Thursday, March 23, 2017

Video Essays: The Music of LA LA LAND in Context

Final moments of GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH (Chazelle, 2009)
Final moments of WHIPLASH (Chazelle, 2014)
Final moments of LA LA LAND (Chazelle, 2016)
For the last few weeks, Barry Jenkins' masterpiece MOONLIGHT and its inspirations from THREE TIMES (Hou, 2005) and IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (Wong, 2000) to KILLER OF SHEEP (1977) were heavily on my mind. And I urge anyone who still has not seen MOONLIGHT to give it a try (around here, it only just hit theaters, in the US it is already available on blu-ray and Netflix, so no excuses there)!

But now to the other greatly deserved - aside from the rather complex issues of whitewashing both L.A. and jazz-saving - awards season darling LA LA LAND, aspects of which I analyzed from mid-December to February: I have finally put together three clips for a soundtrack analysis in Swiss German magazine The German text (which you can find here) goes far beyond the aspects analyzed in the videos. But since LA LA LAND is still in theaters I have limited myself to officially available tracks and clips. 

I/III A Lovely Night 
Mia and Sebastian cross paths twice before they finally meet cute like Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (Donen/Kelly, 1952) at a pool party. Despite superficially despising each other, Seb walks Mia to her Toyota Prius. On their way through Griffith Park, Seb subtly segues into a singing about how nice this view at dusk would be if only they were "some other girl and guy" who could appreciate the moment together. After a few seconds, this turns out to be an homage to the mating ritual of Mark Sandrich's RKO musicals with Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. The only difference being that when Astaire woos Rogers in their so-called "integrated" (i.e. off stage) musical numbers we accept them to be world class dancers (and suave singers) because we know about their meta personae. LA LA LAND on the other hand follows all the same moves while celebrating the "authentic" by keeping the protagonists' singing and dancing abilities within reach of what these characters (i.e. rehearsed and well-trained amateurs) would be able to do.

Nevertheless, "A Lovely Night" is the only swing induced song and in the "Summer Montage" version also serves as an ideal example of how Damien Chazelle stages jazz performances. In all his films, Chazelle depicts jazz as an extension of his male protagonist's mindset. And for nonverbal jazz dialogue scenes he likes to use the "jazz whip", a whip pan back and forth between musical dialogue partners.

II/III The Melancholy of Michel Legrand 

Writer-director Damien Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz have repeatedly expressed their adoration for Jacques Demy's French new wave musicals LES PARAPLUIES DE CHERBOURG (1963) and LES DEMOISELLES DE ROCHEFORT (1967). Apart from direct references to the overarching structure of PARAPLUIES and the opening dance sequence from DEMOISELLES, Hurwitz' music is very much influenced by Michel Legrand whose scores for Demy are impregnated with his trademark cheerful melancholy. Legrand usually builds his easy listening arrangements out of a tight jazz rhythm section with piano and vibes that is overlaid with a romantic orchestra, woodwind solos and sometimes a big band. In this second video I focus on some of the more straight forward influences on Hurwitz' music*. 

III/III Internal Monologue 

The deliberate artificiality of movie musicals allows for storytelling devices that go beyond dialogue scenes. Instead of voice-over monologuing, characters often sing about their innermost feelings and worries. One particular genre convention is the interior monologue after a protagonist has fallen in love. In WEST SIDE STORY, Tony belts out Maria's name in expectant ecstasy, for example. In many movie musicals, however, these songs feel like guarded introspective questions brought forth in a seamless transition from dialogue to song, often in a solitary or indifferent environment. By means of a clip from Stanley Donen's FUNNY FACE (1957, a film that LA LA LAND literally references in the epilogue) where Audrey Hepburn sings in her own natural voice - as opposed to the trained voice of Marni Nixon who dubbed all her singing in MY FAIR LADY (Cukor, 1964) - we see how Chazelle and Hurwitz adapt this musical staple into "It Happened at Dawn" (GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH, 2009) and "City of Stars". Despite the superficially obvious difference between Sebastian's "City of Stars" and Mia's "Someone in the Crowd" the two interior monologue songs share surprisingly similar structural elements. And considering the duet version of "City of Stars", both songs express a solitary as well as an exuberant collective version of the same interior feeling. 

* In my opinion, Hurwitz' personal style of arranging and orchestrating is also heavily influenced by Danny Troob's orchestrations of Alan Menken's 1990s Disney scores.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Belated End of Year List 2016

I try to forget all the awful news of 2016 for a moment and focus solely on the films I have seen over the past year. This has probably been the first year (since I started to keep records of my cinema going habits) during which I have seen more films at home than in a theater, even if I am not counting the ones I watched on a computer screen for closer analysis. 

Most memorable cinema moments 
Nevertheless, there were some truly memorable cinema moments in 2016: two of them happened in June, when I visited my sister in London where we enjoyed TRUE ROMANCE (Scott, 1993) - which I had actually never seen before - in a rooftop cinema on the top of an abandoned multi-storey car park wrapped in blankets because of the ice-cold drizzle. And then I even got to see one of my all-time favorites VERTIGO (Hitchcock, 1958) in revelatory 70mm in the Prince Charles Cinema!

After studying Spielberg's first decade as a movie director in detail, I witnessed a truly collective emotion in an E.T. (1982) screening. While I still think that JAWS (1975) and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) are almost perfect masterpieces of entertainment filmmaking, the "shameless", childlike suburban fantasy of a positive poltergeist from outer space is the most (cornily) affecting and personal movie of Spielberg's whole career, even more so than CLOSE ENCOUNTERS (1977).

Of all the new releases I have seen, LA TORTUE ROUGE by Michael Dudok de Wit moved me in a profound way animated films have not moved me in years. I also had a great time at the Annecy Animation Festival with the most memorable event, oddly, being not a screening but a work in progress presentation of MOANA by Ron Clements and John Musker. As they often say, you could not imagine a more enthusiastic audience than the one in Bonlieu theater. 

Music and Lyrics 
In the first half of 2016, in celebration of Erik Satie's 150thanniversary I wrote an article for filmbulletin about how Satie's most famous music is used in contemporary films. For the same magazine I also studied the film music of Howard Shore with a special focus on his collaboration with David Cronenberg.

And just before the year ended, I revisited some of my favorite movie musicals from TOP HAT (Sandrich, 1935) to SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (Donen/Kelly, 1952), A STAR IS BORN (Cukor, 1954) and LES DEMOISELLES DE ROCHEFORT (Demy, 1967) in preparation for a lecture on Damien Chazelle's LA LA LAND. 

Wide angle cinemascope
location shooting / color scheme

colored lighting for dreamy states of mind
Favorite Films of 2016 (in alphabetical order)
  • FINSTERES GLÜCK (Haupt, 2016): Visually coherent literary adaptation about a psychologist who tries to take care of a little boy who lost his family in a car accident. The rare Swiss feature that really moved me.
  • FRANTZ (Ozon, 2016): Ambivalent characters, unreliables narrators, atmospheric black and white widescreen cinematography, suspense, emotional tension and an exceptionally strong leading actress. 
  • I, DANIEL BLAKE (Loach, 2016): If Ken Loach is still decrying similar injustices after almost 40 years, then maybe the world (and not just the British health care system) has not advanced that much, after all. 
  • LA LA LAND (Chazelle, 2016): a mesmerizing experience, Damien Chazelle creates an entirely contemporary love story by combining film making devices of the 1930s to 60s without getting lost in superficial references.
  • LA TORTUE ROUGE (Dudok de Wit, 2016): so simple and archetypal, yet so deeply  philosophical and touching. Sublime.
  • MA VIE DE COURGETTE (Barras, 2016): merely an hour long, but sweet, funny, touching and most of all authentically childlike.
  • OUR LITTLE SISTER/UMIMACHI DIARY (Kore-eda, 2015): For the past few years, Kore-eda's latest family melodrama always made it on my favorites list.
  • SUNSET SONG (Davies, 2015): an underrated (and in Switzerland undistributed) Terence Davies period picture of harsh beauty captured on high resolution celluloid (exteriors) and digital (interiors).
  • TONI ERDMANN (Ade, 2016): a complex father-daughter relationship in a comedy with its own peculiar but extremely rewarding rhythm.
  • VOR DER MORGENRÖTE (Schrader, 2016): a refreshingly static biopic that boldly focuses on a few separate moments in the life of writer Stefan Zweig.
In my book, 2016 was a strong year for animated features. While LA TORTUE ROUGE and MA VIE DE COURGETTE (MY LIFE AS A ZUCCHINI) were among my favorite films over all, I really enjoyed Sébastien Laudenbach's one man feature LA JEUNE FILLE SANS MAINS (THE GIRL WITHOUT HANDS, 2016) and Rémy Chayé's TOUT EN HAUT DU MONDE (2015).

Laika's overwhelming 3D stop motion feature KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS (Knight, 2016) got so many things right that I easily forgive the few wrongs (Matthew McConaughey's character, American idiosyncrasies among Japanese villagers). And within the same year, Disney Feature Animation released two interesting if not wholly convincing films both of which served as perfect examples for explaining specific film making devices (stereoscopic 3D in ZOOTOPIA, digital water in MOANA/VAIANA) in my introductions for children and families.

Watching short films from all over the world, I am delighted to discover that especially the works of young film makers and students demonstrate an overwhelmingly strong color sense. Even if you just look at a random sample of cartoonbrew's "artist of the day" posts (examples see below), this almost universal new "color consciousness" (to abuse Natalie Kalmus' Technicolor term) becomes obvious.

Restraint candy colors in SCAVENGERS (Bennett/Huettner, 2016)
Kevin Phung

Jose Mendez

Mel Tow
Woonyoung Jung

Carrie Hobson

Anete Melece

  • ACE IN THE HOLE (Wilder, 1951): Masterpiece. If you only see one media satire in your life, it must be this one.
  • JACKIE BROWN (Tarantino, 1997): Tarantino's most laid-back and straightforward character study reveals a great deal about how much his trademark dialogue writing is influenced by Elmore Leonard's prose.
  • KISS ME DEADLY (Aldrich, 1955): Cinematic invention, quintessentially lush noir lighting and camera angles and "the great whatsit" as more than a mcguffin in this entertaining Mickey Spillane adaptation.
  • KUROI AME (Imamura, 1989): Realist take on long term effects of the Hiroshima bomb, shot like a post-war picture with incredible music by Takemitsu Toru.
  • PRIDE & PREJUDICE (Wright, 2005): Here, Joe Wright's long takes are unobtrusive and really the perfect device to tell the story of Jane Austen's Bennet girls brought to life by a stellar cast and Dario Marianelli's piano score.
  • SHADOW OF A DOUBT (Hitchcock, 1943): Never mind the production code ending. This tight and funny suspense picture - one of Hitch's personal favorites - about a fascinating and ambivalent uncle-niece relationship grows on me every time I see it.
  • SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE (Park, 2002): Not everyone's cup of tea but a truly cinematic kick-off for Park Chan-wook's vengeance trilogy most famous for OLD BOY (2003).
  • THE QUIET MAN (Ford, 1952): Thanks to the British "Masters of Cinema" blu-ray series I now own a pristine transfer of Ford's nostalgic Irish Technicolor picture.
  • THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE (Gessner, 1976): An unexpected discovery: What an entertainingly zeitgeisty and creepy little film by a Swiss director. Just think of Jody Foster from TAXI DRIVER meeting Martin Sheen in BADLANDS mode.
  • WEST SIDE STORY (Robbins/Wise, 1961): As far as broadway adaptations with dubbed actors go this is still the benchmark. Upon seeing it again in a theater, I came to appreciate Robert Wise's contribution to a film of which I would have always preferred to see a complete Jerome Robbins version.
Amazing cinematography in ACE IN THE HOLE.
Widescreen staging in PRIDE & PREJUDICE

Technicolor location shooting in THE QUIET MAN
In 2017, I have already seen the stylish if slightly inflated Tom Ford thriller NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, Asghar Farhadi's latest humanistic thriller THE SALESMAN and another Billy Wilder masterpiece (STALAG 17, 1953). Now I am looking forward to the Swiss release of Martin Scorsese's SILENCE (2016) and especially to all those films that I hopefully will discover by chance. 

And maybe I even find the time to finish the video essays that I have started to put together in the last few months...

Note: I have also been busy on my companion blog film studies resources:
Two GIFs composed from the "Masters of Cinema" blu ray of ONIBABA (Shindo, 1964).

Friday, November 18, 2016

PAPRIKA Animation Analysis: Opposing Forces Within One Body

Satoshi Kon had a unique way of telling stories on parallel levels of reality. While this is most obvious in the editing and scene transitions, the actual animation by Madhouse is certainly worth analyzing as well. 

One scene from PAPRIKA (2006) I find particularly interesting from an animator's point of view is about two characters with opposing goals that share one single body. While the superficially realistic animation of many Madhouse films is sometimes mistaken for rotoscoped live-action reference material, here the animators' mastery of expressing weight and forces within an acting scene are fairly obvious. It is in fact a very sophisticated example of how to successfully apply all the basic animation principles.
many simultaneously interconnected movements in different speeds; squash and stretch on the heads.

Analyzing Animation
When I analyze an animation sequence, I ask myself what the objective of a each shot is, i.e. what story point (or "beat" in McKee's language) we learn from a shot, and how this is visually communicated through animation (= movement).

[NSFW] Animation Analysis of a Scene from PAPRIKA (Kon, 2006) from Oswald Iten on Vimeo.

What we can learn from analyzing the work of master animators, storyboarders and layouters for our own work are answers to questions like:

  • Which movement is best suited for the story point we want to get across?
  • Which shot size is necessary to communicate this movement?
  • How do we make sure that the audience gets the story point and is not distracted?
  • When do we need to hold a movement?
  • What body part leads a movement and to what effect?
  • How can we use counter-movements to emphasize strength and energy?
  • How do we organically time struggle and bursts of energy?
  • When does it make sense to switch from "twos" to "ones" or "threes"?
But the most important inspiration for any character animator should always come from observing reality and human behaviour around us.

If anyone knows the names of the animators who worked on this sequence, please let me know, I would like to list them here.

[Update 2016-12-23] Thanks to reader "ibcf", we now know that the animators were: Ei Inoue and Toshiyuki Inoue!

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

ZARAFA: a contemporary addendum to "Sumptuous Costume Colors"

The color schemes I described in a series of posts as "sumptuous costume colors" that were popular in animated features during the 1940s and 50s are still in use today. One fitting example is ZARAFA (Bezançon/Lie, 2012), a French film about a giraffe given to the King of France by the Pasha of Egypt. 

While the filmmaker's intentions of exploring historical injustice, among other things, is certainly noble and one cannot applaud its creators enough for trying to break away from formulaic family fare, the resulting film never really takes off.

Whenever the narrative seems to gain momentum, it returns to an overarching storytelling situation which kills whatever suspense there could have been. Perhaps 78 minutes are simply too little time to explore a cast of interesting characters as well as an epic journey through exotic sets. And unfortunately, too often the animation is not on par with the detailed character design.

Tasteful primary colors
But the artwork (especially some of the backgrounds in the later French part of the film, as showcased at the bottom of this post) and the colors are sometimes tastefully dazzling. When Maki, a Sudanese orphan boy, is saved by a wealthy-looking Bedouin called Hassan he is dressed in the same deep dark blue garments. In addition to four different shades of blue there is a very effective shadow layer that makes the costume look even more sumptuous (and realistic):
Naturally, these blue robes look very pleasing against the sand colored backdrop and the yellow giraffe - because they are almost opposite on the color wheel as you can see in the inverted image above.

Then they meet Mehemet Ali, the Pasha of Egypt, who is completely dressed in shades of yellow leaning towards orange which connects him to the giraffe and creates a smooth contrast to Maki and Hassan.
The five bright and warm colors of Mehemet Ali.
The unicolored costume approach makes it easy to distinguish characters clearly in long shots.

In the warm, yellow evening light inside the Egyptian palace (above), these robes look greener:
top: outside, plain sunshine; bottom: inside, warmer lighting.
Hassan's clothes are made up of these four colors plus a very effective shadow layer.

In different lighting conditions they tend towards green.
But intuitively, they still feel blue in contrast to the yellow and red characters. Note that the background in this deep focus long shot below is kept in soft shades of the same basic primary triad:
Red, yellow and blue/green characters in one frame inside the palace.
The aeronaut Malaterre who looks basically red is, in fact, rather brown. The colors of his costume are basically darker shades of Mehemet Ali's costume. Thus, they work well with both of the other dominant costume colors.

"Red" i.e. brown for Malaterre...
...and "yellow" i.e. orange/beige for the Pasha.
Brightness - and especially the expensive shadow layer - are crucial in underlining which character we focus on in group shots. What is obvious in this line-up of figurines...
 ...can also be seen in more subtle versions. In the first frame below, Hassan is almost completely in the shadow while the contrast of values and saturation is much higher on Malaterre. Although Hassan is in the center of both frames, he is only dominant in the second image below, where he seems to be more in the light than Malaterre:
The giraffe who completes the primary triad of yellow, red and blue seems to be less important in the shot above than in the shot below, however.

The costumes of Bouboulina (who is hoarsely voiced by the great Ronit Elkabetz, but whose narrative thread is too underdeveloped here) and her fellow pirates look more down to earth and are made up of more variable colors. Bouboulina herself combines another basic triad very close to the main characters: yellow, red and green.

top row: actual colors, bottom row: pure hues.
Once they reach France, the bourgeois and court people are also dressed in colors that are close to each other, but mostly they look soft and pastel. Most certainly, this is a coincidence - but are these court ladies supposed to be grown-up versions of Cinderella's stepsisters? They were French and affiliated with nobility, after all.
The stepsisters and Lady Tremaine from CINDERELLA (1950)... French court ladies in ZARAFA (2012)?
And if you're not already interested enough in the film by now, there are some astonishing layouts and background paintings that are certainly worth checking out:

Saturday, November 5, 2016

RAIDERS sources comparison

RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is one of those movies that never cease to inspire me and it proves that even action blockbusters can be made of only good - or rather cinematically interesting and consistent scenes. And remember, this comes from someone who counts Farhadi, Fassbinder and Fellini among his favorite directors.

Since I am giving a lecture on Spielberg's use of choreography, editing and music (the one element he claims he has no control over) to achieve the specific rhythm of RAIDERS next Thursday, I have once again accumulated much more material than could ever be incorporated into a 35 minute introduction.

Based on the notion that RAIDERS is consciously based on serials, adventure films and noir classics, there are already some supercuts about the twelve minute introductory scene on the internet (some of them rather far fetched but still entertaining). So as a starter I have compiled a random side-by-side comparisons of influencing scenes most of which have been mentioned by Spielberg, Lucas or Kasdan at some time or other.

The only reference I couldn't find any first hand account of is KISS ME DEADLY (Aldrich, 1955). But since it is so obvious and may have triggered the reading of the "ark" as a metaphor for "the bomb" (after all, Brody says that any army carrying the "ark" will be invincible), I have included it anyway.

RAIDERS sources comparison from Oswald Iten on Vimeo.