#HMWYBS: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow (1963)

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I am headed to a conference in Seattle the day after tomorrow and striving desperately to catch up on things before I go (I am behind on every imaginable project). So thank goodness that for this week’s #HMWYBS Nathaniel selected a package feature — Vittorio De Sica’s Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow (1963). Since I was in a hurry, I screened only the short middle film, “Anna,” but I loved it and am looking forward to seeing how it works with the other segments when I have the chance to watch them.

The majority of the movie takes place in Anna (Sophia Loren)’s Rolls-Royce. She is the bored wife of a wealthy businessman, and she takes pleasure in using the supremely expensive car to punish men for not living up to her expectations. The husband is out of town, so she takes it to fetch her lover, Renzo (Marcello Mastroianni), for a jaunt around town. When Renzo swerves the car into a tractor and reveals that he isn’t “man” enough to get it going again, she uses the accident (and Renzo’s incompetence) to hook literally the next man (Armando Trovajoli) that drives by. Anna is a terrible driver, nearly running over every person in sight and deliberately crashing into a number of bumpers. She is Cruella De Ville but more interested in skinning men than puppies.

The whole film is lovely, and I screen-grabbed several shots of the two lovers driving around town. Giuseppe Rotuno’s camera roams around the car, sometimes sitting in the backseat, sometimes looking in from the exterior, but always contributing to the film’s tension and excitement. I particularly admired the shots utilizing the car’s windows either to signal the disconnect between the characters’ points of view (see the image below) or to lend a dreamy/cloudy quality to the fantasy Anna concocts about running away from her wealthy husband to live a life of relative poverty and simplicity with the Mastroianni character (see the image at the top of this post).

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But my “best” post from the sequence is the last one. Anna and the man she eventually runs away with have talked cars throughout the previous scene, but to Renzo, who has been looking on from the other side of the road, it is abundantly clear that he is being traded in (like a car — get it?). After Anna drives off on the other man’s luxury wheels, speeding by him with her hand out the window in a dismissive gesture, Renzo buys a bouquet of flowers and heads back into town. The colors are gorgeous, with the white lines created by the guardrail and the painted median converging on the wrecked vehicle in the background. Whatever dreams Renzo has had of running off with Anna are smoldering behind him, but his dejected frown releases into a boyish grin. Suddenly, it dawns on all of us that his is a happy ending. The crash behind him is a mere scrape compared to the pain that would have awaited him in an even longer relationship with the feisty socialite Anna.

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#HMWYBS: The Quiet Man (1952)

Quiet Man 1Maureen O’Hara couldn’t possibly look lovelier than she does in John Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952). Cinematographer Winton Hoch, who picked up an Oscar for his efforts, emphasizes her fiery red hair and hourglass figure every time she appears. Virtually any shot containing her would make a great poster because they’re all so unique and beautiful. The trouble is that they are embedded in a film that does O’Hara’s character, Mary Kate Danaher, a lot of violence that I cannot in good conscience condone.

Here is how I might summarize the movie: A physically intimidating American man (John Wayne) buys a house in a small Irish town because he was born there and has enough money (the privilege of being American) to do whatever he wants. He falls in love with an opinionated spinster (O’Hara) who calculates her own value by the contents of her dowry. Romance and marriage follow, but eventually she leaves him because she is embarrassed of marrying a man that will not fight her brother (Victor McLagen) for the money she thinks she is worth. The man proves his valor by pulling her off a train and dragging her by the collar for several miles back into town, receiving encouragement from the meddling townsfolk who are glad to see the mysterious stranger reconnected with his masculinity. He wins her heart by throwing her at her brother’s feet and demanding he take her back.

There is no question that the O’Hara scenes are masterfully lit and composed. But the beauty and sensuality they convey serve to glorify the Wayne character for his violent outbursts, including the kiss he steals in the cottage–

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–and that terrible march from the train back into town.

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The worst thing about all this abuse is that we are supposed to enjoy it. We are supposed to believe that even Mary Kate is enjoying it despite ample evidence to the contrary. Take a close look at the shot above. Can’t you see how proud she is that her husband is dragging her shoeless across a rocky field in front of all the people she has ever met in her life? Can’t you tell what a great time she is having?

In the end, the shot that I liked the best is the close-up of Wayne’s sweaty face when he realizes that he has killed his opponent in a boxing match.

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The shot comes from an excellently executed flashback sequence that explains without any words what the “quiet man” is trying to escape by returning to the hometown he has not seen since he was a child. The shot is pretty standard for boxing movies like Rocky (1975), but it is unlike anything else in this particular film. It is the closest shot of any character’s face, and it is not complicated with multiple characters, lush emerald landscapes, or livestock. It also underlines what is undoubtedly the film’s best quality–the hurting, haunting performance by John Wayne that somehow made it impossible for me to hate his character no matter how much the film reveled in watching him beat up on the beautiful redheaded spinster. The things those eyes have seen!

#HMWYBS: Paris Is Burning (1990)

I had seen Paris Is Burning (1990) once before, but since I watched it as homework for a class on “Black Subjectivity” (whatever that means), I was mostly interested in it as a piece of ethnography. Rewatching it for this week’s #HMWYBS challenge with an eye for cinematography helped me appreciate how well-constructed it is, and how crucial such things as lighting and camera angle are for even a nonfiction film with a miniscule budget.

The movie profiles the drag balls that were popular among queer people of color in New York City, many of them very poor, through the 1980s. The shot that I want to highlight (below) appears when the discussion turns to the categories in which the ball’s participants are able to compete. One category rewards performers for looking “real”—that is, for persuasively concealing their sexual difference by dressing and strutting as though they were straight biological men or women. I found this segment heart-wrenching because I spent some of the best years of my life believing that if I acted manly/straight I might convince myself that I was. From my vantage point several years later, it feels clear that by hiding their difference in order to satisfy society’s desire to lump them into legible gender identities these performers are suppressing what is most unique and valuable about them.

Paris Is Burning 1The cinematography underscores the triumph and tragedy of being named the “most real.” After collecting their trophies, the winners step down from the stage, struggling with all their might not to let their joy disrupt the continuity of their performances. The camera points upward, capturing an intimate look at their facial expressions but also reinforcing the self-confidence the category seems designed to recognize. The whole scene is reminiscent of an Oscars ceremony, which is appropriate given the number of times the balls’ participants share their admiration for (white) Hollywood beauties such as Marlene Dietrich and Marilyn Monroe. Of course, I don’t think many actual “Hollywood beauties” would stand for being filmed at this up-the-skirt angle.

The camera understands that at these competitions “most real” actually means “most fake.” I mentioned that the upward angle reveals the winners’ faces, but it also captures a close look at the parts of the body that we might suppose have been tucked away or added onto for the sake of the competition. Other shots from this sequence linger on the contestants’ breasts (below), but in the one that I have selected the focal point is clearly the pelvis. The line created by the performer’s right hand plus the stage lights passing right behind her* rear end leads our eyes directly to her crotch. Even the spacing of the lights conspires in forcing us to look up the woman’s shorts: Red bulbs flash on either side of her thighs, and the one equally distant on the line between them is in exactly the same position as her groin. Placing the pelvis front and center surely reinforces the celebrated “realness” of this individual’s performance as a biological woman because it dares us to inspect the area for erroneous anatomy. But demanding that we admire the crotch for irregularities also confirms what Judith Butler was calling the “performativity” of gender around the same time that the movie was produced. It invites us to revel in what looks like a perfect deception–but a deception nonetheless.

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Honorable Mention: Before closing, I want to share that I also *loved* how some of the film’s interview segments were shot. Most documentaries have their subjects look right at the camera as if they were defendants or witnesses in a trial and the audience a judge or jury with the right to determine the veracity of their testimony. Not so with Paris Is Burning. Here, several people being interviewed carry on with their preparation for the ball, stitching garments, applying makeup, etc. This results in intimacy, since we feel that these people have let us into one of their most private moments, but also a kind of defiance: If we’re making judgments about their lives or appearance, well, they’re too busy doing more important things to care or even notice.

Paris Is Burning 2My favorite of the interview shots is the one honoring the Best Movie Ever Made–a.k.a. All About Eve (1950). Dorian Corey, like Margot Channing, feels the pressure of young legends-to-be nipping at his heels but seems to understand that his best strategy for keeping his real insecurities hidden is to look confident in other states of expected vulnerability. The composition of this shot is spectacular, framing Corey with the tools of the trade, so to speak, while also lending depth to what is probably very tight quarters. The shot includes the pharaoh that brings exotic gold surfaces to various scenes. In this case, the statue also foreshadows the actual mummy that would be discovered among Corey’s possessions at the time of his death in 1993 (RIP).

*In this post, I have attempted to use pronouns reflecting the gender identity the person in question seems to be performing. I will readily admit that it’s an imperfect approach and apologize in advance for using them wrong.

#HMWYBS: The Sound of Music (1965)

I ran into two troubles while determining a favorite shot from Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music (1965). The first trouble is that some of the film’s best shots—Maria raising her arms to the hills, etc.—are already so iconic they’re ubiquitous, and I wanted to profile something a little less obvious. The second trouble is that the movie is seriously long, and I never schedule myself nearly enough time to get things done. I resolved this second problem by accepting that I would have to select a shot from the first half of the movie and leave the second half to the better organized people also participating in the Film Experience’s #HMWYBS challenge.

I nearly went with a frame from the “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” number, where the lightning glinting off the glass gazebo creates a tension that is somehow romantic, exciting, beautiful, and ominous all at once. But in the end I settled on Captain von Trapp turning down Maria’s offer to play the guitar, which arrives at about 1:24:35.

SOM1The composition of the shot exemplifies two of the things The Sound of Music does really well: It acknowledges that Julie Andrews is the film’s unquestionable star (her blue dress cuts the frame and its mostly neutral palette in half), without making her the focal point of every single frame (it had to have been tempting), and it conveys several characters’ responses to the same set of events. Maria, Max, the Baroness, and the children all have their eyes on the Captain but are seeking answers to very different questions.

The shot also bears the weight of wrapping up the tensions between characters that define the first half of the movie while also introducing subplots that will become important in the second half. Sensing Captain von Trapp’s feelings for Maria, the Baroness will remove herself from the emerging love triangle and leave him to his children and governess-wife. And confirming the Captain’s pride in his children’s harmonizing, “Cousin” Max will press even harder to feature the family in his upcoming folk performance.

With his hand in the air, von Trapp walks from his position in this frame to the other side of the room. He seems to be fleeing Maria’s guitar and his insisting children, but when Maria, the guitar, and the children follow him there, we realize that it is Max and the Baroness that have been left behind.

SOM2When Maria again offers the guitar–and he accepts–it is as if she has passed him a torch and the responsibility for resolving the family’s problems have shifted from her shoulders to his. He then sings his emotional rendition of “Eidelweiss,” and if The Sound of Music were simply a story about reopening a wounded father’s heart to love and his admiring progeny, it could end here. But alas, the Nazis…