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Books

On the History of Film Style pdf online

Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling

Film Art: An Introduction

Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages pdf online

Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies pdf online

Planet Hong Kong, second edition pdf online

The Way Hollywood Tells It pdf online

Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Figures Traced In Light

Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Exporting Entertainment: America in the World Film Market 1907–1934 pdf online

Video

Hou Hsiao-hsien: A new video lecture!

CinemaScope: The Modern Miracle You See Without Glasses

How Motion Pictures Became the Movies

Constructive editing in Pickpocket: A video essay

Essays

Rex Stout: Logomachizing

Lessons with Bazin: Six Paths to a Poetics

A Celestial Cinémathèque? or, Film Archives and Me: A Semi-Personal History

Shklovsky and His “Monument to a Scientific Error”

Murder Culture: Adventures in 1940s Suspense

The Viewer’s Share: Models of Mind in Explaining Film

Common Sense + Film Theory = Common-Sense Film Theory?

Mad Detective: Doubling Down

The Classical Hollywood Cinema Twenty-Five Years Along

Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic

William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea

Another Shaw Production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong

Paolo Gioli’s Vertical Cinema

(Re)Discovering Charles Dekeukeleire

Doing Film History

The Hook: Scene Transitions in Classical Cinema

Anatomy of the Action Picture

Hearing Voices

Preface, Croatian edition, On the History of Film Style

Slavoj Žižek: Say Anything

Film and the Historical Return

Studying Cinema

Articles

Book Reports

Observations on film art

Archive for the 'Criterion Channel' Category

Ozu’s silent talkie: PASSING FANCY on the Criterion Channel

DB here:

Our  newest installment of Observations is now up on The Criterion Channel. In it I consider how Ozu’s Passing Fancy (1933) exhibits his distinctive methods for treating a scene’s space. Now, here’s a preview for a little bonus that will show up there next week. It’s a short on how Ozu sometimes relied on sound in a silent film.

You probably know about Japan’s katsuben, or benshi. He or she stood alongside the screen and accompanied the film–explaining the action, commenting on it, and imitating the characters’ voices while reciting the intertitles. The benshi were usually given scripts for the titles’ texts, but they were also expected to expand on them.

Benshi became celebrities, as strong an attraction as the movies, and they wielded power over some production companies. Benshi might reedit films to suit the performance they wanted to give. One reason that talking pictures came only gradually to Japan was the resistance of the benshi associations to being put out of work.

Filmmakers who resented the benshi’s power seemed to have sought to make the films as free-standing as possible. One strategy was to have many intertitles, which served to anchor the meaning of a scene. More positively, in Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema I argue that the presence of a benshi gave filmmakers new storytelling opportunities.

Knowing that the benshi would be speaking the lines in the intertitles, filmmakers could make those titles quite short, creating a swift rhythm. (Contrary to some impressions, Japanese silent movies aren’t slow; even dialogue scenes are likely to be cut fast.) Moreover, the benshi could make conversations more compact than what we find in American films. Instead of a pattern of speaker/title/speaker/listener, your shots could run: speaker/title/listener.

Just as important, filmmakers could count on the benshi to fill in things not shown onscreen. That could allow for some unusual interaction between images and speech.

For example, Iwami Jutaro (1937), a swordplay comedy, treats one scene with “offscreen” sound. A bully is watching a kendo match. Cut to the rack of kendo swords, followed by a cry from one fighter, given in an intertitle: “Fool, you’ll be fighting me!”

     

Cut back to the rack collapsing, as if shaken by the fight. Another title: “I give up!” is followed by a shot of a fallen fighter, beaten.

     

The shot of the fallen bully anchors the title, but in the flurry of shots we’re invited to imagine the skirmish. Very likely the benshi was shouting the lines while the accompanying music whipped up a burst of excitement. This elliptical treatment of the match suggests that Kurosawa’s Sugata Sanshiro, made only a few years later, was heir to a tradition of off-center rendering of martial-arts combat.

Ozu recruits the benshi for something more ambitious, as I try to show in this bonus. Regrettably, we couldn’t find usable stills of benshi performances from the period, so the stills illustrate modern revivals. Also, I still haven’t seen Suo Masyuki‘s recent Talking the Pictures (Katusben!, 2019), a comedy about benshi culture.

Anyhow, a little analysis of what we have enables us to appreciate how Ozu uses the benshi to emphasize character reactions. The highlight comes in an emotional climax, when the benshi’s sobs would have filled in offscreen action.

Ozu, a fan of Western cinema, would have seen talkies and realized the power of offscreen sound. But I suspect he didn’t need external influences to understand that the benshi’s patter gave directors great freedom in visual narration.

 

Passing Fancy is one of three masterpieces Ozu released in 1933. (The other two, Dragnet Girl and Woman of Tokyo, are also on the Channel.) The Japanese cinema of this period was one of the glories of world filmmaking, with talent at all levels. Still, very few directors anywhere matched Ozu’s quietly outrageous innovations in form and style, his urge to show us cinema, and so the world, in a poignant, exhilarating way.


Thanks to Kim Hendricksen, Peter Becker, Grant Delin, Erik Gunneson, and the team at Criterion for enabling me to include this clip on our site. Thanks also to Komatsu Hiroshi for information on Iwami Jutaro and Steve Ridgely for correction of one of the intertitles.

For more on the benshi, see the comprehensive study Benshi, Japanese Silent Film Narration, and the Forgotten Narrative Art of Setsumei: A History of Japanese Silent Film Narration, by Jeffrey A. Dym (Edwin Mellon Press, 2003). Fascinating background on the struggles between the benshi and other sectors of  Japanese film culture can be found in Joanne Bernardi, Writing in Light: The Silent Scenario and the Japanese Pure Film Movement (Wayne State University Press, 2001) and Aaron Gerow, Visions of Japanese Modernity: Articulations of Cinema, Nation, and Spectatorship, 1895-1925 (University of California Press, 2010).

Another intriguing review of Talking the Pictures is Jessica Klang’s in Variety.

Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema is available for free download here. (Be patient; the file is big.) An earlier Observations segment considered Kurosawa’s cutting of martial-arts action, and a blog entry developed that a bit more.

Another way to make a silent talkie is discussed in this entry on The Donovan Affair.

Passing Fancy (1933).

Light up with Hildy Johnson: The NYT viewing party for HIS GIRL FRIDAY

DB here:

Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott have had the excellent idea of picking a film for readers to watch over the weekend and inviting them to write about it. Here’s the viral viewing scheme.

I’ll be keen to read what the multitudes have to say.

If you’re interested, our site has paid homage to this classic several times. First I rehearsed a bit of history about how it snuck into university courses. Then I wrote an appreciation of it to accompany the release of the packed Criterion disc. (Find out why it’s called His Girl Friday!)

That disc release included a video essay in which I analyzed some things that fascinate me about this endless enjoyable movie. The video now accompanies the film on the Criterion Channel. There’s a vast trove of Hawksiana there as well, with expert comments and background information.

From its first edition in 1979, our textbook Film Art: An Introduction has used the film as a prime example of classical Hollywood storytelling. My colleagues Lea Jacobs and Vance Kepley have written a lot about it too. It’s the movie of our whole Wisconsin film studies program.

What more do you want? The 1940s. Hawks. Grant, Russell, the sublimely sincere Ralph Bellamy. His Girl Friday draws breakneck comedy out of  how the fast-talking and quick-witted can trounce the fumblers and boobs. (Would that it happened in real life.) The whole carnival is played out by one of the greatest scramble of sharp-edged character actors in Hollywood history.

And thanks for reading the second paragraph.


Thanks to Peter Becker, Kim Hendrickson, Curtis Tsui, and all their colleagues at Criterion for making this Hawksapalooza possible.

VAMPYR and more on the Criterion Channel

DB here:

Busy times! I’ve gone back to teaching this semester, and we’re revising Film History: An Introduction. So we’ve been kept from posting as often as we’d like. For the moment just let me signal the newest additions to our Observations series on the Criterion Channel.

In recent installments, Kristin offers an analysis of how film technique suppresses and reveals story points in Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table. A free extract is here.

Jeff Smith traces how mise-en-scene techniques, especially settings, yield feminist implications in Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career. Sample it here.

This month, as you see above, I’ve offered a consideration of Vampyr as an experimental film. Again, you can see a clip.

Thanks to the people who’ve told us they enjoy our offerings, now running for nearly three years, longer than Joanie Loves Chachi. Thanks as well as to the group that makes it possible: Peter Becker, Kim Hendrickson, Grant Delin, Erik Gunneson, and the rest of the team in Madison and Manhattan.

With the Channel sponsoring an ambitious seventeen-film Burt Lancaster series, you might check out this entry on Brute Force.

The Mona mysteries: Varda’s VAGABOND on the Criterion Channel

DB here:

The Criterion Channel has just posted the latest in our Observations on Film Art series. In this installment I try to analyze Vagabond‘s shrewd and unsettling use of some traditional plot patterns: the road movie, the mystery investigation, and the network narrative. I argue that the orchestration of these patterns encourages us to think about our life choices.

You can watch the film here, and watch the video essay here.

Vagabond is a film I’ve admired since it came out in 1985, and by now it’s something of a classic. Its the original title, Sans toit ni loi (roughly, “Homeless and Lawless”) follows Varda’s habit of rhyming or punning titles: L’Opéra-mouffe, Daguerreotypes, Mur murs , Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse, Visages et villages. The mixture of playfulness and serious themes (homelessness, women’s rights, the struggles of the poor, the importance of ordinary people) makes her work unique. She respects both the problems of our lives and the possibility of finding something to affirm–if only our efforts to help one another. I was reminded of all these qualities by her last film, Varda par Agnès; seeing Vagabond again reminds me how much we miss her.

 

Several of our entries have been devoted to Varda; see the set here. In my view, Vagabond is her masterpiece, but she’s made many fine films, and a lot of them are available for streaming from Criterion.


Our entire Observations series is here. Thanks as ever to the Criterion team, especially Peter Becker, Kim Hendrickson, Grant Delin, and John Magary, who did a bang-up editing job. Thanks as well to Erik Gunneson here at UW–Madison. And thanks to colleague Kelley Conway for help with my scenario for this installment.

I discuss Vagabond as an example of ambivalent narration in the Afterword to “The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice,” in Poetics of Cinema, 166-169.

Vagabond (1985).

David Bordwell
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