Archive for the ‘1970s’ Category


“Killer of Sheep,” dir. Charles Burnett

April 22, 2010

A stunning work of naturalism. Make no mistake, this IS a student film, with the rough mechanics and conceptual lapses synonymous with student work, but historically and aesthetically, it’s a remarkable achievement.

It looks and feels very real, but it’s approach also seems very alien compared to other films shot in places like Watts. It’s tempting to compare it to Italian neorealism, but its hazy lyricism, plotless structure and loose interactions place it somewhere between Terrence Malick and John Cassavetes. Some stretches of the film even progress like a dream, and the eclectic choices populating the soundtrack reinforce this sense of surrealism.

Again, the film’s not a seamless experience – parts of it stumble, and several scenes are too clearly acted and (presumably) scripted, betraying the inexperience of its cast. But their best moments are exquisite, like a slow dance to “Bitter Earth,” filmed nearly in silhouette, erupting in unrequited passion and ending in painful alienation.

It’s strange that Burnett can be such a beloved figure of African-American filmmaking, yet few African-American films since “Killer of Sheep” share his sensibility. Burnett himself hasn’t made many films since then, and for a while, most of them were unreleased or wallowing in obscurity. Fortunately, Milestone has brought a good portion of them back into circulation, and thanks to Steven Soderbergh’s generosity (he paid for the music clearances), “Killer of Sheep” is no longer confined to the underground.


Q&A Notes: Liv Ullman at BAM

December 6, 2009

For the past few weeks, BAM has been showing a retrospective of Liv Ullman’s films in conjunction with her staging of A Streetcar Named Desire, a production that has gathered a fair share of enthusiastic acclaim.

During a Q&A session after an afternoon screening of Cries and Whispers, Ullman gave some amusing and self-deprecating insights into her work, particularly her collaborations with Ingmar Bergman.

Warning: Plenty of spoilers ahead.

To start, she singled out this extended close-up in Cries and Whispers, where Erland Josephson details all the changes in her character’s face:

“You are beautiful… but you have changed. These days you cast rapid, calculating, sidelong glances. You’re gaze used to be direct, open, and without any disguise. Your mouth is an expression of discontent and hunger. It used only to be soft. Your complexion has become pallid, you use make-up. Your fine, broad forehead now has four creases above each eyebrow… And this fine contour from the ear to the chin… it’s no longer quite so evident. That’s where complacency and indolence reside… Look here, at the bridge of the nose, why do you sneer so often, Maria?… Beneath your eyes, those sharp, barely visible wrinkles of boredom and impatience.”

Ullman admitted she wasn’t feeling modest when they filmed this scene – fairly confident about her appearance, she was filled only with bewilderment at Josephson’s lines. (“How can he make all of this up?”) When she finally saw a cut of the film, she realized how damning the scene looked with her puzzled expression…to her, it was a fine example of how an actor can find the right note without fully grasping what they’re doing.

The most revealing anecdote involved a pivotal scene in Bergman’s Face to Face, where her character attempts suicide in her childhood bedroom. Apparently, Bergman gave her very little direction, telling her, “Okay, in this scene, you take some pills, you lie down and then you die.” (cue audience’s laughter) As soon as he said that, Bergman then turned to the prop master and said, “Are you sure you replaced the Valium with fake pills?” An obvious joke, but Ullman entertained herself with a touch of paranoia, wondering if he was serious, and that was enough to spark her imagination. To her, that was the key to any convincing performance – in other words, good direction set off the imagination (or “fantasizing”) necessary for any actor lose themselves in a character or a scene. Beginning with Bergman’s remark, Ullman detailed her entire thought process throughout that take: following the paranoia, her hands were able to shake from anxiety. Then, she realized she had to take many pills, perhaps all of them, in order to successfully kill herself, and Ullman didn’t liked swallowing pills in general, much less many pills – that ratcheted up her anxiety even more. Then when she laid down to die, Bergman remained silent, which meant the scene had to continue. She then began to pick up details in the room, like a mural, and she felt it because she thought it was something she had seen in this room throughout her childhood so she wanted to touch it one last time. She then looked at her watch because she curious what her time of death would be. Finally, Bergman said, “Thank you,” and that was the end of the scene.

She later noted that bad direction gave her a better idea on how to handle actors, recalling one experience (without identifying the film or director) where she was given very technical instructions. “Walk over here, say your line, count to five, then go here…” Following such instructions (especially counting out beats in her head) took her completely out of the scene.

Ullman discussed Persona, pointing out that she and Bibi Andersson were already best friends when they made that film and kept virtually no secrets from each other. The one scene she focused on was Andersson’s famous retelling of an orgy – apparently the physical details of her character’s reactions were all carefully scripted (the look she needed in her eyes, even the growth in her character’s lips). It struck her as excessive, a lapse in Bergman’s direction, but he was able to get her to follow through.

(As a side-note, five years ago, I caught a restoration of “Persona” presented by MGM archivist John Kirk. Though he wasn’t fluent in Swedish, he knew enough that he was dissatisfied with most translations of the film’s dialogue. So for the ‘orgy scene,’ he got several translators to work on it and then used the least inhibited translation for the new film prints and the DVD reissue.)

Ullman then briefly discussed her only line in the film (“Nothing!”) which she claims she’s seen mistranslated in some prints (not Kirk’s, I hope), and she confessed that she and Andersson believed Persona “would never be heard from again because it was soweird.”

Ullman then said that the most satisfying experience she’s ever had making a film was actually Jan Troell’s The Emigrants/The New Land. She credits that to Troell’s background as a cinematographer – apparently the camera was constantly filming and hovering about on the set, a tactic that kept her ‘lost’ in the film which she believed reinforced her performance.

She had some amusing things to say about her last directorial effort on film, Faithless, which Bergman wrote. In that film, the director’s name is “Bergman,” but when Ullman brought up the explicit referential nature of that character, Bergman went coy, telling her, “Oh no, it’s just a name I came up with…” Bergman tried not to interfere with Ullman’s work, but he initially disagreed with two of her choices (showing forgiveness to the lead male character and a shot of “Bergman” looking at himself on the beach). In both cases, he eventually told Ullman that she was right and he was wrong, and in the case of the latter, he even duplicated the shot for his own autobiographical documentary.

Ullman also said she would never direct another film – unfortunate but not surprising if you read Vogue‘s recent feature on Cate Blanchett. She said she no longer had the stamina to deal with the business side of filmmaking (mainly getting backers), and she didn’t like producers who meddle, something she claims is comparatively absent in her experience in the theater.

The afternoon’s most amusing anecdote involved her only experience in a stage musical back in the 1970s. She told the producers she didn’t know how to sing or dance, but apparently they just said, “Oh, you’re charming and pretty, you’ll do fine.” She repeated the same fears to the composer Richard Rodgers, who was by then fairly old. He told her, “Don’t worry, I’ve worked with plenty of actors who’ve never had any singing experience…I’ll write something that’ll fit your voice and you’ll have nothing to worry about it. I just need to know your range, so just sing for me ‘Happy Birthday.'” Ullman obliged, and she swears that Rodgers aged ten years right in front of her. She followed through on the project, and she admits there was a great deal of fun, “but then again, maybe I shouldn’t have done it?” (Very hysterical the way she delivered this.)

Finally, she closed the Q&A by discussing her plans to tour a production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night in her home country – something Norwegians can look forward to next year.


Van Morrison & The Band in “The Last Waltz,” dir. Martin Scorsese

November 26, 2009

My favorite performance from The Last Waltz, filmed on Thanksgiving Day, 1976:

Other highlights:

The Band’s performance of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” from the same night…

…and the Staple Singers perform “The Weight” on a sound stage with the Band.

Happy Thanksgiving!


“Jaws,” dir. Steven Spielberg • a case study in remixing

November 26, 2009

Courtesy of Stephen Altobello:

“In 2000, Jaws was remixed from its original mono soundtrack into 5.1. The result is an insult to the craftsman who won an Oscar in 1975 for Best Sound.”


“Days of Heaven,” dir. Terrence Malick

October 11, 2009

Days of Heaven

Absolutely beautiful. This film’s typically hailed for Almendros and Wexler’s stunning cinematography, but such praise can be misleading, defining the picture as a sequence of pretty postcards.

With Alberta, Canada filling in for the Texas Panhandle, the natural surroundings have been fused with the story’s themes and characters, creating an organic mix that breaks away from the demands of conventional narrative. This is almost a wholly visual experience, where everything floats by with an air of mystery, tantalizing in an opaque richness that’s difficult to articulate even when its strongly felt.

At times, the relationship between characters and landscapes invites comparisons to Michelangelo Antonioni, but whereas Antonioni’s backgrounds seem like direct expressions of a person’s emotions and psychology, the effect here is much more lyrical and abstract. Not since Murnau has a filmmaker crafted a picture like this (and appropriately enough, the film pays homage to Sunrise on at least two occasions).

Days of Heaven
The story focuses on three characters engaged in a love triangle, and very little’s laid out in dialogue; most of the words come through voice-overs from a peripheral figure, and even then they’re not there to guide the audience. Like Malick’s previous film, Badlands, a teenage girl supplies the narration, but unlike Holly, Linda’s words have no flowery aspirations. Her tone is remote, and her cerebral, if simplistic, observations create a striking counterpoint to the passionate emotions threatening to consume the film’s central characters.

Early on, Linda recounts apocalyptic stories she’s picked up from someone in her past; when their idyllic life begins to crumble, those fire-and-brimstone images creep into her observations. The film may glow with lush romanticism, but what makes it so extraordinarily alluring is also destructive. Infatuation and marriage is fed then ruined by the same deceit and cold calculation. And just as the landscape’s natural beauty is breathtakingly gorgeous, so is its violent devastation. What seemed so elegiac at first feels more like a ravishing obscenity that looked deceptively sacred.

A perfectly-realized work from an elusive filmmaker, this is a landmark achievement that redefines modern cinema even as it reaches back to an aesthetic nearly left behind in the silent era.

Days of Heaven