Sunday, April 4, 2021

Silence in THE PASSIONATE FRIENDS

Silence in The Passionate Friends from Oswald Iten on Vimeo.

Audiovisual soundtrack analysis. [Spoiler alert: reveals important plot points and ending]

David Lean's 1949 melodrama THE PASSIONATE FRIENDS never gained the same popularity as its similarly themed predecessor BRIEF ENCOUNTER (1945). Had it not been restored and re-released in 2008*, it might have been all but forgotten by now. And yet, there is a lot to cherish and enjoy within these 90 minutes.

Despite its overall unevenness and unsatisfying ending**, THE PASSIONATE FRIENDS is probably my favourite among all of David Lean's films: the uncanny precision of an editor-turned-director at the top of his game, Guy Green's spectacular cinematography, a standout performance by Claude Rains (upstaging Lean's third wife Ann Todd), the recurring motifs of doors and wind (similar to GREAT EXPECTATIONS, 1946) and a lush soundtrack that is as complex as it is sensual.

And that is what this video essay is all about: silence as a powerful storytelling tool.

It was originally conceived as a companion piece to MELODRAMATIC RAILWAY SOUNDS (see below). But since I have eliminated most of the comparisons to BRIEF ENCOUNTER in the process, it definitely works as a standalone soundtrack analysis. In these essays, I always try to visualise sound objects in a way that is appropriate to the source material. This time, the challenge were sensual sound effects and silence itself.

Except for my voice, all sounds in this video come from the audio track of THE PASSIONATE FRIENDS (and in respective clips from BRIEF ENCOUNTER), no equalizers or filters applied. Please note, that in order to highlight certain parts of the soundtrack, I constantly adjust the volume of the clips. This might go without saying. However, while most viewers notice frame, size or brightness changes in an image, sound changes tend to be less obtrusive. So if you want to get a sense of the full dynamic, there is no way around going back to the original film – which I recommend anyway.

* A wonderful Blu-ray is available from Studio Canal in France (in English, of course).
** It is definitely worth reading up on the troubled adaptation and production process.

Since January 2021, I am proud to be part of www.videoessayresearch.org, a research project at the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts. 

Melodramatic Railway Sounds - Video Essay from Oswald Iten on Vimeo.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

[SAFE] and THE NEON DEMON in Dialogue

[UPDATE: the work-in-progress version of "Dialogue III: Carol / Jesse" below has been replaced by the completely reconfigured final version.]

Despite their obvious differences in story, theme and era, in my mind, Todd Haynes‘ [SAFE] and Nicolas Winding Refn’s THE NEON DEMON have somehow become tethered to each other. And I still do not know why, exactly.

Do the detox cult in [SAFE] and the predatory fashion scene in DEMON represent two sides of a coin? Is it the protagonists‘ failures to really connect, the many static moments of women sitting in or on a bed? Is it the slightly creepy L.A. setting, the emotional distance, the electronic score, the turquoise/pink bedroom design, the directors‘ predilections for frames within frames?

None of this is very extraordinary. Besides, if you compare two films, you always find both similarities and differences. So to explore those questions, I originally wanted to recreate the [SAFE] trailer with shots from THE NEON DEMON and vice versa. But I soon found that this was indeed too easy. So I decided only to include certain types of shots in order to suggest an alternative narrative based on the unaltered soundtrack of each original trailer. Additionally, I wanted to explore what an actual dialogue between the films‘ protagonists Carol and Jesse might reveal about their personalities and ultimately, how voices and speech patterns shape our impression of a character.


Dialogue I: [DANGEROUS] from Oswald Iten on Vimeo.

„But the basic, almost funny restriction that we placed on ourselves was this restrained coverage and distance from the character. The joke was, okay, let’s move in for a close-up but we never got very close. All of our proportions were appropriately adjusted from the starting point, which was wide. Minimal camera movement. “

Todd Haynes, 1995 in filmmakermagazine.com

Naturally in „Dialogue I“, I relied exclusively on camera movement, from following the characters unobtrusively to more formal and even autonomous motion.

Dialogue II: IT'S OUT THERE from Oswald Iten on Vimeo.

In „Dialogue II“, the focus is on shots devoid of human figures. Cinematography by Natasha Braier.

Dialogue III: CAROL / JESSE from Oswald Iten on Vimeo.

„Dialogue III“ invites the viewer/listener to explore not only the coincidental visual similarities (and the specific differences between them) but also to ask themselves whether they still perceive Carol (SAFE) and Jesse (DEMON) as specific characters when their interactions are reduced to generic situations and conversations. I’m especially interested to hear, how Carol and Jesse come across to viewers who haven’t seen the original films.


Monday, January 18, 2021

Beyond the Catchy Tunes: George Bruns and Craft of Transparent Underscoring

Video essay about George Bruns and the craft of transparent underscoring within Walt Disney's music department during the Wolfgang Reitherman era (Sleeping Beauty 1959, Goliath II 1960, One Hundred and One Dalmatians 1961, The Sword in the Stone 1963, The Jungle Book 1967, Aristocats 1970, Robin Hood 1973). Made as part of the audiovisual section of the NECSUS Autumn 2020 issue #Method, curated by Liz Green.  

More information about my intentions HERE.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

My Year in Film - 2020 Favourites

In 2020, a lot of things were different. And so was my end of year review of films. Instead of the usual lengthy blog post, I did a series of instagram posts (reproduced here more or less unchanged) beginning with this here: "film of the year", only this year it is a collection of five films by Steve McQueen. Even before 2020, they were designed to blur the line between tv and film, as McQueen submitted them to festivals (some filmed in 35mm and 16mm) but wanted them to be as easily accessible as possible through the BBC and Amazon. In Switzerland through play.google.com

But what's far more important: they may stand on their own, but you only get the full impact when you watch them in that order. Because McQueen counts on your remembering the background information provided by the films that came before.
Before I digress into a full blown review: McQueen is still a master of audiovisual storytelling that often requires no dialogue. He does not intrude, but shows us the humanity of so many characters.
There's a lot of era (and community) defining music, but hardly any musical score except for some Mica Levi magic. The filmmakers turn the Old Bailey into a church, let us experience a vintage house party and entertain us as much as they educate us.

If you're from the West Indian community in London, this may be the first time you see yourself and your friends on screen for that long. If (like me) you're from anywhere else, it's basically mandatory viewing. Because, as one character puts it, "education is the key..."

Favourite new releases











My favourite new releases of 2020 (many of them elsewhere released in 2019) in alphabetical order:
BACURAU / EMA / QUEEN & SLIM* / I'M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS / LES MISÉRABLES / NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS* / ROCKS* / SCHWESTERLEIN* / THE ASSISTANT* / THE SOUVENIR*
(* = Female director)

These are not necessarily the "best" films of the year, but the ones that impressed me the most in some way or another.

On the downside, I have only seen half of them in an actual cinema. On the upside - and that really surprises me - it is definitely the first time that more than half of my top ten were directed by women!
No animated film and no documentary has made the list.

Special Mentions

Although these films did not make my top ten, all of them are worth watching for several reasons. Two special mentions go to old favourites Spike Lee and Roy Andersson, the rest reflect my interest in color and lighting. Turns out that Netflix is the place for glorious black and white these days...


Cross Reactions between Revisited Films

Thanks to several analytical projects, I had an excuse to revisit a lot of favourite or at least interesting films in 2020.

Sometimes, I discover unintended similarities between unconnected films simply because I watch them within the same day or week. Thanks to such coincidental cross reactions I often see familiar movies in a different light.
Revisiting Todd Haynes' [SAFE] for a (canceled) lecture I not only found it to be his first masterpiece but also saw it as a great allegory - not for AIDS as is often suggested, but for our own time. Its disconnected protagonist, atmosphere, color concept and drone soundtrack suddenly made it a more realistic companion of THE NEON DEMON.

When I revisited both THE BIRDS and TAKE SHELTER for another canceled lecture about "fear + sound", I saw both films in a new way... For the first time, the café scene in THE BIRDS with all the different opinions about a looming unseen threat felt not funny but too close to home. I also noticed how much Jeff Nichols' film plays like a nightmare you might have after seeing the Hitchcock classic...

 




Great Films I Saw For The First Time in 2020

Here are some of my favourite older films I saw for the first time in 2020. The first three were on my imaginary must-see-list for many years - and still floored me!






Thanks to a recommendation by @mulmsie I caught up with LE TEMPS DU LOUP (TIME OF THE WOLF, 2003), one of the few Haneke films I knew nothing about.
Thanks to researching Morricone's music for a public lecture, I had a reason to watch classics like SACCO E VANZETTI (Montaldo, 1971) and guilty pleasures like the more preposterous Morricone-Tornatore-collaborations like THE BEST OFFER (2013). Speaking of preposterous premises: I also caught up with a few Kiyoshi Kurosawa movies.
Thanks to @mubi s Louis Malle selectrospective, I think I finally understood what makes those films tick. Special Mention goes to HUMAIN, TROP HUMAIN (1974) for making me watch how a Citroën car is built for 75 minutes without any notable commentary and not regretting any of it.

In the spirit of the first post about SMALL AXE, the biggest thank you has to go to the @criterionchannel for making seminal works of black cinema available to people outside the US!

Speaking of learning about black history: thanks to the National Theatre I enjoyed their production of "Small Island" including some bonus material on youtube.

Favourite TV Series

As sort of a blog bonus, the following were my favourite TV series of 2020. Since I usually watch TV pretty erratically (I don't really care when something is coming out), the list contains both old and new:

  • BOJACK HORSEMAN (final season, 2020)
  • FRIEDEN (Swiss Mini-Series, 2020)
  • KILLING EVE (season 1, 2018)
  • MIDNIGHT GOSPEL (2020)
  • OZARK (seasons 1-3, 2017-20)
  • ROMAN D'ADOS 2002-2008 (2010) 
  • THE THICK OF IT (all 4 seasons, 2005-2012)
And somewhere in between theatre and tv, there was Simon McBurney's mindblowing stage performance THE ENCOUNTER (2015) designed for binaural headphones.