Essays · Film

Lights, Camera… Action!

Let’s talk cinema. I just watched L.A. Confidential again last night. It has to be in my top ten, all time films. It’s not just the story itself, which is pretty good… no… it’s also the way it was shot, the locations, the feel of it.

Isn’t that just the way of things, as people… we assign feelings to everything. They become our own personal barometer for life. How we decide if something is good or bad, if we liked it or we didn’t. Such is the way with choice in film.

So, let’s get back to the topic of film. I am a movie nut. I’m one of those people who can’t remember what I did last week, if a bill has been paid, or where my keys are (if I don’t put them in the same spot every evening), but I can remember what actress played what part in a movie from 1972, if I’ve seen it and liked it. I have, it seems, an endless catalog of movie information in my head. Not so much for faces of actors, no… that’s reserved for Genine, who can magically see an actor as a child in a movie and say, oh… that’s so and so… and I then squint at them, trying to look from every possible angle, and still can’t tell who they are. No… the information I carry around is more about who was in what film, or titles of movies, or directors, or where something was shot, or why a certain person was chosen for a certain part, or what dialogue was spoken by which actor.

It’s fascinating really. I can’t remember so much of what happens in my every day life, let alone last week, or month, or two years ago. But movies, music, books… I have it all cataloged and permanently etched.

I took some film classes in college. I learned a lot, and it also sort of ruined me. Ok, maybe not ruined me. But now I “see” them differently. I look for little nuances I didn’t before, like the angle of the camera and the lighting… I wonder what the meaning was in placing a certain object in a scene, as background. I pay attention to dialogue, not just as it moves the story along, but as an entity unto itself… the use of words, how they are put together, and why. I can’t just watch a movie any more, sit there as a regular spectator. This annoys me at times, but then again, I also enjoy the detail. Yes, just another instance where I’m caught in the dichotomy of it all. The bottom line though, is that I love movies, and yes, I love the detail in them. I notice things.

Speaking of noticing things… I recently, as in the last year or so, got into Quentin Tarrantino movies. The man can write good dialogue. Honestly I have to say I sort of avoided his films before this last year, except for “Jackie Brown”, which I totally loved. I thought they would be too violent, that there would be too much blood. And yes, as I thought they’d be, they are a bit bloody at times. “Kill Bill” volumes 1 and 2 are very bloody. But that dialogue, man… it’s good. Read the following and you’ll get what I mean…

Bill: Now… When it comes to you, and us, I have a few unanswered questions. So, before this tale of bloody revenge reaches its climax, I’m going to ask you some questions, and I want you to tell me the truth. However, therein lies a dilemma. Because, when it comes to the subject of me, I believe you are truly and utterly incapable of telling the truth, especially to me, and least of all, to yourself. And, when it comes to the subject of me, I am truly and utterly incapable of believing anything you say.
The Bride: How do you suppose we solve this dilemma?
Bill: Well, it just so happens I have a solution.
[he shoots The Bride with a dart filled with Truth Serum]
Bill: Gotcha!
The Bride: Goddamn! What the fuck did you just shoot me with?
Bill: My greatest invention. Or at least, my favorite one.
[she reaches for the dart]
Bill: Don’t touch it, or I’ll stick another one right in your cheek.

Every one of his films have stellar passages… like this, from “Pulp Fiction”…

Vincent: Want some bacon?
Jules: No man, I don’t eat pork.
Vincent: Are you Jewish?
Jules: Nah, I ain’t Jewish, I just don’t dig on swine, that’s all.
Vincent: Why not?
Jules: Pigs are filthy animals. I don’t eat filthy animals.
Vincent: Bacon tastes gooood. Pork chops taste gooood.
Jules: Hey, sewer rat may taste like pumpkin pie, but I’d never know ’cause I wouldn’t eat the filthy motherfucker. Pigs sleep and root in shit. That’s a filthy animal. I ain’t eat nothin’ that ain’t got enough sense enough to disregard its own feces.
Vincent: How about a dog? Dogs eats its own feces.
Jules: I don’t eat dog either.
Vincent: Yeah, but do you consider a dog to be a filthy animal?
Jules: I wouldn’t go so far as to call a dog filthy but they’re definitely dirty. But, a dog’s got personality. Personality goes a long way.
Vincent: Ah, so by that rationale, if a pig had a better personality, he would cease to be a filthy animal. Is that true?
Jules: Well we’d have to be talkin’ about one charmin’ motherfuckin’ pig. I mean he’d have to be ten times more charmin’ than that Arnold on Green Acres, you know what I’m sayin’?

I love Tarrantino’s writing. It’s witty and it flows. As a viewer, you find yourself watching terrible and bloody things, but they become almost peripheral to the dialogue. The verbal exchanges are so good they infuse the violent scenes with a layer of cool… so much so you begin to forget that someone’s arm just got chopped off.

But then… I am the first to admit… maybe I’m not a good person to talk with about movies. I get very enthusiastic and I can find something to like in almost anything I watch… dialogue, direction, camera work, sets, costumes, locations, cinematography, or even just the style of the thing. That enthusiasm means I am rarely critical. Yes, there are things I don’t like… certain genres of film, some actors or actresses I don’t think can act very well, bad editing, direction I don’t think works, but really, that’s if I get pretty nit picky. I tend toward the positive side of things, which makes my skills at criticism not as finely tuned as they could be. Hence the reason you won’t see my name on a review. I’m too nice, too appreciative of the fact that a group of people got together, had a great passion for a project, and made it happen. To me, that’s beautiful. Art at it’s finest. Meaning… even the bad movies are, if nothing else, personal expression manifest and made real, put out there for the world to see.

Fast forward… it’s now actually a couple of days after I started this little diatribe, and as I think back over what I’ve written here, one thought comes to mind… as I said in the beginning… I love movies. I love the promise manifest in their making, the visions and viewpoints they present to and about the world, and the personal expression of the medium. I love the fantasy they create… that period, for two hours or so, when the world as we know it fades, and this other sometimes strange, scary, futuristic, fantastical, or sweet world appears… and we jump in. And when we are there, we see the best and the worst in us. We see what’s possible and in turn, what haunts us. We are warned and simultaneously filled with hope. Movies hold humankind up to itself and say… here we are, with all of our faults and frailties, all of our glamour and filth, and all of our honor, loyalty, and love. They reflect who we are, have been, and can be. And if we pay attention, we can learn about ourselves, from ourselves. We can see what we’ve been and what we are capable of. We can shine, or fail miserably. They give us the feeling that we can choose… by either aspiring to greatness, or stepping into darkness. And afterward, we can walk back out into the world feeling good, reflective, and hopeful. It’s a wonderful kind of magic.

So… here I sit. It’s Sunday, the chores are done, and the world is mine… we are heading out to see what trouble or adventure we can find, which will, on this rainy day, probably be a movie. Sometimes there’s no better way to spend an afternoon like this than popcorn, lights, camera… and some cinematic action.

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