Tuesday, November 28, 2006

It's a hard world for little things.

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The following is an essay about one of my all-time favorite films that I wrote for my Writing Composition class. It's intended for a "general audience," so it spells out a few things that those of you who regularly read this blog might already know about. But I thought you might enjoy it nonetheless.

"Two terrified children, a boy and a girl, huddle together, amongst the piles of coal in their fruit cellar. At the top of the stairs, a dark, shadowy figure appears, darkening the doorway like the Grim Reaper dressed in a preacher’s clothes. “Chilll-dren!” he croons in a fearsome baritone drawl. “Chilll-dren? I can hear you whisperin’, children, so I know you’re down there. I can feel myself getting’ awful mad. I’m running out of patience, children. I’m coming to find you.”

This image is one of many that was etched into the memories of those who saw legendary character actor Charles Laughton’s lone directorial effort, The Night of the Hunter. Although it was panned by critics and ignored by audiences upon its initial release in 1955, this story of a psychotic preacher, who marries and murders a bank robber’s widow and peruses her two orphans across the Depression-era South in search of a stolen fortune, has planted seeds in the soil of our cultural landscape, never to be forgotten by those who were bewitched by its beauty.

But what exactly is so special about this film? There was never another like it, before or since. Laughton, whether consciously or unconsciously, broke several unwritten but ironclad rules of filmmaking when he brought this story to the screen. Remember that in the mid-fifties, it would be several decades until cinema would come to be recognized as an art form. At that time, filmmaking was strictly a craft and a business. Even though most films were shot on soundstages, all the characters had an off-screen “reality” as actors, and there were producers and a director controlling the whole thing, it was uncharacteristic of a movie to remind the audience of this fact. Movies never let on that there was someone behind the camera, that everything the audience saw was a fabrication- to do so would be considered bad filmmaking. The Night of the Hunter broke this rule by staging several key scenes, such as the aformentioned one in the cellar, and when Preacher Harry Powell murders the children’s mother, Willa, on dollhouse-like interior sets where the walls cut away into black nothingness. Other directors at the time would have framed such shots closer inside the room, not letting on that the set was actually just a set. But in shooting those scenes the way he did, Laughton emphasized their symbolism – the fruit cellar was a terrifying hell from which the children needed to escape, and the master bedroom, with its pointed ceiling resembling a church steeple, is where Harry Powell consummates his marriage to Willa Harper by cutting her throat rather than going to bed with her.

That’s the other thing that sets The Night of the Hunter apart – its symbolism, which is unabashedly overt. Robert Mitchum’s preacher is the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing, with the words “love” and “hate” tattooed on his knuckles. “Would you like me to tell you the little story of right-hand-left-hand?” he jovially asks the gullible townsfolk. “The story of Good and Evil?” It is indeed this struggle, which Powell illustrates by creepily arm-wrestling himself. The children, John and Pearl, represent good, and their love and trust is taken advantage of by evil Powell, when he takes on the role of their wicked stepfather. With their mother dead, and John’s only friend (a kindly old alcoholic who calls himself Uncle Bertie) drunk into a stupor when he needs him the most, the children flee down the river under the cover of darkness. Their rowboat glides smoothly down the river, past various types of predators and prey in the foreground (rabbits, toads, foxes, and owls), until they reach the home of the matriarchal Mrs. Cooper, played by Lillian Gish. Mrs. Cooper takes the children in, relieving them of their premature burden, and serving as their protector against Harry Powell. In the film’s haunting climatic scene, Cooper sits in her rocking chair on the porch in a trance-like state, clutching a shotgun, and challenging the false piety of Powell’s eerie hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” with the correct lyrics, “Leaning on Jesus.” Eventually, Powell vanishes into the night and we see a barn owl perched on a limb descend upon a helpless rabbit. Upon hearing the squeals of the poor animal, Mrs. Cooper sighs and proclaims, “It’s a hard world for little things.”

Such overt symbolism undoubtedly turned audiences and critics off in 1955, who must have found the Biblical and fairy tale references hokey. Of course, the same people probably cared little for Citizen Kane, It’s A Wonderful Life, and Vertigo, all of which suffered a similar fate upon their release. To the true believers in the cinema, The Night of the Hunter is a beautiful tapestry of nightmare imagery, Bible stories, and the Brothers Grimm, and fully deserving of its place among the greatest motion pictures of all time."

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

"To play it safe is not to play" - Robert Altman 1925-2006

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This is a truly sad day for cinema, which has lost one of its heroes. Robert Altman was one of the best and most iconoclastic American directors of the 1970's, as well as one of the greatest filmmakers in the world. Though he will probably be remembered for Nashville, considered by most to be his masterpiece, and for MASH, his first commercially successful film, my personal favorite will always be Short Cuts. From celebrated classics like McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, and The Player, to underrated, unusual works of genius like Popeye, and recent efforts such as Gosford Park and A Prairie Home Companion, Altman never directed a film he himself didn't choose or develop, resulting in one of the most distinguished directorial careers in cinema's history. His ways of shaping a film, telling the stories of 20-odd different characters with interweaving storylines and overlapping dialogue, has been often imitated, but never equaled. Godspeed, Mr. Altman... the cinema is a darker place now without you.

If you've got time, be sure to read of Dennis Cozzalio's moving tribute to Mr. Altman at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, as well as Rick Lyman's New York Times obituary, which has links to reviews and trailers of many of his films.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Party Animal - The Production Diaries

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Hi all - my sincerest apologies for failing to keep updating all of you on the progress of my short film Party Animal (formerly titled The Party), but I've been so caught up in making the damn thing that I forgot to continue documenting the making-of story here as I'd originally planned to. As of right now, the scoop is I wrapped the shooting on Sunday and completed the editing today at approximately 8:30 p.m. I will screen this 3-minute-long version for my Media Production class tomorrow, but I plan to get to work on a more evenly-paced "director's cut" in the near future.

After something of a creative dry spell this year, it's really been great to be "back in the saddle again," making movies. I've had a chance to try a lot of new things and work with some terrific actors, and had a ball re-visiting the friendly, familiar territory of the tongue-in-cheek short horror film. Anyone who's interested in a copy of the DVD (which will contain both versions of the film), shoot me and email and I'll be sure to hook you up.

Friday, November 10, 2006

"I crap bigger than you!" - Jack Palance 1919-2006

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Today, Hollywood was sad to lose the great Jack Palance, one of the finest tough-guy actors of all time, and one of the few still-living remenants of a bygone era of filmdom when men were men. Though best remembered for his role as the icy-blooded gunslinger Jack Wilson in Shane, and his Best Supporting Actor acceptance speech for City Slickers, during which he dropped to the floor and did a series of one-handed pushups, he played a multitude of characters in westerns, gangster movies, war pictures, noir films, dramas and comedies, in a career that spanned over fifty years. He was also a prizefighter and a B24 Bomber pilot during WWII, and was inducted into the Cowboy and Western Hall of Fame in 1992. With a weatherbeaten face, tall, hulking presence, and calm, low voice which made you suspect he'd gun you down as soon as look at you, Palance was one of the men who put a face on the word "badass." He will be fondly remembered.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Land of Dreams now on YouTube!

Mad Scientist Productions has finally made the jump to YouTube. I uploaded my short film of William Blake's poem's The Land of Dreams.

I will upload more movies soon. Unfortunatley I'm editing my "supernatural hangover story" The Party right now, and I don't have enough room on my hard drive to do that and render my other movies small enough upload to YouTube at the same time. Couple of weeks, though, I'll have 'em up.

Monday, November 06, 2006


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As Billy Wilder and Fritz Lang proved in the past, it often takes the unique perspective of an outsider to show Americans some of the ugly truths about the land we live in. What makes Borat!: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan so brutally funny is that British comic Sacha Baron Cohen's Kazakh TV reporter alter-ego Borat Sagdiyev is an outsider pretending to be even more of an outsider. Sporting a hideous grey suit and an even more hideous moustache, Borat hails from a poor village in a highly fictionalized version of Kazahkstan, in which "women can now ride on the bus, and homosexuals no longer have to wear blue hats." His government sends him, along with his portly manager Azamat, to a very real version of America, in search of "cultural learnings." It is in America that Borat stumbles upon an episode of Baywatch on his hotel room TV, and embarks on a cross-country journey to make Pamela Anderson his bride.

The setup is basically an excuse for Cohen to interview a diverse range of Americans while in character as Borat, with gut-bustingly funny results. The character is so dim-witted, so misogynistic and anti-Semetic, so misinformed and yet so earnest and enthusiastic, that no-one ever really knows quite what to make of him. His "vast cultural differences" cause his victims to put up with him a lot longer than you'd expect, and he causes confusion and bewilderment wherever he goes. Some encounters, such as Borat's entrance to an Atlanta hotel after taking fashion and speech tips from a crew of young black men, play like the greatest episode of Candid Camera you ever saw. Others, including interviews with an elderly rodeo cowboy and Southern gun shop owner, will freeze your blood. Cohen's ability to get creepy red-staters to reveal their true colors is comparable to Bowling For Columbine, and his perceverence in the face of real danger rivals that of the Jackass crew.

It would be a shame to repeat any of the jokes here, but let me say this: I saw this the weekend it opened at the Chelsea West, and I don't think I've ever heard a fully packed audience laughing this hard before. As is true with all great comedies, it warrants being seen on the big screen with the audience reactions going on around you. Granted, this is New York, and it might not play so well in more conservative areas of the South. But if you're fond of South Park's style of humor that mixes scalotogy and precicely-aimed low blows with biting social satire, Borat will prove a mind-blowing, gut-busting, and gloriously un-PC work of comedic genius. You watch, now. Is nice!

Thursday, November 02, 2006

"The Party" Production Diaries Vol. 1

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Mad Scientist Productions is back up and working again, on a short film entitled The Party. The story concerns a college-age young man named Greg, not that dissimilar to you or I. He wakes up one morning after a night of heavy partying to find he might have partied a little harder than he thought humanly possible. It's your typical horrible hangover story, but with a supernatural twist, and it will hopefully be part of an anthology horror project in the spirit of Creepshow and Twilight Zone: The Movie, with entries by Jules Carrozza and a handful of others.

This past Sunday, I shot most of the main footage with Aaron Lee Jones (pictured above), who plays the main character. Aaron's an acting major at the School for Film and Television. He's one of the finest actors I've ever worked with and really nailed the macabre, blackly comic spirit of the character that is crucial to the feel of this movie. The action takes place entirely inside a college dorm room and kitchen, so I used my room, to avoid any kind of BS with asking for permission. (A previous short film that I planned, involving a monster stalking a young man in a library, was aborted due to the CCNY librarians being difficult about elements of the story)

The project is an assignment for my intro-level video production class. As per the instructions of the class, the film cannot have synchronized dialogue, it must be no longer than three minutes, and it is to be completed and handed in on November 14th. I will wrap the shooting this weekend and proceed with the editing. I can't wait to put this baby together. It's going to be a real treat.