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Anticipating Dunkirk

The history of the cinema is replete with instances in which filmmakers have gone to extravagant lengths to establish a credible realism.  The most extreme ventures of this sort often form the basis of early marketing campaigns with the intention of tantalizing an audience’s impulses with the promise of a “real” spectacle as opposed to a fabricated one.  Through history these spectacles have varied from the Belgian Congo locations for John Huston’s The African Queen (1951), the rumored on camera intercourse between Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), to the physical aging process as captured in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014).The lure of the “real”, while elusive, is undoubtedly fetishized for its perceived scarcity in narrative films.  That is not to say that the emotional lives of characters in films are artificial, or that the narratives of most films take place outside of our own historical and socio-political context, or even that a large number of films do not make use of actual locations.  It’s a matter of special effects.  The simulated versus the documented.

The Train

A personal favorite example of this is the derailing of a steam locomotive in John Frankenheimer’s The Train (1964).  The cooperation of the French government and the backing of United Artists afforded Frankenheimer the luxury to opt for the actual locomotive crash and not the simulated crash of miniatures.  What imbues this spectacle with the sense of the awesome is that it is allowed to interact directly with the film’s star, Burt Lancaster.  The gravitas of this sequence derives from the high stakes of Lancaster’s very real jeopardy; he could have easily been killed during shooting.  By releasing this information prior to release in the trade papers United Artists was able to capitalize on audience’s pseudo-sadistic desire to watch Burt Lancaster narrowly escape death.  

The sadistic voyeurism of audiences has been making hits out of unorthodox or simply unmarketable films for decades.  Once it was rumored that native people died during the shooting of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982) in the Amazon, Roger Corman was insured of recouping his investment.  Alex Proyas’ The Crow (1994) is another such film, albeit the death of Brandon Lee was no rumor at all but a very real tragedy.  However what unites these films is the reality of a life in peril and the audience’s intrinsic desire to see their own shared mortality put to the test from the safety of the multiplex.

Now enter Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.  Nolan is a master of spinning technical innovation as marketing strategy.  Inception drew audiences for its digital effects more so than for its cast and certainly more so than for its incoherent script (Nolan’s most prevalent trademark in my opinion is that none of his plots make any sense).  With Dunkirk he has done it once again.  

behind the scenes of Dunkirk

Analog special effects are now mostly the province of memory for audiences.  Gone are the heydays of Cliff Wallace and Chris Walas.  There is no disputing that computer generated imagery quickly came to dominate American cinema in the wake of Jurassic Park (1993) and Pixar, culminating in a pastiche of the “actual” before the cameras and the generated images from a computer that are all unified in a single shot during post-production.  It’s this very context that gives Nolan’s latest publicity stunt on Dunkirk any claims for notoriety at all.

Slashfilm.com revealed not to long ago that Warner Bros. spent five million dollars on a WWII fighter to be used in Nolan’s Dunkirk.  Nolan, rumor has it, will crash the plane for Hoyte van Hoytema’s IMAX 65mm cameras.  That is to say that Warner Bros. potentially spent five million dollars on a single special effect (quite a lot more than they spent on the very “real” planejacking in Nolan’s Dark Knight Rises).  It’s a sum that clearly can be seen as an investment.  Why not spend five million on a special effect or even the buzz around that effect that will save who knows how many millions on advertising?  

-Robert Curry

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Lulu In Berlin, The Supplemental Feature

Louise Brooks circa the 1920s

It’s not difficult to see why Louise Brooks remains one of the most captivating personas of the silent cinema.  Even in her day her look and her talent for acting on film were widely discussed, praised, and adored.  Her celebrity may even be so potent today that it alone is responsible for the deluxe editions of her two films with G.W. Pabst (released by Kino Video and the Criterion Collection respectively).  These two releases posses an abundance of supplements ranging from interviews with Brooks, latter day short films (Windy Riley Goes Hollywood of 1930 was directed by Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle), and, on the Criterion release of Pandora’s Box (1929), Richard Leacock’s Lulu In Berlin (1984).

Lulu In Berlin is, at essence, a filmic analysis of Brooks’ life in and around the cinema with a detailed foray into what was the climax of that relationship; her collaboration with Pabst on Pandora’s Box and Diary Of A Lost Girl (1929).  In conversation with Brooks, Leacock prompts his subject to recall all of the anecdotes and personal reflections that make her own memoir Lulu In Hollywood such a delightful read.  But what Leacock is able to do in Lulu In Berlin that Brooks was not in her book is to deconstruct the visual aesthetic of Pabst.  To do this Leacock, like any sensible video-essayist, slows down sequences, freeze frames on notable compositions, and replays sequences of particular importance.  What Lulu In Berlin manages, that is entirely unique in my experience, is to couple the subjective recollections of a subject with an objective aesthetic analysis of another related subject congruently.

Consider the many DVD special features that one is most familiar with.  A celebrity, either director or actor, recalls the pleasuresLeacock and Brooks of making a film whilst, via jump cuts, the film in reference is often cut to.  The difference between these supplemental features on DVDs and blu-rays and Leacock’s Lulu In Berlin is their motivation.  Where Leacock presents an analysis that is two prolonged and intent on enlightening the audience as to the mechanics of a film and the experience of constructing those mechanics that make the film your average special feature is nothing more than a prolonged advertisement for whatever film happens to be in question.  Even some of the most informative special features, like those on Warner Bros. DVD release of Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid (1973), are, at their heart, commercials.

Leacock’s film of Louise Brooks, with all of its aforementioned merits, still would not likely to have been seen on a home video release if it weren’t for the fact that Louise Brooks is the subject.  In Barry Paris’ excellent biography on Brooks, Louise Brooks, Paris will, again and again, reassert this timelessness.  He points out that to many fans of the cinema today Brooks is more famous and recognizable than those actresses with whom she often competed, such as Clara Bow.  This observation, that is very true, was also shared by Leacock; who opened and closed Lulu In Berlin with the sequence pictured below.

freeze frame from Lulu In Berlin

-Robert Curry

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