I haven’t been able to post in 6 weeks because of the firewall while traveling in China. A future post will possibly deal with the Chinese National Film Museum (which is a real trip), but for now I’ll just write about some films I’ve watched during my travels. It was difficult to find much good Chinese film to watch. Most people I met there and chatted with about film either didn’t know much about the state of modern cinema there, wanted to talk foreign film, or wanted to talk about the same directors I already know and love (mostly from Taiwan).
I did get to see Red Amnesia, which I’ll hopefully write about soon, but I’ll kick this return off with a classic that I watched for the first time.
Here in Philly John Avildsen made Rocky. It doesn’t matter what else he directed. Hell, most people probably actually think Stallone directed Rocky.
Aside from Joe, the Rocky series, and The Karate Kid also didn’t know much Avildsen, and wasn’t really that interested. Good thing I watched Save the Tiger. This film is gorgeously written by Steve Shagan with some of the best dialogue I’ve heard in awhile. One of the best is a line from Jack Lemmon’s Harry Stoner to Myra (Laurie Heineman), a young hitchhiker he’s picked up. They talk about drugs and Stoner tells her that back in his day they didn’t know about uppers or downers – “you’d be lucky if you got an enema.”
The film is about the drug culture, a changing of the guard in terms of the hippy generation, but mostly about Stoner’s difficulty in coming to terms with aging. It’s one of the best performances I’ve ever seen Lemmon give (he won his only Oscar for a leading role in it) and Avildsen’s direction is fantastic.
This is a film I’d love to use when teaching a screenwriting or acting class. Everything just sings that way. Lemmon’s role is weighty, but he doesn’t infuse it only with drooping shoulders. There’s a bit of hidden mania to Harry Stoner and when that comes out it really makes for some complexity.
And then there’s the blocking, my favorite. Here’s a fairly long clip, towards the end of the second act, from the film:
This is one of those scenes that does a lot with a little. Great first camera position, where Avildsen stages Phil (Jack Gilford) partially open to camera in the foreground. This is pretty traditional, and even if you pause the clip right at the beginning, you might be able to tell that Phil is going to be used as the lynchpin: the blocking will sort of pivot around him. I like blocking like this. It gives importance to both characters anytime we go to the master shot, but in different ways: Harry is usually more open to camera while Phil occupies more of the frame.
At the beginning of the clip, when Avildsen and editor David Bretherton rely heavily on shot-reverse, there’s also some nice small business for both actors. Harry dresses, Phil drinks. Small stuff to keep them both moving. That swivel chair with the glasses behind him gives Phil cause to open and close to camera, while the doorway functions the same way for Harry. They’re equal.
At 1:50 we settle back into the master again as Harry sits opposite Phil. Both men are settled in their business now. If you follow the conversation we’re also past the “hide and seek” of the scene and, well, down to business.
Harry’s “performance used to count” line at 2:40 brings him to his feet. He’s getting on a role and starting to dominate, if for no other reason, by sheer flow of words. He looms closer over top of Phil now. Then at 2:55 he walks behind him. He sits, so he’s no longer looming over top, but he’s also staring at Phil’s back, forcing the latter to turn to him (3:05) and attempt to take the power back (there’s that swivel chair at work. As an aside: it’s not just that the swivel chair allows Phil to open and close to the camera, it also actually gives Harry more room to maneuver, since Phil is able to move to him without physically changing his position and thereby disrupting the frame).
Notice how once Phil swivels he immediately gets the next close-up. The scene is his now. That’s further emphasized at 3:18, when the first coverage in this new 180 line on Harry is an over-the-shoulder as opposed to a clean single.
But like all good blocking, things don’t settle here. Harry makes his own move right after this. He stands, taking his own over-the-shoulder “with him,” as it were. When he stands over Phil yelling at 3:23 it’s still an over-the-shoulder, but much more dominated by Harry than when he say at 3:18. In fact, when we get back to the master at about 3:30 we’re only seeing Phil’s back.
That return to the master is also cause to settle. Things slow down in this wider frame. (How good is Lemmon’s “Don’t sell me America” line?). Harry paces, but the fight is over. It’s winding down, a decision coming, but telegraphed to be in Harry’s temporary favor. The clip ends with a return to their positions from 2:56. Harry’s win ends looking more like a stalemate.