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JOHN LENNON, SUNSET BOULEVARD AND THE PRICE OF FAME

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2020 marks two anniversaries. The first is the 40th anniversary of the murder of ex-Beatle John Lennon (1940 – 1980) by the social misfit, Mark David Chapman (1955 – ). The second is the 70th anniversary of the release of Sunset Boulevard. Although they are separated by some thirty years, each event acts as a reminder of what can happen when the desire for fame gets out of hand.

At 10.50pm on December 8th, 1980, Chapman watched as Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono (1933 – ) made their way through the entrance of the Dakota building, dropped into a combat stance, and fired five shots from his Charter Arms .38 Special revolver. Four bullets struck Lennon in the back and shoulder. The fifth missed and shattered a window.

Lennon was rushed to the Roosevelt Hospital where three doctors, two to three medical attendants, and nurse spent ten to twenty minutes trying to revive him. The doctors even tried opening his chest to perform a manual heart massage, but the damage to the vessels around his heart were too great. John Lennon was announced dead on arrival at 11.15pm.

Lennon had been shot at close range by four hollow-point bullets. Two had passed through his body, one had lodged itself in his upper left-arm, and a fourth had lodged itself in his aorta. The autopsy concluded that Lennon died of “hypovolemic shock, caused by the loss of more than eighty-percent of blood volume due to multiple through-and-through gunshot wounds to the left shoulder and left chest resulting in damage to the left lung, the left subclavian artery, and both the aorta and aortic arch.”

John Lennon’s murder and the plot of Sunset Boulevard mirror one another in many ways. Lennon was murdered by a deranged lunatic who believed he could achieve notoriety for himself by murdering a popstar. Similarly, Sunset Boulevard tells the story of a long forgotten, and equally demented, film star who achieves a return to fame by murdering her gigolo.

Sunset Boulevard was the product of a collaboration between Billy Wilder (1906 – 2002), Charles Brackett (1892 – 1969), and Donald McGill Marshman, Jr. (1922 – 2015). The story was based, in part, on the Evelyn Waugh (1903 – 1966) novel, The Loved Ones which recounted the author’s experiences in Hollywood and the funeral business. Wilder, who had become fascinated by American culture whilst living in Berlin, dreamt up a story about a long forgotten silent film star who resides in one of Sunset Boulevard’s grand houses. Brackett suggested making the story about the star’s comeback, whilst Marshman, Jr. suggested using it to explore the relationship between the forgotten film star and a young man.

Sunset Boulevard’s success was aided by three factors: the writing of Wilder, Brackett, and Marshman, Jr., the direction of Wilder, and the cinematography of John Francis Seitz (1892 – 1979). Seitz gave Sunset Boulevard a dreamlike quality in which fantasy and reality blend together almost seamlessly. The fantasy world Norma Desmond inhabits is shot in deep focus and made to look dark and ominous. By contrast, the real world that Joe Gillis inhabits is depicted as well-lit and filmed in a documentary-style fashion.

Numerous actors were considered to play Joe Gillis, including Fred MacMurray (1908 – 1991) and Montgomery Clift (1920 – 1966). Clift was originally signed to play the part, but withdrew from the project at the last minute. The role eventually went to William Holden (1918 – 1981).

Joe Gillis is a down and outer. Prior to meeting Norma Desmond, Gillis’ situation is so dire that he actually considers returning to his newspaper job in Dayton, Ohio. He is hounded by debt collectors, forced to use the telephone at Schwab’s drugstore because he cannot afford one of his own, and is even fired by his own manager. Gillis believes that he can live the life of an expensive playboy by reading Desmond’s script and entertaining her deluded fantasies. The problem is that he has to make a Faustian pact in order to do so.

The reason Gillis finds Desmond’s offer so tempting is that he has become jaded about the Hollywood system. He represents the writer as just a mere cog in the movie-making machine. He notes the general lack of recognition for the writer and his craft, the writer’s uncertain prospects, the likelihood of executive meddling, and the ever-present risk of plagiarism. He complains that Hollywood will reject your script if it is too original or if it is not original enough.

Norma Desmond, Sunset Boulevard’s antagonist, was based on a myriad of silent film actresses. The name is believed to be derived from the silent film star, Mabel Normand (1892 – 1930) and the film director, William Desmond Taylor (1872 – 1922), who’s sensational 1922 murder has never been solved. Suggested models for Desmond include Norma Talmadge (1894 – 1957), Mary Pickford (1892 – 1979), Pola Negri (1897 – 1987), Mae Murray (1885 – 1965), Clara Bow (1905 – 1965), and Valeska Surratt (1882 – 1962).

Norma Desmond was played by former silent film star, Gloria Swanson (1899 – 1983). Like Desmond, Swanson had been a major silent film star and was known for her beauty, talent, and extravagant lifestyle. And like Desmond, her film career faded with the coming of sound. Unlike Desmond, however, Swanson was able to accept the end of her film career, moved to New York in the early-thirties, and pursued a successful career in theatre, radio, and television.

Norma Desmond has come to symbolise an entire generation of silent film stars whose were thrust aside by the advent of sound. When her star fell, Desmond retreated into her gothic mansion and built up a fantasy world where she was still a big star. At one stage she tells Gillis that she had the floor of her ballroom tiled at the behest of Rudolph Valentino (1895 – 1926), as though Valentino was still a big star. She speaks in melodramatic tones, acts like an infatuated schoolgirl in Gillis’ company, and engages in acts of emotional blackmail through mock suicide attempts.

Desmond refuses to admit that the “parade has long since passed her by.” Incapable of functioning in the real world, she has constructed a fantasy life for herself. Any attempt to bring her out of her stupor is met with either denial or indignation. Towards the end of the movie, Gillis informs her: “Norma, you’re a woman of fifty, now grow up. There’s nothing tragic about being fifty, not unless you try to be twenty-five.” And just like John the Baptist in Salome (the 1891 Oscar Wilde tragedy Desmond has chosen to adapt), Gillis pays for the faux pas with his life.

When Sunset Boulevard premiered, Louis B. Mayer (1884 – 1957) reportedly shouted at Billy Wilder: “You bastard! You have disgraced the industry that made you and fed you. You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood.” Mayer had reason to be angry, too. Sunset Boulevard is perhaps one of the most scathing criticisms of Hollywood ever made. The film indicted Hollywood for its treatment of the writer, its obsession with youth, its toxic star system, and cult of celebrity worship.

In a world of social media and reality television, the murder of John Lennon and the story of Sunset Boulevard is more potent today than ever before. Thanks to reality TV and social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, it is far too easy for mentally unstable people to achieve easy fame. How long will it be before society produces another Mark David Chapman or Norma Desmond?

I’m Done with Modern Movies

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For the life of me, I cannot remember the last time I saw a contemporary movie that was memorable in any way. Despite having access to both television and Netflix, I have found it virtually impossible to find a movie that I actually thought was worth watching.

It would be wrong, however, to lay the entirety of the blame on either mainstream television or Netflix. (Although it is entirely fair to argue that the litany of rubbish offered by television is a symptom of a dying medium). Rather, it is indicative of a problem that has pervaded the entire filmmaking industry. Modern filmmakers appear to be content with making defective movies. Movies that feature predictable stories, two-dimensional characters, and an over-reliance on visual effects.

This was not always the case. For years Hollywood was known for producing great, culture-defining films. The classical period of American cinema (which lasted from the 1930s to the 1960s) produced films like Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, and Ben Hur, among many, many others.

Similarly, the 1960s and 1970s saw a renaissance in film as filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, and many others reinvented and reinvigorated motion picture. This became the era that produced films like the Godfather, the French Connection, and the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

Hollywood’s total lack of artistic brilliance has been caused by three problems: the lack of originality, the lack of artistic merit, and the saturation of progressive politics in the industry.

Modern Movies Lack Originality

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The most conspicuous problem inflicting Hollywood today is a total lack of originality. Neither their stories nor their characters appear to have any originality or depth whatsoever. Most films today are either remakes, reboots, sequels, are based on comic books, or are about superheroes. Now there is nothing wrong with these films in and of themselves, but when every single movie made is one of these five things, it starts to get a little tiresome.

The problem doesn’t stop at just narrative, either. Modern film characters are often two-dimensional and, as a result, rather dull. They are mouthpieces for certain ideological beliefs and are therefore often presented in entirely black or white terms. The problem with this, of course, is that people in real life are usually complicated. They make mistakes, hold contradictory views, and often behave in irrational ways. One would never see an obvious racist like Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) in The Searchers or Jett Rink (James Dean) in Giant. These characters, though they reflect real life, are just too politically incorrect, too human to be presented in any real or sympathetic manner.

A lot of this comes from the travesty that was Star Wars and the litany of ‘blockbuster’ movies it left in its wake. Taken on its own merits, Star Wars is an excellent movie. However, it convinced Hollywood’s film producers that they should devote more time and money to producing shallow, unsophisticated movies that movies of genuine depth and meaning.

Big blockbuster movies are all well and good, but I am an adult and I would like to see movies with a certain level of maturity.

Modern Movies Lack Artistic Merit

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The next glaring problem (though it is one that many people without a knowledge of film or film history would fail to notice) is the total lack of artistic merit in modern filmmaking. The films of the past often prided themselves on their creative and technical brilliance. Modern filmmakers, by contrast, seem more than happy to rest on their laurels and make easy cliched movies.

With the possible exception of Martin Scorsese’s, The Aviator, I cannot remember the last time I saw a movie that made me marvel at its cinematography or that had a score which riled my spirit. I can, however, remember classic movies that managed to do all those things and more. I can remember marvelling at the cinematography in Lawrence of Arabia and sitting in awe of the chariot race – which utilised real stuntmen – in Ben Hur.

Modern filmmakers seem content with spending all their time and money on hey-wow visual effects and completely neglect the most important elements of film: story and character. As a consequence, they cheat their audience by offering sub-par films.

Modern filmmakers rely on visual effects because it is easier than trying to create compelling storylines and memorable characters. They choose to rely on computer-generated-imagery and blue screen because it is easier and safer (cowards) than using real stuntmen and practical effects.

The problem with all this is that the audience knows it’s being cheated. The car chase in Bullit looked so realistic was because, well, it was realistic. It used real cars driven by real people on real streets. A lot of modern movies, by contrast, look fake because, well, they are fake.

Modern Movies are Left-Wing Propaganda

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The third problem, and the one most egregious, is that Hollywood has become a propaganda outlet for progressive politics. They produce films that are so ideologically driven that one can virtually predict everything that is going to happen before it occurs. And, much like people who have been ideologically possessed, these films tend to be so boring they’re not worth wasting your time on.

The fact that Hollywood has become infected with ideologically possessed, far-left individuals is, to some extent, understandable. Filmmaking is an enterprise that attracts highly creative people who, for the most part, tend to be on the political left. The problem, rather, lies in the fact that all the films Hollywood now produces carry a left-wing bias.

Hollywood has become an echo chamber in which “woke” vies are communicated and no other views are allowed to get in. Those associated with the movies compete at the Oscars and at the Academy Awards to see who can be the most virtuous. And they criticise and demean anyone who doesn’t agree with them. They are like Marie Antoinette saying “let them eat cake” as the peasants starve to death in the streets. They are completely out of touch.

The problem with the films being produced today is that their left-wing bias has made them completely shallow and totally predictable.

SCIENCE FICTION, OR SCIENCE REALITY

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There can be little doubt that technology is going to transform our world in ways that will make it unrecognisable to us fifty years from now. Technology is going to transform our lives, our work, and our relationships in ways that we, in our mortal and limited wisdom, will prove unable to comprehend. What we consider science fiction today, we will consider reality tomorrow.

The most obvious clue has been the internet. This medium is, indeed has, changed the world in ways we cannot even begin to fathom. Virtually every home in the developed world has the internet. Most of us carry it around with us in the form of smartphones and tablets. It has revolutionised the way we learn, do business, commit crimes, and communicate with one another.

Then there’s television. The shows featured on mainstream television can be described, accurately, as formulaic, petty, cheap, and shallow. It’s news and current affairs programs provide little in the way of real or, for that matter, interesting information. Likewise, their fictional programming features staid and one-dimensional characters in cliché plots and scenarios.

By contrast, paid subscription services like Netflix and Hulu feature shows that appeal to a wide variety of temperaments and interests. By contrast, the shows on paid subscription services like Netflix and Hulu appeal to a wide variety of temperaments and interests. Their shows captivate the imagination by featuring intriguing plots, complex characters, inspired cinematography, beautiful set designs, and state-of-the-art special effects. Just take a look at some of the titles: Archer, Suits, Spartacus, Mindhunter, House of Cards, Rick and Morty, Game of Thrones, and so forth.

One night of watching mainstream television followed by a single night of watching a paid subscription service should be proof positive to anyone that television is slowly, but surely, fading away.

Finally, there is music. Digital music outlets like I-Tunes and Spotify has revolutionised the way in which listen (and, more sinisterly, steal) music. Where once our grandparents were limited to their vinyl record collection, today’s music lover has access to thousands of songs at his or her fingertips.

Allow me to reiterate what I said before: the high-tech world that pervaded the imaginations of storytellers and filmmakers will no longer be a fantasy, it will be a reality.

I, for one, can easily envision a world in which an omnipresent house computer reads our body temperature and regulates the climate in our home without us being consciously aware of it. I can envision a world where a computer-controlled kitchen cooks our food with little intervention us. I can envision a world of driverless cars, endless self-serve checkouts, and more.

The future will be digital. The challenge for the human race is to be able to embrace this change without losing our individual autonomy.