Thursday, August 29, 2013

Judge a Movie by its Title: Shadow of the Vampire (2000): An Art Deco Tribute to a Gothic Story

Anyone who knows me knows that I will not watch horror movies. But I also will never refuse I request without a good reason. So, when a recent reader requested a post about the title sequence in the semi-recent horror film Shadow of the Vampire- it was an offer I couldn't refuse. So, while I almost never do I post about a film I've never seen, I'm going to break my rules because after I saw the title sequence I realized I was watching a small masterpiece in action.
Shadow of the Vampire (2000)
I know that seems like strong words from me, but I was just so impressed by the title sequence which seemed misplaced in a horror film, or at least the stereotypical, average horror film. Like I said, I haven't seen Shadow of the Vampire yet, but I most certainly will- if only to watch the title sequence again. Of course, I'd have to first watch the Nosferatu, the classic silent horror film, on which Shadow was based. From Wikipedia, I found that Shadow of the Vampire is loosely based on the filming of Nosferatu. John Malkovich stars as F.W. Murnau, the legendary German director, and William Dafoe stars as his eccentric star Max. The production team has all been told that Max is simply a devoted method actor who stays in character the whole time, when in reality Murnau- portrayed as the mad artist- has made the a deal with a devil- hiring a real vampire to be his star. Obviously, issues arise.

The opening three images focus gradually to the intricate design
 in the middle of the door
Let me note again that Shadow is very loosely based on reality. Max Schreck was a mildly famous actor who went on to star in a number of other films and plays, and Murnau was certainly not insane. However, it is a fascinating concept for a movie and an interesting glimpse into the making of a silent picture.

An instance of the interlocking Gothic designs that appear throughout
But we're here to talk about the title sequence. Earlier I noted how impressed I was by the title sequence and I was actually surprised that besides a few other people, Shadow of the Vampire's title sequence receives very little internet presence. I'm hoping to resolve that. If you haven't noticed already, I'm posting pictures of the title sequence. Except for the first, I'm putting the stills in chronological order so you can get an idea of the actual piece together.

Note the design, which certainly appears to be some sort of evil eye-
it is most prominent when Dafoe's name appears, as he plays the villain.
First, as I always try to do, I'll explain the piece which contains all the hallmarks for a good title sequence. The titles are placed over a series of fading in and out images reminiscent of a medieval tapestry. In this way, the film begins to explore the themes of the film. The images are certainly Gothic in appearance, bringing to mind the Gothic settings of Dracula and other vampire and horror films. The images also appear in a type of sepia tone which obviously pays homage to the era of silent film. The title sequence is actually filled with all different types of homages to the silent era, especially to the lost art of the title cards which would appear in the film. For instance, the camera zooms and pans in a manner which immediately reminded me of early movie making. A more obvious instance of this type of homage are the Art Deco-esque series of lines and designs that appear throughout the piece. This inclusion of Art Deco elements obviously is a reminder of the time of silent film, the 1920s.

Examples of the beautiful Gothic-inspired frightening designs
There is certainly an element of beauty in these images. Many are intricate and delicate. But at the same time, some are almost terrifying. I'm not exactly caught up on my Gothic imagery, but I'm almost sure some of the symbols, faces and masks that appear throughout represent evil, even perhaps the Devil. But... like I said, some are also beautiful. Pictures of knights and horsemen people the images; delicate arabesques, intertwining designs all fill the screen. It is a mystifying piece, one which repels and attracts.

More Gothic imagery

Which is, of course, the whole point of a title sequence, especially a title sequence for a more serious, or even frightening film. The title sequence, which is accompanied by a haunting score, helps set the horror tone of the film. At the same time, the sequence also draws viewers into the haunting mystery of the film to come.

The Art Deco homage is clear

I'm almost reminded of Saul Bass's title sequence for Vertigo. With its beautiful, but mysterious swirls, Vertigo's sequence is by all counts eerie, but at the same time it is strangely beautiful. Not of course, that I'm comparing the designer of Shadow's title sequence, a seemingly equal mysterious John Goodinson to Saul Bass, but he certainly masterfully applies the same techniques.

The end result is altogether unsettling, but altogether appropriate. There is no doubt that any semi-conscious viewer will realize a few things. First, the film will pay homage to the Art Deco days of silent cinema. At the same time, they realize it will be a dark mystery- eerie by intriguing- and most definitely horrifying. And if any title sequence, no matter when it was produced, can achieve that result is a small masterpiece of its own accord. I can't speak for the film- yet- but I can say that if the film is anything like its opening titles- it is worth your time.

By the way, in case any of my more classically-inclined readers were wondering, I will be concentrating on more classics in the near future. I realize I've covered more modern films in the last couple weeks, but I promise classics soon- no fear!

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Museum Scene in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" (1986): A Tribute to the Art Institute of Chicago

Every now and then, a director pays homage to his or her love of art by "indulging" in what I call an "art montage." It can consist of a superbly decorated apartment, an art show, or even an art museum scene. What first comes to mind when I talk about museum scenes is obviously Hitchcock's eerie scene in front of the Carlotta portrait at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in Vertigo (1958). The second film that comes to mind is a little less esteemed because I'm obviously thinking of the John Hughes' classic Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Who can forget that intimate portrait of the Art Institute of Chicago that John Hughes places in his classic coming-of-age film, just prior to the more famous and more lighthearted "parade scene."
In case you've forgotten, as Ferris, Cameron and Sloane are traipsing through the Windy City, one of their stops in the Art Institute of Chicago, one of the greatest art museums in the United States. Hughes shows them coming into the museum with a grade school trip. Then, Hughes indulges in a number of shots of some very iconic artwork including, to mention only a few of my personal favorites, Picasso's The Old Guitarist and Hopper's Nighthawks.

Of course, the scene is not just a documentary view of paintings and sculpture, the various characters are seen posing, watching, pondering and even kissing in front of the art. While there are scores of famed artworks I could describe, I'm only going to mention a few of the pieces I feel are very important namely because they allow me to indulge in some character study.

1. Portrait of Balzac by Auguste Rodin

The first piece I'm going to mention is a sculpture by the French master, Rodin (of Thinker fame, if you don't recognize the name). This piece is only important because the characters pose in front of it with their legs outstretched and their arms crossed staring at the famed author set in bronze (see above). Let's move on. 

2. The Picasso Portraits

The next shot after Rodin is very similar. The characters all stand in front of three Picasso paintings. Each was painting at a different time in slightly different forms of Cubism. Perhaps Hughes wanted to the characters to be seen observing these paintings because they visually represent some of the disjointed feelings felt by high school seniors. While they're pondering Picasso's abstractions, are they also pondering their just as abstract, but inevitable, futures?

In case you were wondering, the paintings can be identified as the following. From left to right: The Red Armchair(1931), Portrait of Sylvette David (1954), and a third painting which I can't seem to find anywhere else. I think the Art Institue must of sold it or something, because I can't find a Picasso matching the description in their database. If you know what it is, just let me know and I'll add it.

3. Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat

Our next two works are the most important pieces. The first is the painting right above this which I'm simply going to abbreviate as Sunday Afternoon from now on. In this scene, Cameron stands alone right in front of this great pointillist painting, staring at it dead center. Gradually it's shown that he's fixating on this little girl who stands in the center of the painting. And Cameron just stares at her and gradually focuses in on her to find... nothing.
I don't know how much you know about Pointillism- but it's a pretty specific style of Post-Impressionism most associated with Georges Seurat. Seurat famously composed his paintings of a number of single color points, or dots, which the eye would blend together to form a painting like the one you see above you. When you are very close to the canvas, all you can make out is the separate dots which are nothing too extraordinary, but when you step back the finished result is quite often breathtaking. It was meticulous work, but you have to say that it is beautiful.
Now, Hughes spoke of this scene a lot because he really loved paying homage to this great museum because he apparently spent a lot of time there when he was a kid. This painting in particular he loved because it reminded him of a movie. Without stepping back and witnessing the whole thing, you don't get anything out of this painting or a movie. On a more personal level, Cameron is focusing in on a small section of the canvas only to find bland dots! And the whole idea behind this scene is that Cameron is questioning himself. He is associating himself with the little girl and wondering if, like her, when you get close to him if there is anything of solid content. And it becomes increasingly clear that it is because of this reason, his fears in himself, that he is so insecure.

4. Marc Chagall's America Windows

The final piece I'm going to mention is a unique piece of art in itself without mentioning that it is now a famed piece of movie art as well. I'm referring to Marc Chagall's America Windows, beautiful example of modern stain glass work. In the film, Hughes indulges in his most touching scene thus far in front of these Chicago landmarks. While Cameron is pondering his existence and feeling very teen-angst-y, Sloane and Ferris enjoy a moment alone and can be seen kissing in front of the windows. The beautiful blue light created by the windows creates a lovely aura in the scene.
Chagall's America Windows are one of the most unique and prized holdings of the Art Institute of Chicago. Chagall made the windows specifically for the Art Institute after he was so impressed by the city when he visited for an installation of his own works. The windows, which were dedicated to then-Chicago Mayor Daly, celebrate the bicentennial of the United States and the rich tradition of the arts, religious freedom and other liberties that is fostered in the US. While famous by their own right, the Windows became immortalized after their intimate appearance in Ferris Bueller.  
To conclude, I'd like to remark that while it is slightly slower and deeper than the rest of the film, Hughes enjoyed it tremendously, not only because it allowed him to showcase his favorite museum but because it allowed him to add depth to his teenage characters. Granted, it does seem rather out of place and out of pace with the rest of film, but I feel like its a welcome slow-down. Just as a side note, originally, the scene was featured with a slow classical guitar solo and placed after the parade scene. The preview audiences hated it and therefore Hughes modified the format. He moved the scene before the parade and added an instrumental version of the song in an attempts to pacify audiences while preserving his scene. The end result has obviously become quite famous and quite frankly for a great reason. To current audiences, this museum scene may drag or seem out of place, to art lovers it provides a venue on screen for some famous paintings. More importantly, it allows us to associate with the characters as they associate with the art- and what's better than that??

Source Material
The Washington Post
"John Hughes video explains 'Ferris Bueller" scene at Art Institute" (11/16/2011)

Wikipedia: "Ferris Bueller's Day Off"'s_Day_Off

Monday, August 19, 2013

Reel Connections: Elizabethan Portraiture and Cate Blanchett's "Elizabeth" (1998) and "Elizabeth: the Golden Age" (2007)

It's no secret that I love a great period drama, whether its on the silver screen or TV. It's something about that historic air, the magnificent costumes, the "real" characters, and the drama that accompanies any period piece. To be honest, most period films end up not living up to my sky-high expectations, but there are few that I pass up. In such historically-themed films, it is no surprise that filmmakers turn to the art of the period they are portraying to create a more realistic and recognizable feeling. In some cases, filmmakers will subtly, or often not so subtly, create tableaux of historic paintings. For me, when I recognize such efforts, I have a huge "aha" moment during which I'm flooded with pride for my own art knowledge and the director's gesture.

In history, Elizabeth I is one of my favorite figures, certainly one of my favorite monarchs, so it came as no shock to me that I greatly enjoyed Cate Blanchett as "the Virgin Queen" in both Elizabeth (1998) and Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007). I don't have the time- nor do you have the patience- to read my brisk summaries of both films- so I'm going to very efficiently concentrate on the matters at hand. The Elizabeth films both featured excellent casts, led by Cate, gorgeous settings, quick-moving drama, excellent dialogue and sumptuous costuming. In both films, I noticed a number of times where it was clear that the filmmakers and costume designers copied well-known portraits of Elizabeth to create costumes for certain scenes. For me, this added an air of authenticity to the film as well as a spirit of appreciation to the filmmakers for bringing the painting to life, in a manner of speaking. I'm going to concentrate on two specific instances, one per each film. 

Elizabeth (1998): The Coronation Portrait
When Elizabeth ascends the throne in the film, there is obviously a coronation scene. In it, Elizabeth is dressed in a gorgeous gold dress and robe, patterned appropriately with the Tudor rose of her father Henry VIII. If you recall your British history, after the "War of the Roses" between the Houses of York and Lancaster, Henry VII who came out of the conflict victoriously, united the houses through both marriage and the symbolic union of the Houses' heraldic Red and White roses. This heraldry would continue on to the modern day, and certainly would have been an important and recognizable statement in Elizabethan times. Her robe, in royal gold, is trimmed with ermine fur, an obvious symbol of the monarchy. She is then crowned by the Bishop of Canterbury, and given the symbolic orb and scepter of the state to hold. In the Elizabeth films, there is a great emphasis on Elizabeth presenting herself to the public and this makes a great visual moment. 

Now, if you are familiar with your portraiture, as I am, my description (withholding the "in the film" part) could be describing a very famous portrait of the "real" Elizabeth that was commissioned after her coronation. The costuming, symbols of state, and even hair is the same (both Cate and the real Elizabeth wore their notorious red hair down, covering their shoulders) in both the portrait and the movie. When you see the connection, it really clicks. The filmmakers didn't create their own regal imagery, they simply masterfully reused imagery that had been employed in Elizabeth's own time. Both the scene and the painting, have an air of reverence, royalty, and magnificence. They also have an almost propaganda-like feeling. The portrait was commissioned to glorify Elizabeth's reign shortly after she was crowned while the film attempts to recreate the coronation ceremony that was just as much an attempt to impress and awe audiences besides serving a practical purpose. Both also capture the youth of the young queen, as she ascends power. I think it's pretty clear the Elizabeth certainly did justice to the coronation. 
Coronation Portrait (1600): Detail
To briefly discuss the painting. It currently sits in the National Portrait Gallery of London where it is admired to this day. While the artist is unknown, it is clear that the artist was masterful enough to recognize and reuse common symbols of the monarchy that have appeared in English Royal portraits for years. According to some experts, this painting is actually a copy of a lost original that would have been painting around 1560, immediately after Elizabeth's coronation. Regardless, it maintains an air of magnificence, reserved only for a royal. 

Elizabeth: The Golden Age: The Ditchley Portrait

My next comparison is more a stretch, but I think it is a legitimate point to make. You can make your own decision. In Elizabeth: The Golden Age, lots of strife bothers the queen, personified in Mary, Queen of Scots and Philip's Spanish Armada. At the end of it all, Elizabeth once more reigns supreme and there is this great scene where she stands in the center of the room, outstretching her hands, as the camera circles her. It is difficult not to be struck by the royal magnificence as she triumphs over all her obstacles. It is not this scene exactly that makes me think of a specific painting, but another instance.
Before I mention my specific painting point, I'd like to mention another aspect of The Golden Age that I was struck by. If you've seen the film, it's impossible to film. I'm obviously referring to the large map of Europe that sits in Elizabeth's palace. It's completely unique and more importantly an incredible visual. There's one scene where Elizabeth plots out how she's going to defeat the Armada on this giant map of the floor using these model ships and it's simply great theater. Actually, it's really great theater because, like many of the events in this and other period, it never historically happened, but I digress.
This "floor map" is, as far as I know, completely a figment of the studio's imagination and does not exist anywhere in the world, let alone in England. The only comparison I could find in research is the impressive Madaba Map, a 6th century mosaic map of the Palestine and the Holy Land. Regardless of its veracity, I loved this map, so I'm glad some artistic licence was taken.
The map also provides my second portrait connection. Now, Elizabeth's Coronation Portrait (see above) is pretty well known, with good reason. A somewhat less-well-known portrait, though still fairly recognizable to those knowledgable in the field, is a portrait known as the Ditchley Portrait. It was painted much later in Elizabeth's reign, in 1592, after her glorious defeat over Spain and contains a large amount of symbolism  which was common in the portraiture of the day. The artist, Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger portrayed Elizabeth magnificently dressed in a white gown, referring to her titular virginity and purity. A storm rages on one side of the canvas, while clear skies beckon on the other, apparently a symbol of both Elizabeth's might and mercy. The painting, all in all, is a mighty piece of propaganda praising Queen Elizabeth. 
For me, the final scene of Elizabeth dressed in white, standing on the map of her kingdom, seemed right because it echoed the imagery found in the Ditchley Portrait. Like I said, I personally don't feel it's that much of stretch. Unlike the Elizabeth's coronation scene, the coloring is slightly different, but the content is very similar. Once again, the filmmakers attempt to fill the same dignity and majesty that was present in the original paintings in the scene. The music, the costuming, the camera angles, all contribute to these magnificently beautiful visual scenes. For me, as I'm always searching for a "painting connection," I appreciated and enjoyed the effort. How about you? Or am I once again theorizing over visual minutia? Perhaps... but you have to admit, they're excellent theories!

Friday, August 16, 2013

Memorial Bust of T.E. Lawrence in "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962): A Question of Belonging

Today, August 16th, marks the 125th birthday of one of the most extraordinary figures in global history: T.E. Lawrence, or as he is more popularly known "Lawrence of Arabia." As it is his birthday, and incidentally, my own, I felt it would be apropos to focus on a certain aspect of the film that features him as its central, enigmatic figure: David Lean's bold masterpiece, Lawrence of Arabia (1962), starring Peter O'Toole (as Lawrence), Omar Sharif, Alec Guinness, Claude Rains, and Jack Hawkins among others.
The opening of the funeral scene begins with a close-up of this memorial bust.
While the bust itself does sit in St. Paul's, this particular copy existed only in Lean's studio. 
Today Lawrence of Arabia's epic length scares some viewers away, but then again, if mere length repelled them most likely they would not appreciate the intricate complexities of Lawrence that the film explores. For me, Lawrence of Arabia is the quintessential epic: a dramatic setting, larger-than life characters, a bold and timeless score (by Maurice Jarre), a fair share of historical liberties and most importantly a probing and intriguing storyline: namely: "Who is this man?"
Lawrence of Arabia does have its faults, I'll grant you that. Lean took generous liberties with the historical characters, defaming some and even introducing false aspects into Lawrence's own character that some modern viewers find the film a shameless abuse of history. But to watch Lawrence of Arabia for a history lesson (or any film for a history lesson), is foolish to say the least.  Lean's masterpiece serves its purpose in drawing audiences into the fascinating life of T.E. Lawrence and challenging them to question who he, or really, any historical figure really is.
O'Toole as Lawrence
"Did he deserve a place here?"

Lawrence of Arabia begins dramatically, first with the score blaring across a blank screen, setting the stage, audibly, for the epic that follows. Lean that shows Lawrence's death on a motorcycle, killing the main character before the story really even begins. Now we get to the important part: the memorial service that follows the death. It is here that Lean introduces the central question of his film and that viewers are drawn in to the life of the man who they watched die.
"The most extraordinary man I ever knew."

The memorial service scene begins with a close-up of a memorial bust of T.E. Lawrence. To this, I'll devote my post, but first, I'll finish setting the scene. The bust is surrounded by two British flags, befitting a hero. The camera than focuses on Col. Brighton (a man who hasn't been officially introduced yet) and a cleric. Brighton looks up at the bust and remarks that Lawrence was "the most extraordinary man he ever knew." The cleric questions if Brighton knew Lawrence well. Brighton pauses and states that "I knew him," a misleading understatement considering the events that will follow. The priest then poses a question to Brighton and more importantly to the audience. He remarks, "Well, nil nisi bonum [a Latin phrase that basically means not to speak ill of the deceased]. But did he really deserve a place here?" The camera then reveals that service was held at St. Paul's Cathedral, the magnificent Anglican place of worship and the site of memorials to some of Britain's greatest heroes.
Allenby's misleading response still manages to lead viewers to wonder:
Does anyone know who Lawrence really was?
The scene continues on with a reporter asking various characters about their feelings on Lawrence and they proceed to give a variety of different answers, already revealing to the audience that Lawrence was not a man easily understood. But for my purpose, that's unimportant. Let's return to the question. "Did he deserve a place here?" In context, "here" refers both to St. Paul's (no easy task) and more importantly a place in British history. By questioning his belonging, the cleric begins the film by stating that Lawrence was not accepted by everyone, was not an easy man to understand, and was not even universally considered a hero. Even if the audience does not have a knowledge of who Lawrence was, they immediately are forced to question whether the events that follow, that portray Lawrence's magnificent rise to power, constitute heroism. Or more accurately, do they constitute a permanent place in history? By the end of the film, Lean challenges the audience to answer this question, or at least appreciate why the question is so relevant.
St. Paul's Cathedral in London
A remarkable piece of architecture itself, designed by Sir Christopher Wren
In actuality, a bust of Lawrence does sit in St. Paul's Cathedral across from the effigy of Nelson, no less. He sits, now basically undisputed, among the giant figures of British military history. It's important to note though that the bust that appears on screen is not the real thing, or not completely. You can tell by the base, that the bust that Lean films is not the one that sits in St. Paul's. While Lean did film outside of St. Paul's, he did not film inside the Cathedral, recreating the memorial in a studio using, in fact, a copy of the real memorial bust. This in itself, is relatively unimportant, but worth noting, because the bust itself is the same as the actual memorial.
The actual memorial bust of Lawrence
as it appears in St. Paul's

Lawrence's memorial bust itself it not incredibly remarkable. While it does portray a accurate likeness of the real man, more importantly the presence of a memorial bust signifies something much more important. It signifies the place in history that is being questioned. It signifies importance and a need to celebrate a life and mourn the death of an important figure. The bust shows that Lawrence will be considered a historical giant, albeit a disputed one (ala the cleric's all-important question).
A sketch of Lawrence by Kennington, perhaps as a
study for the above-mentioned bust
Back to the bust. The bust was sculpted by Eric Kennington, a noted war artist who worked in both World Wars. In 1922, T.E. Lawrence published The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and Kennington was commissioned to complete the illustrations. Pardon my lack of knowledge, but I am not sure whether Kennington and Lawrence became introduced this way or were introduced during the war but either way, they eventually became friends. In 1926, Kennington completed this bust of Lawrence (titled originally Head of T.E. Lawrence) and presented it to the man himself. Lawrence was immensely pleased by it and considered it a great likeness of himself calling it "Magnificent."
Kennington's effigy of Lawrence which sits in a small church in Dorset

After Lawrence's death, this bust would be used for the St. Paul's memorial, in portrait galleries, and in 1962, for the funeral scene in Lawrence of Arabia. It's also worth noting that Kennington also created a full-body memorial effigy for Lawrence which currently sits in St. Martin's Church Dorset.
If he's not just anybody- who is he? And why does he belong in the pantheon (literally) of British heroes?

The bust is an important piece of historical art. As a piece of film art, it is more remarkable for what it signifies rather than what it actually is. The historical implications already discussed make it a symbol for historical fame. In the film, Lawrence himself exclaims "Do you think I'm just anybody?!" From the moment Lean shows us that bust, we are forced to consider both the cleric's and Lawrence's own question. Is he just anybody? And if he's not, something that presence of the memorial bust tells us, then who is he?

Source Material

Lawrence of Arabia, Part III:  "The Funeral: Nil Nais Ibonam" 4/11/2011

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