Monday, July 30, 2012

Screening Log: Compositional Density Edition

Back on my regular schedule, it’s a good time to be a New Yorker, with Film Forum’s Universal 100 festival playing some great hits. I wish more could be said for Museum of the Moving Image’s presentation of an IB Technicolor print of Vertigo, which had some issues. I was quite excited to see the film on 35mm, and especially curious to see it because this print was struck before the infamous 1996 restoration. Having the film at MoMI’s large screen and perfect acoustics seemed perfect for a film I’ve deemed the greatest ever made, but sadly it was just a bit out of focus and even worse, incorrectly framed (unless the film was “irected by Alfred Hitchcoc”), which slightly dimmed the experience, along with the inappropriate audience laughter (though a highly appropriate scream at the end, when the “shadowy figure” at the end). Word on the street was that it looked a bit better on Sunday night. I wrote some notes on it on a comment over at Glenn Kenny's place, so check that over there.

-Mogambo, 1953. Directed by John Ford. 35mm projection at Brooklyn Academy of Music.
-The Suspect, 1944. Directed by Richard Siodmack. 35mm projection at Film Forum.
-Phantom Lady, 1944. Directed by Richard Siodmack. 35mm projection at Film Forum.
-Vertigo, 1958. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. 35mm IB Technicolor projection at Museum of the Moving Image.
-The Band Wagon, 1953. Directed by Vincente Minnelli. HD on Turner Classic Movies. 

            John Ford’s Mogambo may not be the best of his films, and certainly not the most classic, but Christ does it explain everything I love about the director. For many people, Ford is better known as an action director, and that’s where his influence remains. Yes, that race through the desert in Stagecoach is simply magnificent, but that’s not where the power of Ford comes from. Ford directs drama with such spatial precision. Every shot means something, every edit a precise change in emotion. When Spielberg cites Ford as an influence, I don’t think he’s speaking about scenes from Raiders of the Lost Ark. He’s talking about something like the famous grieving mother in Jaws, dominating poor ol’ Brody simply through the way Spielberg shoots her.

            That’s what’s on work in Mogambo, which is a romantic triangle set across the African plains. The players are hardened Clarke Gable (doing his best John Wayne), timid Grace Kelly (doing her stiff upper British lip), and bombshell Ava Gardner (an explosive dynamite of woman). Gable runs a ranch that captures the great beasts of the plain, Kelly has come with her anthropologist husband (Donald Sinden, hilarious) to research gorillas, and Gardner is a woman lost in life, originally set on a safari, but much more interested in Gable.

            So much of the film, which is often very funny, is set on these very exact shot Ford composes. He’s constantly changing the power as Kelly and Gardner compete for the love of Gable, with Gardner as a stinging impetus to take of Kelly’s metaphorical corset. Ford plays with depth throughout, placing each character at different levels, heights, and positions within the frame. The colors simply flourish, notably the blinding red scarf Kelly carries around, suggesting her inner desires.

            What strikes me about Ford, and why a director like Orson Welles loved him, is that he doesn’t move the camera that much (except for a few crucial push-ins). He simply uses deep focus to speak to his worlds. There’s a deceptive intelligence to each shot in Ford’s world. They breathe in spades. Those who don’t understand why Wayne allows Natalie Wood to live at the end of The Searches are those who don’t understand the visuals of Ford. His films are in gestures (such as Gable picking up Kelly, carrying her like a bride, early in the film). Mogambo might seem slight—it’s essentially a romantic comedy after all—but the deep intensity of Ford’s camera makes it a major cinematic work, one not to be missed.

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