The Shape of Water (del Toro, 2017)

I wonder what percentage of The Shape of Water is made up of static shots. 0.5%? Less, even? It’s a pretty dry way to think of the film, but watching it I was so struck by how much the camera moves. It even moves in the many montages and inserts, even if just slightly pushing or tracking. It gives the film this sort of propulsive style; at times I wanted it to steady out and stop, but thankfully I stopped noticing it – which is definitely a testament to the narrative and acting – about midway through.

Guillermo del Toro’s film is precise, a marriage of comic-book style, horror, and true Hollywood, that somehow works. That camera movement is attached to the latter of these three ingredients for me. The constant craning, dollying, etc, feels like big-budget throwback, maybe 1980s, Hollywood. That it’s meticulous speaks to the fine craft of the film: the lens isn’t just flying all over the place. The film is delicately and emotionally blocked. But there’s some kind of childlike wonder to the camera that feels positively E.T.

Ultimately, that’s one of the things I love about The Shape of Water. I’m watching a film that feels nostalgic, and whimsical, and then suddenly there’s masturbation, something maybe like bestiality, and extreme violence. It’s pretty fun and risky to combine these two ideas.

I’ve never liked Richard Jenkins more in a film. During his opening voiceover and very first character introduction I found him dry. But that changed quickly. He’s so good in this, and his range is fantastic. He felt like a cousin to Barbara Bel Geddes’ Midge in Vertigo – some of that is his place at a drafting board, but it’s also the look, and the lovelorn-ness.

I’ve always been a Michael Shannon fan. He’s amazing in the film, of course. I haven’t seen Maudie, so the last Sally Hawkins movie I saw was probably the great short The Phone Call. She’s also great. I was struck by some of the choices she and del Toro decided on for her character. For example, that they chose to make her not “soft-spoken” despite her inability to speak. It’s a great combination and really makes her character vibrant.

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Twilight Portrait (Nikonova, 2011)

A perfect triple feature – though an absolutely exhausting one – might be Twilight PortraitKatalin Varga, and A Gentle Creature (or Old Joy, for that matter). Angelina Nikonova’s debut feature (Hey Mike, speaking of great debuts, here’s one!) was recommended by a friend and it’s cringe-inducing, frustrating, layered, and angry – all great things.

Olga Dihovichnaya plays Marina, an upper-class social worker with an influential father and a useless husband. After a brutal rape at the hands of three police officers Marina’s life completely changes, with many of her actions expressed – sometimes inexplicably – towards those around her.

Sergei Borisov is fantastic as Andrei, who I won’t say too much about so as not to ruin the film. Suffice to say, his unbelievably deep voice serves him well, impressively echoing into his unimpressive flat. He pulls off a great combination of brutality and sympathy (something I had trouble with in Three Billboards…which I think works in spades here for, among other reasons, the narrower spread of the story and time-spent).

Dihovichnaya is also awesome in a really difficult role. Marina goes from adulterous, closed-off, and exasperated, to manic, dangerous, and paranoid in only a short, believable span. It’s a great arc and she nails it.

I couldn’t find the specs online, but I swear that Twilight Portrait is shot on some kind of relatively low-end digital camera. You can feel that video-ness at times. I read someone comparing it to Dogme 95; that feels a little cheap to me. Sure, there’s at least one obvious similarity to The Celebration, and maybe the video points in that same direction, but otherwise it has none of the nervous energy, lo-fi production value, or “rules” associated with that movement. Actually, if it feels like anything of a period that came before it/concurrently, I think it feels pretty Romanian. Lots of interior conversations between people of different classes; a threat of violence often hanging around the frame; a loosely handheld camera, but one that isn’t frantic.

The mise-en-scene isn’t clean as, say Graduation, and Nikonova doesn’t really shoot static, or in many wide frames (lots of close-ups in this one), but, furthermore, the idea of the inescapability of one’s social situation feels like, among others, Tuesday, After Christmas, Aurora, Graduation, and even parts of 12:08 East of Bucharest.

The comparisons To Sergei Loznitsa’s work are pretty clear, I think. Both show a damn corrupt, distances Russia. Interestingly, one of my favorite parts of A Gentle Creature was the work Loznitsa did with his extras. I don’t think that Nikonova’s blocking of them is as complex, but it works to the same ends.

For example, the critical early scene where Marina breaks her heel: Nikonova shoots it in wides and mediums-

-but with the point of showing how many people walk past her without helping (it takes so long, in this extended inciting-incident sequence for someone to actually help her). That first shot above is great. I don’t think it’s any accident that the man checks her out from behind as he walks away.

The second and last frames above serve similar purposes, but it’s almost more frustrating as we get closer. The last shot has people walking right past us, ignoring us and Marina.

There are plenty of other extras that we either meet or see that are unflattering:

Some shots in Twilight Portrait go really dark:

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Sometimes I feel like that’s a function of a camera that can’t really handle low-light, but it’s also really disturbing. The still above is from a really discomforting scene where we can’t see exactly what’s happening in the back seat but we can hear it.

The film is really frank about sex in many ways (one of which, very difficult to watch, comes after the still just above). It’s also about the idea of female versus male pleasure, which we’re introduced to very early on as Marina has sex with her lover. Nikonova cuts between Marina and her point-of-view, which is decidedly banal (a toilet, a wall). You get that idea that if, in a different film, we got his POV it’d be a breathless ECU of her neck:

The last shot of the film is beautiful. It’s part of that frustrating-ness (without real spoilers: Is this part of an elaborate revenge scheme? Has Marina just insinuated herself into a new life to upend it? Is this about PTSD? Is this about what an old, comfortable, boring life has to offer against one that is new, ugly, and somehow refreshing?). Regardless of interpretation, it’s the kind of shot that feels endless, and that the possibilities are multiple:

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Katalin Varga (Strickland, 2009)

I’m really looking forward to Peter Strickland’s In Fabric this year, so a look back at his amazing debut is appropriate. Katalin Varga is a richly textured revenge story. It’s the kind of film that makes you want to shoot on 16mm for all of the rough beauty it captures.

Hilda Péter is the title character, who goes on a trip with her son, Orbán (Norbert Tankó) for some kind of deep-seeded vengeance. It’s best not to say much else. It’s not so much that Katalin Varga is full of twists and turns – its plotting is in some ways rather frank and straightforward – but instead that it’s executed so perfectly and the relationships between characters are drawn so well.

Strickland shot in the Carpathians and he captures a lot of gorgeous wides:

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I’m really curious if Strickland speaks Romanian. He gets such great performances throughout, including some from people who feel like non-actors in the best way:

That second frame above is a nice example of how Strickland gets tension. Given some of the narrative we already have, that man holding the woman frame right is made all the more dangerous. The slightly canted angle, the harsh contrasty lighting, the low angle all add to it.

I love a lot of Strickland’s other technique in here. Here’s a shot he returns to more than once:

It feels symbolic. Mother and son on a horse drawn wagon that isn’t moving. It’s hard to find these symbols. The horse’s movement adds to it. It’s like the stasis and progression of their journey at once, and it really emphasizes their closeness.

He isn’t afraid to let frames go really black-

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-to shoot in silhouette (love this shot)-

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-and to shoot handheld that feels free and improvisational:

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Two of the best moments of the film are highly stylized. Katalin encounters a particular man at a bonfire dance. Strickland shoots it so close and loose:

We really have to follow her looks, and we see her entire attempt at flirtation, wordlessly. We’re on the other side of the fire, or being looked at. It’s really effective.

Later, Katalin delivers an amazing monologue on a boat. Strickland shoots it mostly in singles, but for the most part eschews reaction shots (there are some, but we’re dominantly on Katalin). Towards the end of the monologue he pushes in on her:

It’s an intense moment, filled with the sound of rain and water, where Péter’s performance is perfectly angry and casual. Her body language is so relaxed. When just after this she leans all the way back in the boat it’s like she’s a little kid. Maybe she is and has just freed herself of her burden; we can also feel rage seething underneath it all.

 

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To Sleep With Anger (Burnett, 1990)

I remember when a professor in college showed me Killer of Sheep. I’ve seen it a lot since then. It’s one of those movies whose images just stay with you, but also whose mood – both oppressive and sleepily happy – seeps into your brain. Charles Burnett’s third feature, To Sleep With Anger, is far more traditionally narrative, but the poetry is still there, now just hiding in plain sight.

You can’t talk about To Sleep With Anger without the prologue. Gideon (Paul Butler) sits in coat, tie, and hat. Burnett frames the low angle wide-shot as exceedingly sparse and plain. That, alongside Gideon’s no-reaction brings us right into some kind of metaphorical space:

The camera pans from that close-up to the picture on the wall, to a bowl of fruit, and back to Gideon, still looking impassively off-camera:

The camera is so deliberate. There’s a feeling of a painted still-life, of two generations connected by the earth. I think it’s no accident that man and woman have a similar posture, hat, and eyeline. Maybe Burnett’s telling us that little has changed.

But then things do change. The fruit burns. The table burns. Gideon’s feet burn. Even Gideon’s chest burns:

Gideon gives a small look at the flames below him. Was he just waiting for this moment? And Burnett graphic matches from his burning feet to a “different” Gideon – the real one for the film, let’s say – in his bare feet, holding a bible, and looking out past us in a totally different setting:

There are definitely other connections that can be made here – the flames of hell and the bible; a formal interior vs. a natural exterior. Is that first Gideon dressed for church, or is he dressed the way Danny Glover’s Harry does (in perhaps Glover’s best performance) later in the film?

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Regardless, it’s a mysterious, beautiful opening, and it brings us into the airy world of the film, set in the south, where Harry comes from LA and intrudes on his old acquaintances, gradually disintegrating some bonds.

The film is indeed airy (I’ll always think of the boy trying to play his trumpet), but sometimes Burnett makes it feel so much tighter. Consider two party sequences throughout the film. The first one below is a still from Gideon’s house, the other one is from Harry’s space:

I love the lensing of the latter. It feels so warped and uncomfortable, much also to do with that yellow lighting. The first still at least hints at an outside, or other space.

At one point in the film Gideon and Harry walk the railroad tracks. in the beautiful dusk light. When Gideon looks up he sees a gang of workers on the tracks:

It’s ghostly, a tie to the men’s perhaps shared past – or maybe just their heritage – and again recalls that beginning. There’s something in To Sleep With Anger about how the past always hovers nearby, though it’s never fully whole.

On the surface To Sleep With Anger could just be a family drama, but Burnett fills it with so many of these nuances that it’s so much more.

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Proschanie (Klimov, 1983)

Elem Klimov’s Proschanie isn’t on the level of Come and See, but it’s haunting enough. Klimov made/finished the film after his wife, Larisa Shepitko, died while location scouting it. What a loss. I’d have liked to see her version, especially as it would have been her follow-up to The Ascent, one of the greatest films ever made.

The film is about the village and island of Matyora. The inhabitants are being forced to leave their homes by the government, so it can be flooded after construction of a new dam.

The beginning of the film is maybe the strongest. Klimov’s images are hazy and wide. It’s quiet as a boat approaches the distant island:

When we get a closer look at the boat’s occupants we can more clearly make out their plastic coats:

It’s all pretty surreal and a nice way to set the stage for a film that isn’t so much about one character as it is about incidents and events. The specific identity of these guys matters much less than their sneaking approach and the way that Klimov frames things as mysterious and allegorical.

Two things that come to mind when I think of Klimov: his willingness to go to really aggressive handheld, as partially represented in these stills of a house fire and people running from it-

-and stark, tight-to-the-lens close-ups of characters with worn faces:

His style strikes me as so blunt (not on-the-nose), and Proschanie is no exception to that. The scattered narrative adds to that in a way here. Instead of having forward narrative momentum like in Come and SeeProschanie feels like sprawling glimpses combined with too-close-technique. It’s an interesting pairing that often feels raw.

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Black Peter (Forman, 1964) and The Shop on Main Street (Kadár, Klos, 1965)

Ivan Passer was the 1st AD on Milos Forman’s narrative debut, Black Peter, but it feels like he may have had a script hand as well. The film feels so much like Intimate Lighting, and also like later Forman works, Loves of a Blonde and (my personal favorite) The Firemen’s Ball.

The film is talky in the best way and really relies on long set pieces. Ladislav Jakim plays Peter, and he can be no other than a non-professional actor. Everything about him just screams everyday guy. It’s such a great performance and a real testament to Forman, who gets a precise malaise from Jakim that is so funny and relatable.

Peter works in a shop. As everyone tells him: no men work in shops anymore. The opening sequence supports that as the shop owner lets in woman after woman after woman, before we see Peter, lurking (which he does a lot of) outside. Peter is the security at the shop. He’s totally unequipped to be in that position and so an early scene is of him hilariously trying to spy unobtrusively (and doing the opposite), and then following a suspected thief in an elongated sequence that owes much to silent comics and their rhythms.

1960s Czech films love a good drinking scene and this film is no exception. The unbelievably funny Vladimír Pucholt plays Cenda, another teenager, and a mason-trainee (he’s very proud of his job; it’s quite masculine compared to Peter’s employment). In the best scene of the film – at a dance hall where Peter has brought a date – Cenda gets increasingly drunk, woos a young woman in a pitch-perfect-teenage-awkward way (i.e. he doesn’t woo her), and alternates between aggression and camaraderie.

The scene is also noteworthy for how Forman shoots it. He fills it with close-ups of party-goers and frequently cuts to the musicians. It feels like a warm-up for the entire film of The Firemen’s Ball.

Black Peter is also really insightful about parent-children relationships. Peter’s father paces constantly (a great example of blocking that is nearly as funny as the script and performances!), hands on his suspenders. His mother is always cooking. Peter is constantly at their mercy, but when he complains about them to his crush Asa (Pavla Martinkova) his grumblings feel entertainingly petty.

I wonder about the reception of Black Peter. There’s certainly an element of spying  – albeit clumsy surveillance – that I think could be read into, but that doesn’t come to the forefront.

The Shop on Main Street

This is a remarkable film for so many reasons, but one is the way in which it moves from something like comedy into basically the opposite.

Like Black Peter, I wonder how Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos’ film was received. On one hand it speaks pretty poorly of the Nazis, and I don’t think that would be banned or even looked down upon at the time. On the other hand, it doesn’t speak too well of the citizenry, and includes a whole lot of paranoia and suspicion.

This is the same year as Passer’s Intimate Lighting, but the style is so different. It’s one of the many, many things I’ve come to appreciate more and more about the 1960s Czech output (and, as to be expected, there’s a fantastic drinking scene in this one): there’s such a variety of styles from director to director, film to film. The Shop on Main Street feels so fluid, very nearly Hollywood at times. And then it changes to something surreal and ephemeral later. It’s also so unlike Black Peter, which is after a different sense of camera-realism.

The dominant style early is to pan off of people and things to find others. It’s not a whip pan, but something like a mostly-motivated move on a beat to find someone’s reaction. The dolly is quite active, too. In the latter part of The Shop on Main Street, though, we get something that feels like it may have inspired The Double Life of Veronique: a really ghostly, personal camera. One that pursues the main character but also feels entirely intangible.

Jozef Kroner has such a heavy lift as Tono, the lead. He’s in every scene, and really has to make a long one at the end totally work, where he’s in one-location and more-or-less by himself. The performance is so good. Throughout the course of the film Tono evolves from comical bumbler, to angry drunk, to sympathetic villain, to tragic figure. It’s the writing, direction, and performance that pull this together and Kroner is totally game. His tired face and frantic eyes do a lot. That ending scene is so long and is mostly just about Tono reacting to things. Not an easy performance.

I was lucky enough to catch this on a 35 print, and it’s gorgeous to look at. A sequence that just precedes the final act of the film, where we move from a bar to a building being erected outside is so richly detailed.

 

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Morgiana and Ferat Vampire (Herz, 1972 and 1982)

I’m not really sure that I’ll see a better film this year than Morgiana, Juraj Herz’s amazingly gothic adaptation of an Alexander Grin story. The film was censored before production to remove any traces of schizophrenia, but, though Herz apparently dismissed his own film, his manic, evil end result is awesome.

I read a Film Comment interview with Peter Strickland where he cites this film as an influence on Berberian Sound Studio, but it strikes me as having more to do with his follow-up, The Duke of Burgundy. Regardless, the film’s saturation and inspired camera certainly feels close to Strickland.

Iva Janzurová plays two sisters, Klára and Viktorie, who are polar opposites. After Klára inherits their father’s wealth and also “takes” the man that Viktorie loves, the latter plots her sister’s death.

This is a great example, for me, of a film that somehow transcends its script, which is, as a standalone, good if nothing else. Janzurová’s dual performance is pitch-perfect brilliant, and Herz’s direction boils to a frenzy.

There are wide-angle cat POVs (the cat is the title character)-

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-a really sexual, beautiful title sequence that feels like it might be from a Wojciech Has film-

-and plenty of hallucinatory moments where Herz gets the exact performance and blocking:

These last images just above are so perfectly conceived, performance-wise. Maybe the image quality isn’t good enough, but the look that Viktorie gives to the camera at the doorway is menacing in the worst way. The last image – a hand poking from behind a curtain – gave me chills for the beckoning, scary way it moves.

I’d be hard-pressed to talk Herz without talking blocking. His reminds me a bit of Fassbinder’s. Here’s a scene that’s a good example of that.

Viktorie is visited by her “friend” Otylie (Nina Divísková). Herz designs this scene as circles and counter-circles. It starts with a CU on Viktorie, followed by her POV of Otylie at the door in a wide:

In the same shot, Otylie walks in. The camera tracks back, Otylie sits, and Viktorie enters frame. I like this early move. It feels like such an intrusion from Otylie:

We cut in tight and see Viktorie pass behind Otylie. Herz then cuts into Viktorie’s new eyeline-

-and significantly then cuts into a new angle (by my count the first image below is the fifth shot of the sequence), with Otylie’s eyeline tight to camera. After that, a tighter low angle on Viktorie:

That feels significant because it’s Viktorie’s POV and because there’s a beat here (Viktorie tries to take control of the scene).

Then a fairly elaborate shot. Wider to start. Otylie gets up and we pan with her, finding Viktorie in the foreground. We push in on Viktorie, Otylie leaves frame and we tilt down as Viktorie does:

There’s an exchange here. Otylie came in and made herself comfortable. Then Viktorie sort of slunk around her. Now it’s that in reverse: Otylie kind of slides behind Viktorie, and Viktorie sits down, making herself comfortable.

Another complex shot (the 8th of the sequence) finds Otylie now across the room (established by Viktorie’s eyeline above). She walks closer to Viktorie. We get a 2-shot from behind. She circles Viktorie again and we get an over-the shoulder:

Two close-ups, and then the beat ends (but not the scene, I don’t have the whole thing) with a nearly direct-to-camera shot-reverse-shot:

Like I said, this really reminds me of Fassbinder who loved a) a lot of movement in his blocking; b) people circling one-another; c) characters hiding something and slinking around while doing so.

This sequence is impressive if, for no other reason, the precise marks hit by the actors and the way they dance into them. Both of them seem to slither and glide from mark to mark. You can almost hear the fabric in their dresses as they move – they’re putting on airs and canceling their intentions, but with smiles plastered on their faces.

Ferat Vampire

There’s no way that David Cronenberg hasn’t seen Ferat Vampire. It’s not only the somewhat obvious similarities to Crash, but the overall mood, the combination of camp and tense drama, and the Videodrome-like body horror:

I love the plot summary of this film. Doctor Marek (played by Jirí Menzel!) becomes embroiled in a plot involving vampire cars when his co-worker and crush Mima (Dagmar Havlová) quits to become a race car driver.

What?

This film somehow mostly works. A lot of it is the humor that Herz injects throughout. I mean, taking that plot too seriously would be a recipe for disaster. But it’s also the kind of urgent undercurrents of an energy crisis and a hidden corporation pulling strings. It feels like the ’80s with the rise of conglomerates and the energy crisis of the 1970s.

Like Morgiana, this one begins with an awesome title sequence:

Unlike Morgiana, the blocking in Ferat Vampire feels far more straightforward and traditional. Like this shot where Mima gets into the Ferat car for the first time. Herz’s camera circles her slowly-

-landing in a close-up. It’s quite dramatic and smooth. There’s little of the hysteria of Morgiana.

Some of the great moments of Ferat Vampire are the set pieces that run parallel to the main plot. There’s a series of great interactions with a possibly-dead driver and her wheelchair-bound mother, and also other sequences that seem to function mostly as asides. Here an old woman tries to cross a street. We see Marek walk by her and then she stands alone, looking at the don’t walk symbol:

We get a different perspective, and her fear increases:

The cars whizz by and…

It’s unrelated to the plot, but it speaks to the paranoia that runs under everything in the film. It feels like a horror version of Tati’s Trafic. We get a reaction shot of impassive onlookers-

-some of whom just happen to be people we see looking on emotionlessly at other parts of the film:

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The film is conspiratorial and Herz uses these extras and asides like this to elevate the plot into something even more sinister.

 

 

 

 

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