Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Goodfellas

The steady hand

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Danny Lloyd in The Shining

Forty years ago, the cinematographer Garrett Brown invented the Steadicam. It was a stabilizer attached to a harness that allowed a camera operator, walking on foot or riding in a vehicle, to shoot the kind of smooth footage that had previously only been possible using a dolly. Before long, it had revolutionized the way in which both movies and television were shot, and not always in the most obvious ways. When we think of the Steadicam, we’re likely to remember virtuoso extended takes like the Copacabana sequence in Goodfellas, but it can also be a valuable tool even when we aren’t supposed to notice it. As the legendary Robert Elswit said recently to the New York Times:

“To me, it’s not a specialty item,” he said. “It’s usually there all the time.” The results, he added, are sometimes “not even necessarily recognizable as a Steadicam shot. You just use it to get something done in a simple way.”

Like digital video, the Steadicam has had a leveling influence on the movies. Scenes that might have been too expensive, complicated, or time-consuming to set up in the conventional manner can be done on the fly, which has opened up possibilities both for innovative stylists and for filmmakers who are struggling to get their stories made at all.

Not surprisingly, there are skeptics. In On Directing Film, which I think is the best book on storytelling I’ve ever read, David Mamet argues that it’s a mistake to think of a movie as a documentary record of what the protagonist does, and he continues:

The Steadicam (a hand-held camera), like many another technological miracle, has done injury; it has injured American movies, because it makes it so easy to follow the protagonist around, one no longer has to think, “What is the shot?” or “Where should I put the camera?” One thinks, instead, “I can shoot the whole thing in the morning.”

This conflicts with Mamet’s approach to structuring a plot, which hinges on dividing each scene into individual beats that can be expressed in purely visual terms. It’s a method that emerges naturally from the discipline of selecting shots and cutting them together, and it’s the kind of hard work that we’re often tempted to avoid. As Mamet adds in a footnote: “The Steadicam is no more capable of aiding in the creation of a good movie than the computer is in the writing of a good novel—both are labor-saving devices, which simplify and so make more attractive the mindless aspects of creative endeavor.” The casual use of the Steadicam seduces directors into conceiving of the action in terms of “little plays,” rather than in fundamental narrative units, and it removes some of the necessity of disciplined thinking beforehand.

Michael Keaton and Edward Norton in Birdman

But it isn’t until toward the end of the book that Mamet delivers his most ringing condemnation of what the Steadicam represents:

“Wouldn’t it be nice,” one might say, “if we could get this hall here, really around the corner from that door there; or to get that door here to really be the door that opens on the staircase to that door there? So we could just movie the camera from one to the next?”

It took me a great deal of effort and still takes me a great deal and will continue to take me a great deal of effort to answer the question thusly: no, not only is it not important to have those objects literally contiguous; it is important to fight against this desire, because fighting it reinforces an understanding of the essential nature of film, which is that it is made of disparate shorts, cut together. It’s a door, it’s a hall, it’s a blah-blah. Put the camera “there” and photograph, as simply as possible, that object. If we don’t understand that we both can and must cut the shots together, we are sneakily falling victim to the mistaken theory of the Steadicam.

This might all sound grumpy and abstract, but it isn’t. Take Birdman. You might well love Birdman—plenty of viewers evidently did—but I think it provides a devastating confirmation of Mamet’s point. By playing as a single, seemingly continuous shot, it robs itself of the ability to tell the story with cuts, and it inadvertently serves as an advertisement of how most good movies come together in the editing room. It’s an audacious experiment that never needs to be tried again. And it wouldn’t exist at all if it weren’t for the Steadicam.

But the Steadicam can also be a thing of beauty. I don’t want to discourage its use by filmmakers for whom it means the difference between making a movie under budget and never making it at all, as long as they don’t forget to think hard about all of the constituent parts of the story. There’s also a place for the bravura long take, especially when it depends on our awareness of the unfaked passage of time, as in the opening of Touch of Evil—a long take, made without benefit of a Steadicam, that runs the risk of looking less astonishing today because technology has made this sort of thing so much easier. And there’s even room for the occasional long take that exists only to wow us. De Palma has a fantastic one in Raising Cain, which I watched again recently, that deserves to be ranked among the greats. At its best, it can make the filmmaker’s audacity inseparable from the emotional core of the scene, as David Thomson observes of Goodfellas: “The terrific, serpentine, Steadicam tracking shot by which Henry Hill and his girl enter the Copacabana by the back exit is not just his attempt to impress her but Scorsese’s urge to stagger us and himself with bravura cinema.” The best example of all is The Shining, with its tracking shots of Danny pedaling his Big Wheel down the deserted corridors of the Overlook. It’s showy, but it also expresses the movie’s basic horror, as Danny is inexorably drawn to the revelation of his father’s true nature. (And it’s worth noting that much of its effectiveness is due to the sound design, with the alternation of the wheels against the carpet and floor, which is one of those artistic insights that never grows dated.) The Steadicam is a tool like any other, which means that it can be misused. It can be wonderful, too. But it requires a steady hand behind the camera.

The riffs of Wall Street

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Jonah Hill and Jon Bernthal in The Wolf of Wall Street

Over the weekend, I watched The Wolf of Wall Street for the second time, and I came away with two thoughts: 1) I like this movie one hell of a lot. 2) It still feels about twenty minutes too long. And unlike Casino—a propulsive three-hour epic that I wouldn’t know where to trim—it’s easy to identify the scenes where the movie grows slack. Most of them, unfortunately, revolve around Jonah Hill, an actor whose performances I enjoy and who works mightily in the service of an unwieldy enterprise. Hill is a massively energetic presence and an unparalleled comic riffer, and Scorsese appears to have fallen in love with his talents to the point of grandfatherly indulgence. The scene in which Hill’s character delivers a briefcase of cash to Jon Bernthal, for instance, seems to go on forever at a point in the story when momentum is at a premium, mostly so Hill can deliver two or three inventively obscene tirades. It’s amusing, but it would have been just as good, or better, at half the length. And while for all I know, the entire scene might exist word for word in Terence Winter’s script, it certainly feels like an exercise in creative improvisation, and it caused me to reflect about the shifting role of improv in film, both in Scorsese’s work and in the movies as a whole.

Improv has been a part of cinema, in one way or another, since the days of silent film, and directors have often leaned on actors who were capable of providing great material on demand. (Sigourney Weaver says as much in Esquire‘s recent oral history of Ghostbusters: “Bill [Murray] was kind of expected to come up with brilliant things that weren’t in the script, like day after day after day. Ivan [Reitman] would say, “All right, Bill, we need something here.”) Given the expense of physical celluloid and repeated setups, though, it wasn’t simply a matter of allowing performers to riff on camera, as many viewers assume. More frequently, an actor would arrive on set with unscripted material that he or she had worked out privately or in rehearsal, and the version that ended up in the finished scene was something that had already gone through several rounds of thought and revision. Things began to change with the widespread availability of excellent digital cameras and the willingness of directors like Judd Apatow to let actors play off one another in real time, since tape was cheap enough to run nonstop at marginal additional cost. When the results are culled and chiseled down in the editing room, they can be spectacular, like catching lightning in a bottle, and the approach has begun to influence movies like The Wolf of Wall Street, which was shot on conventional film.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Jack Nicholson in The Departed

Like all good tricks, though, the improv approach gets tired after a while, and Apatow’s movies since Funny People and This is 40 have presented increasingly diminishing returns. The trouble lies in a fundamental disconnect between improv, character, and situation. A line may be hilarious in the moment, but if the riffs don’t build into something that enhances our understanding of the people involved, they start to feel exhausting or enervating—or, worst of all, like the work of actors treading water in hopes of a laugh. We aren’t watching a story, but a collection of notions, and they’re at their weakest when they’re the most interchangeable. Hill’s riffs in The Wolf of Wall Street are funny, sure, but they’re only variations on the hyperaggressive, pointedly offensive rants that he’s delivered in countless other movies. By the time the film is over, we still aren’t entirely sure who his character is; there are intriguing hints of his weird personal life early on, but they’re mostly discarded, and the movie is too busy to provide us with anything like a payoff. Many of Hill’s big scenes consist of him hitting the same two or three beats in succession, and for a movie that is already overlong, I can’t help but wish that Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker had kept Hill’s one best take and saved the rest for the special features.

Of course, many of the most memorable lines and moments in Scorsese’s own filmography have arisen from improvisation—“You talkin’ to me?” in Taxi Driver, “I’m a clown? I amuse you?” in Goodfellas, the confrontation between DeNiro and Pesci while fixing the television in Raging Bull—so it’s hard to blame him for returning to the same well. Yet when we compare Hill’s work to those earlier scenes, it only exposes its emptiness. “You talking to me?” and “I’m a clown?” are unforgettable because they tell us something about the characters that wasn’t there in the script, while The Wolf of Wall Street only tells us how inventively profane Jonah Hill can be. And this isn’t Hill’s fault; he’s doing what he can with an underwritten part, and he’s working with a director who seems more willing to linger on scenes that would have been pared down in the past. We see hints of this in The Departed, in which Scorsese allows Nicholson to ham it up endlessly—imitating a rat, smashing a fly and eating it—in his scene at the restaurant with DiCaprio, but there, at least, it’s a set of lunatic grace notes for a character that the screenplay has already constructed with care. Improv has its place in movies, especially in the arms race of modern comedy, which is increasingly expected to deliver laughs without a pause. But as in so many other respects, The Wolf of Wall Street is a warning about the dangers of excess.

Hugo and the ghost of Michael Powell

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Martin Scorsese’s Hugo opens with an image that has long been central to this director’s work: a boy looking through a window at the world outside. As most fans know, this image is autobiographical—Scorsese’s asthma kept him indoors for much of his childhood, forcing him to view the world from afar—and although this isn’t the young Henry Hill, staring longingly at the gangsters across the street, but Hugo Cabret and a CGI wonderland of Paris in the 1930s, it shouldn’t blind us to the fact that this is Scorsese’s most personal film since Goodfellas. It’s a curious movie: far from his best work, yet ultimately entrancing, for reasons that have less to do with its considerable technical merits than with its romantic notion of what the arts, especially cinema, can mean to one person over the course of his or her life. In particular, it’s about what movies mean to Scorsese, and to convey this, he employs no fewer than three fictional surrogates, often where you least expect them.

At first glance, of course, it’s the technological aspects that command our attention. Scorsese is clearly tickled to be working with a large budget and in three dimensions, and Hugo is one of the best arguments I’ve yet seen for 3D as something more than just a fad. Unlike Avatar, which largely unfolds in an airless, if gorgeous, universe of special effects, Hugo takes particular pleasure in small touches of reality: steam, ash, the particles of dust on a real set. Its 3D is less a gimmick than a way of immersing us in a new world, aided immeasurably by Robert Richardson’s cinematography and Dante Ferretti’s production design, and the result is captivating from the very first frame. And while the same isn’t quite true of the plot—Scorsese seems rather indifferent to some of the beats of the children’s book he’s adapting, and the first half hour is especially lumpy—the story eventually becomes absorbing as well, thanks largely to the invisible figure at its heart: the English filmmaker Michael Powell.

The action of Hugo, and this is a minor spoiler, revolves in great part around the director Georges Méliès, whom Hugo discovers, now neglected and depressed, operating a toy shop at Montparnasse Station. Later, Hugo introduces him to a film scholar, an enthusiastic student of Méliès’s work, who goes on to unearth and restore many of his lost films. And while the plot closely parallels that of Brian Selznick’s original novel, it isn’t hard to see what drew Scorsese to the story: it’s basically a fabulous recasting of his own relationship with Michael Powell, whose films he loved as a child, and whose life he finally entered after establishing himself as a director and student of film in his own right. Like Méliès, Powell, once hugely popular, was overlooked for decades, during what should have been the most productive years of his career—in Powell’s case, after the disastrous release of the controversial Peeping Tom. And Scorsese played a major role in his rediscovery, leading the way in recent years in the restoration of his major works, beginning with The Red Shoes. (It’s even possible to see a hint of Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese’s editor and Powell’s wife, in Méliès’s wife Jeanne d’Alcy, played here by Helen McCrory.)

As a result, Powell’s ghost hovers like a protective spirit above much of Hugo. (Among the many small references to the work of the Archers: in the film’s closing scene, Méliès, played by Ben Kingsley, wears the same white tie and tails as Lermontov at the end of The Red Shoes.) And Scorsese himself appears in three guises: as the young Hugo; as the movie scholar and Méliès fan René Tabard (nicely played by Michael Stuhlbarg); and, most interestingly, as Méliès himself. Scorsese is obviously far more interested in Méliès than in much of the surrounding story, and it’s hard not to read the final scene, as Méliès receives the Legion of Honor, in light of Scorsese’s string of late career awards. And while Scorsese has been far from neglected, he knows how it feels: he once feared that Raging Bull would be his last movie, and spent much of the 1980s in a relative wilderness. Like all artists, Scorsese has had moments, at one point or another, when he feared that his work had been in vain. If a film like Hugo is any indication, his legacy is secure.

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