Monday, September 5, 2011

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.
“GREAT MOVIE MOMENTS” John Russell Taylor (first published in 1987)
Unless they are intended for children, I approach picture-books with care. There’s that literary side of me which says they are not really for grown-ups, and I always get irritated when a picture-book wins some literary award. But I can’t be hypocritical about this. A book like Kura Koiwi reminds me of the attraction of picture-books. On my shelves I have many picture-books. Quite a number of them relate to movies. It must be because I was a film-reviewer for about thirty years.

One that still appeals to me is John Russell Taylor’s Great Movie Moments, published 24 years ago. I suppose if you wanted to find a copy of it, you would now have to go to Trade Me, a library or a second-hand book store. Picture-books are sometimes updated, but they have a habit of not being re-published in their original format. A quick check of Amazon and other sites suggests that Great Movie Moments has not been reprinted since 1988.

Now in his late 70s, John Russell Taylor is a British critic who has been commenting on live theatre, fine arts and movies since the late 1950s. Among other things, he was the official biographer of Alfred Hitchcock, but his Hitch is regarded as a lot more tactful and reticent about the director than heftier tell-all biographies of Hitchcock that others have written since Taylor’s one.

One thing Taylor has, though, is an eye for a striking image. This connects with his long career commenting on paintings.

Plundering the Kobal Collection, a great data-base for movie stills, his Great Movie Moments presents (with brief commentary on each) approximately 200 stills from nearly a century’s worth of films.

Inevitably, some are images you have seen in every second movie book. The huge Babylon set from D.W.Griffith’s Intolerance. The downtrodden masses trudging, stoop-shouldered, through the twilight world of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Death playing chess with the Knight in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Robert Mitchum baring knuckles tattooed “Love” and “Hate” in Night of the Hunter. Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster sea-washed on the sand in From Here to Eternity. Gene Kelly swinging around a lamp-post in Singing in the Rain. The big close-up of Keir Dullea’s reflecting space helmet in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

So iconic are these images that they are recognized by millions of people who have never seen the movies from which they are extracted.

But not all of the films Taylor chooses to illustrate are either well-know or illustrious. Not to put too fine a point on it, some are trash. Yet they still contain some striking images.  The silhouettes of thugs beating up somebody in Sam Fuller’s Underworld USA. The impressive shot (it actually looks a lot less impressive on screen) of a man encountering a fallen alien spacecraft in the 1953 science-fiction cheapie It Came From Outer Space. Bette Davis, unhappy, in a fur coat, caught up in prickly cactus for a piece of forgettable 1940s fluff called The Bride Came C.O.D.

Even in their still form,  some images have a shocking immediacy. Conrad Veidt dragging off the comatose body of Lil Dagover in the original 1919 Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Still awful after nearly 90 years, the close-up of the granny with her glasses smashed from Battleship Potemkin. The axe whacking through the door to have a go at Shelley Duvall in The Shining. The demented little boy, with the wild staring eyes, banging his drum in the film version of The Tin Drum.

As you see, I can fill up a number of paragraphs by simply listing some of the book’s contents. As I do so I am confident you will see these images in your mind’s eye because some many of them have become part of the general consciousness.

There are some interesting ideas to draw from this book, nevertheless.

One is that a still image is not the same as an image seen on screen. I have seen many of the films Taylor represents, some of them a number of times. Often a shot frozen on the page is something that flashes by in less than seconds on screen. Its contribution to the totality of a film may be negligible, given that a film is something made up of thousands of moving images cut together.

Yet an image, pulled out of dramatic context, can come to represent the meaning of the whole film. The servant Dirk Bogarde looming over his weak, complacent employer James Fox in Joseph Losey’s The Servant. The woman kissing the toe of a statue from Luis Bunuel’s early surrealist film L’Age d’Or . The sinister image of James Cagney going to the electric chair in Angels With Dirty Faces, a film which isn’t half as serious as the image suggests.

This last example shows that apparently representative images can in fact wholly misrepresent a film. But that raises the possibility that still images taken from films are, in a way, a separate art form, appreciated regardless of the drama from which they ostensibly derived.

Another important lesson is that it is easy to mistake or misremember as part of a movie something that was never on screen in the first place. Throughout this article, I have been using the word “still” for a motionless image extracted from a motion picture. But that is an imprecise usage. Strictly speaking, “stills” were photographs taken for publicity purposes on a film set, between the shooting of different shots. Most of the images reproduced in this book are not stills, but are “frame enlargements”, taken from the actual strip of film that would be projected in a cinema.

In his introduction, Taylor makes the point that some publicity stills have become iconic enough to persuade people that they were part of a film, when in fact they never were.

He gives two examples.

In one publicity still, the original (1933) King Kong looms huge and roaring over the New York skyline. In fact in the movie, the ape is more modest in size – perhaps as tall as a couple of storeys, but certainly not taller than a skyscraper.

In a publicity still for Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious, a side-lit Ingrid Bergman sits posed against a row of dramatically-placed coffee cups, one of which (according the plot of the film) might be poisoned. As Taylor remarks, there is no such shot in the film, but many people have convinced themselves that there is, even after seeing the film.

The still image has inserted itself into public memory of the film.

At this point I could be a little cheeky and note that once or twice Taylor himself uses images that never exactly appeared on screen (the famous still of James Cagney rubbing grapefruit in Mae Clarke’s face from 1931’s The Public Enemy). But the point remains that stills are an art-form on their own, appreciated in the different way from films themselves. Perhaps the same is true of frame enlargements.

1 comment:

  1. Sills are generally shot in production and although intended to suggest incidents in a film, as you note, a still can often misrepresent the mood of the final screen version.
    The Polish film “Passenger” concerns a woman who was a guard in a women’s concentration camp during World War II. The film opens with a woman, a surviving inmate, on a cruise with her husband, who recognises among the passengers the woman who was a guard. The bulk of the film was supposed to be the recollection of events from the inmate’s point of view, and a more self-justifying version from the woman guard’s point of view.
    Unfortunately in 1961 before filming was complete and the film edited, the director, Andrzej Munk died. Munk tended to change plots during production and nobody was clear how he intended to end “Passenger”. Film footage, including partially shot scenes,, was salvaged by others and interspersed with many stills that had been shot on location for post-production publicity. The film was released in this form and with the stills added another depth to the narrative by suggesting the fragmentary and subjective nature of memory. This version may not been what Munk intended but it was very effective.
    Made in France in 1962, Chris Marker’s science fiction “La Jetée (The Pier)” tells the story of a man whose vivid memory of a childhood incident enables him to journey back and forth in time from a ruined post-atomic bombed France. Because of budget constraints Marker shortened the length of the film and made it entirely of still photos with characters’ voices over.