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Posts Tagged ‘The Insignificant Detail

The Insignificant Detail #9

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BLOOD? WHAT BLOOD?

After my second pass through the sequence I describe herein, I was initially prepared to hail it as containing the single greatest match cut in film history. Then I watched it a third time, and a fourth, and a fifth, cycling through it in half-second increments, and was reminded that we live in a digital age of wonders, and what our eyes see and our brains process ain’t always necessarily so.

Still, the prestidigitation — or prestidigitization, if you will — performed by director Alfonso Cuarón, the camera crew helmed by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and the digital-effects team on the 2006 film Children of Men makes for an interesting study in How did they do that? followed closely by Why did they do that? and, more to the point, Why did they choose to do it that way?

Children of Men notably contains a half-dozen or more long, uninterrupted takes of varying duration — tracking shots or one-shots or “oners,” whichever term you prefer. Throughout the Internet, one can find plenty of debate about tracking shots in general and Cuarón’s tracking shots here in particular. To wit: Are they necessary? Do they aid in the storytelling? Are they just so much showing-off by the filmmaker?

I would argue that the tracking shots Cuarón employs here are more than mere indulgences and are highly effective in drawing the audience in to its hero’s point of view from one harrowing ordeal to the next.

The shot most often singled out for debate concludes Act 1 and involves an ambush on a vehicle containing five principal characters and a rotating camera that is shooting 360 degrees of action from inside the vehicle. But the shot that captured my attention is the sequence late in the movie that follows Theo (Clive Owen) through bombed-out city streets as he and Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) attempt their escape, aided by the old woman Marichka (Oana Pellea) and the Georgian rebel Sirdjan (Faruk Pruti).

If you’re geek enough to follow along on your own DVD copy of the film, join me in Chapter 17. The long tracking shot in question begins at 1:23:46, framing an archway through which our characters are about to run out into the street. During the first three minutes of the take, circumstances separate Theo from the group, but he keeps moving ahead until, at 1:26:48 he is fired upon in the street and must take cover in a bombed-out city bus that’s been taken over by squatters.

  • 1:26:52 A shot is fired into the bus and hits one of the occupants, splattering at least seven prominently visible blood spots on the lens in the main field of vision. But the action keeps moving and so does the camera.
     
  • 1:27:12 As Theo exits from the rear of the bus, the seven spots are clearly visible in the frame.
     
  • 1:27:21 Theo runs across the street and dives for cover in front of the bombed-out building he’s trying to get inside. Six spots are still visible here; the seventh, at lower right, becomes visible when the camera pans away from Theo’s coat.
     
  • 1:27:43 An explosion rocks the front the building on the second or third floor, and Theo makes his move for the entrance.
     
  • 1:27:52 As he enters the building, the screen goes mostly black for about a second. Somewhere in those 24 frames, it’s entirely possible that a cut could be made, but the flow of the action, camera movement and sound design seem uninterrupted.
     
  • 1:27:58 There is more dark than light in the frame for the next several seconds, but upon close inspection, only three spots are now distinctly visible in the middle of the lens as a wounded man on the floor reaches out to Theo.
     
  • 1:28:00 Two of the spots pass over a brightly backlit doorway in the background of the shot and seem to dissipate there, while the remaining spot is still visible against the black of Theo’s coat. The camera moves in on Theo crouched at the base of the stairwell.
     
  • 1:28:03 From Theo, the camera pans up, and midway through the pan, we can still see that remaining spot until it too passes against a white background, at which point it is gone.
     
  • 1:28:07 The camera pans back down to pick up Theo and continues to follow him up two flights of stairs and down corridors until he is reunited with Kee and a cut completely reverses the camera angle at 1:30:04.

One uninterrupted take lasting 6 minutes, 18 seconds.

Blood — whether of the real or squib-packet variety — doesn’t simply evaporate, and at no point could the camera operator have wiped the blood off his lens while in motion without blurring the image and ruining the take, so there are at least three possibilities for what we see here:

  1. The vertical pan from Theo’s shoulder up the stairwell at 1:28:03 is The Greatest Match Cut in Film History.
  2. The squib explodes, blood spatters the lens, and in post-production the digital-effects team composites the blood spots out of the picture one at a time until the image is normalized, to lessen the visual impact of Now you see the blood; now you don’t.
  3. There was never a squib at all, and the initial blood spatter itself was digitally inserted for both dramatic and documentary-style effect, then gradually removed from the frame as the scene progressed.

As camera operator George Richmond describes in this video, the answer is No. 2. An exploding squib indeed spattered the lens, and although a camera assistant pointed it out in the heat of the moment, Richmond soldiered on so not to break up a take in the middle, just as it was nearing the height of its painstakingly choreographed action.1

I had quickly ruled out my initial reaction — option No. 1 — for two reasons: the improbability of matching the mark with a handheld camera and the presence of the last remaining blood spot during the pan up the stairwell.

Furthermore, if you think of the sequence as divided into two halves — the first driven principally by action, the latter driven by drama — the digital fix of option No. 2 allows the shot to seamlessly continue into its dramatic half without the distraction of the blood-spattered lens that seemed perfectly organic during the chaos only moments before.

And ruling out option No. 3 is, frankly, a relief, because it would be a totally unnecessary thing for a filmmaker to do when there’s so much more important stuff happening, both in the frame and on the set. I mean, that would require, like, Michael Bay–grade levels of douchebaggery, all for the sake of one Insignificant Detail.
 
 
 
 
 
1 In the moment, I recalled an interview I watched recently. Actor-director Jon Favreau asked Martin Scorsese about a scene in Casino in which Ginger (Sharon Stone) has a meltdown in the bedroom she shares with Ace (Robert De Niro). At some point in their confrontation, the stationary camera gets bumped ever so slightly but noticeably. Favreau thought it was brave of the filmmaker to leave that “imperfect” shot in the finished film in service of the actors’ best take, and Scorsese conceded that a director can’t ask his actors to duplicate such an emotionally raw performance like so much lightning in a bottle just because his camera got bumped. (Well, Kubrick would have. But that man was a sick, perfectionist monster.) And that was just a bedroom scene between two people. Now imagine calling “Cut!” going back to square one, and running take 2 of a battle sequence enacted by a cast of hundreds over several city blocks.

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Written by Shepcat

October 11, 2014 at 7:53 pm

The Insignificant Detail #8

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PUT YOUR MONEY WHERE YOUR MOUTH IS1

About 38 minutes into Michael Mann’s 1999 feature The Insider, we arrive at the critical moment when tobacco-industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) and 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) forge their uneasy partnership. Recently fired by Brown & Williamson and coerced into signing a draconian, “expanded” confidentiality agreement, the increasingly paranoid (though not without cause) Wigand has until now seen Bergman as another enemy who has likely sold him out to his former employers. At last persuaded by Bergman that it makes no sense that Bergman would sell out a source before that source had even provided him with the desired intel, Wigand calms down long enough to have a one-to-one conversation with Bergman one morning after dropping his daughters off at school.

The location selected for this meeting — by Michael Mann, if not by Wigand in real life — is a spot in the shadow of the Colgate Clock (at 40 feet in diameter one of the largest clocks in the world) and the Colgate-Palmolive factory in Clarksville, Indiana, directly across the Ohio River from Louisville, Kentucky, where much of the movie’s principal action takes place.

Insider

In this shot, we see just enough of the Colgate name and its distinctive branding to make the connection, but do we necessarily make the connection? It wasn’t until my third or fourth viewing of The Insider, all these years since its release, that this landmark jumped out at me.

In a story about corporate malfeasance and other crimes and misdemeanors perpetrated by major American tobacco companies, Mann chooses a location for this scene that is watched over by a brand famous for oral hygiene or, you know, something safe and clean to put in your mouth.2

Furthermore, in this sequence Wigand name-checks James Burke, former CEO of Johnson & Johnson (one of Wigand’s former employers):

… When he found out some lunatic had put poison in Tylenol bottles, he didn’t argue with the FDA, he didn’t even wait for the FDA to tell him — he just pulled Tylenol off every shelf, of every store, right across America, instantly. … And then he developed the safety cap. … Because, look, as a CEO, sure, he’s gotta be a great businessman, right? But he’s also a man of science. He wouldn’t allow his company to put on a shelf a product that might hurt people. Not like the Seven Dwarfs … the seven CEOs of Big Tobacco.3

 
Here, as the film makes another, more direct reference to a product deemed safe to put in your mouth, Wigand also distinctly refers to Burke as “a man of science,” which phrase he uses moments later to describe himself. By making this overt distinction between Wigand and the bottom line–minded executives who fired him, Mann and co-screenwriter Eric Roth also set up a pivotal confrontation between Bergman and his bosses at 60 Minutes who want to edit Wigand’s interview out of the broadcast segment, when he asks 60 Minutes executive producer Don Hewitt (Philip Baker Hall), “Are you a businessman? Or are you a newsman?”

By this point in the movie, we know what kind of men Wigand and Bergman are, but it’s not until this sequence, when they finally see each other eye to eye — and when Bergman moves from the back seat to the front seat of Wigand’s car, putting them more literally on the same level — that we realize how alike the two men and their principles are. And it all happens against the backdrop of an otherwise insignificant detail.
 
 
 
 
 
1 Admittedly, this is the famous ad slogan for Close-Up toothpaste, which is a product not of Colgate-Palmolive but of Unilever. But honestly, what would be a better subtitle for this installment?

2 Full disclosure: I was a longtime user of Colgate Total toothpaste until I learned that one of its active ingredients, the antibacterial (antigingivitis) chemical triclosan, has been linked to heart disease, with which my family has history enough, thank you very much.

3 I have written previously about the Tylenol incident, here. To this day, I and a great many others regard Burke’s proactive response to the poisoning of his product to be the single greatest public-relations campaign ever conducted and the hallmark by which all corporate responsibility should be measured.

Written by Shepcat

July 27, 2014 at 5:39 pm

The Insignificant Detail #7

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A BACKHANDED BUT HEARTFELT APPRECIATION OF NORA EPHRON

Let me say up front that I am a fan and admirer of the late Nora Ephron, who died Tuesday at the age of 71.

When Ms. Ephron first turned up on my radar, one striking detail about her was how impressively she had married: Her second husband was merely one of the guys who brought down Nixon; her third was the guy who adapted both Goodfellas and Casino from his own books.

I read All the President’s Men and I’ve seen the movie at least a dozen times, so for Ms. Ephron’s sake, I’ve always been terribly sorry that Carl Bernstein turned out to be such a lousy husband. However, during the course of their fraught union, she did figure out on her own the identity of Deep Throat, and in anyone’s book that’s a pretty kickass anecdote to take away from a failed marriage. I’m happy that she had a nice quarter-century with Nick Pileggi to make up for all of that, in addition to getting her digs in with the screenplay for Heartburn.

The preceding paragraphs should in no way imply that she was ever one of those women “behind every great man.” She was so formidable and accomplished in her own right that it might just as easily be said that “behind Nora Ephron, there’s a guy who interviewed mob lieutenants and wrote about execution-style hits and bodies dumped in the desert.” (Regardless of who was standing behind whom, that’s a dinner party I’d like to have been invited to.)

Speaking of the canon of mob cinema, I will also confess this up front: God save me, I love My Blue Heaven, which Ms. Ephron wrote for director Herbert Ross. It boasts one of Steve Martin’s most cartoonish performances, supported by Rick Moranis’ very best, and although it is clearly a guilty pleasure I share with few others, it does contain the single greatest grocery-store pickup line of all time: “You know, it’s dangerous for you to be here in the frozen-food section. … Because you could melt all this stuff.

Three solid decades of excellence as a screenwriter and filmmaker, and that’s the one I lead with.

Despite those glowing recommendations, I have to challenge Ms. Ephron on her own turf and level a charge against two of her signature achievements. Such is the guiding principle of these essays: If you watch a movie enough times, eventually you begin to notice certain details that you’ve overlooked on previous viewings, either because they are minute or obscure or because something finally flips the switch in your brain that suspends disbelief. To wit, I’ve always had a bit of a problem with Ms. Ephron, and the reason finally became apparent during one of now-uncountable viewings of either Sleepless in Seattle or You’ve Got Mail.

She always let Meg Ryan off the hook.

As an audience, of course we want Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks to be together.1 That’s the entire point of these movies. But drama, even in a romantic comedy, is about conflict, and in both movies, so much energy is devoted to the mechanics of the main story arc — the meet-cute, the obstacle(s), the surmounting thereof, and the requisite happily-ever-after — that either there’s no room to build credible emotional conflict among all the parties involved or, more likely, there’s a squandered opportunity.

My principal objection is that the men Meg dumps so she can be with Tom — Bill Pullman in Sleepless; Greg Kinnear in Mail — give up the fight too easily, too willingly, too conveniently, practically throwing their coats down in the mud so Tom won’t get his boots muddy when he strides in to sweep Meg off her feet.

On the strength of three of the most popular romantic comedies of the late 20th century (including When Harry Met Sally…), Nora Ephron is almost singlehandedly accountable for Meg Ryan’s claim to the title of America’s Sweetheart during the 1990s.2 But the message sent by both Sleepless and Mail is that while she’s desirable enough to be with someone in the first place, she’s apparently not desirable enough for that person to fight for. (And sometime later, after the credits roll, it might occur to Sam Baldwin or Joe Fox to wonder, You know, winning her was actually a hell of a lot easier than it probably ought to have been under the circumstances.)

In Mail, Kathleen is in love with her worst enemy, Joe Fox — not that she even knows it yet — and Kinnear’s typewriter-obsessed columnist Frank Navasky steps out of the way because he has become fixated on a TV interviewer who couldn’t hide her attraction to him on the air. The timing of this revelation works out great for everyone. Granted, Frank is a bit of a narcissist, but red-blooded men of a certain age at a certain moment in film history would like to know: How do you arrive at the point where you take Meg Ryan (at that age, at that moment) for granted?

Perhaps more confounding to me is the reaction of Pullman’s nebbishy, allergic-to-everything Walter in Sleepless. He is utterly devoted to Annie3, right up to the moment on their engagement trip to New York when she reveals that she may be in love with a total stranger, who may at that moment be waiting for her across town. At which point Walter delivers this improbable line:

Look, Annie … I love you. But let’s leave that out of this. I don’t want to be someone that you’re settling for. I don’t want to be someone that anyone settles for. Marriage is hard enough without bringing such low expectations into it, isn’t it?

 
Twenty minutes later, Annie’s riding the elevator up to the observation deck of the Empire State Building, and Walter stopped just short of escorting her there himself. “Let’s leave love out of this” is not an appropriate response. The first words out of his mouth should be, “Are you” f***ing kidding me?”4

These movies, while generally evenhanded, are more about the Meg Ryan character than the Tom Hanks character. In each, she is clearly the one on a journey, so we have to be shown her breakups. But do they have to be such cop-outs? I of all people appreciate that a writer has to maintain the tone and the mood of a story, particularly so close to the film’s climax, but surely there’s a way to convey a more credible reaction, a more honest emotional response, than to have the runner-up just capitulate to the heroine’s — or the filmmaker’s — desire for a tidy, expedient storybook ending.

In this respect, Walter and Frank aren’t supporting characters so much as MacGuffins. They’re the thing standing, well, not exactly in the way of Annie’s and Kathleen’s quests for true love but rather alongside them as they move toward it. They’re placeholders. Stand-ins. Neither is invited to have a serious discussion about the issues that Annie and Kathleen are struggling with until the very end, when they’re apprised of the situation and asked to step aside. And incredibly, each man obliges.

Movie audiences across America didn’t care or probably didn’t even notice, though, because they got the ending they came for. Twice.

Ultimately, I’m not here to bury Nora Ephron but to praise her. Those misgivings aside, these are two movies I have watched and will continue to watch on my continuous movie loop, where they share bandwidth with a handful of other great movies I am powerless to look away from.

I have always been particularly fond of the first act of Sleepless in Seattle, which handles death and loss about as well as can be hoped for without throwing what is supposed to be a romantic comedy completely under the bus. As dangerously close to parody as the “Dr. Marcia Fieldstone” radio program could have been, Hanks sells the hell out of that phone call and a short scene with Carey Lowell as his late wife, setting a tone of longing that runs straight through to the end of the film, humming quietly beneath the more upbeat comedic scenes. It’s a nifty high-wire act, and it earned Ephron and her co-writers an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

As for You’ve Got Mail, a digital-era remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s analog The Shop Around the Corner, it’s hard not to love a movie that a) heeds Billy Wilder’s counsel that you can never go wrong by borrowing or stealing outright from Lubitsch and b) identifies The Godfather as an essential text on which to base life decisions.

Add to those When Harry Met Sally… and that’s a career any screenwriter would be proud to claim.
 
 
 
 
 
1 I am duty-bound to point out that it was my hero John Patrick Shanley who actually brought Tom and Meg together, in the underrated, undervalued Joe Versus the Volcano. Ms. Ephron just kept them circling back to each other because she knew a good thing when she saw it.

2 Ryan and Julia Roberts waged a pitched battle for the hearts and minds of America’s moviegoing public. They were pretty much the Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather of that time.

3 They have uncannily similar taste in china patterns! He sized down his fat-fingered grandmother’s engagement ring for Annie, for hell’s sake!

4 Compare Meg’s breakups with a couple of basically decent guys to Hanks’ summary off-screen dismissal of Parker Posey in Mail after he’s been stuck in an elevator with her for two hours. Posey’s Patricia is so petulant and self-absorbed that not only are we happy to see her thrown over, right on schedule, but we can almost imagine how that conversation went as Joe was packing a bag and preparing to take Brinkley to his boat. We don’t see that breakup because, since Joe is the de facto villain of this story at the outset, we need to preserve as much admiration for him as we can, notwithstanding his essential Tom Hanksness.

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Written by Shepcat

June 28, 2012 at 11:50 pm

The Insignificant Detail #6

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HAPPINESS MAY NOT, IN FACT, BE A WARM GUN

Joel and Ethan Coen’s Fargo claims, in its opening title card, to be based on a true story — that of a kidnapping-for-ransom scheme gone horribly awry. Except that it’s not. Or in any event, if it is, it is only very loosely based on a story the brothers heard one time that may have actually happened, and they just seized upon the broad strokes of the story and ran with them.

Point being, Fargo, a near-perfect film, is likely 10 times more interesting than the story as it actually, presumably, possibly happened. Such is the Coens’ particular gift as cinematic storytellers: the creation of specific worlds in which specifically rendered characters act and speak in specific ways to achieve very specific ends — and every word ends up on the screen precisely as written. Said gift won them the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay of 1996.1

I had read only yesterday the remark that even the greatest films are in some way flawed, and that’s no less true for Fargo, which, on this most recent viewing, caught my eye with the sort of insignificant detail that ordinarily wouldn’t slip past the Coens’ minute perfectionism.

In a scenario in which cooler heads will not prevail, simply because none are complicit, the mastermind of the abduction — and I use that term loosely — weak-willed car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), cedes control of the ransom drop to his wealthy and imposing father-in-law, Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell). Wade doesn’t want Jerry to screw up an exchange involving both Wade’s money and Wade’s daughter; what he doesn’t know is that he’s taking a million dollars to a drop that was only supposed to total $80,000.

Cut to the upper deck of the parking garage, where kidnaper Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) is outraged to learn that Jerry has deviated from the plan. When Wade insists that he won’t give Carl the money without first being given his daughter, Carl draws his semiautomatic pistol and shoots Wade in the abdomen.

So furious is Carl that, as he rants about what a bunch of imbeciles the extended Lundegaard-Gustafson clan are, he isn’t paying attention to Wade drawing the revolver from the pocket of his parka. Wade fires, and Carl walks right into the shot, which creases his jawline.

Reflexively, Carl squeezes the trigger of his pistol and fires an errant shot into the Minneapolis night. That’s two.

Now exploding with animal rage, Carl fires another shot into Wade, then five more in rapid succession as he stands over Wade.

According to the Internet Movie Firearms Database2, the movie prop or “non gun” employed by Carl and his accomplice, Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare), is modeled after the SIG-Sauer P220, which generally features a seven- or nine-round magazine. We’re going to assume nine in this case because of the eight shots Carl discharges atop the garage and the one he fires into the parking attendant downstairs.

In particular, though, it’s the last six shots that Carl fires into Wade that grabbed my attention. Because no sooner does the fusillade subside than Carl very deliberately and forcefully — almost as though punctuating the murderous act — shoves the gun in the front waistband of his pants, in effect aiming it directly at his own most precious cargo.

Full disclosure: I’ve never fired a handgun. In my imagination, however, six shots in rapid succession will, to some degree, heat the barrel of the gun to a temperature at least as hot as, say, that of a household iron. Enough to sear human flesh, in other words.

That said, I’ll concede that there are other factors involved here:

  1. Carl has just been shot in the face at close range, and it’s conceivable that that pain is pinballing through his neural receptors so violently that he doesn’t even register the heat of the gun next to his nethers.
     
  2. It is well established that it is a bitterly cold winter in Minnesota. Therefore, one might reason that a) Carl is wearing enough layers to protect himself from both the cold weather and the smoking gun; and b) the night air is cold enough to sufficiently cool the barrel of the gun even in the short span between the eighth shot and the tucking of the gun into Carl’s waistband.
     
  3. Although his waistline is not framed in the shot, when Carl first draws his gun, his movement clearly indicates that he is drawing it from his waistband and not the opposite pocket of his unbuttoned coat, which would be much more awkward. Because the waistband is where Carl is accustomed to concealing his weapon, it only makes sense that he would put it back there when he was done with it.
     
  4. Carl, for all of the aforementioned reasons and others I may be overlooking, is no longer thinking rationally but acting on pure animal impulse.

Among my readers, any number of you may be more experienced with and enlightened about the physics and mechanics of handguns — some hasty Googling didn’t turn up the specific answers I was seeking — in which case your comments are welcome.

It is even entirely possible that I, over the course of my estimable cinematic education, have watched hundreds of action movies set in much warmer climates, from which sample possibly dozens of gunmen have thoughtlessly (or perhaps confidently — who’s to say?) tucked smoking guns into their waistbands without my even giving it a second thought. That I should consider the apparent dangers of doing so while witnessing a shootout in snowbound Minneapolis only goes to show that one never knows how or when the next insignificant detail will manifest itself.

In any event, I would favor the shoulder holster myself, especially under a jacket or coat. I’m just sayin’.
 
 
 
 
 
1 Notwithstanding the praise I’ve heaped on the Coens and Fargo in the preceding paragraph, I’d be remiss if I didn’t reassert my longstanding opinion that John Sayles’ Lone Star was the best film and screenplay of 1996. It’s a shame, then, that its only nomination was in the original-screenplay category, and Sayles went home empty-handed.

As long as we’re talking about hardware, though, I will take this opportunity to lavish praise upon the adjective-defying wonder that is Frances McDormand, who deservedly took home the Best Actress prize for her portrayal of seven-months-pregnant Brainerd, Minnesota, police chief Marge Gunderson, one of the warmest, wisest, most indelible characters in movie history.

2 Have I mentioned lately that I love the Internet in all its comprehensive glory?
 
 
 
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Written by Shepcat

July 15, 2010 at 4:07 pm

The Insignificant Detail #5

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BEER WITH BREAKFAST

My favorite L.A. movie, Lawrence Kasdan’s Grand Canyon, opens with its protagonist, Mack (Kevin Kline), staving off the predatory advances of a neighborhood gang when his Lexus breaks down in Inglewood late one night after a Lakers game.1

As Mack’s worst-case scenario is about to unfold, the cavalry arrives2 in the person of Simon (Danny Glover), who wastes no time in hooking up Mack’s car to his tow truck. Simon is so businesslike, so matter-of-fact, that by the time the thugs think to threaten him, he has already put them at a disadvantage. “Now that this car’s hooked up to my truck, it’s my responsibility,” he says in a vocabulary clearly unfamiliar to them, and he continues to reason with them until he talks himself and Mack safely into his cab and out of Inglewood.

One morning a few days later, Mack appears at the garage as Simon returns from his night shift, explaining that he wanted to be sure he did enough to thank Simon for saving his life. Simon downplays his heroics, but Mack insists, asking if he can buy Simon breakfast.

The scene and the conversation that follow contain the entire meaning of the movie and mark the beginning of one of the most beautiful cinematic friendships since Rick Blaine and Louis Renault strolled into the fog at the end of Casablanca. But what eventually caught my eye is what’s for breakfast.

The transition from garage to diner is handled with a single establishing shot that lasts about 10 seconds: A plate of bacon, potatoes, and two eggs sunny side up sits on a counter. A waitress enters the frame, sets a beer bottle beside the plate and uncaps it. She sets down her bottle opener, picks up the plate, and carries it away. It’s not even Simon or Mack’s breakfast we’re seeing in the shot — it’s just something to mark the transition along with the overlapping dialogue, and the camera follows the waitress just far enough to frame Simon and Mack at their table by the window. As she exits the frame, Kasdan cuts to his stars in a medium two-shot.

Ever since I first noticed that transition, I’ve been captivated by the idea that someone would — or even could — order a beer with their breakfast.3 So predictable have I become with my black coffee with one packet of sugar that it had never occurred to me how perfectly suited some breakfast foods are to be accompanied by a beer. And because the usual suspects of the breakfast-anytime crowd (e.g., IHOP, Denny’s, Waffle House) don’t list beer on their bills of fare, it’s easy to overlook the option when one finds oneself in an old-fashioned, non-franchise diner that flies in the face of Prohibition and family values.

Sometime back, when Adriane still lived in Wyoming, we found ourselves at our favorite local breakfast-anytime haunt, Bear Town Restaurant4, where I happened to note the availability of Budweiser on the menu. It’s not a beer I would order under ordinary circumstances, but for this purpose, one doesn’t want or need some fancy microbrew or highfalutin import — a decent American-made lager or pilsner will do.

I’m here to tell you that the pairing of a cold Budweiser longneck with a plate of corned beef hash and eggs is like kismet. So much so that I’m almost ashamed that I needed a movie to point it out to me.

That said, I wouldn’t put it past Kasdan to have intended this insignificant detail as a visual cue, a gustatory metaphor for Mack and Simon’s relationship.
 
 
 
 
 
1 The film was released in 1991, when the Lakers still played at the Great Western Forum.

2 The first time we lay eyes on Simon, the first shot is of his cowboy boots as he dismounts from his tow truck, another seemingly insignificant detail in a movie full of little details and rich with symbolism that I may someday write about at greater length. (It is perhaps an homage to the fact that Glover and Kline also co-starred in Kasdan’s Silverado. The scene, in fact, plays out like something out of a Western.)

3 Admittedly, though, Tom Waits and Charles Bukowski spring to mind.

4 We even have our own table there, where we have been seated, without ever requesting it, on all but one occasion.
 
 
 
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Written by Shepcat

July 5, 2010 at 5:12 pm

The Insignificant Detail #4

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BANG! BANG! BANG! SHE SHOT ME DOWN

Just when you suspected that I only watch the same five or six Alfred Hitchcock movies on a permanent loop, I am at long last shifting the conversation to another of my favorite directors, Billy Wilder. In fact, for his excellence also as a writer and for the sheer breadth of his body of work — dramas, war movies, films noir and comedies (including arguably one of the two or three funniest movies ever made1, as well as a very funny movie titled One, Two, Three, for that matter) — I rank Mr. Wilder at No. 1 on my personal list of the greatest directors of all time.

On this particular occasion, I was only half watching 1950’s Sunset Boulevard, a movie I’ve seen several times in its entirety and at least two or three times on a big screen. (Pause a moment here while I pine for the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles.)

The first time you watch Sunset Boulevard, you know right away that the story is going to end badly because — and I don’t think I’ll be ruining the film for anybody here — it opens on its narrator, the screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden), floating facedown in a swimming pool.2

On subsequent viewings, you already know how Joe came to be facedown in that pool, but because the movie is more about madness than murder — and here is where I might begin ruining the movie for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet3 — you’re forever anticipating the big finish, in which faded, forgotten, crazy-as-a-bedbug silent-film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) is coaxed down the grand staircase of her mansion amid a swarm of police and press, believing that the great director (and her frequent collaborator back in the Silent Era) Cecil B. De Mille is at the bottom waiting to film her triumphant return to the silver screen and one of the greatest closing lines in movie history.4

It’s the sequence before that, though — the actual climax of the movie — that is sort of easy to gloss over until you’ve seen it a few or several times. No one ever really says, “Well, I didn’t see that coming,” but it is easy to miss The Insignificant Detail.

Joe, in love with his best friend’s girl, another contract screenwriter named Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), and beyond the limits of his patience with the drama queen Norma, finally blows up, tells Norma he’s through with her and storms out of the house to go reclaim his former life.

Norma follows him into the yard and fires a shot, which appears to hit him in the shoulder. The shot stuns Joe, and Holden does this fantastic little zombie three-step before the next two shots ring out, and this time both we and Joe know he’s been hit. His legs fold up under him just as he arrives at the edge of the swimming pool, and down he goes, face first into the drink where we first met him.

It was only on this last viewing, though, that I caught something for the very first time: Norma does not shoot Joe at anything close to point-blank range.

When she fires the first shot from the bottom of the steps, Norma’s a good 20 feet away from Joe, and she doesn’t move very far from that spot as the stunned but determined Joe continues to stumble away from her. By the time she fires the two coups de grâce, he is maybe 40 feet away.

OK, now this is a 50-year-old woman living in a fantasy world of her own fuzzy design, and as far as we know, the revolver itself is a recent development. We learn about it only in the previous sequence, during another desperate attempt at emotional blackmail, when Norma informs Joe that she has obtained a gun intending to use it on herself. We’re given no reason to believe that she has any prior experience with guns, and yet in the heat of a moment fraught with emotion, she goes three-for-three shooting Joe in the back as he’s walking away from her.

I’m not saying this is as unlikely as Oswald acting alone on the sixth floor of the book depository, but it’s a pretty impressive display of marksmanship from a presumed first-timer, a novice at the very least.

Try not to let it interfere with your enjoyment of the film, though. Norma Desmond’s sharpshooting is only the most minor of details in one of the greatest of motion pictures.
 
 
 
 
 
1 That would be Some Like It Hot, of course.

2 Pretty much every writer in Hollywood wakes up feeling like this every day.

3 And to those readers I say, “For hell’s sake, people, what are you waiting for?”

4 Mr. Wilder and his collaborators were good for a few of those. In this case, of course, it’s “I’m ready for my closeup, Mr. De Mille.” The honor roll also includes “Nobody’s perfect” and “Shut up and deal.”
 
 
 
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Written by Shepcat

June 14, 2009 at 6:38 pm

The Insignificant Detail #3

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SAY WHAT?

Perhaps no screenwriter has ever dispensed with exposition and cut straight to the chase more effectively than Ernest Lehman, who fluidly conveys more essential information in the first five minutes of Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest than most writers can in an entire first act.1

By the time Roger O. Thornhill is abducted from the Oak Room of the Plaza Hotel, we know that he’s a quick-witted, fast-talking, womanizing Madison Avenue advertising executive with an occupational penchant for drinking and a contentious but close relationship with his mother.2

Because Thornhill spends so little time in the Oak Room, it would be easy to overlook a detail that grabs me every time I watch the sequence.

When Thornhill arrives, his colleague Herman Weltner introduces him to the two other gentlemen at the table, Fanning Nelson and Larry Wade, the former of whom cups his hand over his left ear during the introductions and continues to hold it there throughout this brief scene, leaning a little forward, head slightly cocked, intently reading the lips of whomever is talking.

I’ve always thought it was an odd but interesting touch that Nelson, who is in the movie for a total of 52 seconds, has an actual character trait that distinguishes him when his only function in the story is to be meeting Thornhill for drinks so that Thornhill might be abducted from the Plaza Hotel.

Did Hitchcock on a lark direct the actor to play the scene as hard of hearing? Or did the actor himself decide that he was damn well going to do something to get noticed if this was his only scene in the movie?

Neither, as it turns out.

Upon consulting my copy of the screenplay3, I discovered that Lehman had originally written Nelson’s hearing impairment into the scene as a gag, which was likely cut because either it didn’t play well or it slowed down the pace of the scene.4

In light of this new information, I now notice very clearly a cut just as Nelson begins to ask a question in response to Thornhill’s line about “one of those brand-new apartments — all wet paint and no telephone yet.”

It’s also interesting to note that Nelson’s only line of dialogue isn’t in Lehman’s screenplay at all. A veteran character actor regarded, ironically, for his deep, resonant voice, Carleton Young made 230 appearances in films and on television shows during a career spanning 38 years, but this marked the only time he ever worked with either Hitchcock or Grant. So had he not slipped in a “How do you do?” during his handshake with Thornhill, Fanning Nelson would have been both a deaf and mute presence in the movie.

Perhaps as a kind of karmic reward for his uncredited role in North by Northwest, Young appeared just a few years later as newspaper publisher Maxwell Scott in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, in which he delivers the line that would become Ford’s signature: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Well, these are the Chronicles, dear reader. Even if the detail seems insignificant, I print the detail.
 
 
 
 
 
1 Inspired by Lehman, I trimmed an unnecessary anecdote and other miscellaneous blather out of this lede to get right to the point.

2 Of course, neither does it hurt that Thornhill is Cary Grant, which tells us everything else we need to know.

3 Faber and Faber, 1999.

4 According to the trivia listing on the film’s IMDb entry: “Less than eight feet of film was cut from the final release. Eight feet is about 5 seconds.” One wonders now whether that was enough to trim the entire gag from the Oak Room scene.
 
 
 
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Written by Shepcat

July 22, 2008 at 7:02 pm