Watching the Sunrise: A Tribute

By way of introduction to F.W. Murnau’s masterpiece Sunrise, one can’t do much better than Rachael K Bosley’s remarks in the June 2003 American Cinematographer about the then recent DVD release of the film (which was, of all things, an odd mail-in promotion from 20th Century Fox):

At heart a simple melodrama about a philandering husband (George O’Brien) who rediscovers his love for his wife (Janet Gaynor), Sunrise is a film whose visual complexity was unmatched upon its release in 1927. It was the first American film made by German Expressionist director F.W. Murnau, and at the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929, Sunrise earned the only such award ever bestowed for ”Most Unique and Artistic Production.” It also earned the first Academy Award for cinematography, an honor shared by Charles Rosher, ASC and Karl Struss (whom Rosher successfully nominated for ASC membership following Sunrise‘s release). Cinematographers of all ages continue to cite the film as a favorite. (16)

The accolades by cinematographers are well-placed. The use of light in the mise-en-scene was a notable departure from typical Hollywood productions, and even from Murnau’s earlier work, especially Nosferatu. John Bailey, ASC likens many compositions to Vermeer, the 17th century Dutch Painter most notable for his Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665). Indeed, the influence of the masters abound. The climax plays with light and dark the way Caravaggio might. Entire scenes in the finale are lit chiaroscuro, and pure black bleeds across the frame for much of what is the bleakest and most disparaging point of the film.

George O’Brien as The Man seduced by Margaret Livingstone’s Woman from the City

Widely hailed as one of the greatest films ever made (it ranked fifth on Sight and Sound’s top 10 greatest film ever in 2012, some 85 years after its release), it also appears one of the least seen. In fact, though it enjoys an 8.4 on IMDB, a score that would rank it within the top 100 films on IMDB, the total number of votes is so low (only 21,000 as of this writing) that it fails to make the rank in the top 250. I offer this number with some hesitation, since I’ve previously railed against the absurdity of lists–much less those on IMDB–but the data nonetheless indicates what should be a troubling concern for the reputation of this film. Ironically it seems that by acknowledging its place as a masterpiece, the film’s critical reception, in conjunction with its age and existence as a “silent” movie (a descriptor that I will come to challenge) have effectively precluded many from ever watching it. In a similar fashion, one can only bear to hear Citizen Kane is a great film so many times without watching it before one has utterly no desire to ever bother. The declaration of a film according to any hyperbolic terms robs viewers any chance of discovering the merits of the film themselves. They watch the film with a mind towards understanding why it is so great, rather than realizing the greatness of the film for themselves. While this piece may only add more noise to the party line concerning the inestimable greatness of Sunrise (it is a tribute, after all), the hope is to humanize what is otherwise an engaging and affable movie, one that transcends its medium and which rightfully earns its laurels. At this point there’s no hiding the fact that Sunrise is considered great, but what I can hope to offer is a means of engaging with the film rather than keeping it locked in its hermenuetically sealed container.  With this piece then I mean to enable first-time viewers to approach and hopefully enjoy what is ostensibly an affective rather than purely intellectual picture. The joy of watching Sunrise goes beyond the thrill of seeing camera dollies and other camera feats performed (though there are plenty of them to marvel at, some used for the first time in cinema) and instead takes viewers into the realm of the senses.

Sunrise records Murnau at the peak of his directorial abilities, a story told almost entirely through pictures. As John Bailey points out, the film reads entirely without the intertitles (nevermind sound). In fact, Murnau had no involvement with the intertitles, which were added after his return to Germany—and which he was reportedly unimpressed with. In place of spoken language, the film is loaded with metaphorically charged images that beckon the viewer to decipher and enjoy.

Though ostensibly its chief impediment for modern viewers, the film’s lack of a soundtrack is perhaps its strongest attribute. The language of Sunrise is that of humanity, the film’s subtitle is not without accident “A Song of Two Humans”. The drama is precluded from schmaltz as it is purged of histrionics. It’s a drama told in gestures and looks, movement both subtle and extreme, always impeccable, never overdone and ever insightful. The film avoids the histrionic as it does the cliché–a point that bears more emphasis than I’ve given, so I’ll rephrase the compliment. Modern directors should turn to Murnau to learn how to speak, actors should likewise turn to the immortal performances of O’Brien and Gaynor to learn how to emote. Their natural presence on the screen is as fluid as it is captivating and nearly a century later remains, in a word, timeless.

Gaynor and O’Brien pose in the boat for a promotional photo for Sunrise.

As if not to be upstaged by its stars, the sets themselves vie for dominance in the frame. The bold use of raked interiors, recalls theatrical conventions (which includes the German expressionism of the 1920s) and is testament to the manufacture of the production. The city street for example was built specifically for this picture at a then staggering price of $200,000, which Fox was to reuse in many later pictures. It’s loaded with visual trickery, from model streetcars in the distant backdrop, to little people doubling for grown adults walking past out of scale building facades.

Though unquestionably restrained in comparison to films like the hallmark of expressionism, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and even Murnau’s own Nosferatu five years earlier, Sunrise nonetheless makes effective use of expressionism. At its early 20th century root, expressionism sought the rearticulation of the world through the personal prism of the artist. Formal rules of style and composition are bent towards that purpose, and Sunrise is perhaps in that sense the best rendition of expressionism ever made.

O’Brien and Gaynor in a publicity still for Sunrise that emphasizes the grand undertaking that was the city set.

Murnau cheats realism in service of his meaning throughout the film.  In an early example, traces of expressionism creep into the film with the introduction of the woman from the city. Her very presence in the scene seems to distort the visual field, with the odd slant of the dinner table, and with the top left of the frame brutally consumed by a lantern, it is as if she were a distortion on the very composition. The unusual mise-en-scene suggests there’s something amiss with this woman, a speculation entirely vindicated in the sexually charge scene between she and the man which follows. Pure vamp, deliciously and devilishly fatale, she exists only as a periphery creature that slinks in the shadows of the frame–if not quite so terrifying as Murnau’s more famous nosferatu, not far off.

A vast majority of the shots contain a special effect of some kind–far more than one would anticipate and certainly expect in such a film. Lapse dissolves, superimpositions, and matte shots abound. The first scene of the film–in the station of a metro, like Ezra Pound’s prototypical Imagist poem– is a trick shot, and sets the standard for visual trickery which proliferates in the film to stunning and still startling effect. Startling since modern film strives for the antithesis of the plasticity that Murnau and other directors (Lang in particular) would develop as their notable technique; stunning since it diminishes nothing of the film’s appeal. When a modern film exposes the seams of its artificiality it is often as a postmodern metatextual aside, or a poor bid by filmmakers to seem clever. Sunrise, however, bends realism to its whims and still achieves a sense of cohesion and skill to its artificial visions.

Take for example the moonlit impromptu honeymoon. Model though it is, the dreamlike quality of the moment is enhanced by the technique rather than diminished. There is a sort of heightened, imaginary quality to the boat gliding along the moon soaked waters. The same can be said of every special effect in the film, most notably in one of the film’s most visually dynamic shots. Behold the couple’s usurpation of the wedding ceremony where, renewed by their love for one another, they wander a city street that melts on screen around them into a sort of renewed Eden. The vision lasts only for a moment, just enough for a passionate kiss, before the real world intrudes with a cavalcade of motor cars. Marvelous and manufactured, the metaphorically dense moment is accomplished in one astoundingly technical tracking shot. It is the spirit of the film in microcosm. The remainder of the film chronicles this paradise regained, and we experience the world anew through their rejuvenated spirits.

I close, if you’ll pardon the excursion into the sentimental, with a further note on the film’s enduring appeal. The power of this story comes as much from its allegorical content as it does from its unparalleled narrative technique. The lack of identifying names for any person or place in this film is not by accident or by laziness, but rather to accentuate the ageless morality of the story, which writes the drama beyond the plight of George O’Brien’s beleaguered farmer to that of all men, as it does for Janet Gaynor’s resilient wife. We can all in some capacity sympathize if not actually empathize with their emotional and psychological turmoil, of which their experiences in this film run the full gamut. Who among us has not loved? Felt despair? Wept in sadness and in joy?  We are all pricked by the inner stirrings of our humanity which this film so spectacularly stirs, and to which higher pangs of feeling these moving images carry us. That I think is something approaching a description of the film’s power–but which can only truly be accounted for by an engagement with the film itself.

These words are, as noted above, poor substitute for the film itself, and struggle to convey its power. Feeble as I’m aware they must have been, with these same words I offer this movie trailer I made to compel the yet unswayed. Crafted using an obviously anachronistic but nonetheless befitting track, Arcade Fire’s own remix of their 2005 hit “Wake Up!”, this new trailer seeks much like the words before it to encourage new eyes to experience this masterwork for themselves:

There now, doesn’t that look like a film worth experiencing? Let me know in the comments below, and if you are swayed, please return after to share your thoughts.

A note on the home video release to get:

If you can manage it, be sure to get (or import) the Eureka Region B release. Though it contains the same transfer as Fox’s Region A release, it also includes a lengthy documentary about Murnau’s most famous unseen film, 4 Devils, and provides a rough reconstruction of the film using stills–the best we can expect to see of this film that appears to be irretrievably lost. Please note that if you live in North America you’ll need a region free blu-ray player to watch it. If all this sounds like too much hassle, stick with the Region A release, the transfers for both releases are identical for both the Movietone and shorter Czech version of the film. Also on that note, try to see the Movietone version first, it is the most complete version of the film and with the most effective score.

A Note to be Revisited After Watching the Film:

The beauty of the film is as much the passion evoked by its images as it is their artistry. A prime example would be that kaleidoscopic entrance to the pleasure dome–Xanadu rebuilt–followed by that stunning, extended dolly shot inside. Films were never conceived to look like this before, and the struggle to surpass Sunrise’s technical achievement continues to this day.

It is in this extended sequence of frivolity that the film arguably sags, however, elongated with a few too many sketches than seem necessary. Whatever the merits of some, one scene that is undoubtedly vital to the film, but which has been often cited as superfluous, is the inclusion of the Midsummer Peasant Dance. Though even the film’s most vocal champion John Bailey expresses some confusion as to its inclusion, the dance is, I argue, vital to the film’s meaning.

Agrarian and city life are in opposition throughout the film, most tellingly in the charged suggestion from the seductress that the man (O’Brien) sell his farm and move to the city with her. Adding to this conflict, recall that the temptress isn’t referred to simply as “the other woman”, rather she is “the woman from the city”. Thus with the triumphant Peasant Dance, occurring as it does in the city, and amongst city-dwellers, and danced exclusively by the farmer and his wife, is the triumph of the individual over the collective. It is the rejection of the city and the valorization of the folk, the rural and the peasant (the theme reaches its apotheosis in the denouement of the film when the city girl is expelled from the agrarian village–the new Eden, or an Eden restored).

The jubilant dance also shows the triumph of the couple. The Man’s leaden steps which began the film (Murnau loaded the actor’s boots with lead weights to achieve that effect) are here replaced by the fluid movement of dance. Thus Man is liberated by love for Woman. Their love manifests itself in the unison of their dance, which demonstrates the renewed union of the couple (the culmination of their renewed marriage in the church at the start of their city tour).  Melodramatic, sure, and in every sense of the term, but no less wonderful to behold.


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On Neophilia, the eternal struggle

“I don’t like to rewatch movies,” it has been said. “And, if I can help it,” it has been added, without any of the necessary reservations, “I don’t usually watch old movies.” The speaker, who remains nameless, but whom you yourself have probably encountered, might as well have appropriated his or her mental attitude from that parody of modernity, Ada Chiostri Polan in Bertolucci’s epic 1900. In one exemplary scene, for instance, Ada tosses her perfectly fine poetry out the window of a moving car so as to avoid contaminating herself with the old (see the scene at the 3:50 mark in the embedded video). Though either example is ostensibly comprised of two claims, the unwillingness to return to what has been known and the aversion to what is known, both are in fact animated by the same unquenchable and untenable desire for all things new. Ironically, despite its pretension to novelty, neophilia, as I will demonstrate, is an old phenomenon.
Though it may have lent its form to the title of Christopher Booker’s 1969 sociological text The Neophiliacs, and though it may have been passed off by Robert Anton Wilson as his own neologism a short while later, neophilia was in both instances, quite ironically, an appropriation of an ancient condition. It was Chaucer’s linguistic perversion, what we might perhaps now describe his anglophilia, and which gave a centre to the English language (but not its root, nevermind what may be alleged). It was with modernism in the late 19th century that a term which had until then been taken to mean the crude and quaint–that which was of our time, rather than for all time–achieved its sanctification. Ironically, this rarified condition of modernism–the quality of being modern–is what consigned the movement to failure: for to be of the mode is to be connected to the very life that modernism sought to negate. More recently, it was the catalyst of the French New Wave, a cultural revolution which announced with its very name a turn towards the new, ironically an old ideal. The New Wave was the desire for the new as much as it was a movement towards newness. Presently, however, it is the simplified appeal of novelty, rather than the veneration of the new, that has wormed its way into modern culture as a bonafide credo. It was in London, in 1972, for example, that the Daily Telegraph hinted at its recrudescence: “The exaltation of novelty (neophilia) had been turned into a cult”. Had, we are reminded–the obsession being already among us.


Neophilia is also within us, and always has been, accompanying us since the birth of our humanity. At best a commensal parasite of our psyche, at worst neophilia infects us with debilitating delusions of modern perfectibility. This neophilia might be better considered as a farcical reworking of Occam’s razor: for all things being new, the most new is the best choice. Succinct, perhaps, but less than useful.


The cult of the new is the supreme idiocy of our age.


The recognition of the new as the immediate answer to a problem of old is the pretension of reason in the absence of evidence. The new is, in fact, an aspiration, which through use and tolerance is made real. The irony should be readily apparent, for through its use the new is made old, and so abandoned in favour of the new–the ever-new, the newfangled and newest of the new. This impulse, it should be noted, is not wholly without merit: the desire for the new is the desire for progress; yet its veneration is the sigh of the ideological orgasm, as brief as it is fleeting.


Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione interior

The new of technology, the progress of progress, is the imposition of unity. This transformative movement is consigned to obsolescence, however, by its very nature as a transformation, as the bringing together (unity) of disorder. In this way it is unsurprising that these movements of the new always come in conjunction with new technologies. Modernism emerged with the Industrial Revolution, the French New Wave with a revolution in cinema technology (as an avenue to new technique). A more banal example of the cult of the new is visible in the gleaming panels of the newest cars, which with their odd bricolage of hidden gadgets (a new solution to that old problem of chaos) suggest the newest means of overcoming an age-old problem of control. Age-old since, in the beginning, so go the Ancient myths, there was only Chaos. From this primordial state arose Order–the birth of the new.  Chaoskampf, the eternal struggle, remains eternal in the Age of New’s struggle against the old to undo what is new.

Geras depicted on an Athenian pelike, 5th century BCE

The fear of Chaos, personified as it was across so much time and so many cultures in such monstrous forms, has been transposed, without merit, unto Geras (the spirit of the old from which we derive geriatrics). The shriveled form is perhaps monstrous in that it resembles what was once new. But the appeal to Hebe, Geras’ antonym, comes at the expense of both arete and kleos, virtue and glory. Without virtue, art loses its vitality; without glory, it has no after-life. Without the old then, the new art arrives already dead, and doomed to an eternal death–wholly unlike Athena in her fully-formed explosion from the mind of Zeus. The solution to this ageless problem seems one that venerates the old as it is succeeded by the new, for only then can the new succeed.
The desire for unity (entailing as it does a fear of Chaos) is not misplaced, only misjudged. The cliché rings true: Love is blinding. The sentiment is echoed in that charged tableau from 1900 which began this discussion, in Ada Chiostri Polan’s screaming declaration just after discarding her poetry. “I don’t want to see, I’m blind! I’m blind!” she wails melodramatically and shuts her eyes, giving no mind to driving the car. The distinction Bertolucci himself seems to be driving at, and why he has her repeat the line no less than three times, is that the choice is a conscious one, if entirely irrational. In the process, Bertolucci captures a key ideology of not only 1900 but the century after.

When a documentary functions as an artistic credo: Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Judge of your natural character by what you do in your dreams.
–Ralph Waldo Emerson

(Jiro Dreams of Sushi is available on Netflix.)

When one first learns that the price for a plate at Jiro’s world-renowned sushi restaurant begins at 30,000 yen, or $300, the mind reacts in two ways. Either it balks or it bargains. If it balks, then perhaps it is reminded of similar outrageously expensive food, like that $1,000 pizza in New York. In that case, the rebarbative concoction, loaded as it is with caviar and lobster, wastes its ingredients while it overcharges for them. Nevermind the idiocy of baking truffles in creme fraiche (where the fat from the latter and the heat from the oven overpowers any nuance in the flavour of the former) and serving it on a pan of bread, the whole thing arrives to the customer a greasy, congealed mess fit only for the blind and nouveau riche. Don’t even get me started on the $25,000 sundae. If I wanted to ingest five grams of gold I would just drink a few bottles of Goldschläger in a single sitting (at least that way the alcohol would stand a good chance of blocking out the thought of wasting so much money). Compared to this then, $300 for an actual meal seems like a steal. Continue reading

The Danger of Needless Script Rewrites

Film poster for Gravity (2013)

With Gravity soon to hit bluray in what I have read is an impeccable and remarkable transfer, I figured in lieu of writing another piece about why this film is so great (since everybody has been doing that lately), I’d instead approach the film from a different angle, that of responding to its critics who attack the film for what they perceive as insurmountable flaws in the film (since everybody has been doing that lately, too).

Several months ago a man wrote to me describing his issues with the plot of Gravity, and enthusiastically offered me what he believed to be an improved rewrite. As an immense fan of the film, I was suspicious, but was nonetheless taken with his bravado. Reading his version I wanted to be positive, I wanted to agree with his central premise that his version was inherently superior, but as his specious claims mounted, my enthusiasm waned. I knew immediately that I was reading the ravings of one indoctrinated by devastatingly useless ideas, lost on a vainglorious crusade for the formula of the perfect script. To be clear, the ideas were sound in and of themselves, but troubling when proffered as the “improved” version of what was an already sufficiently realized plot. It amounted to a subjective opinion being passed off as incontrovertible objectivity. It completely overlooked the merits of the film as it was to describe a completely different version of the plot as it should have been according to the tastes of one man, bearing as much semblance to Cuaron’s vision of the film as Lindelof’s version of Prometheus did for Jon Spaits original script. Though, to be fair, his was more complete than Lindelof’s hack efforts. By the time I finished I contemplated turning off my computer and never penning a reply. I had almost nothing positive to offer in my criticism. But he had asked me for my thoughts, and I had never maintained any illusions with my readers about my affability.

The problem with the rewrite was that it sought to rewrite what was already a cogent film into something approaching the vast majority of other works produced these days. The rewrite argued for a seven-step process to improve the quality of the movie, ranging from features such as infusing moments of “weakness and need” to “self-revelation” (nevermind that the latter point requires we casually overlook such moments already present in Cuaron’s version). One of his fundamental claims was that the film’s plot as-is left him emotionally uninvolved without any sufficient reasoning. Continue reading

Romantic Movies as Couples’ Therapy?

In the December issue of the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Researchers at the Relationship Institute at UCLA published findings that the divorce rate decreased by half in couples that discussed one relationship movie per week. At the risk of coming off as an insufferable gloater, have I not argued ad nauseum the structuring capacity of film?

Reporting on the study, explained that “The findings show that an inexpensive, fun, and relatively simple movie-and-talk approach can be just as effective as other more intensive therapist-led methods-reducing the divorce or separation rate from 24 to 11 percent after three years.”

After attending a ten minute lecture on the nature of relationships, participants “then watched Two for the Road, a 1967 romantic comedy about the joys and strains of young love, infidelity, and professional pressures across 12 years of a marriage. Afterward, each couple met separately to discuss a list of 12 questions about the screen couple’s interactions.”

In historical context, essentially this study confirms what the Romantics insisted in every scrap of poetry they ever penned, every apologia produced, or idea expressed (and which the ancient Greeks would have found surprising it even needed mentioning). Take the poetry of Wordsworth’s for instance, which announced in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads with immolating candor the desire to produce a humanist literature that would remind humans what it took to earn that title of ‘human’. Film, hailed as it was the necessary extension of that idealistic (dare I say, romantic) impulse by theorists like Eisenstein, enables this potential for any who might seek its power.

In this new study we have something approaching proof of film’s humanizing potential. This new study ought to give filmmakers pause then, so that they may reflect on the potential of their art, and to consider what its continued cultivation may bring. One way to achieve this, I have already argued (indeed, this entire blog stands as testament), is by reflecting on the very methods and conditions which anticipated and produced this effect. This accountability may sound laughably idealistic, but it bears considering that to whom much has been given, much will be expected; and the more entrusted, the more demanded. Filmmakers, I entreat you.

Top 7 Rhetorical Fallacies Levied at Criticism–and why they’re all invalid

Angry naysayers in action

As digital technology enables countless voices to add their share to the din of culture, it seems necessary to remind my dear readers what passes for a valid objection or a foolish remark that ought to be dismissed outright. This is not to say the original opinion which provoked the retort is correct or valid, but to say that the following rhetoric simply does not (and never will) hold any validity. Thus do I present, in no particular order, the top seven erroneous and frankly idiotic statements intended to silence dissent and the expression of opinion:


Sarcastic, hyperbolic, hasty generalization. Anyone who cares enough to type out a response admonishing someone for caring enough about something to type out an equally withering reproach about a film is evidently guilty of the same crime and wholly ignorant of irony.

  • Let’s see your movie/book/video game/piece of trash, oh, that’s right, you don’t have one.

A false appeal to accomplishment and ridiculous tu quoque argument. The function of the critic is not to appeal to authority so as to win an argument from the pretense of experience. Moreover, the corollary does not hold true: having directed a film does not arbitrarily make one adept or even qualified to criticize a film. The tools of the critic are of an entirely different set than that of the filmmaker, though often they will borrow from one another. Essentially then, this argument is a non-sequitur, it makes no difference whatsoever whether the critic has made a film or not. Though yes, in future, all critics should, before ever uttering a word of criticism, make it a point to assemble the cast, crew and finances necessary to produce a feature length film, and then to have that film distributed in a timely fashion to any respondents who might be inclined to ask “where’s your movie?”

  • Seriously, it’s just a movie/book/video game/tweet

A half-hearted attempt at an argument ad absurdum. In some instances this declaration may be valid, but as always, it depends on the context. It would be foolhardy and nonsensical to criticize a movie starring Kellan Lutz for not having a more intelligent or intricate story, since one is antithetical to the other, but arguably valid to impeach a veteran like Ridley Scott for any number of his films over the past decade. This is not to say that a criticism noted above shouldn’t be made, but anyone who rails at the Legend of Hercules for being derivative hackwork is tackling a broader problem in cinema than just an instantly forgettable film and ought to be aware before undertaking the ill-advised task.

  • That movie/book/video game/tweet is so old, who cares?

Much like the fallacy above, this argument ad nauseum attempts to silence the opinion by declaring it not worth having. The criticism is not a time-sensitive matter. If the film no longer occupies a prominent position in the cultural zeitgeist all that entails is the reduction of the criticisms , and not its validity. It is precisely this presentist attitude amongst certain filmmakers, who pride themselves on never looking back, never reading criticism on anything, on not knowing Eisenstein from Kuleshov that necessitates the continued presence of the critic. These offenders are the very same who take great pleasure in treating the art of making films as an extension of high school, separated as it is by cliques, and who scorn intelligence, and fear what they can’t be bothered to understand, and who see film only as a means to make money, and demean anyone who dares to imagine its higher potential. It’s just a movie, they say. These are the same people who think literature programs and the arts are in general just a waste of time, and that the function of everything is to serve their direct benefit. There the attack also foolishly mis-underestimates the importance of cultural products in the matrix of culture. For these people culture is always and only ever the immanent here and now, defined in version updates and model numbers. For them life will only ever be the few scraps of insight they ever manage to grasp fluttering by, unaware of the vast field of knowledge that lays all around them. These people are not to be acknowledged, they are to be pitied and rehabilitated if possible, shunned if not.

  • Ya, that’s why the movie made X number of dollars, because it’s got flaws.

Argument ad populum. Just because a work is popular does not mean it is without flaws, or indeed, beyond criticism. Given the unprecedented success of the Twilight franchise I’m still consistently surprised whenever this argument gets thrown down.

  • It’s just a movie, get a life!

Borderline ad hominem. I think at this point in our culture anyone who offers the unsolicited opinion that movies are to be considered with the same enthusiasm as a used condom, and to be similarly disposed of as such, is the one who’s out of touch with what most people would describe as a life. That, or with one cliched insult the commenter has undone the entire field of cinema studies (and internet message boards).

  • Opinions are like [name your suggestive body part], everybody’s got one.

Thought-terminating cliché intended to pass as wisdom, when in fact the false equivocation is rhetorically null. If opinions are as common as body parts, then they are unavoidable. Moreover, if they are so common, they must then be unspectacular. However, the very fact that the respondent chose to utter this remark about this specific opinion designates a unique quality about this opinion which compelled the response. In the same way that we don’t respond or even register every body part of every person, we do notice and indeed even sometimes venture an opinion on remarkable features (whether desirable or undesirable). So, by calling that particular statement worthless, the attacker has ironically designated it as an opinion worthy of remarking. However, the remark is so vague as to lack all causal referents, i.e. the statement does not respond to the opinion in question, except to acknowledge that opinions are common and unavoidable. Thus the greater irony of the statement is that it contains in embryo its own refutation.

If you or anyone you know encounters any of the above fallacies in your daily routine, please report the offender to this particular page immediately for re-education.

These are just the ones I’ve encountered enough to feel it necessary to debunk, please post your own frustrating rebukes and I may just undertake another installment.

Tarantino takes Gawker to court for leaking script

According to the Hollywood Reporter,  “Quentin Tarantino has filed a copyright lawsuit against Gawker Media for allegedly disseminating copies of his script, The Hateful Eight.”

As to be expected, he’s been getting some significant backlash, first for announcing he was scraping the film, and then for taking legal action. I won’t link to these other sites making these attacks, their asinine vitriol and blatant ad hominem doesn’t merit reference. What they all seem to be missing is the extreme violation of privacy this leak represents for Tarantino. As he lamented when the script first leaked, he only showed six people–people whom he trusted implicitly with a work in progress.

Having your work leaked is like singing in the shower unaware that others came in to listen. The problem isn’t that they heard you, it’s that they violated your privacy to do so. Calling you “a child” afterwards makes them smug sociopaths, not respectable cynics.

Having your unfinished work leaked is like testing your range in the shower while others listen unbeknownst to you. Maybe you miss a few notes, maybe you struggle with a couple others, or maybe you sounded great; regardless, you never intended others to hear it like that. Adding public insult to personal injury, you then found out they filmed it and uploaded it to youtube. What’s worse, they’re broadcasting their violation just to get a rise out of you, and generate more traffic by insulting your feelings. Personally, I would pull a Charlie Meadows ala Barton Fink, but then my court order prevents me from owning matches or any implement used to make fire.

Here’s hoping Tarantino gets medieval on their asses.

A New Day for the Jackal

In keeping with the tone of the film, consider what follows as a brief dossier of notes to convince you the reader to watch Fred Zinnemann’s 1973 thriller The Day of the Jackal.

The brilliance of the film’s script, as it was for the novel, is the way in which it sets up its plot. Very early on the Jackal jots down notes for his plan, seeking answers for the five Ws of journalism, which the film then delivers in short order. There will be an assassination attempt, that much is certain–and it will involve a modified sniper rifle in Paris on Liberation Day, August 25, 1963. (The Titanic is steaming towards the iceberg now…) The target will be de Gaulle, the assassin the Jackal, and the only man brilliant enough to stop it is Inspector Lebel. On your marks…

Edward Fox is deceptively brilliant in the title role. He plays the lithe killer with restraint, appearing almost languid before a quick burst of movement reminds the audience of his devastating power. Unlike so many works dealing with killers and rogues in this period, Fox never overdoes the part, never goes for lurid or cheap sensationalist antics, and never forgets that he’s playing a sophisticated sociopath for the sake of verisimilitude.

Michael Lonsdale gives his usual, unassuming composure to the role of frumpy Inspector Claude Lebel, speaking monotonously with subdued authority and yet with the unmistakable suspicion that he’s had one too many coffees (it’s the first thing his character demands when assigned to the case). Though the script gives him precious little in the way of character (his only motivation in the entire film is to catch the Jackal), Lonsdale thankfully never tries to steal a scene (a lesson Richard Gere missed for the tenuous remake) and instead manages to captivate by sheer power of his performance. In short, it’s fascinating to watch this man solve a puzzle, especially when you the audience member already possess the answer.

If you’re looking for the deadly game of cat and mouse, however, you won’t find it here. There’s a hunt, certainly, it’s the Jackal on his way to assassinate French President Charles de Gaulle, but don’t expect any Bourne antics here which have recently come to typify this genre.

Edward Fox practicing his aim in The Day of the Jackal

Just like the book it’s adapted from, the film is divided into three parts, which roughly correlate to a typical three act structure. Arranged in the book under the recurring theme of ‘anatomy’, the film is also study in minutea. Perhaps ironically, this synopsis also describes the style of the film, possessing as it does an inclination for detail that borders on triviality. The most fascinating aspect of the picture is perhaps also its dullest component to modern viewers. How does a terrorist plan an operation of this tenacity? How does an assassin infiltrate a border with a sniper rifle? How does an agent track someone who doesn’t want to be found in a pre-digital Europe? What would it take to hunt a man without records in an age before ubiquitous recording devices? The Jackal is a man who exists through fragments of media. A scrap of paper here, a notation in a ledger there, but what is certain about the Jackal is that each new entry tracks the inexorable trajectory of his mission. The answers may not make for the most riveting of experiences, but they are far beyond dull. Instead, their intricacy suggests an abiding understanding of the systems involved in these occult procedures–the kind that must come from a career in political journalism, as it was in the case of first-time novelist Frederick Forsyth, whose previous non-fiction account of the Biafran war had left him with a surplus of debt and a surfeit of ideas. Taking his own research collected at the scene of Charles de Gaulle’s first assassination attempt in 1962 by the Organisation de l’Armee Secrete (or OAS, a real terrorist group mainly comprised of former Algerian nationals of French origin who sought revenge on de Gaulle for granting Algeria independence in 1962), Forsyth would appropriate both the botched attempt and the organisation to craft a tale staggering in both its complexity and believability.

So too is the film itself a document of European splendour, Paris and London circa 1973. The film lingers over establishing montages of the various cities and towns the Jackal visits far longer than modern audiences are accustomed to, but which would have suited the burgeoning touristic impulse of an early 1970s North American audience (though I suspect European audiences must have gotten a kick out of it too, the film did decent business there too). Treat the excesses as postcards of a bygone era, catered to the whims of an audience eager to sample a highlight reel of Europe.

Most impressive is the scale of the production, filmed as it was in three separate countries, with well over 50 speaking roles, and a finale on the streets of downtown Paris that shocks in its sheer logistical complexity. How does one get permission to film a parade with tanks in and around the largest roundabout in Paris, not so coincidentally named Place Charles de Gaulle? The answer is somewhat dull, so I won’t give it away here, and regardless the scene is still a masterpiece of direction and editing.

I must temper my enthusiastic praise to a small degree, however, by conceding something along the lines that the detail never quite reaches the impeccable fluidity and grace that Costa-Gavras (no doubt an inspirational influence) had accomplished in films before this like Z (which earns praise higher than I possess the words to bestow). The Jackal‘s style always feels a tad too self-impressed, as if the film’s aware it’s romping through Europe with the best of them. The pacing and the workmanlike cinematography might be the result–Z drives while The Jackal lingers.

Michael Londsdale as Lebel; our first introduction to the character he’s in a pigeon coop attending to his trapped birds, covered in their shit. It’s a fitting metaphor for his position throughout the film.

The film expects your attention, and uses craft rather than flash to sustain it. Indeed, many of its scenes succeed only if read by the viewer to determine what the editing and composition is intending to convey. Take for example the climax on the streets of Paris. Lingering as it does over unfamiliar faces and ceremonial proceedings far longer than one might expect, the procedural aspect of the film might seem sluggish until the glaring absence of the Jackal becomes as frustrating as it does worrying. We begin to scan the faces with the increasingly-agitated Inspector Claude, anticipating with grim fascination when the fatal shot might ring out. When the Jackal finally does re-emerge on the frame after nearly a ten minute absence, the filmmakers simultaneously justify the (award-winning) editing and reward observant viewers, having the Jackal emerge as he does from the crowd as a mirage that rivals Omar Sharif’s entrance in Lawrence of Arabia.

“Who is the Jackal?” ask the good old boys of London’s special branch. The answer is a paradox, since his existence solely in the marginalia of a pre-digital media culture obviates any identity he might ever have had. He exists only in the annals of recorded history; a record of a man with no name, no country, no past and no future. A man who exists only for one historic day.

Avoid the watered down, unintentionally campy remake from 1997, with Bruce Willis acting well outside his range in the Edward Fox role and the otherwise-talented Richard Gere painfully mumbling action cliches through a spotty Irish accent while he and Sydney Poitier reenact buddy-cop melodrama. Both Zinnemann and Forsyth lobbied to have the name changed to disassociate it from the property, but obviously with no success (the callous side of me wonders if that explains why Max Brooks never tried to do the same with World War Z).

“Watch out, Radioactive Man!”

Fun Trivia:
The international terrorist Carlos the Jackal (fictionalized in many of Ludlum’s novels, including the Bourne series and powerfully immortalized on screen in Oliver Assayas’ 2010 5-hour epic Carlos) received the cognomen erroneously by a correspondent from The Guardian after reportedly spotting the novel in Sanchez’s belongings. The book belonged instead to Sanchez’s roommate.

If you want to know more about the OAS featured in the film, check out this website.

Film Antecedents:
The Spy who Came in From the Cold (1965)
Z (1969)

Will Pair Nicely With:
Three Days of the Condor (1975)
Black Sunday (1977)

If Interested in Historical Context:
The Battle of Algiers (1966)
Army of Shadows (1969)

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One shot rant: Comparing chases in Bullitt and The French Connection

This may be the sexiest shot in all of movie history.

I previously used the chase in The French Connection quite extensively in my post about the flaws of Star Wars Episode 2, and I had a fan of Bullitt ask me which I preferred.

Here’s my answer:

I agree that the chase in Bullitt is technically superior, and I personally think it’s much more enjoyable to watch, and I have the utmost respect for Steve McQueen (and not just because he did most of his own driving in that film), but I wonder if in terms of characterization whether The French Connection comes out on top. If I’m remembering correctly, the chase in Bullitt is fantastic, but it’s not crucial to our understanding of Toschi. We already knew he was a badass and the greatest cop on the force, the chase cements that. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m in no way attempting to criticize Bullitt or the chase, but the stakes are greater in The French Connection. In that film we are confronted with the truth that maybe Doyle is a little unhinged, potentially taking this crusade a little too far, and then he almost runs over a mother and her baby. And then, to top it all off, he shoots the perp in the back!

But I think at this point I’m comparing nuggets of gold, they’re both masterful.

I’m also amazed at how little reference they had available to make these chases. There had been chases in films before, notably in North by Northwest (1959) and some gangster films of the 40s and 50s (such as The Lineup from 1958), but most of the cinematography was panning shots or locked inside the POV of the car. (In the case of Hitchcock the reasoning was that he wanted you locked in the car with the character. He wanted you to feel viscerally involved with the chase, unable to escape, no reprieves to an external shot. See also the chase in his final film, The Family Plot, which crystallizes this approach. I suspect however that Hitchcock’s extreme distaste for shooting anywhere but on a controlled set may have contributed to this methodology.) Both Bullit and The French Connection, though the former especially since it came three years before, needed to invent a new language of film to describe these chases using cinematography, sound design and editing. There’s a great documentary about the evolution of the car chase on the Bullitt DVD/Blu-ray if you’re interested. Jim Emerson also has a video on a similar subject, though it unfortunately lacks much in the way of his usually astute commentary (you may remember him from that fantastic video about the visual grammar in the Dark Knight chase scene, this guy knows what he’s talking about). I’ve included the video below.

In the Cut Part III: I Left My Heart in My Throat in San Francisco from Jim Emerson on Vimeo.