The Cameraman (1928): Roll With It

postHe had never seen her before, but he knew on sight that she was something mysterious, unattainable, and lovely.

He longed to understand her and couldn’t help edging a little closer.

And so Buster’s onscreen love affair with the movie camera begins—almost identically to his mega-crush on Sally, who happens to work at the M-G-M Newsreel Office. Upon “meeting” both Sally and a newsreel camera, he proceeds the same way, with boyish simplicity and joy in discovery, snuggling up to of them without a thought for what others might perceive as weirdness. Just as Buster can’t resist plunging his face into Sally’s hair and inhaling deeply, he sticks his head right inside the chamber of the first professional newsreel camera he gets the chance to examine.

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Screen Shot 2013-09-21 at 11.22.54 AMHe nuzzles the woman and the camera in much the same way, knowing instinctively that the mechanical device which so many of us see as cold and exacting is, in fact, a fascinating creature with as many secrets as a beautiful woman. Admittedly, the camera Buster explores in the newsreel office is a different from the one that becomes his loyal companion, a mangy early Pathé camera that needs to be hand cranked. Nevertheless, his childlike affection for the device in general is telling and utterly charming.

Screen Shot 2013-09-21 at 7.27.05 PMThe film originally ended with Buster abandoning the camera in a Chinatown scrape. He previewed the sequence and it “died the death of a dog. It dawned on us what that was. I deserted that camera. So I had to go back and remake that—even with the trouble of trying to get away… I still kept my camera. Then it was all right.”  Throughout the perilous Chinatown tussle, Buster gallantly totes his battered camera around as he usually carries damsels in distress, hugging her to his body when the bad guys corner them. The romantic bond between Buster and his camera must never be undermined, otherwise the whole film would come crashing down.

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Buster’s onscreen love of the camera as a being, an almost personified toy that brings him closer to his dream girl, reflects his real-life appreciation of this mystical doohickey. No sooner did Buster start his film career than he borrowed a camera, took it apart, and put it back together again: “One of the first things I did was tear a motion picture camera practically to pieces and found out [about] the lenses and the splicing of film and how to run it on the projector.” The potential of the device immediately struck him; he grasped the boundless scale of what a camera could put before viewers, compared to the cramped artifice of a stage.

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And because Buster, real and fictionalized, loves his camera, the camera loves him, takes pity on him, and comes forth to bear witness to his courage when he needs it most.

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As a movie about movies—or, to be precise, about the video journalism of newsreels—The Cameraman blissfully shatters all of our notions about the boundaries between fact and fiction. Really, it’s a movie that messes with your head in the best possible sense. I mean, by the end, we’re watching people watching Buster Keaton in a movie… within a Buster Keaton movie. Thanks to its dizzying mise-en-abyme conclusion, much of The Cameraman’s most enduring humor and pathos resides in its ability to hint at what it means to film something, to preserve reality and then to play it back.

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For instance, during the climactic Tong War in Chinatown, Buster’s antics reveal the extent to which “documentary” footage often benefits from a little creative staging. Buster, caught in the thick of it, seizes on the opportunity to embellish what’s happening all around him. Watching two men wrestling on the ground, trying to reach a knife, Buster drops them the knife and then cranks away, recording the now slightly more dramatic fight.

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Once holed up in a dry goods store, he positions his camera in the window and chucks a few light bulbs down on the squabbling gangsters below to stir the fight up a bit more, all in the sake of a better shot. We recognize that the newsreel cameraman is never a passive entity, a dumb witness to events. Merely by choosing what to record and how to record it, what to show and what exclude, he discerns value and importance out of a world of noise. And, as Buster shows, these early video journalists didn’t baulk at stooping to a little directing, as well.

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I’ll bet audiences left The Cameraman feeling a bit more wary of newsreel truth, seeing how those daring young men with their filming machines sometimes enhanced the action. Rearranging or even totally restaging historical events wasn’t unheard of for news coverage… and it still isn’t! Here I’m reminded of the famous Civil War photographs of Matthew Brady, so celebrated for their rawness and authenticity… when, in fact, his assistants arranged the corpses for better compositions. Does that make the photographs less truthful? Perhaps. But nobody cares about the truth if it’s not interesting.

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The screening of the Chinatown footage vindicates Buster’s deft management of the situation. Every thrilling shot explodes with danger and conflict. The chief of the M-G-M Newsreel Office even exclaims, “That’s the best camera work I’ve seen in years!” As we watch the footage, we chuckle, however, because we recognize Buster’s handiwork. We see the situation twice—first as a movie, with Buster present as the protagonist, and secondly as a newsreel, with Buster’s presence and influence subtly permeating each frame.

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The humor that arises from this doubling of perspective impresses me with its complexity. The Cameraman abounds with delicious pratfalls, gags, and physical comedy, including the famous get-a-load-of-Buster’s-abs dressing room sequence followed by the nude swimming pool scene.

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In My Wonderful World of Slapstick, Buster remembered that the film received one of its biggest laughs during the scene where the wet-behind-the-ears cameraman watches his film being previewed for the newsreel crew. The trial goes hopelessly badly, because the reel of film that the newbie took consists of a series of hilarious double exposures and trick shots. Battleships float through New York, stunt divers flip backwards out of the water, and city streets jumble together in an impossible collage of mayhem.

Screen Shot 2013-09-21 at 11.55.11 AMOf course, what cracks me up about this scene is that his footage looks scarily like the montage documentary opus Man with a Movie Camera, which features a plethora of impressive yet playful superimpositions. See? Buster’s not incompetent! He’s a prodigy. He’s a natural Dziga Vertov, for crying out loud! Amusingly, what doesn’t cut it for the newsreels actually makes for splendid art—and for a hearty laugh.

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Although the film was mostly made at a studio, it does include some genuine newsreel footage, like the shot of Charles Lindberg that punctuates its conclusion. The archive shot serves a clear narrative purpose, explaining the reason for the parade Buster gets caught up in, which he thinks is in his honor—and also adds a strong emotional reaction to the scene.

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No American in 1928 could’ve looked at that shot and not been filled with pride and joy. This documentary image, plucked from the Hearst files, serves an expressive purpose in the context of a fictional narrative. Lindberg’s real-life triumph—and he was Superman in the 1920s—echoes Buster’s smaller victory, and the inclusion of reality bolsters the fiction.

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Plus, Buster’s confusion, mistakenly believing that the swelling ticker-tape parade is celebrating him, parallels the mix-up created by seeing newsreel footage of Lucky Lindy embedded in a fictional storyline. We get a whole bundle of conflicting things to laugh about. Buster thinks he’s the protagonist in the newsreel reality of the diegesis, but he’s not. However, in the reality of The Cameraman, he is, of course, the protagonist.

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The fact that a movie about newsreels returns to actual newsreel footage at the end makes us feel that the whole film has coiled up on itself. Buster never quite lets us free of this movie, trapping us in a Möbius strip of irony to the end. Was this a fiction with a detour through newsreels… or a newsreel with an extended detour through fiction?

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Buster’s adventures cross over so serendipitously with actual historical events—even if the documentary footage component makes up only a few feet of film among thousands of studio-shot illusion. His journey, especially the wish fulfillment conclusion, recalls the way we bump into our favorite films and half imagine ourselves to be the protagonists.

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What is and is not recorded on camera also interjects some of the saddest moments of The Cameraman—and some of the saddest moments of any comedy I’ve seen! When Buster returns from his death-defying mission to Chinatown only to discover that he forgot to put film in the camera, the emptiness of the reel makes our hearts sink. Not only has he utterly failed as the newsreel journalist he longs to be, but he literally lost the thing that he tried so hard to protect. The fruit of his labor, the thing that he valued above his own safety, suddenly dematerialized. Such is the nature of film.

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When Buster rescues the girl and goes to get something to revive her, he returns to find her walking away with another man. As our hero sinks to his knees, the camera slowly slides away from him… showing his own camera a few yards away, still being cranked by Josephine the monkey.

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It’s hard to put into words what that devastating tracking shot conveys. As Buster watches, the young lovers walk away, and his heart breaks, like an intruder in somebody else’s movie, a conventional romantic comedy. I suppose that seeing the camera jerks us out of the film world and forces us to take a moment of silent reverence for the suffering that Buster undergoes for the sake of our belly laughs. The sudden appearance of that implacable camera shocks us and strips away the escapism of comedy.

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However, on a deeper level, the absurdity of a camera capturing the depths of his despair, of memorializing a moment he’ll always remember with a tiny throb of anguish, drives home the loneliness of the experience. I mean, what if someone videotaped the worst moment of your life? Pretty harsh. His only companion (besides the monkey) is that helpless three-legged beast, the camera. And she can’t understand what he’s going through… or can she? Perhaps she can make his isolation shine. After all, that sublime tracking shot sure does. That complex shot is every bit the equivalent of the ending shot of Chaplin’s City Lights, in my humble opinion—that one shot that tells you everything you need to know about the wistfulness at the heart of this little man we find so funny.

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Fortunately, the camera that can be cruel is also kind, because the miraculously rediscovered footage comes to testify in Buster’s behalf. The camera sees his melancholy beauty just as it sees the news, when it’s fed the right subject, recontextualizing life and making it amazing again. A deus ex machina, a benevolent god from the machine, film itself—or rather the film within the film—furnishes the happy ending we all crave.

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This post is part of the Journalism in Classic Film Blogathon, hosted by Comet Over Hollywood and Lindsay’s Movie Musings. Please check out the other fabulous entries!

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Oh, and you didn’t think I’d end the post without this, did you? One of these men is Buster Keaton. Guess which.

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Free Friday Film: The Ghost Camera (1933)

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Are you up for a quickie? No, not that kind. Wash your brain out with soap, you n’er-do-well. Today I’m tempting you with a quota quickie, a cheaply produced British B movie produced to satisfy English law.

In 1927, the Cinematographic Films Act required British movie theaters to exhibit a certain percentage (it rose to 20%) of British-made films in an attempt to lessen the influence of American culture, pouring into England through Hollywood films, like the Spanish Armada in celluloid form. Well, tempted by the guaranteed opportunity to have their films shown in cinemas, British studios churned out movies with insanely small budgets—about 1 pound per foot of film, according to the UK Guardian.

Rather like Poverty Row films, many of these quota quickies stank like gone-off Vegimite. However, plenty of them also offered burgeoning directors and actors Michael Powell, Errol Flynn, Vivien Leigh, and Ann Todd a chance to cut their teeth on their first cinematic experiences. And, what with necessity being the Queen Mum of invention, many quickies display creative stylistics and wacky plots—to cover up their budgetary shortages.

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It breaks my heart to inform you that 60% of these movies are considered lost. But Martin Scorsese and the BFI are actively hunting for them. As it is, more and more of these are available on DVD and hopefully we’ll get a full-on quickie festival someday. Wait, that came out wrong…

So, in my usual roundabout way, I come to today’s sacrifice, The Ghost Camera, a 1933 mystery from debut director Bernard Vorhaus, a talented fellow whose Hollywood career was cut short by the blacklist. This entertaining, plot-packed thriller clocks in at about an hour, a refreshing feat in comparison to the bloated two-going-on-three hours spectacles that are showing at a movie theater near you nowadays.

The story follows John Gray (Henry Kendall), a bespectacled, preening intellectual who arrives home from his vacation to discover that someone dropped a camera in his luggage. Deciding to develop a picture in hopes of returning the camera to its owner, our hero discovers—gasp—a picture of a murder!

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Before he can show the image to the police, though, someone nicks it, but leaves the amateur detective with the camera and the remaining undeveloped negatives within. Piqued by the theft and up for an adventure, Gray decides to retrace the photographer’s steps by tracking down the locations where the pictures in the camera were taken. In the process, he meets the camera owner’s troubled sister, Mary Elton, stumbles across a jewel heist, and finally roots out the killer.

As with many quota quickies, The Ghost Camera gives us a glimpse into the before-they-were-famous careers of big names in cinema history. A charmingly baby-faced Ida Lupino graces the screen with her discreet magnetism as Mary, the lady in distress. As she accompanies the sleuth, she both seeks and dreads the truth about her brother and his camera.

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Unfortunately, the print of this film available on YouTube looks like it was strained through cheesecloth (which is why I didn’t pepper this post with screencaps). Nevertheless, the cinematography does shine. The director of photography, Oscar-winner Ernest Palmer, an American, shot the melodically lovely Borzage films Street Angel and Seventh Heaven, so it’s no surprise that he pulls out some bizarre visual poetry even for this cheapie. The scenes in the darkroom, almost total blackness except for a few starkly-lit faces, convey a spooky sense of dread that foreshadows the virtuoso lighting contrasts of mature British noir. Again, when the protagonist investigates an abandoned, ruined fortress, darkness prevails, plunging us viewers into a situation where we must stay riveted to the screen for the slightest flash of light or sound to know what’s going on.

Best of all, the great David Lean earned one of his first screen credits on this film as an editor. He later acknowledged director Bernard Vorhaus as a formative influence on his career. Indeed, combined with the cinematography, the editing here can only be described as audacious. For example, the movie starts with a low angle shot of a looming castle keep. The camera slowly tilts down and pans to a car on the road. Jump cut to the vine-covered walls of the ruin. Jump cut to the backseat of the car into which a camera tumbles. Where did it come from? Who dropped or threw it? Did the car pick it up on purpose or is the driver totally unaware? This pre-credit sequence leaves us intrigued, tantalized. Exactly what you desire from a mystery thriller!

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The first time I watched The Ghost Camera, its visual flamboyance stunned me. Shaky handheld motions, jump cuts, swish pans, and disorienting shifts of focus: you’ll see a lot of things here that we tend to associate with the “groundbreaking” movies of mature European art cinema, especially French New Wave. The jarring, unstable camerawork also awakens the audience to the foibles and strangeness of mechanical recording. That is, we realize that we’re watching a movie, a reality filtered through a camera.

The camera as a recording instrument itself carries an uncanny aura. Think about how many meta-thrillers and horror films revolve around some variation of a ghostly, anxiety-inducing camera or pictures: The Big Sleep, Blow-Up, Chinatown, and The Eyes of Laura Mars, to name a few. The Ghost Camera actually amplifies its slapdash, B-movie discontinuity, its jerky camera movements and warping perspective, to generate fear. The movie camera takes on a life of its own. Meanwhile, the film’s plot, in which developed images serve as clues, shows us how photography’s special bond with reality can bear an alarming witness.

The camera’s truth speaks in tongues, though—as the weird, vertiginous cinematography of The Ghost Camera suggests—that need to be interpreted by human reasoning.

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Mix all this innovative flair and love for the filmic medium with a droll script, really a parody of the whodunit, and you have a beguiling hour’s entertainment. Our mewling hero John Gray continuously treats us to his pessimistic, helpless commentaries. For instance,

“I really don’t know why I continue to go on holidays, Simms. They’re never adventurous. Just the usual people and happenings, unexciting, like myself. Man is an irrational animal, Simms, persisting to hope for what his reason has proven nonexistent.”

At another vexing moment, he humorously exclaims, “Oh but this is absurd! We’re beginning to talk like characters in a mystery melodrama.” If only he knew…

So, watch The Ghost Camera and celebrate this testament to what wonderful popular art a bunch of clever people can cobble together out of basically nothing. It’s certainly one of the most enduring and satisfying quickies you’ll ever enjoy. Click here to watch the film on YouTube.

N.B. I learned about the history of the quota quickie from these thoughtful sources. I didn’t pull those facts out of thin air and I gratefully and fully acknowledge these articles and their authors for their research and insights. I’m citing them informally, because this is a blog post, not a college paper!

“Fancy a Quickie?” by Matthew Sweet from U.K. Guardian Monday, 1 January 2007.

“In Praise of the Quota.” at British Pictures Article Archive.

Hamlet (1948): Spacing Out

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It’s not hard to understand why Laurence Olivier selected this abbreviated passage of Hamlet as the opening statement, the thesis, if you will, of his adaptation. After all, these few lines contain the most eloquent description of the tragic flaw that anyone ever wrote; well, duh, it’s practically Shakespeare analyzing Shakespeare.

If anything, the quotation slaps us across the face with its significance. We might even feel inclined to groan at its 9th-grade-English-class heavy-handedness, spliced right into the exposition of the film. But we would be wrong to do so, because it contains the central image of Olivier’s brazenly stripped-down vision of the literary masterpiece.

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The last time I watched this movie, a line from the epigraph tickled my brain: “Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason.” Because, what is “reason” if not a buffer, a barrier? Something that restricts our mind like a corset of scruples and holds it prisoner like a castle keep? Reason consists of a series of bulwarks that we erect between ourselves and madness in all of its forms, whether excessive melancholy, anger, desire… or insight.

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The nature of reason can aptly express itself in architectural terms, particularly medieval ones. We live inside our heads, besieged by armies of competing facts and moral codes. We probably lift the portcullis of our perceptions and prejudices to admit new ideas much less frequently than we think we do.

Okay, so I’ve over-extended my metaphor, but it’s all in the service of Olivier’s direction. His Hamlet seizes on that guiding conceit, the fortress of reason, and spins it into a space where Desmond Dickinson’s camera seems to ruminate like Hamlet’s troubled mind, forever roving and wandering.

The opening of Olivier’s Hamlet freezes time. No one moves, like they couldn’t even if they wanted to. Four men stand on the ramparts of a castle, bearing the Prince’s corpse. We begin at the end of the story. This isn’t exactly a spoiler, since we all know Hamlet ain’t getting out of this alive, but the funereal shot infuses the film with a distinct and surreal sense of dread from the start.

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But what fascinates me about this opening shot is how time seems to have stopped as the camera glides through air, arcing out of the fog towards the prince’s body. The camera shows us that while time might have stopped for the people of this tale, the dimension of space remains open—and the camera dances in it.

The contrast between still, inert humans and a living, moving perspective divorced from them, well, it spooks me. It’s the visual equivalent of the alarming question that begins Shakespeare’s play, “Who’s there?”

Who—or what—is swooping down to look at the funerary procession while mortals can’t budge?

The next shot flips me out even more. On that forbidding castle fort, those figures in mourning just dissolve into thin air, leaving the battlements empty of people. This transition reminds us of how easily we all eventually dematerialize: “Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander, till he find it stopping a bung-hole?”

The dissolve also reveals that the film conceives space as a psychological entity. This simplified, archetypal Elsinore, which initially appeared to have been lifted from a book of Charles Lamb’s tales or a Horace Walpole novel, actually exists in a place between Hamlet’s imagination and reality. The castle, though real, occasionally bleeds into the fortress of Hamlet’s askew reason.

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Nowhere is this link more clear than in Olivier’s staging of the play’s most famous monologue. Immediately after Hamlet rejects Ophelia for betraying him, the camera wooshes out of the room, up a staircase, and goes on one of its fugues, travelling up flight after flight of stairs—or actually, the same flight of stairs, cut together again and again.

Finally, the camera flies up to the sea, seen from the top of the castle, and then a track-back brings Hamlet’s head into sight from the bottom the frame. For my money, those M.C. Escher-ish repeated staircases convey the structure of rumination, of those repetitive thoughts that we can’t quite break away from. Hamlet’s mind is a lively, circular one, forever walking up and down the gloomy staircases of the Big Questions: why do we live? What is the good in staying alive? Is it worth it? Why? Why? Why?

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That sudden emergence of Hamlet’s head in the frame always surprises me a little. After a dissociative fit where we lose almost all sense of proportion on those abstracted staircases, we’ve returned to a man as the point of reference. The staggering switches in scope make the audience more aware of what I see as Hamlet’s flaw.

And Hamlet’s “problem,” in my humble opinion, is that the universe as a whole speaks to him.

He realizes his insignificance in the grand scheme of things; he cannot act because he questions the usefulness of any action at all. Hamlet combines self-absorption with self-effacement. He swims in the frightening space of the cosmos and wriggles in the prison of his own duties and life.

That crane shot, careening through the void, then returning to the melancholy prince suggests this push-pull, this paradoxical feeling that Hamlet is at once too much inside himself and too far away from himself.

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I love how Elsinore’s spaces reflect emotional nuances that a stage never could. For instance, the first crane shot down to focus on Hamlet cements our identification with him, with the thinker, the man left alone in the debris of pompous court ceremonies.

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Or consider how the long corridors of arches create a pathetic reciprocal gaze between Ophelia and Hamlet. The hallway inscribes and entombs their confused desire in stone.

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Likewise, I treasure Olivier’s pirouette in the performance hall of Elsinore, shown in a long shot, as he exults, “The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King!”

In On Acting, Olivier described Hamlet as the sort of person who needs to enter into someone else’s skin to get anything done: “it’s a sporadic collection of self-dramatizations in which he always tries to play the hero and, in truth, feels ill-cast in the part.”

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Here, Hamlet’s ecstasy in a performance space exposes how much he yearns to escape his limitations—and in the cavernous great room, the euphoria of that small gesticulating figure rings false. The desperate spurt of joy that Hamlet feels on an empty stage space, play-acting only for himself, paints a sad portrait of this man who considers himself unfit for everything others expect from him.

Unlike Laertes and Fortinbras who never seriously doubt their capabilities, Hamlet mercilessly beats up on his character flaws. If anything, his flaw is that he’s too aware of his flaws.

In 1988, two psychologists, Taylor and Brown, found out something that Shakespeare’s Hamlet had been telling us for a long time. Namely, that people suffering from mild depression are far more in touch with the realities of life, death, and risk. By contrast, normal, healthy individuals tend think that they’re better, smarter, and safer than the “average person.”

Hamlet lacks the survival prejudices that would have allowed him to filter out all the reasons not to act, not to stay alive. He sees the world with depressive clarity: “nothing’s either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

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So, indeed, reason consists of “pales and forts.” Reason usually provides a structure that protects us from ourselves. We live inside it, like happy guests in a castle, until something goes wrong, something that lets us understand that we are not immune to ugliness and pain.

Like Hamlet pulling back the arras to see that he has killed the wrong man, a person who finally sees the world as it is howls at the brutal disillusionment. And then all that reason turns from a bulwark to a prison. After a trauma, reason and logic start to encircle us with worries and perspectives that unhinge the unity of mind that one needs to do anything.

As Hamlet walks among the arches and pediments of Elsinore, he moves freely, but the walls close in upon him, pillars fragment the screen and crowd him. Unlike Ophelia, who in her craziness finds a state of mind akin to freedom and who drowns outside the castle walls, Hamlet struggles within them. The castle echoes back his angst—as does the Ghost, whose voice is actually a slowed-down recording of Olivier.

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Only imminent death, as Olivier notes, added the final ingredient to Hamlet’s character that enabled him to act. His own self-destruction fueled a newly personal need for retribution; he could kill the king only because he himself was dying.

After Hamlet dies, the camera pans to the region of darkness behind the chair where his head rests, as if in mourning for the blackout of his exquisite consciousness.

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In death, Hamlet still lies inside the ramparts of reason; the film ends where it began, but with a crucial shift. As the same four men seen at the beginning of the film carry the prince to the top of the castle, the camera snakes past the vestiges of the things that once preoccupied Hamlet: his place in court, the incestuous marriage bed, and a Christian altar. The men bear his body up the stairs to the top of the castle, where he meditated on his own mortality, and the camera swings back.

We experience a solemn elevation and a swelling fondness for the “sweet prince,” whose real kingdom was a state of mind. Not only did he accomplish his goal, he possessed that noblest and rarest of qualities: unflinching insight.

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The innovative spaces of Olivier’s Hamlet tap into the unique capacities of cinematic language. They transcend the glibness of symbolism, of “this equals that” imagery. Instead, the way the camera creeps around the architecture of Elsinore enables us to penetrate into what the intellectual Hamlet actually feels. The amorphous, psychological film-spaces blazed the trail for art films like Blow-Up (I’m thinking especially of that final enigmatic dissolve), Last Year at Marienbad, and The Shining, to name just a few.

But, most of all, the film’s benighted rooms and fortifications enable us to witness the birth of modern man, banging his head against the illusions implicit in normalcy and order.

The dread of mortality and failure may paralyze Hamlet. Yet, his greatness, his heroism, the reason why we weep for him resides in the very flaw that forestalls him: his sensitivity, his intensified sentience. The flexibility of the camera’s movements transmits the remarkable agility of his mind and the diversity of opinions that contend in his spirit. He would probably have been a terrible king, but he was a sublime human being.

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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.