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One Hour Mark: Marty

The rest of the world has fallen away. 1:00:00 into Delbert Mann’s Marty (1955), all that exists is a pair of tentative lovers. On the left is the title character, a self-described “fat, ugly man” played by the late Ernest Borgnine; on the right is Clara (Betsy Blair), a frumpy, introverted schoolteacher. They’ve just shared a first kiss, the climax of their first date, and this is its immediate aftermath: they’re basking in the glow of an embryonic relationship and the mere chance that it could end their mutual loneliness.

This dark sitting room is the incubator for their romance, their sanctuary away from the pressures of friends and family. Seconds later, Marty’s mom will barge in and flip on a light, but for now their seclusion allows them to exchange small talk, which swells into bigger talk (like “What are you doin’ New Year’s Eve?”), which blossoms into physical affection. As they perform their awkward, ritualized dance around the room, the camera closes in on them and the shot tightens till it’s just their faces and a glimmer from the dining room light.

The moment is sublimely intimate. But that’s no surprise, since Marty is built from minuscule gestures and behavioral details like this. Its plot is just rudimentary boy-meets-girl stuff; the real focus is on Marty’s milieu—his working-class Italian neighborhood in the Bronx—and his aching solitude. It’s a self-consciously small, aesthetically sparse movie that shares more in common with TV dramas (where Mann got his start) or postwar theater than the CinemaScope excesses that dominated 1950s cinema.

And the key to Marty’s realism is the relationship between Marty and Clara. The hesitations, the tacit negotiations, and the couple’s emphatic plainness. Blair, with her lack of makeup and avoidance of eye contact, looks like anything but a movie star, and Borgnine is anything but a traditional romantic lead. Here, he acts with the same coarseness that made him such an effective heavy in westerns and war movies, but this time he’s also sweet and vulnerable, concealing his insecurities beneath a flood of chatter.

Neither character feels contrived or piled with artifice. They feel like real, average people suffering from longing and shame. People who need. Their roundabout conversation, their kiss, and the seconds after as Marty nuzzles against Clara’s hair… these all feel like experiences anyone could have. They’re only meager talismans against profound, lasting sadness. But they portend a relationship, right on the cusp of existence, that could ward off the sadness forever.

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One Hour Mark: Dead Ringers

Dark bedroom or alien landscape? 1:00:00 into David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988), the two are more or less the same. The bedroom belongs to Beverly Mantle, half of the twin gynecologists played here by Jeremy Irons. In the absence of his actress girlfriend, Beverly is descending into a lethargic, overmedicated hell. As this shot begins, he fumbles along the bedside table, groping at the watch before locating his pill bottle, then turning away and raising it to his mouth.

Seconds later, the shot fades to black with its focus squarely on the watch. By now, Beverly is a mere background detail, his face nearly abstracted. You can make out impressions of an eye, ear, and nose, but they could just as easily be tricks of the meager light. His addiction is a sarcophagus—or, given Cronenberg’s obsession with biological transformation, a cocoon. Just as Beverly’s receding into his own drug-induced delusions, he’s also receding into the cold, blue night.

This leaves us with the gold watch curled up in the foreground, shadow looping beneath it. Under the subtle lighting, its curve and texture make it look less like an inanimate object, and more like some uneasy compromise between organic and metal: like a beetle’s shell, or Dalí’s melting watches, or even Videodrome’s “new flesh.” Although it’s just a watch, the shot’s diffused twilight and shallow focus imbue it with surprising potency. They change it from an upscale accoutrement into an agent of horror.

It’s a sly visual strategy. By reducing Irons to a vague blur, Cronenberg and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky shift the brunt of the image’s menace onto the watch. More likely than not, they were inspired by Citizen Kane and its representation of Susan’s suicide attempt. Both shots share the sinister bedside table, but in Dead Ringers that detailed bedroom is condensed into just two layers, with the frame dominated and divided by the watch.

It’s an ominous, understated composition. Since it’s so pervaded by darkness, the string of blue light that runs through the watch, cleaving the shot in half, is endowed with eerie power. The surface, intended to look sleek and modern, seems sterile and predatory by night. The room is entombing Beverly and abetting his addiction; his surroundings are aligned with the disease that’s eating at him. Nowhere—inside or outside his body—is safe.

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One Hour Mark: Little Caesar

Old friends grow into new enemies, 1:00:00 into Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar (1931). On the right we have Edward G. Robinson’s Rico—vulgarian, sociopath, and rising star of the Chicago underworld. On the left is Joe (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), a former gang member who now makes his living as a dancer. But you can’t get out that easily. After inviting him over for a cordial parley, Rico throws down an ultimatum: either Joe dumps his career and girlfriend for the gang, or he and his “dame” are as good as dead.

The scene starts out visually loose, with the camera taking in the whole of Rico’s new, palatial apartment, lingering on the nouveau riche decadence of his statues and furniture. But as the conversation turns heated, as Rico tells a lackey to “screw” and edges nearer to Joe, the framing gets tighter. Only the two impassioned men remain in focus. This particular shot lasts nearly thirty seconds, zeroing in on Robinson’s face as he lectures, cajoles, and threatens his erstwhile partner in crime.

“Can’t you just forget about me?” begs Joe. Rico snarls back, his voice cracking: “No, I don’t wanna forget you, you’re my pal!” This is more than a mere gangland squabble. It’s a tragic romance. Robinson’s arched eyebrow and burning gaze bespeak the heart of a spurned lover, of a man consumed by that age-old sentiment “If I can’t have him, no one will.” (I’m certainly not the first to point out Little Caesar’s throbbing queer subtext. Rico’s line “Nobody ever quit me!” is especially striking in post-Brokeback America.)

So he leers at Joe, trying to look intimidating while also banking on their one-time closeness. When he rests a cigar-clenching hand on Joe’s shoulder, he could just as well be getting ready for a kiss or a fistfight. The shot’s constructed for maximum tension, relying on both their physical proximity and the fact that Fairbanks was a good four inches taller than Robinson—a fact for which Robinson’s aggressive body language more than compensates.

Furthermore, the camera’s positioned so that we only glimpse the side of Fairbanks’ face, but get to witness Robinson in all his jealous glory. He’s the star of this show, the histrionic firecracker whose obsession propels the scene. He’s poised to seduce or, failing that, destroy. Inflamed by rejection and inflated by his sudden ascent, he can’t take “no” for an answer. Hell hath no fury like Little Caesar scorned.

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One Hour Mark: Run Lola Run

Via split-screen, 1:00:00 into Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run (1998), we see two figures in motion. On the left is a stern, balding banker fresh from a rendezvous with his mistress, marching off to get a ride from a colleague. On the right is his daughter Lola (Franka Potente), a twentysomething slacker with dyed hair and a boyfriend in distress. During the first 2/3 of the film, as Lola’s lived out two of her “lives,” we’ve seen them cross paths twice—both times with disastrous consequences. Luckily for Lola, though she doesn’t know it yet, she’s about to miss him by mere seconds.

Third time, as they say, is the charm. In Tykwer’s Berlin, people are subatomic particles, running along their own paths and sometimes colliding arbitrarily. Just a mild change to each scenario—too quick at first, then too slow, and finally just right—produces drastically different results. And because mild changes are so powerful, because every second is as vital as an hour to Lola’s mission, she can never stop running. She’s a perpetual motion machine, channeling all her stress and fear into running faster.

Potente, by the way, gives a physically incredible performance. Her actions have such focus to them: she’s all but a superheroine, fighting space and time themselves. Feral and springy, she has literally no time for social niceties; she’s a woman who only exists from moment to moment. As such, she cuts straight through her father’s hypocritical midlife crisis bullshit. On a purely visual level, for example, compare her blurry sprint to her father’s polite, business-oriented gait. She’s the one with somewhere to go and something to lose.

Every element of the mise-en-scène heightens this contrast: the brown, gray, and black of the father’s suit and surroundings vs. Lola’s striking red, blue, and green; the father’s movement forward into a tracking shot vs. Lola’s side-scrolling velocity; and the fact that the father has been shot on video, whereas the footage of Lola is on 35 mm. This last trick has the added bonus of making the father’s scenes with his pregnant mistress look cheap and grainy, fittingly like a bad TV drama. It’s a subtle way of endorsing Lola’s reality as authentic and meaningful.

Fundamentally, then, this image visualizes a generation gap. It’s the divide between Lola, the jobless “weirdo,” and her unfaithful, paternity-disavowing father. Run Lola Run itself comes down hard on Lola’s side, that of the youth. It’s a film about running, not thinking; it prefers mindless kineticism over adult stagnation. Furthermore, as a product of 1998, it’s very much in touch with the (still-relevant) millennial hysteria, the pre-Y2K anxieties over an unknowable but imminent future. As Heisenberg would tell us, it’s impossible to predict what’s coming. Like Lola, the best we can do is run.

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One Hour Mark: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

By Andreas

“My father-in-law was a man of the lord,” says Nick. “And he was very rich.” Boys and girls, it’s story time. 1:00:00 into Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), Nick—played by the emphatically handsome George Segal—is getting very, very drunk on bourbon. Needled by his playmate George (Richard Burton), a history professor who’s been marinating for decades in alcohol and resentment, Nick’s reluctantly exposing the cracks in his storybook marriage to the young, beautiful Honey. Sprawled out on George’s lawn, he’s making himself vulnerable. And George is getting ready to pounce.

This may look superficially like a friendly late-night chat, but no: it’s a high-stakes game of betrayal, emasculation, and sexual jealousy. It’s part of the “Fun and Games” that titles Virginia Woolf‘s first act, with George playing the Socratic teacher as he draws out Nick’s secrets with leading questions. You can see him hovering right behind Nick, eagerly absorbing every word of his story while tracing out the seams in his youth and physical prowess. He’s subtly turning Nick’s confessional impulse into a weapon of mass self-destruction.

George demonstrates such emotional savvy as he toys with Nick. I guess you just get that way after twenty years of bitter, predatory marriage. His cruel gamesmanship might be cunningly planned out in advance, or it might just be second nature by now to barb any new relationship with quiet antagonism. All of these layers are concealed in this two-shot, which is sustained throughout Nick’s story. It’s a toxic, one-sided mind game masquerading as a liquor-fueled bull session.

So many of these dualities are brought out visually through Haskell Wexler’s stark photography. The nocturnal chiaroscuro, with the meager light offsetting shadows and the dull gray of the men’s suits, makes the scene feel dead serious. But this impression is instantly contradicted by George’s loose posture and the boyish smugness in Nick’s face. It’s as if an earnest, adult-oriented drama had descended into silliness and self-parody.

Just look at these men: lying around in the front yard, telling stories and playing games. Are these really mature, full-grown college professors? Or are they actually children play-acting as adults? (And don’t forget the swing hanging there, which George was riding on moments earlier.) I suspect that Edward Albee would debate whether there’s even a difference between the two.

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One Hour Mark: Elephant

By Andreas

You can’t quite see her face up there, but that’s Michelle (Kristen Hicks). At 1:00:00 into Gus Van Sant’s school tragedy à clef Elephant (2003), she’s just minutes away from death. Nothing about her milieu, with its pastels and clipboards and desktop computer, suggests that a bloodbath is about to unfold, but that’s the ace up Van Sant’s sleeve. In the middle of a perfectly routine school day, it’s here—in this safest and blandest of high school libraries—that we’re about to see Michelle’s blood splattered on a bookshelf.

The contrast is shocking, but it comes about organically. The stories of the killers, Alex and Eric, chronologically parallel those of Michelle and other students (a photographer, a jock, a trio of clique-y girls). These narrative strands wind around one another, occasionally intersecting in small but significant ways, until the massacre begins and collapses them all into a unified tragedy. Michelle is the first to go: she spots the killers’ weapons as they enter the library, and only gets out a polite “Hey, you guys—” before she’s cut off.

But until that moment, she’s just a lonely teenage girl living out her splintered vignette. She has a brusque exchange with her gym teacher, changes her clothes, then walks through the halls, breaking into a run as she nears the library. Hicks is a non-professional actor, and it shows in her remarkably unadorned performance; she’s self-contained, giving only the most minimal emotional cues to the audience. Van Sant’s direction follows suit, stalking the characters for us but never telling us how to react to them. It’s scrupulously fly-on-the-wall filmmaking.

The end result is an impeccably naturalistic movie that recreates the average high school experience with uncanny accuracy before dragging it down into hell. The school library is a dead ringer for other high school libraries across the country; Michelle’s short conversation with the librarian is utterly plausible; and the camera angle here gives the scene an incidental flavor—as if we just happened to peek in on these characters, and this is what they were up to. Poor Michelle feels less like a fictional character and more like a documentary subject.

This quasi-documentary style, coupled with Hicks’s hushed acting style, makes me wish we’d seen more of Michelle, or at least seen her in a movie where she wasn’t marked for death. We learn vaguely of her body image problems, her awkwardness, and her difficulty socializing; she’s kind of like an ultra-realistic version of Sissy Spacek’s Carrie. But then, of course, she’s blown away. I know this is a movie about Columbine, but I can’t help feeling like she’s used to add adolescent color to Van Sant’s high school setting, and then perforated like a flesh-and-blood prop. I love Elephant, but I still wish it did better by its ill-fated characters.

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One Hour Mark: Nosferatu

By Andreas

In this image from 1:00:00 into F.W. Murnau’s legendary Nosferatu (1922)*, the captain of the riverboat Demeter is hard at work. His ship is in peril, and his entire crew is dead. Only one option remains: he must quickly lash himself to the wheel, and do whatever it takes to get his ship and its cargo to safety. It’s that old cliché of a captain going down with his ship. Unfortunately, as a title card informs us, the Demeter is the “Ship of Death”—and as such, both the ship and its poor, unknowing captain are doomed.

If only the captain could’ve seen the low-angle shot that precedes this one, wherein the gaunt, rat-like Count Orlok (Max Schreck) stalks across the deck. It’s an iconic horror image, and with good reason: the odd angle emphasizes the evil strangeness of Orlok’s posture and gait, as well as the totality of his hold on the ship. He doesn’t need to skulk around in the cargo hold anymore; now he can skulk out in the open. No crew members are around to impede him, and the captain’s too busy panicking and tying himself down.

Yes, it’s one of those classic we-know-more-than-they-do moments, when the disparity between our knowledge and the character’s is the source of terror. Normally, the captain’s actions would be brave and heroic. Normally, the ship would be threatened by something external, like pirates or bad weather—anything but vampires. Lashing himself down now, however, is like buckling your seatbelt in a burning car. The ship itself is diseased, and in a few moments Orlok will be the only passenger left.

As much as we implore him, the captain refuses to look up and realize his mistake until it’s too late. He’s just as oblivious as a sexually active babysitter in an ’80s slasher movie. By the time he shifts his attention away from the knot he’s tying, Orlok has circled around the deck and is lurking off-screen, about to descend. The scene ends with an ominous fade to black, signaling the consolidation of the vampire’s shipboard control. The whole build-up to the captain’s demise takes only five shots, with two angles and no camera movement. It’s both economical and terrifying.

So here’s a salute to the captain of this ill-fated ship, and to F.W. Murnau for immortalizing him in the annals of horror history. He may not have been the most observant sailor to captain a plague-ridden vessel, but at least he was committed! He knew his ship was in trouble, and he did what seemed right. Well, he gets an A for effort in my book. Sometimes, especially when you’re a minor character in a vampire movie, you just can’t win.

*At least, according to Kino’s 2002 DVD. Different editions of Nosferatu (and there are many!) have different running times.

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