Friday, November 13, 2009

Some Good DVD News For a Change

Criterion's February announcements include, at long last, a DVD of Leo McCarey's masterpiece Make Way For Tomorrow, as well as a DVD and Blu-Ray of Max Ophuls' Lola Montes.

The McCarey disc doesn't have as many special features as it deserves, though in this case I'm OK with Peter Bogdanovich being interviewed, since he was one of the few people who ever interviewed McCarey. And any McCarey-centric special features are welcome, since his movies have fared poorly on DVD (except An Affair To Remember, but most of the special features have nothing to say about him). I still feel that in 1937, with the incredible one-two punch of The Awful Truth and Make Way For Tomorrow, with Ruggles of Red Gap and Duck Soup and the early Laurel and Hardy team-ups under his belt, with Love Affair to come, McCarey was the greatest movie director in America if not the world. He was certainly the greatest director when it came to incorporating improvisation into movies -- dramatic as well as comic. No one has ever approached what he did, no matter how much more fashionable improvisation has become.

I'm not as fond of Lola Montes as some; it's certainly a beautiful-looking movie, but while Ophuls handled CinemaScope better than most directors, I still think it cramped his style a bit. Directors who specialized in elaborate camera moves often lost a lot of their juice in 'Scope. For one thing, they couldn't move the camera as freely because the new lenses were hard to keep in focus, and in general they couldn't use all the tricks they had learned over the years for moving the camera fluidly; everything had to be re-learned for the new format. Also, there was an aesthetic concept, common among directors and film scholars alike in the '50s, that widescreen movies should de-emphasize cutting and camera movement in favor of static shots, allowing the viewer to see all the action at once.

Vincente Minnelli (the director who was most influenced by Ophuls) really suffered in the 'Scope format, his trademark camera moves becoming clunky and clumsy. But for me, another director whose work was hurt by 'Scope was Samuel Fuller. His visual style was built around camera moves: incredibly fast, barely-controlled movements that mirrored the fast pace and violence of the movies. (Scorsese would be the first to admit how much his own camera movements owe to Fuller's.) When Fox decreed that all its movies had to be in 'Scope, Fuller lost a lot of his visual juice, because many of his favorite moves were hard or even impossible to do. One thing he did a lot was moving the camera in very fast to go from a long shot to a close shot in a few seconds. But early 'Scope movies discouraged close-ups, and there would be tons of unused space on either side of the actor anyway. So compared to Pickup On South Street or The Steel Helmet, most of Fuller's 'Scope movies have rather timid camerawork.

As I said, Ophuls used CinemaScope much better than either of those directors, and he didn't let it stop him from moving the camera up and down and round about as usual. I think Lola Montes may even be part of the reason why French 'Scope movies had more fluid camerawork and looked better than their U.S. counterparts: young French directors like Truffaut and Demy, who worshipped Ophuls, learned how a 'Scope camera could do more than just staring at a bunch of people lined up in front of it. Still, Lola Montes -- to me -- seems a little stodgier than Ophuls' other costume pictures (in France, America and Germany).

Also, Criterion is releasing a bare-bones boxed set of all the Gabriel Pascal/Bernard Shaw films after Pygmalion. Since Criterion's own Pygmalion DVD is also bare-bones, I'd have much preferred it if they'd included all four films in one box, but it's still worth getting. None of them are as good as Pygmalion, because Pascal insisted on directing Major Barbara and Caesar and Cleopatra himself, leading to movies that were slow and stagy (which Pygmalion isn't). But Major Barbara has an excellent cast and does a pretty good job of conveying the subversive message of the play, an attack on the complacency of charitable organizations and the way they accept (and even encourage) poverty instead of attacking the problem at its root.


Anonymous said...

Not your most informed post I'm afraid. Both Minnelli and Fuller made wonderful expressive use of the early 'scope format. Hell and High Water was actually an 'experiment' in using Cinemascope in confined spaces. House of Bamboo has exhilarating long, fast tracking shots, stylized compositions. Forty Guns has the most amazing elaborate long takes going from interiors to exteriors...etc.

Anonymous said...

Also Re Minnelli on Ophuls--I've seen a line to this effect quoted somewhere, but I'm curious if you know anthing of the where/when on this comment? It seems a bit unlikely Minnelli--who began directing in the early 40s--would have felt such influence from Ophuls prewar stuff, which was much less well known, but I'm eager to see if there's evidence of it.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

The Minnelli on Ophuls quote comes from this 1977 interview, where he said:

I was very influenced by the movies of Max Ophüls, who moved the camera all the time. That made much more sense to me than to catch each composition as it appeared.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

As for Minnelli and Fuller's use of early 'Scope, I'll freely admit that my opinion isn't very informed, but nonetheless I do find much of their 'Scope work clunky compared to their pre-'Scope work. Yes, these movies do have great moments where the directors made use of the new format. But they also (to me) have their clumsy and heavy moments, particularly in dialogue scenes.

I remember seeing Forty Guns and feeling like, in between the big showy moments like the close-up of the eyes and the big tracking shots, it wasn't as dynamic as it could have been. Maybe I need to see it again.

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