Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Akira Kurosawa

The Westworld variations

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Jeffrey Wright on Westworld

Note: Spoilers follow for the most recent episode of Westworld.

I’ve written a lot on this blog about the power of ensembles, which allow television shows to experiment with different combinations of characters. Usually, it takes a season or two for the most fruitful pairings to emerge, and they can take even the writers by surprise. When a series begins, characters tend to interact based on where the plot puts them, and those initial groupings are based on little more than the creator’s best guess. Later, when the strengths of the actors have become apparent and the story has wandered in unanticipated directions, you end up with wonderful pairings that you didn’t even know you wanted. Last night’s installment of Westworld features at least two of these. The first is an opening encounter between Bernard and Maeve that gets the episode off to an emotional high that it never quite manages to top: it hurries Bernard to the next—and maybe last—stage of his journey too quickly to allow him to fully process what Maeve tells him. But it’s still nice to see them onscreen together. (They’re also the show’s two most prominent characters of color, but its treatment of race is so deeply buried that it barely even qualifies as subtext.) The second nifty scene comes when Charlotte, the duplicitous representative from the board, shows up in the Man in Black’s storyline. It’s more plot-driven, and it exists mostly to feed us some useful pieces of backstory. But there’s an undeniable frisson whenever two previously unrelated storylines reveal a hidden connection.

I hope that the show gives us more moments like this, but I’m also a little worried that it can’t. The scenes that I liked most in “The Well-Tempered Clavier” were surprising and satisfying precisely because the series has been so meticulous about keeping its plot threads separated. This may well be because at least one subplot is occurring in a different timeline, but more often, it’s a way of keeping things orderly: there’s so much happening in various places that the show is obliged to let each story go its own way. I don’t fault it for this, because this is such a superbly organized series, and although there are occasional lulls, they’ve been far fewer than you’d expect from a show with this level of this complexity. But very little of it seems organic or unanticipated. This might seem like a quibble. Yet I desperately want this show to be as great as it shows promise of being. And if there’s one thing that the best shows of the last decade—from Mad Men to Breaking Bad to Fargo—have in common, it’s that they enjoy placing a few characters in a room and simply seeing what happens. You could say that Westworld is an inherently different sort of series, and that’s fine. But it’s such an effective narrative machine that it leaves me a little starved for those unpredictable moments that television, of all media, is the most likely to produce. (Its other great weakness is its general air of humorlessness, which arises from the same cause.) This is one of the most plot-heavy shows I’ve ever seen, but it’s possible to tell a tightly structured story while still leaving room for the unexpected. In fact, that’s one sign of mastery.

Evan Rachel Wood on Westworld

And you don’t need to look far for proof. In a pivotal passage in The Films of Akira Kurosawa, one of my favorite books on the movies, Donald Richie writes of “the irrational rightness of an apparently gratuitous image in its proper place,” and he goes to to say:

Part of the beauty of such scenes…is just that they are “thrown away” as it were, that they have no place, that they do not ostensibly contribute, that they even constitute what has been called bad filmmaking. It is not the beauty of these unexpected images, however, that captivates…but their mystery. They must remain unexplained. It has been said that after a film is over all that remains are a few scattered images, and if they remain then the film was memorable…Further, if one remembers carefully one finds that it is only the uneconomical, mysterious images which remain…Kurosawa’s films are so rigorous and, at the same time, so closely reasoned, that little scenes such as this appeal with the direct simplicity of water in the desert.

“Rigorous” and “closely reasoned” are two words that I’m sure the creators of Westworld would love to hear used to describe their show. But when you look at a movie like Seven Samurai—which on some level is the greatest western ever made—you have to agree with Richie: “What one remembers best from this superbly economical film then are those scenes which seem most uneconomical—that is, those which apparently add nothing to it.

I don’t know if Westworld will ever become confident enough to offer viewers more water in the desert, but I’m hopeful that it will, because the precedent exists for a television series giving us a rigorous first season that it blows up down the line. I’m thinking, in particular, of Community, a show that might otherwise seem to have little in common with Westworld. It’s hard to remember now, after six increasingly nutty seasons, but Community began as an intensely focused sitcom: for its debut season, it didn’t even leave campus. The result gave the show what I’ve called a narrative home base, and even though I’m rarely inclined to revisit that first season, the groundwork that it laid was indispensable. It turned Greendale into a real place, and it provided a foundation for even the wildest moments to follow. Westworld seems to be doing much the same thing. Every scene so far has taken place in the park, and we’ve only received a few scattered hints of what the world beyond might be like—and whatever it is, it doesn’t sound good. The escape of the hosts from the park feels like an inevitable development, and the withholding of any information about what they’ll find is obviously a deliberate choice. This makes me suspect that this season is restricting itself on purpose, to prepare us for something even stranger, and in retrospect, it will seem cautious, compared to whatever else Westworld has up its sleeve. It’s the baseline from which crazier, more unexpected moments will later arise. Or, to take a page from the composer of “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” this season is the aria, and the variations are yet to come.

Written by nevalalee

November 28, 2016 at 8:35 am

My ten great movies #9: Seven Samurai

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This is my favorite screenplay of all time—a massively detailed film of more than three hours that establishes its central conflict in the first minute, involves us in the lives of more than a dozen important characters, and treats us to the immense satisfaction of seeing epic action foreshadowed, spelled out, and unforgettably delivered. It’s a story so organic, simple, and rich with possibility that it’s astonishing that it took half a century of cinema for a great director to discover. At well over three hours, this is a long movie, yet it never seems padded or excessive: every scene flows naturally from the premise, until it becomes a film that feels like it could go on forever, like life itself. Elsewhere, I’ve quoted the critic Donald Richie on “the irrational rightness of an apparently gratuitous image in its proper place,” which Seven Samurai has in abundance:

Part of the beauty of such scenes…is just that they are “thrown away” as it were, that they have no place, that they do not ostensibly contribute, that they even constitute what has been called bad filmmaking. It is not the beauty of these unexpected images, however, that captivates…but their mystery. They must remain unexplained…

What one remembers best from this superbly economical film then are those scenes which seem most uneconomical—that is, those which apparently add nothing to it.

Kurosawa’s ability here to combine rigorous narrative logic with moments of intuitive beauty, the product of a perfectly matched right and left brain, is unsurpassed. Figures glimpsed only for a minute—like the merchant who tries to sell buns to the farmers, then ends up grimly eating them himself—are vividly sketched with an almost Shakespearean depth and economy, and the major characters manage to be both archetypal and endearingly human. Mifune, deservedly, receives most of the attention, but when I think of this film, my thoughts turn first to Takashi Shimura’s Kambei, wise enough to know that this is nothing but a fool’s errand, yet still strangely drawn to the joy of war and combat. Like many great works of art, from the tragedies of Shakespeare on down, Seven Samurai has it both ways: we’re both exhilarated by its vision of the samurai code and keenly aware, in the end, of the emptiness of the ensuing victory. “Again we’ve survived,” Shimura says to his companion, only to add, in the very last scene: “And again we’ve lost.”

Tomorrow: The freshest, most timeless masterpiece of the forties.

Written by nevalalee

May 12, 2015 at 9:00 am

The irrational rightness of The Simpsons

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Bart's Comet

There’s a famous but widely debunked statistic claiming that men think about sex an average of once every seven seconds. In fact, according to one recent study, it’s more like nineteen times a day, which may seem like a lot or a little, depending on your point of view. What tickles me the most about this figure is that it’s in the same ballpark as the number of times I think on a daily basis about The Simpsons. The greatest sitcom in history—which celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary as a regular television series today—has achieved something that no other series can claim: for a considerable swath of the population, it’s a kind of ongoing cognitive substratum, with quotes and moments clarifying how we feel about almost everything. Whenever I remember the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Darmok,” which invents a race that speaks solely in mythological metaphors, it seems a little farfetched at first, but if I reconceive of it as a language consisting entirely of Simpsons references, it suddenly feels a lot more plausible. (These days, for instance, I’m trying to teach my daughter how to use the words “you” and “me,” which means that I’m constantly thinking about this.)

What’s even more extraordinary is that I haven’t watched The Simpsons on a regular basis for more than ten years. Which is only to say that I haven’t kept up with the new episodes. The show’s best years—which I’d roughly define as season three through season eight, with a few possible extensions in either direction—have remained constantly in the background for most of the ensuing decade, often with a commentary track, many of which I’ve heard a dozen times or more. (For a long time, Simpsons commentaries played the same role in my life that podcasts serve for many listeners now. Even for the weaker seasons, I still think that they’re the best radio show in the world.) At some point, though, I began to lose interest in what the show was continuing to produce. As best as I can recall, the last episode I casually watched on its original run was “Sleeping With the Enemy,” which aired back on November 21, 2004. It wasn’t a bad episode, and in fact, it was the last script credited to Jon Vitti, who was behind many of the show’s greatest achievements. Yet it was thoroughly mediocre, and I realized that the series no longer gave me much pleasure. Since then, I’ve tuned in for special installments, like the crossword episode and, most recently, the Lego show. But I’ve long since stopped watching it just because it happened to be on.

The Sea Captain on the Simpsons

This isn’t the place for an extensive discussion of the reasons behind the show’s decline, which sometimes seems like the single most thoroughly dissected topic on all of the Internet. What I’d like to highlight here is a quality that doesn’t get mentioned often enough: the show’s underlying strangeness. Looking back at the golden years of the series, it’s striking how many lines, scenes, and images are both inexplicable and totally right. They’re often tangential beats that go on longer than seem comedically possible—not just the rake gag from “Cape Feare,” but Mr. Burns laughing over the crippled Irishman in “Last Exit to Springfield,” or Homer twiddling his thumbs in “Bart’s Comet.” They’re the comedic version of what Donald Richie, in his discussion of Kurosawa, calls “the irrational rightness of an apparently gratuitous image in its proper place,” and as Richie points out, they’re often the things we remember. Which isn’t to say that The Simpsons doesn’t still contain plenty of seemingly irrelevant material; sometimes there’s so much of it that the ostensible plot is almost forgotten. Yet nearly every joke these days can be explained, if you’re so inclined, in ways the left brain can understand: it’s a reference, a sign gag, a parody, a dollop of cringe humor. Every line feels like one that the producers could defend on Twitter, when so much of the show’s best moments work in ways that even the writers would find hard to explain.

Trying to recapture that kind of quality, which is inherently indefinable, is a loser’s game. And there are sometimes still flashes of it. But The Simpsons hit that mark so consistently for so many years that it’s worth wondering what changed. Informed opinion has often linked the show’s permanent decline to the departure of George Meyer, the indispensable man in the writer’s room, who left the show in 2006. Meyer is undeniably responsible for much of what made those classic seasons so special—the subplot in “Lisa’s Rival” about Homer and the sugar truck, for instance, was one that he pitched almost line for line—and the respect in which he was held allowed moments to survive that might not have made it through a more rational rewrite. It’s simplistic, of course, to tether such a rich, complicated show to one man’s sensibility, and the series was always bursting with talent. Yet I can’t help think that Meyer instilled the rest of the staff with the courage to be random, strange, and cheerfully unexplainable. In his absence, The Simpsons became less a writer’s than a producer’s show, and while it continued to produce the occasional high point, like “Trilogy of Error,” even its triumphs, like its animation, felt a little more calculated. It can still be a clever show when it feels like it. But as Meyer liked to say, and as the series has allowed itself all too often to forget: “Clever is the eunuch version of funny.”

Written by nevalalee

January 14, 2015 at 10:12 am

Left brain, right brain, samurai brain

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Seven Samurai

The idea that the brain can be neatly divided into its left and right hemispheres, one rational, the other intuitive, has been largely debunked, but that doesn’t make it any less useful as a metaphor. You could play an instructive game, for instance, by placing movie directors on a spectrum defined by, say, Kubrick and Altman as the quintessence of left-brained filmmaking and its right-brained opposite, and although such distinctions may be artificial, they can generate their own kind of insight. Christopher Nolan, for one, strikes me as a fundamentally left-brained director who makes a point of consciously willing himself into emotion. (Citing some of the cornier elements of Interstellar, the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates theorizes that they were imposed by the studio, but I think it’s more likely that they reflect Nolan’s own efforts, not always successful, to nudge the story into recognizably human places. He pulled it off beautifully in Inception, but it took him ten years to figure out how.) And just as Isaiah Berlin saw Tolstoy as a fox who wanted to be a hedgehog, many of the recent films of Wong Kar-Wai feel like the work of a right-brained director trying to convince himself that the left hemisphere is where he belongs.

Of all my favorite directors, the one who most consistently hits the perfect balance between the two is Akira Kurosawa. I got to thinking about this while reading the editor and teacher Richard D. Pepperman’s appealing new book Everything I Know About Filmmaking I Learned Watching Seven Samurai, which often reads like the ultimate tribute to Kurosawa’s left brain. It’s essentially a shot for shot commentary, cued up to the definitive Criterion Collection release, that takes us in real time through the countless meaningful decisions made by Kurosawa in the editing room: cuts, dissolves, wipes, the interaction between foreground and background, the use of music and sound, and the management of real and filmic space, all in service of story. It’s hard to imagine a better movie for a study like this, and with its generous selection of stills, the book is a delight to browse through—it reminds me a little of Richard J. Anobile’s old photonovels, which in the days before home video provided the most convenient way of revisiting Casablanca or The Wrath of Khan. I’ve spoken before of the film editor as a kind of Apollonian figure, balancing out the Dionysian personality of the director on the set, and this rarely feels so clear as it does here, even, or especially, when the two halves are united in a single man.

Seven Samurai

As for Kurosawa’s right brain, the most eloquent description I’ve found appears in Donald Richie’s The Films of Akira Kurosawa, which is still the best book of its kind ever written. In his own discussion of Seven Samurai, Richie speaks of “the irrational rightness of an apparently gratuitous image in its proper place,” and continues:

Part of the beauty of such scenes…is just that they are “thrown away” as it were, that they have no place, that they do not ostensibly contribute, that they even constitute what has been called bad filmmaking. It is not the beauty of these unexpected images, however, that captivates…but their mystery. They must remain unexplained. It has been said that after a film is over all that remains are a few scattered images, and if they remain then the film was memorable…Further, if one remembers carefully one finds that it is only the uneconomical, mysterious images which remain…

Kurosawa’s films are so rigorous and, at the same time, so closely reasoned, that little scenes such as this appeal with the direct simplicity of water in the desert…[and] in no other single film are there as many as in Seven Samurai.

What one remembers best from this superbly economical film then are those scenes which seem most uneconomical—that is, those which apparently add nothing to it.

Richie goes on to list several examples: the old crone tottering forward to avenge the death of her son, the burning water wheel, and, most beautifully, the long fade to black before the final sequence of the villagers in the rice fields. My own favorite moment, though, occurs in the early scene when Kambei, the master samurai, rescues a little boy from a thief. In one of the greatest character introductions in movie history, Kambei shaves his head to disguise himself as a priest, asking only for two rice balls, which he’ll use to lure the thief out of the barn where the boy has been taken hostage. This information is conveyed in a short conversation between the farmers and the townspeople, who exit the frame—and after the briefest of pauses, a woman emerges from the house in the background, running directly toward the camera with the rice balls in hand, looking back for a frantic second at the barn. It’s the boy’s mother. There’s no particular reason to stage the scene like this; another director might have done it in two separate shots, if it had occurred to him to include it at all. Yet the way in which Kurosawa films it, with the crowd giving way to the mother’s isolated figure, is both formally elegant and strangely moving. It offers up a miniature world of story and emotion without a single cut, and like Kurosawa himself, it resists any attempt, including this one, to break it down into parts.

A writer’s checklist

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Atul Gawande

Recently, I picked up a copy of Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto, which makes the case that in fields involving many routine but complicated steps—aviation, surgery—error rates can be reduced and efficiency increased by means of a simple checklist. His argument is compelling: as the complexity of a procedure rises, we’re more likely to overlook the things we know by heart, which includes fiction as much as anything else. Since I’m currently working on a difficult rewrite, I thought it might be useful to put together a checklist of the principles I try to follow when revising a story, and particularly in cutting it, ticking off boxes as I looked over each chapter in turn. Here’s the checklist I’ve been using this week:

1. Eliminate redundancies. In a rough draft, you’ll often find that you’ve got two beats in a spot where one will do. This is often because you’ve spent the first pass feeling your way into a story, trying one thing and then another, repeating lines of dialogue or moments of introspection to hit upon just the right combination of words. Usually, one of these efforts will stand out as stronger than the rest. Cutting the vestigial attempts that survived into the current manuscript and keeping just the one essential beat you need to convey the idea will save valuable space, and the result will be more powerful by virtue of being more focused. (For a movie that occasionally keeps three moments when might have been more effective, see The Wolf of Wall Street.)

2. Cut the first and last paragraphs of every chapter. This is the Rambo rule that I’ve discussed here more than once, since I first encountered it in a book on writing by First Blood author David Morrell. In your first draft, you’ll often spend a lot of time ramping into a scene and then easing out of it again, and the middle section is what you want to preserve. Along with being aware of this in theory, I’ve found that it helps to actually cut the first and last paragraphs on the screen, even if you’re pretty sure that you’ll need them. If you decide to preserve them after all, it’s easy to click “Undo,” but sometimes you’ll find—when you see it in black and white—that the result works just fine on its own.

3. Open in medias res. Much of the ramping up I’ve mentioned above consists of setting the scene: if the characters wander into a park or museum, you naturally want to spend a paragraph on their surroundings. This kind of description has its place, but it rarely belongs at the beginning of a chapter, which ought to be concerned with the who rather than the where. On television, you’ll often see a device in which the first image after the commercial break is of a closeup of a character, pulling back only later to an establishing shot, and it’s a trick worth imitating. Open on dialogue and action, and once the scene is moving, you can insert some descriptive or transitional material to indicate where we are and how we got here.

Guy Pearce in L.A. Confidential

4. Overlap elements of the narrative. My favorite example here is Exley’s wristwatch in the film version of L.A. Confidential, which cleverly combines three small character beats into a single scene by starting each one slightly before the previous one has finished. This has the effect of stitching together the components more tightly, and it also saves time. Most chapters in a novel can be reduced to a list of moments that occur in succession, and it’s helpful to look for places where the action can be compressed by placing the start of one moment slightly before the end of the one before.

5. Cut all transitional material. Like Kurosawa, I’m well aware that many books and movies spend all too much time getting characters into and out of rooms, walking from place to place, and generally moving from one location in the story to the next. Even with that knowledge, though, I find that my first drafts still include countless paragraphs about characters in elevators, cars, and doorways. Nearly all of this can be cut, and even if there’s material here that you want to preserve, you’ll find that it often sits more comfortably in the heart of the scene itself, once the characters have arrived at wherever it is they’re going.

6. Parcel out information. In his useful book The Eye is Quicker, which provided my quote of the day, the film editor and teacher Richard D. Pepperman points out that information in a movie can be delivered in three different ways: to the audience first, to the character first, or to the audience and character simultaneously. The first is good for suspense, the second for anticipation, the last for surprise, and each one has its merits. Novels, too, spend a lot of time delivering information to the reader, and it’s worth reviewing the units of each scene—plot points, character moments—to see if they can be delayed or telegraphed.

7. Look for asymmetry. When you’re writing a scene for the first time, it’s easy to be seduced by symmetrical structures: it’s nice to have a clear beginning, middle, and end, and that little tripod can be invaluable when it comes to roughing out the events. From the reader’s perspective, however, it’s sometimes best to upset the balance: an individual scene can be mostly buildup, mostly climax, or mostly denouement, and that variation in rhythm lends interest to the narrative as a whole. If a chapter reads too neatly in itself, it won’t mesh well with its neighbors, so it helps to look for cuts that nudge it in one direction or the other.

Ten ways of looking at cutting

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Akira Kurosawa

I’ve said many times that you should strive to cut the first draft of any story by at least ten percent, but where do you begin? Here are a few thoughts to get you started:

[Kurosawa] is particularly averse to any scene which would tend to explain a past action, to predicate itself in history as it were. Kurosawa’s premises are all in the future and this is what makes them so suspenseful, one is always having to wait and see…Just as he always cuts out business which gets a character from one place to another, which, for merely geographical reasons, has him—say—opening and closing doors; so, Kurosawa is impatient with any shot which lasts too long for no good reason.

Donald Richie, The Films of Akira Kurosawa

Start with activity. Conclude with something strong…Whenever I sense that the pace of a sequence of chapters is dragging, I try an experiment and cut the first and last paragraphs of each chapter.

David Morrell

Write out the scene the way you hear it in your head. Then read it and find the parts where the characters are saying exactly what you want/need them to say for the sake of narrative clarity (e.g., “I’ve secretly loved you all along, but I’ve been too afraid to tell you.”) Cut that part out. See what’s left. You’re probably close.

Andrew Bujalski

On every story I’ve ever done, I’ve hard-edited and cut no less than ten or fifteen percent of the story. So if it’s a hundred-inch story, I always cut out ten or fifteen inches. And that’s before I give it to the editor.

Tom Hallman

David Mamet

Here are the danger signals. Any time two characters are talking about a third, the scene is a crock of shit. Any time any character is saying to another “As you know,” that is, telling another character what you, the writer, need the audience to know, the scene is a crock of shit. Do not write a crock of shit.

David Mamet

Please flip to page 73. If you had to cut this scene, would the entire movie fall apart? No. You’d write around it. So cut it and deal with the absence. Repeat as needed.

John August

Take up the thousand word short story you have written and read down until you come to the first dialogue or objective action…Now, start reading all over again, beginning the story as though that first bit of action or dialogue were the start of the story. Read along for two or three hundred words while the action and dialogue continue, until you come to the point where you have again resorted to expository writing—that is, to telling the reader something, rather than to portraying the material in narrative or dramatic form. At this point, insert all of that material which went before the first action or dialogue. Write an additional sentence or two of transition, in between the dialogue and action section and the expository section. Retype the story, with the middle at the beginning, the beginning at the middle, and the ending where it was in the first place.

Jack Woodford

Umberto Eco

Well, there is a criterion for deciding whether a film is pornographic or not, and it is based on the calculation of wasted time…Pornographic movies are full of people who climb into cars and drive for miles and miles, couples who waste incredible amounts of time signing in at hotel desks, gentlemen who spend many minutes in elevators before reaching their rooms, girls who sip various drinks and who fiddle interminably with laces and blouses before confessing to each other that they prefer Sappho to Don Juan…I repeat. Go into a movie theater. If, to go from A to B, the characters take longer than you would like, then the film you are seeing is pornographic.

Umberto Eco, “How to Recognize a Porn Movie”

In general, thirty percent of a first assembly can be trimmed away without affecting the essential features of the script: all characters, action, story beats will be preserved and probably, like a good stew, enhanced by the reduction in bulk. But passing beyond the thirty percent barrier can usually be accomplished only by major structural alterations: the reduction or elimination of a character, or whole sequences—removing vital organs rather than trimming fat.

Charles Koppelman, Behind the Seen

I want you to go through the whole picture. Select what you consider to be the center of each scene, put the film in the sync machine and wind down a hundred feet (one minute) before and a hundred feet after, and chop it off, regardless of what’s going on. Cut through dialogue, music, anything. Then, when you’re finished, we’ll run the picture and see what we’ve got.

Robert Rossen, director of All the King’s Men

And finally, a reminder from Elie Wiesel: “There is a difference between a book of two hundred pages from the very beginning, and a book of two hundred pages which is the result of an original eight hundred pages. The six hundred pages are there. Only you don’t see them.

Kurosawa in the editing room

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[Kurosawa] is particularly averse to any scene which would tend to explain a past action, to predicate itself in history as it were. Kurosawa’s premises are all in the future and this is what makes them so suspenseful, one is always having to wait and see.

Just as he always cuts out business which gets a character from one place to another, which, for merely geographical reasons, has him—say—opening and closing doors; so, Kurosawa is impatient with any shot which lasts too long for no good reason. His short scenes are often mere flashes. In Seven Samurai one of the shots showing a man pierced by an arrow is just twelve frames (1/2 second) long. If you blink, you miss it…Another example is during one of the fight scenes in Sugata. There was a cut showing the opponent flying through the air, having been thrown by Sanshiro. Kurosawa calculated its length and viewed it. Everyone said that it was tremendous. Kurosawa said it looked just like a kite. He halved it, then halved it again. The resulting flash is precisely what he wanted.

Donald Richie, The Films of Akira Kurosawa

Written by nevalalee

October 6, 2012 at 9:50 am

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