in the battle scenes. The U.S. Army blasted and bombarded vast expanses around San Antonio, Texas to reproduce no-man’s-land.

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The finished film (especially its airborne sequences) stands as a record not only of extreme physical courage, but also of material marvels, of things that actually happened at a certain time and place. The thrills of Wings depend on an inherent, mechanical quality of film: that it captures and preserves reality.

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The stakes of the action emerge from the fact that, like a fingerprint, each frame is existentially bound to the fraction of a second that it photographed. What we see—a plane careening through the air, spiraling, trailing smoke, and crashing to earth, for instance—could perhaps be faked. But that fakery would undermine everything that makes us gasp when confronted with the real thing, so daring and dangerous that it seems locked in a perpetual present.

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In fact, I can think of few mainstream movies that so intoxicatingly engage cinema’s tensions between spectacle and documentary, between fiction and reality. Wings weaves the immediacy of cinema into the visual equivalent of WWI poetry.

By turns lyrical, giddy, sentimental, and ugly (as all great war movies must be), Wellman’s film transmits the chivalric pride and the wrenching disillusionment of WWI.

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Wings allows its audience to feel both the soaring adrenaline rush and the crushing futility of the war that stole the 20th century’s innocence. You share the cockpit with the characters. You see the clouds billow around them and watch the horizon come unstuck. Perhaps no movie has ever put its viewers inside a war as completely as Wings does.

The Academy deemed it an “Outstanding Picture.” And, for once, I agree entirely with The Academy.

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This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, hosted by Outspoken and Freckled, Paula’s Cinema Club, Once Upon a Screen. Be sure to check out the other entries!

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The Viennese Teardrop: Luise Rainer in The Great Ziegfeld

Rainer_ZiegfeldWe lost a legend yesterday when Luise Rainer passed away at age 104.

The first actor to win 2 Academy Awards in consecutive years—for The Great Ziegfeld (1936), then for The Good Earth (1937)—she deprecated her talent, calling herself “the world’s worst actress.” I think she was being more than a tad harsh.

Apart from her double Oscar triumph, Rainer is best remembered for rejecting Hollywood at the height of her career. Frustrated with the identity dictated to her by MGM and annoyed by the shallowness of Tinseltown, she dropped her contract. She explained her decision in an interview years later, “I felt very uncomfortable on that pedestal. I was not groomed for that outer life… It all didn’t fit quite with what I wanted to do in life. And I needed to leave, to save myself. And that is what happened.”

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Rainer and Louis B. Mayer, who reportedly told her that he could make a great actress out of any good-looker. She said, “I was horrified!”

When I heard the sad news about Rainer’s death, I felt that a rewatch of The Great Ziegfeld was in order. At 3 hours long, it’s a rather tedious, cameo-crammed musical biopic. In other words, it represents just the sort of sprawling, escapist extravaganza that Depression-era audiences craved from MGM, Hollywood’s most prosperous and prestigious studio.

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Even the usually dependable William Powell betrays signs of fatigue throughout this overblown biopic (although, in all fairness, he portrays Ziegfeld with a helluva lot more charm than my love Cary Grant showed as Cole Porter). Myrna Loy is a delight, as she always was, but she doesn’t show up until after the intermission, which is an awful long time to wade through sequins in hopes of a reunion of everyone’s favorite screen team.

As the French-born singer and actress Anna Held, Rainer really does steal the show. She’s like a lilac-scented breeze wafting through an open window on a stifling day.

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She adds a much-needed touch of naughtiness and gaiety to a post-Code musical, as though she’d magically wandered off the set of a Lubitsch musical. Frolicking across a London musical hall stage, she warbles, “Won’t you come and play with me?” Swaddled though Rainer was in yards of lace, the mischievous twinkle in her eye sufficiently conveyed that Miss Held wasn’t inviting her listeners to join her in game of checkers.

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Rainer’s role in Ziefeld paralleled her real-life struggles with the demands of stardom. In one comic scene, Held throws a full-on temper tantrum to rebel against her manager’s outlandish publicity stunts, such as sending her 20 gallons of milk each day to bathe in.

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Held complains that Ziegfeld doesn’t exploit her talents as much as her fabricated personality: “In Paris I was a big success because they liked my voice. In London I was a big success because they liked my singing. But in America to be a big success I need 20 gallons of milk and then sit in it!” One can imagine Rainer launching into a similar tirade against the superficiality of MGM’s publicity machine.

As Rainer said, “I must’ve been the envy of millions of young girls all over America, and they didn’t know my real life… I had great sorrow.”

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I couldn’t find Rainer’s famous “telephone scene” in a better quality than 240p on YouTube, so I decided to upload a higher quality version. Watch “the Viennese Teardrop” at her most iconic, professing her happiness while she tearfully bids adieu to the love of her life.


Rainer’s acting style is considerably more stylized that what you’ll see in most modern films. However, we must recall that she is actually playing an actress—and a rather flamboyant, fluttery one at that—in a moment of intense self-dramatization. It would be utterly out of character for ze great Anna ’eld to approach such a tragic moment with deadpan sorrow or mumbling naturalism.

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According to Rainer, she contributed to the dialogue for this famous scene and drew on her knowledge of contemporary theater to give it depth. Jean Cocteau’s “La Voix Humaine”—a one-woman play in which the protagonist says goodbye to the man she loves over the telephone—served as her inspiration.

“I was able to abbreviate a small scene and I wrote it. And it was obviously a success,” Rainer explained. I’ve seen Cocteau’s heart-wrenching play performed in a small theater, and Rainer encapsulated its primary emotions astonishingly well in her 3 minute scene.

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In the 20th century and beyond, communications technology, from Held’s old-fashioned telephone call to texts and tweets sent from iPhones, have allowed us all to become performers when we “talk” to each other. Instead of looking someone in the eye when I tell them how I feel, I can retool my reactions and dissemble to suit the situation.

This lack of spontaneity does not necessarily mean a loss of intimacy or emotional connection. In fact, as Rainer clearly understood, the ironic contrast between what we say through our devices and what we really feel offers prime dramatic material.

As cute or affected as Rainer’s telephone scene may appear today, she grasped that the surreal disjuncture between her words and her facial expression would resonate with audiences—and she played it up to sentimental perfection.

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Rainer baulked at Hollywood’s commercialism because she believed that true acting was about giving, about sharing art and passion with an audience. When Ziegfeld was released, American women were watching the men they loved (and depended on) shrivelling into husks of their former selves and, in many cases, drifting away from them. For these burdened mothers, wives, and daughters, the Viennese teardrop’s courageous mourning provided an elegant, idealized catharsis.

“Whatever impression I gave was that of a woman in love and that was my success,” Rainer said, analyzing her appeal in her adopted country. “People could identify themselves with my emotions.”

In a movie suffocating under mounds of spangles and feathers, Rainer incarnated a most unlikely 1930s heroine: a flighty but brave diva who refined the art of sobbing with a smile on her face.

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Girl Power: Remembering Shirley Temple

bubblesshirleyIf you can hold the responsibility for your whole family on your shoulders at a young age, you must be very brave.

However, if you can hold the responsibility for your whole country on your shoulders at a young age, you must be Shirley Temple.

While such a statement might sound melodramatic in our era of viral hyperbole, I think Present Franklin Roosevelt would back me up. After all, didn’t that master of motivational psychology recognize the curly-topped child as the savior of the nation’s morale? His words were reportedly,  “As long as we have Shirley Temple, this country is going to be alright.”

Now that she’s gone, we have to wonder.

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From the first, Temple’s stardom was explicitly presented as the antidote to the weariness of Depression-era America. She rose to prominence in Hamilton McFadden’s Stand Up and Cheer (1934), a film that dealt with the need for escapism in the 1930s. “President Roosevelt” (a sound-alike actor seen only in silhouette) appoints a Broadway producer as Secretary of Amusement to uplift downtrodden Americans. However, in the movie, Temple’s onscreen father, played by James Dunn, has to petition to let her perform and take her dead mother’s place in their stage act, since child labor laws forbade it.

At one point, Dunn gestures to the agonizingly adorable child, waiting in the corner, and pleads, “Look at her… she thrives on it!” Playing with building blocks, she looks up and grins in acquiescence. And, of course, Temple tap-dances to center stage as the country’s new mascot. In the first major musical number of her career, “Baby, Take a Bow,” she all but broke the fourth wall, leaning right into the camera as if bestowing a kiss on the audience.

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Breaking the fourth wall would become something of a Temple trademark, perhaps because audiences are likely to accept and actually expect such mischievous violation of “the rules” by a little girl. She caps off Irving Cummings’s Curly Top (1935) by adorably scratching her head and repeating the running gag line, “Oh, my word!” Similarly, at the end of Allan Dwan’s Heidi (1937), she prays, in close-up, “please make every little boy and girl in the world as happy as I am,” then looks up to smile into the camera.

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She’s allowed to look at the audience just as silent comedians could—to bypass the invisible boundaries of realist entertainment and establish a rapport with the viewer. She could look at us, as if to say, “Thanks for coming. I hope you had fun.” Shirley Temple the lovable phenomenon always underpinned her nuanced performances, so it seemed only right that she should reach out directly to the people on the other side of the screen. And they responded in kind; as one fan wrote in to Photoplay magazine in 1934, “She is the sweetest bunch of happiness I have ever seen.”

As we mourn an unthinkable thing—the death of someone forever frozen in our memories as a perfect child—there’s not much that one can say about Temple that won’t come out exaggerated or maudlin. The facts of her life are too vast and strange, her childhood too clear a parallel to the magical ragamuffin roles she incarnated onscreen. She was the most famous person in the world, Queen Elizabeth’s childhood role model, one half of the first interracial dance duo in film, and a multi-millionaire. And all this before she was in her teens. vlcsnap-2014-02-11-17h21m57s56

In spite of these accomplishments, Temple famously understated her charm over audiences, equating herself with canine star Rin-Tin-Tin as a heartwarming but uncomplicated symbol of cuteness for a hopeless era. Nothing more.

In my opinion, though, she actually revealed more than she knew with this observation. Animals and children move us on a universal level because they abide; their pure perseverance and will to live contrast with the often-sanctimonious cares of adults, who wear depression and strife like badges of honor. A child, even one that’s been through a lot, knows that joy is the couture emotion, the only one that makes you shine when you wear it.

Thus, Temple’s spunk and sassiness beg the question: if this child can hang on, if she can bear up, smile, and dance with the pros, what excuse do the rest of us have not to face our problems with grace?

vlcsnap-2014-02-11-19h57m58s226Speaking of grace, Shirley Temple Black—the amazing grown-up who never disappointed fans of “little Shirley,” as she referred to her star image—refused to carp loudly about how her childhood was sacrificed for our continuing pleasure. But it was. She quietly acknowledged this by sharing a number of anecdotes about her early life. A department store Santa asked for her autograph and destroyed her faith in such fairy tales. Directors and studio executives wielded physical and psychological torment—from blocks of ice to lies about her mother—to knead her into a better performance. 20th Century Fox staged elaborate birthday ceremonies where she had more lines to memorize for newsreel cameras and where all of the presents were shipped to orphanages, unopened by Temple.

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Real life and reel life birthdays for Temple—both 20th Century Fox productions

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Perhaps Temple’s most incisive comment on fame, about being “devoured by human adoration, sparkle by sparkle” poignantly echoes her mother’s commandment from off camera, “Sparkle, Shirley! Sparkle!”

So, as with all great entertainers, suffering entered into the equation of what made Temple so special. And we need to remember this, in spite of the loss of innocence it implies for those of us on the other side of the screen. I promise that you will find her films no less inspiring once you come to realize what she lost so that we, the viewers, might gain.

When I watch Temple, it is with the rapt astonishment that one might feel before a great magician. Not because I consider her talents a “trick,” but rather because I find something infinitely more sacred in the strength of the woman-child sustaining the act than I see in the idealized child-woman presented for my admiration. I gasp at the flawless execution of a performance, amazed at the adaptability and determination that this little girl harnessed.

You have to know a lot before you can pretend not to know much. This was one of Temple’s greatest gifts: hiding her experience behind a feint of cluelessness. In perhaps the greatest acting achievement of her career, she gladly sings “Auld Lang Syne” to mortally wounded Victor McLaglen in John Ford’s Wee Willie Winkie (1937), enhancing the pathos of the moment with her total non-comprehension of his imminent death.

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As the hulking, recumbent McLaglen slips away, Temple warbles with mock solemnity, still untouched by the knowledge of mortality. Instead of a dirge, “Auld Lang Syne” in her voice becomes a regimental lullaby, bringing the dying man back to the innocence of childhood in his last moments on earth. Neither overplaying her cheeriness nor succumbing to bathetic melancholy, Temple made audiences weep with longing for the time when death was meaningless to us.

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Temple’s films frequently capitalized on her status as an almost uncanny adult-child paradox. In Curly Top, for instance, she acts out a series of vignettes over the trajectory of a human life, singing, “When I grow up…” She even appears in a wedding gown and, rather disturbingly, as a sedentary miniature of Whistler’s mother in a rocking chair. Slightly creepy as such an act may seem today, I like to think that audiences craved subliminal reassurance that a Shirley Temple resides in all of us, that we’re all really children in fancy dress.

Movies starring Temple clearly made this point—that children have an adult-like wisdom, whereas adults too often succumb to petty, childish reasoning. In Wee Willie Winkie, peace comes about only when Khoda Khan sees the world through Priscilla’s eyes. Ford drums this point home with virtually identical shots of Khan and Priscilla descending monumental stone steps that reduce both the man and the little girl, visually, to tiny figures on a huge scale.

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Consider her famous one-liner upon receiving a special Oscar in 1934. After thanking the presenter, she turned to her mother and asked, “Can we go home now?” The crowd roared. Though this “unintentional” wisecrack was clearly staged and rehearsed, like virtually everything about Temple’s life, it speaks to the way a child’s ingenuousness renders all of the adult pomp around her absurd and pretentious.

vlcsnap-2014-02-11-16h52m49s238 Again, reel dialogue would later echo real dialogue. Who can forget her cries of, “I want to go home!” in Heidi? Cries so naturalistic that they’re almost unintelligible, like the real wails of a child in distress. Comparing that scene to the modeled perfection of her storybook sequence clog dance and minuet, one recognizes the multiple registers of acting that this child understood and encompassed in her performances.

Yesterday, as I navigated the social media extravaganza prompted by Temple’s death, I discovered a worldwide digital wake of surprising sincerity and vulnerability. Temple brought out the goodness in her viewers, emulsifying their calloused and cynical hearts. And, of course, she will continue to do so.

However, one comment that recurred on every trend, on every thread was, “My childhood is over…” While I sympathize with the sentiment, I encourage these individuals to take comfort in remembering that Temple’s gift to her fans was not the promise of eternal childhood, but a passport back to that Neverland for the space of a few hours. Watch one of her films and feel all resistance to corniness wash away. Just as Temple beguiled us as a child but performed like a grown-up, so too can her legacy be cherished and appreciated by the grown-up and the child in us all.

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The Laughing Academy: It Happened One Night (1934)

It Happened One Night

“If the movies are an art, I kinda think it’ll leak out somehow without bein’ told; and if they’re a science—then it’s a miracle.”

—Will Rogers at the Academy Awards banquet, 1934

“Let’s get this over with.”

—Clark Gable, arriving on the set for the first day of shooting on It Happened One Night

“I just finished making the worst picture I’ve ever made.”

—Claudette Colbert, on finishing It Happened One Night

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The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences is not exactly known for rewarding a good laugh.

We all know that if you want one of their little gold men on your bedside table, your safest bet lies in unearthing the most degrading, unglamorous, tragic script you can find and wringing it for all its worth. Which is a shame, really, because many of the best movies ever made are comedies and I would argue that it’s much harder to make a good funny picture—one that really makes your sides hurt and a twinkle reappear in in your eye—than a good depressing one.

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Don’t get me wrong—many fine comedies have gotten Oscar nods, and several have attracted one or two of the big awards, but that’s comparatively rare. Perhaps the idea of serious drama adds an air of respectability and legitimacy to movies, and that’s why rather dire, pompous, or grandiose movies tend to hold the Academy trump cards.

Except for once.

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In 1934, a low-budget comedy won every major award. Best Actor. Best Actress. Best Director. Best Screenplay. And, of course, Best Picture. It was the first movie ever to sweep the big awards like that. However, it starred two loaned-out actors who didn’t want anything to do with it. It was made at a fledgling studio in the midst of a town dominated by reigning giants. It bridged the wide gap between an era of Pre-Code naughtiness and a new period of constraints and stringent censorship. It forged a new subgenre: the screwball comedy, which embedded cheeky adventures into a more cautious, traditional courtship framework. It’s a miraculous movie.

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Although it was initially entitled Night Bus, the movie bore a stunningly romantic, already nostalgic name: It Happened One Night.

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But let’s get one thing clear: I don’t by a long shot consider it the greatest comedy ever made. I’d nominate Trouble in Paradise, Some Like It Hot, or The Lady Eve for that honor. Nor is it the best movie Capra ever made. Nor is it even the funniest movie ever made.

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Yet, in it’s own strange way, It Happened One Night stands out as perhaps the most likable film ever made—even more so than Casablanca, with its occasionally mawkish bouts of patriotism (although I do love Casablanca). Capra’s little laugh-fest fills me with cozy joy, as if it were tapioca pudding in movie-form. And, in 1934, the heart of the Depression, apparently even the Academy appreciated some filmic comfort food.

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Claudette Colbert: existentialist.

The film glows with the impression of genuineness, of spontaneity. Notice I say “impression” because anyone who’s ever held a camera can tell you that spontaneity requires some of the greatest illusory juju that any cinema shaman can summon up. We talk a lot about Capra the humanist and Capra the idealist—but I want to praise Capra the magician, who can pull realism out of staged simplicity, who can turn two freakishly charismatic people into ordinary individuals who need baths and get hungry, who can even use snappy dialogue and character involvement to make us forget that we’re looking at a rear-projected shot.

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This contrived tale of a runaway heiress and an out-of-work reporter racing to get her back to her fiancée—and inevitably falling in love in spite of their antagonism—succeeds. And how!

By what strange alchemy does this movie turn to gold? I give a lot of credit to what I’d call orchestrated amateurism—endearingly crude cuts and awkward moments added in to what would otherwise be a flat, dull, artificial enterprise. Capra can do flawless and sophisticated. He did it, in my book, the year before with The Bitter Tea of General Yen—a lush, expressionistic story of a doomed romance, every shot of which is fit for framing and hanging on a gallery wall. It Happened One Night, however, is brilliantly flawed and splendidly arranged to seem like everyday life, to seem like it’s just happening as it goes along.

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For instance, there’s a moment that’s always distracted me. Ellie Andrews, the pampered runaway, has to spend a night in the same autopark room with Pete Warne, a canny, independent newspaper man. Although they didn’t exactly go to sleep on good terms, they wake up on a better foot and sit down to breakfast together. Claudette Colbert exudes a natural shimmering warmth in any role, so as she tells Pete about how her filthy rich life wasn’t so great after all, her speech strikes me as cute—but that’s not what I’m watching.

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Ellie’s eating as she talks. Not “movie eating,” picking at food, pretending to eat. Really eating. Shoveling eggs in and chewing them up. And at one point, a little shred of egg white gets caught on her lip and she flips it back into her mouth. It’s a split-second motion, not in the least played up for comic effect, but that’s all it takes to turn a staged scene into something that feels much more real. Capra was the master of the reifying detail, the one thing that turns a scene from a clunker to a charmer.

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Capra cultivates this not-quite-put-together ambiance, this intentional sloppiness in the famous scene the night before, when Pete undresses in front of the camera. Ellie stands there all the while, bluffing, trying to insist that she’s not afraid of Pete’s rough virility. Meanwhile, taunting her in this game of erotic chicken (oh, God, I hope that “erotic chicken” doesn’t show up on my search terms list), Gable does what we must recognize as one of classic cinema’s few male stripteases. Yes, take THAT, male gaze-obsessed film theorists!

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All digressions aside, make no mistake: this is a constructed scene, as snappy and precise as a Busby Berkeley tap routine. In fact, the reason why Gable takes off his shirt to reveal no undershirt (and thereby bankrupted many an undergarment company) isn’t a question of style but of timing: with the undershirt, the spiel and the routine took too long.

However, the editing makes the scene seem a lot more amateurish than it is. When Gable prepares to unbutton his pants, and every female viewer leaned forward a little, we see Colbert, leaning against the door, rush forward—Heaven forbid she see a naked man! Then we get a quick cut to a longer shot, and she’s back where she was, leaning against the door! Almost immediately, she jerks forward again and scampers to the other side of the Walls of Jericho, the blanket that separates the unwilling roommates. In case I’m not being clear, we see the same action, Colbert starting to run away, twice, if only for a second. I wish I could capture it via screenshot, but it’s too fast—I happens right after this…

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Call the referee! A continuity rule has been violated!

Seriously, though, that messy cut consecrates the scene with a paradoxical sense of documentary authenticity. Obviously, anything that’s been edited has been contrived. However, a jumpy cut encourages us as viewers to see this film as somewhat haphazardly thrown together. It’s natural, uncomplicated, unvarnished, practically a home movie, we’re meant to believe. Our good will towards this quaint, patched-up picture from a minor studio swells into fondness. I’d also point out that the doubled action adds an almost Eisensteinian surge of energy to the moment—a jolt to conclude one striptease and usher in another, as Colbert strips to her slip on the other side of the Walls of Jericho.

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Seriously, though, if you’re watching It Happened One Night for the umpteenth time, keep an eye out for how many weird cuts rip through this masterpiece of calculated nonchalance. Perhaps the most effective and, I would argue, self-conscious of these jumpy cuts arrives at the moment when Pete and Ellie come nose-to-nose for the first time—the first time that they’re not screaming at each other, that is.

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As Ellie reclines in a hay bail, Pete folds his trench coat over her. They come face to face. We expect a kiss. Instead, we get a jump cut closer.

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I love how that gratuitous little inch forward allows us to experience the intimacy of that instant. There’s no kiss. There’s no sex. And yet something changed there and we all perceived it. Then Pete gets up and makes up his bed of straw. There are so many hackneyed ways to insist on attractive tension—360-degree camera spirals, zooms, fetishistically long close-ups. But Capra, not exactly known for avoiding sentimentality, saves us from all that saccharine sweetness with a dose of jagged cutting that brings us back to reality… or the illusion of reality.

I suppose that my point, if I must indeed have a point, consists in showing that It Happened One Night deserves every single one of its awards for seeming so effortless, buoyant, and, yes, even a little shoddy.

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As for our Best Actor, I’ll admit it: I usually don’t love Clark Gable—he doesn’t do it for me, I’m afraid. However, in this movie, I can’t resist his disobligingly teasing swagger. He could have collected an Oscar just  for how he mockingly sings, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” to sheltered maiden Ellie on the other side of the Walls of Jericho.

Whether gnawing on carrots or tossing his best set of pajamas at Ellie, he amplifies the Average American Man, or what we’d like to think he is: basically decent, crammed with his own cockeyed wisdom, foolish, savvy, glib, cynical, sentimental, sincere, and strong—all in one. These qualities shine beautifully through in Gable, the kind of guy who would and did give his Oscar to a little kid who remarked on it in the street.

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Colbert earned her Oscar by refusing to tone down her part. No mistake—Ellie can be an atrocious brat. In the first five minutes of the movie, she pitches a tray of fresh food on the floor with such single-minded, adolescent fury that I imagine a whole audience of undernourished Americans wanted to slap her, just as Walter Connolly does. She’s the kind of childish gal who returns the stuck-out tongue of a girl half her age!

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Her comedic timing generates laughs, but never hits you as forced or mannered. For instance, in the hitchhiking scene, Gable gets most of the antics, demonstrating the several methods of hitchhiking—all she does in response is go, “That’s amazing.” But, man, the dry, falsely-impressed timbre of her voice is funnier that all the custard pies in the world.

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She was convinced that she’d never win the Oscar and was on her way out of town when she heard the news and was summoned to attend the Academy Awards Banquet. She later recalled: “I was surprised when I got the prize. I really had no idea I would get it. In fact, I was ready to leave for New York the night they called to tell me about it. Dressed in a mousy brown suit, I was escorted into the banquet hall full of diamonds and tail coats. It was especially embarrassing because I imagined they thought I was putting on an act, making an entrance.” Rather appropriate, considering the runway heiress she played in the movie, n’est-ce pas?

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The winning script, by frequent Capra collaborator Frank Riskin, based on a story by Samuel Hopkins Adams, not only packs in lots of witty diatribes, but an extraordinary amount of hilarious situations. To list only a few, who could forget Colbert pretending to be a plumber’s daughter and screeching like a fishwife when private detectives come looking for her? Or Gable throwing her over his shoulder and toting her across a stream? Or the infamous hitchhiking thigh-flash? Or the definitive runaway bride wedding?

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She’s at the ten, the twenty—no one can catch her!

I also admire how Riskin uses lots of stock characters and tropes of the day, but bends them to the will of the public. Our schadenfreude gets a healthy workout as bad things recurrently happen to bad people—and everyone gets their just desserts. The infamous playboy King Wesley gets ditched at the altar and the self-indulgent, self-important Daddy Andrews freaks out because his daughter finally took a stand against him.

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Between love and madness there lies It Happened One Night

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Even the lead romance works only because there’s an element of playful humbling involved on both sides. If we believe that Ellie and Pete are meant for each other, it’s on the level of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth—their love is founded on romantic one-upmanship, the cancelling out of their proud natures. He shows her up by revealing that there’s more to life than money and she shows him up by knowing things that women just naturally know—that is, how to control men!

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The script cleverly calls for the main characters to slip in and out of several identities. For instance, take Pete’s terrifying imitation of a gangster, scaring the living daylights out of the blackmailing womanizer Shapeley (a very irritating Roscoe Karns) who threatens to reveal Ellie’s identity. In the years previous to this, Gable had played a lot of tough customers (he’s absolutely chilling as a would-be child-murderer in Night Nurse), so he slides easily into the persona of a cold-blooded killer.  Yet, in this case, instead of feeling like we should boo him, because he’s a gangster, we enjoy watching the fierce pre-code villainous Gable put the fear of God into a sniveling creep.

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In the same manner, we can relish Colbert’s impersonations of loose women because we’ve been let in on the secret that Ellie’s never even been alone with a man before she spends the night in the same cabin with Pete. Riskin cunningly takes morally upright people (by the Code’s standard) but leads them through cheeky transformations—dictated by necessity. He deserves a prize for Best Circumscription of Regulations.

And Best Director Capra reinvents realism on two levels. First, his attention to the idiosyncrasies of how people really live comes across as nothing short of staggering.

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A hobo on top of a train waves to an ecstatic Pete—just another “realistic” touch that adds to the movie’s charms.

Second, Capra blows me away with his understanding of a viewer’s desire to believe that a movie is close to reality. We want to think that the circumstances it portrays are true. He knew well enough not to conceal his stars’ cranky attitudes and the less-than-ideal production circumstances. Instead, he emphasizes them in all their unvarnished, slapdash glory. Oftentimes we don’t want our movies to be all wrapped up and consumable. We want them ragged and lovable. He understood this, which is why he really was one of America’s Best Directors, despite what Orson Welles’ called his Saturday Evening Post sensibilities.

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And I think that we must view It Happened One Night as one of Capra’ best films because his mildly preachy American Dream stuff stays under the rug here. Instead of trying to reassure us that God is good and nice guys don’t finish last, he kindly serves us a funny, serendipitous love story. In the end, that’s all I want to see.

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The big messages, the politics, the values of an era tend to fade away, don’t they? Funny, however, usually stays funny. It takes guts and foresight to reward comedy and I wish more comedies had won Academy Awards. But I’m certainly glad this one harvested a whole crop. It does me good to know that, from time to time, even the Academy can laugh.

Or at least appreciate Claudette Colbert’s gams.

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(One last fact: Claudette Colbert initially refused to bare her legs for the hitchhiking—she thought it was cheap and stupid. So Capra got a leg double. And no sooner did Colbert see those replacement legs than she changed her mind and insisted that Capra use her own inimitably lovely pins, the ones you see above.)

This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, hosted by Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club, Aurora of Once Upon A Screen, and Kellee of Outspoken and Freckled. Visit their blogs and learn more about this wonderful blog event! Find the blogathon on Twitter by searching the #31Days hashtag.

Getting out of the Boat: Black Narcissus and Apocalypse Now

2“Never get out of the goddamn boat. Absolutely goddamn right. Unless you were going all the way. Kurtz got out of the boat. He split from the whole f**king program.”

I’ve loved Apocalypse Now from the first time I watched that orange feathering of napalm burn through lush tropical forests to the lilting, funereal strains of “The End.” That opening shot spoke to me, whispering the truth of how ugly things can be beautiful and how the camera can charm that beauty forth.

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It was like looking through the eyes of another, not through a point-of-view shot, not even through the lens of a different philosophy—but through the eyes of madness, of someone for whom destruction was lovely. I had never felt anything like it. It horrified me, shocked me, inspired me, and changed me. It may have been the first time in my life that I encountered Art, that grand, fearsome, traumatic thing that we hear so much about.

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On the other hand, Black Narcissus refused me any such revelation until it was almost over. Having bought a Criterion DVD at a jumble sale (the poor fool who threw it away!), I played it one lazy morning. For the first hour or so, I liked it, thought it was visually pleasing and stimulating in an academic sense. It wasn’t until Sister Ruth revealed her awful, predatory true self that the movie pulled me into the heart of its darkness.

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The bottom dropped out of reality. I just didn’t expect a pensive, patient little art film to do that to me—to come at me with a rush of cosmic fury and not relent for almost twenty minutes. “Holy ****!” I exclaimed to myself. “Sister Ruth got out the boat!”

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Black Narcissus and Apocalypse Now both won Academy Awards for cinematography thanks to the hypnotic, ethereal camerawork of Jack Cardiff and Vittorio Storaro, in 1947 and 1979 respectively. (Both films should have won Best Picture, but that’s a whole other blog post.)

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Above: Jack Cardiff. Below: Vittorio Storaro on location for Apocalypse Now

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Apart from the two movies’ shared aesthetic interest in exoticism, they are extremely different. In contrast to the classically trained, crafted acting style of the performers in Powell and Pressburger’s film, Coppola chose a stable of hardcore method actors. While Black Narcissus seemingly fits into the mold of a women’s drama, Apocalypse Now has claimed an immortal place in the annals of cinematic machismo.

Black Narcissus departs utterly from realism by shooting not in the Indian mountains, but in England—against huge blow-ups of aerial photographs of the Himalayas, brightly painted to striking effect. We all know that the production of Apocalypse Now, filmed on location in the Philippines, mirrored its plot. As Coppola lapsed into the Kurtz mentality and actors started to succumb to the harshness of the environment and the strain of shooting, reality bled into fiction.

Nevertheless, I cannot separate these films in my mind. To me, they’ll always be spiritual sisters. I don’t doubt that Cardiff’s vision for Black Narcissus influenced Storaro’s photography for Apocalypse Now, but that’s not what I’m talking about.

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Fearsome transformations….

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I have seen a precious few films that seem to be aware that they’re in color. I mean, yes, the costumes, the sets, the lighting in most non-black-and-white films have all been carefully selected for their hues and tones, but the emotional powerhouse of color remains untapped.

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Warpaint of different hues…

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Color speaks to us in ways that defy rational thought. Baudelaire once noted that color is the most important element of a painting, because even before we can make out the figures, at a distance, the harmony or dissonance of colors allows us to intuit the essence of the scene.

In my opinion, color needs to “put the zap” on our heads, to paraphrase a few lines of Milius’ brutally insightful script for Apocalypse Now. Seriously—this is why I tend to prefer black-and-white films. Why show me colors unless they’re going to astonish me? Color needs to tell us something, not in terms of symbolism, but in terms of emotion and reaction. Both Black Narcissus and Apocalypse Now define dreamlike, vividly colored places, jungles and mountaintops, which not only magnify our perceptions, but also unleash our inner natures.

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Shades of observation: Sister Clodagh and Captain Willard.

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Apocalypse Now is not an anti-war film any more than Black Narcissus is an anti-religious film. Both of them transcend such unambiguous messages to tell us something much more vast about the soul of civilization. Sister Ruth certainly isn’t the charismatic genius that Kurtz is, since men have a cultural outlet for their madness—war—whereas women just get neuroticism. However, these two figures both revert to something primal and frightening. (Eventually Captain Willard does, too.) Sister Ruth and Kurtz split from the program of lies and moral rationalizations that govern the minds of their peers. Rather than persisting in fighting the call of the jungle, they give in. Their madness prompts some of the most fantastically beautiful images captured by a camera. 

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We watch traditions and codes of conduct plunge into a flamboyant psychosis that wasn’t so far away all along. Seductive, unreal colors, enhanced by sinuous camera strokes, hold us captive and enable us to feel the strength of those impulses towards annihilation, impulses that enthrall those who “got out of the boat.”

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As Nietzsche theorized, great tragic art must balance a tendency towards orgiastic self-destructiveness (the Dionysian) and the tonic splendor of appearances and expression (the Apollonian). If Black Narcissus and Apocalypse Now both depict the triumph of the Dionysian, of chaos and entropy, they nevertheless uplift us rather than depressing us. They temper our despair in mankind with our faith in art.

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Cardiff and Storaro extensively studied the great masters of painting—the color palette of Narcissus was based in part on Vermeer, and there’s quite a bit of Caravaggio in the way Apocalypse Now uses virtuosic contrasts of color and blackness. The compositional brilliance and luminosity that the cinematographers lend even to scenes of abhorrent violence or confusion strike a balance between these elements to produce cathartic experiences that, for me, have not been equaled by any other films.

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From lips to eyes… and from eyes to lips. Contemplating empty faces (Sister Ruth’s and the face of a Khmer statue) with camera tilts.

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Jack Cardiff had to campaign to get the sort of surreal, opalescent color contrasts he harnessed for a subliminal effect in Narcissus: “I was always fighting with Technicolor [representatives] because they wanted complete realism, whatever that was.” Instead, in certain scenes, he filled shadows with green light and colored the arc-lights slightly blue to suggest the distracting crystal coolness of the skies. Cardiff reflected that few viewers, perhaps one in ten or fifteen, would consciously notice these things, but that the choice would impact the mindset of the audience and contribute to the story.

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In addition to these more subtle manipulations, gathering momentum as the film unfolds, Black Narcissus overwhelms us with exaggerated panoramas of the edge of the world. The screen celebrates the giddy delirium that courses through Sister Ruth as she rings the bell on the edge of the cliff. We experience the rush of that chasm, shown in breathtaking canted angles.

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Later, through the translucent deep blues, febrile oranges, and acid pinks of her freak-out, we feel the terrifying release of Ruth’s transformation into a strange, unnatural creature—part modern woman, part painted devil.

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Kurtz’ poetic insanity penetrates the eerie iconography of Apocalypse Now. The glowing amber quality of light, the oppressive Prussian blue skies, the sulfuric yellow and psychedelic lilac gas flares, the impenetrable greens of the jungle all exteriorize the jewel-like ferocity of his Zen psychosis.

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“We’re all his children, man…”

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Kurtz, this faceless demigod, the diamond who cuts through bullsh*t, realizes that those who win wars must fully embrace “the horror.” But that appalling clarity, that knowledge also rots away at him from the inside out. Captain Willard’s voice-over tells us some of this, but such verbal information would be meaningless if Storaro didn’t paint this decay into every lopsided, eclipsed shot of Kurtz.

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Storaro, referring to his revolutionary use of color shading in Apocalypse Now, spoke of how he used the visuals, especially rich shades of black, to get in touch with the barbaric, “unconscious side” of humanity that Conrad’s novel conjured up: “The heart of darkness that he was looking at does not belong to another culture, another place, but part of our self.”

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Cardiff and Storaro both found intense, wordless ways of representing this slip into a primordial darkness, into a place beyond reason. When Sister Ruth begins literally to “see red” the screen suddenly snaps to pure blue as her rage forces her to lose consciousness.

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The first time I saw it, I though there was something wrong with the DVD, it startled me so!

Similarly, Apocalypse Now gives us an amazing shot in which the camera literally turns upside-down and then right-side-up, and then up-side-down again as Kurtz’ acolytes drag Willard through the mud to meet the elusive Colonel for the first time.

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Cinematography literally means writing with light and motion. Cardiff and Storaro wrote disorientation and temptation into the screen with shadows, with movements, with delicate shadings of color.

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The call of the jungle… Sister Ruth and Captain Willard stalk their prey.

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Black Narcissus and Apocalypse Now both dwell in the realm of exoticism, in the amplified Other that’s really just another guise for something flickering within us. These movies let me see Western civilization, the epicenter of my own values and all that I hold dear, transplanted and fragmented into a vibrant nightmare by the prism of madness.

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They also take me full-circle back to the primitive psychic engines of that civilization—Eros and Thanatos, sex and aggression—without asking that I transgress, without asking that I myself get out of the boat.

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~          ~          ~

This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, hosted by three of the nicest ladies, coolest movie mavens, and best film bloggers out there, Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club, Aurora of Once Upon A Screen, and Kellee of Outspoken and Freckled. Check out their blogs and this wonderful blog event! Find the blogathon on Twitter by searching the #31Days hashtag.