F.W. Murnau: The Silent Innovator

The invention of the technology that is used to create the movies as we know it today has dated back to the late 1800s, and the Lumière Brothers have captured the attention of the audiences at the time with their short non-fiction films such as The Arrival of a Train (1896). The dramatic and fictional style of storytelling has appeared in the vast majority of films for over a hundred years. The earliest stages of contemporary cinematic storytelling dates back as far as Georges Méliès’s classic science-fiction drama A Trip to the Moon (1902) and Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 action film The Great Train Robbery (1903). During these early times the innovative directors had visualized a new dimension of cinematic techniques such as the use of cuts, dissolves and parallel editing in order to create a continuous story or a desired visual effect.

With the gifted eye for visually creative storytelling, F.W. Murnau has repeatedly relied upon the use of a distorted production design and creative photography techniques.

German expressionist F.W. Murnau was able to utilize the editing style that had been cinematically used for twenty years when he produced his famous silent films in the 1920s. However, what made his work unique and influential was the visual style that he had created with varied camera angles and colored prints that were not widely seen in other films. In 1928 he had written the following observation about the visual use of the camera: “I think the films of the future will use more and more of these ‘camera angles,’ or as I prefer to call them, these ‘dramatic angles.’ They help photograph thought.” It was in his 1924 silent film The Last Laugh the viewer bears witness to the earliest uses of a moving camera. Murnau creatively placed the camera at unusual places such as at the top of a ladder to photograph a new angle. At one point during the film’s production he even had his cinematographer Karl Freund attach the camera around his stomach and ride a bicycle in order to get a unique camera movement captured on film.

With the gifted eye for visually creative storytelling, F.W. Murnau has repeatedly relied upon the use of a distorted production design and creative photography techniques. In fact, his 1927 film Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans was the first film ever to receive an Oscar award for the best cinematography of the year, while his silent horror film Nosferatu (1922) has influenced the acting style, photographic appearance and set design of numerous vampire films since its release. With the techniques of innovative camera angles and design he was able to repeatedly build an intriguing feature length film that drew the attention of the audience members in to the dark lives of the characters.

The Last Laugh, for example, contains no audible dialogue and no title cards that would proclaim anything that would possibly be spoken between the characters. It is entirely built upon the purpose of watching a conflict unfold without the necessity to listen to what is being said. The hotel porter is a heavyset man who wears a thick graying beard that makes him appear to be in his late fifties or early sixties. Although his physical stature and age may slow him down, the porter is thrilled to be the first person the hotel guests meet as they arrive at the building’s front doorstep. Very little is said between the characters at the start of the film, but with the immediate appearance of a conflict it is painfully obvious that his age and limited ability of physical strength will possibly hinder him from retrieving a heavy piece of luggage from the roof of a vehicle while being drenched in the pouring rain. With a hesitant reaction he hoists the luggage on his back and struggles to pull it into the hotel lobby.

While trying to recuperate from the heavy lifting the porter takes a seat to catch his breath, let his sore joints rest for a moment, and to grab a drink of water that is given to him by bellboy. With the proper framing and editing of the story the viewer is able to observe the porter hard at work to retrieve the luggage, but the hotel manager did not witness such an event. The audience will view the manager’s appearance after the porter takes a seat for a quick rest from the heavy lifting.

A comparison is made between the viewpoint of the audience and that of the hotel manager. At the start of the film the camera serves as a first hand Point Of View for the audience member who “rides” an elevator down to the main floor of a hotel and then proceeds to “walk” through a large lobby before approaching the front door where the porter is cheerfully escorting guests to and from the taxi cabs out on the street. This first hand perspective with an appropriate camera movement offers the audience a wide perspective of the hustle and bustle of the hotel. Once the camera arrives at the front door of the building the camera would remain locked down to group of static shots as the porter continues to work hard in the rain.

The second viewpoint that appears in the opening sequence is the manager’s observation. When the manager first arrives in the scene the camera still remains in the position of the static shot that represents the viewpoint of the watchful eye of the audience. He does not immediately observe the porter who is missing from his post, but the audience is able to observe the manager and the recuperating porter. The manager’s Point of View is inserted into the story as he physically turns around to observe the porter sitting in a chair while thanking the bellboy for delivering a glass of water. The audience can deduce that it is the manager’s point of view by the framing of the shot.

The manager was seen walking through a revolving door, but prematurely stopping halfway through the door’s complete revolution. When the camera shot cuts to an alternate viewpoint the framing is cut in half by a portion of the revolving door. In one half of the picture the porter is seen with the bellboy, while the remainder of the frame is filled with the glass doorway and the concierge desk. The audience was able to observe the entire scenario as an omnipotent third person, while the manager was limited to a small fraction of the events that have occurred. With his limited viewpoint of the situation the manager marks a personal note about the porter’s work before returning to his office. Once he has left the scene the audience observes the porter returning to work after his brief break of recovery, and the manager is completely oblivious to the entire scenario.

Murnau’s use of the camera movement has given the audience a wider perspective of the events that are portrayed in the story. With the camera as the audience’s omnipotent eye they are given the opportunity to move around in the environment, but only at the discretion of the director and cinematographer. F.W. Murnau’s experimentation with the creative camera angles and movement has given the audience a brand new viewpoint to observe the chain of events that unfold during the course of the story. As technology has grown over the last seventy-five years the ability to physically move the camera around in any given environment with the slightest of ease has given the present day filmmakers a variety of options to choose from. At the root of all these fancy camera maneuvers and framing setups lies the most basic of visual designs that have appeared in some of Murnau’s most treasured films.

Courtesy of MUBI

Source: Britannica


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A Critique of Three Comedic Films

There are three films that I have recently watched that I thought would be in the best interest to write about their commonality. These three comedy films are best associated with the artistic nature and history of the directors who have helmed each one. These four directors, listed alongside their respective film titles, are Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, Burn After Reading (2008), Frank Capra, It Happened One Night (1934), and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Amélie (2001).

Each of these four filmmakers has earned equal recognition among their peers and from the movie theater attendees. There are a combined total of seven wins and seven nominations for the Oscar awards that have been accredited to this group of directors for their work in film making [awards statistics provided by IMDb.com]. The Coen brothers, in particular, have earned two of their four Oscar awards for writing the screenplays of the films in which they also have directed.

Although the four filmmakers have a varying degree of cinematic success each one has proven a running history of similar artistic styles. Frank Capra, for example, has only produced a single box office flop in his career leading up to 1938. By this point in his career he had already directed several films that revolve around a comedy of errors and characters that are social underdogs and underclassmen. The Coen brothers have established a career in dark comedies that include violent scenes intermixed with moments of witty dialogue and behavioral farce. The brothers have had their share of career highs and lows, but the artistic themes within their films have remained constant. Then there is the famous French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet who helmed the cult classic films Delicatessen (1991) and Amélie (2001). With the addition of the American science-fiction and action film Alien: Resurrection (1997) to his list of credits there is cinematic evidence for his talent to create and instill dark visual film style. Each one of the filmmakers has all dabbled in stories of comedy whether it is through the humor of behavior or with intellectual wit. The dark presence amongst their stories invokes the dark reality of the real world. Even in Capra’s epic film It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) there is the presence of suicide at the beginning of the film.

The sadistically dark humor appears in Burn After Reading which is presented as a slapstick comedy, but only in a Cohen film would the characters be brutally murdering each other with axes and guns as they are fumbling around with their own personal fallacies which are humorous to the viewing audience. With the obsessive compulsive behavior of Harry Pfarrer who desires to build the perfect sex toy machine at a cut rate price, or Chad Feldheimer’s fascination with saying the name Osborne Cox over and over again. The viewing audience finds their behaviors amusing, but would the laughter arise during the tense scene in which Osborne Cox is chasing Ted Treffon down the street in order to brutally bash his head in with the sharp blade of metal? The sadistic artistic style of the Cohen brothers has blended the right mixture of humor with criminal behaviors that would keep the viewers attuned to watching the film unfold before them.

In opposition to the brutality of the Cohen’s cinematic storytelling there lies its romantic counterpart that relies more upon the positive emotions and feelings of love and happiness more than upon evil behavioral actions. Amélie obtains its comedic style through romantic and social interactions between the characters. The characters are attempting to resolve their own personal desires to obtain the most perfect of happy endings through a meaningful connection of a romantic relationship. During each of the personal adventures of each one of the characters they blindingly struggle through their own personal discrepancies that hinder them from noticing the solution to their deepest of romantic desires. The comedy that is derived from the film is produced from the idea that the characters have the best of intentions, but their own desires and actions are hindering them from observing the reality of their situation. The unique visual form of storytelling that Jeunet has created for this film helped the audience emotionally connect with the characters.

The visual elements that appear in the film include the use of cinematography (such as color saturation and camera angles) along side with the use of editing that leads the audience along to interpret the non-verbal reactions of the characters who are responding to any action off the screen. One particular example of the visual style would be the moment in which Amélie discovers the true identity of the bald guy who has appeared in several of the photo booth film strips. Her reaction of surprise is apparently displayed on her face as she watches him exit from a photo booth, but the viewer is refrained from discovering his true identity until later in the film’s story line. This form of storytelling was used as an editing device to prolong the desire of curiosity as long as possible so that the audience would share the similar desire of curiosity that the main character would feel during the progression of the film’s plot.

It Happened One Night is filled with wonderfully written intellectually witty dialogue that has been spawned from the moral codes that the production companies have abide to during the 1930s that barred them from using any profane material in the films that were produced for the general public. The on going joke with the Walls of Jericho being represented by a plain bed sheet implied the moral well being of the characters who held the utmost of intentions to abstain from any sexual interactions between each other, but the use of a bed sheet as a physical separation between the two of the characters serves nothing more than a comedic piece of irony. As the film progresses through its course the two main characters are sexually drawn to each other through their intellectual banter, but a bed sheet is the only thing that separates the pair from seeing each other when they retire to their beds for the night.

The use of comedy is apparent in all three films, but they are clearly differentiated from each other depending upon the unique artistic style and tone of the film’s directors. One set of directors would prefer to invoke a laugh from the audience shortly after they bear witness to a murder scene, while another director would thrive upon the audience’s response to the visual interactions between the characters, and the last director would presume the purely intellectual approach that would require the characters to spit out witty verbal responses that would be sparred between the characters quicker than the fire from a machine gun rattle.

The three separate films have proven that an filmmaker can begin with the concept of telling a story with a bit of humor, but each one of them has utilized a different method in which to portray how the message is perceived by the audience. In every instance the audience should respond with a hearty laugh and a good nature feeling about the film they are watching, but it is with a unique formula in which the story has been created that would serve the interested of the audience. Not every single viewer would enjoy the bloody violence of Burn After Reading, but that same person would be satisfied with watching a romantic comedy film like Amélie or a witty classic film such as It Happened One Night.

The directors for the three films have already established a clear style for the methods in which they are willing to portray a story regardless of the genre in which it would be connected. It is their method of storytelling that draws the same viewers to their films over and over again, because there is an established relationship between the storyteller and the listener that is cemented by the common ground that they share in similar tastes in entertainment style.


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Two Notable Works of Akira Kurosawa: Stray Dog and Rashomon

This multitudinous review is part of the Akira Kurosawa installment of the LAMBs in the Director’s Chair feature sponsored by the Large Association of Movie Blogs.

A tense moment from the 1949 film 'Stray Dog'

Nora inu / Stray Dog (1949).
For several years after the end of World War II, the country of Japan went through several difficult changes. The country was occupied by the allied forces, which I could only presume placed a large amount of strain on the Japanese citizens. Statistics of reported crime was on the rise, there were numerous accounts that included the involvement of American troops (source). According to an educational video from the United States military, there was unique involvement of demilitarizing Japan and the use of secret police in order to monitor the strength of the country.

This particular element of Allied occupation in Japan, in addition to numerous other issues affecting the country after losing a major world war, not only influenced a major restructuring of the country’s economy, military, but also upon the culture of the country. Despite the occupation, Akira Kurosawa was able to produce an entire post-war film about crime and police work in the style of an American film noir story without including a single reference to the military occupation. Although he was able to tell an intriguing story successfully as a social commentary of post-war Japan, minus the occupation, his film Stray Dog (1949) was questioned by the American censorship board.

Upon their review of the film, it was improperly assumed that the panting dog seen in the opening credits was mistreated and abused in some fashion or another. Although I have had a bit of a struggle finding educational evidence that supports such a statement there is a rumor that Kurosawa’s showed only a single regret for Japan’s military loss of World War II after hearing the response from the American censorship board.

With a bit of reflection upon my experience of watching Stray Dog as an interesting film noir I have observed that it does not necessarily reinvent any particular American film noir movie. Rather the film adapts the classic genre created by the Hollywood filmmakers and it translates the style into a setting that is clearly related to Japanese culture in many ways. A naive, rookie homicide detective has lost his small handgun on an overcrowded bus ride home on a hot summer day. It is with great shock when he discovers his empty pocket when he was expecting to find his side arm, but quickly he arrived at the conclusion that he was pick-pocketed by a thief on the bus.

In trepidation of dire consequences that could possibly occur beyond his control, he places a formal request to leave his position at the local precinct. However, his boss refuses to allow him to be a quitter over a lost gun. With an eager desire to be responsible for his carelessness the young rookie cop sets himself on a mission to retrieve his gun and to punish the criminal involved; thus the conflict of the film unravels as the hero unravels the dark mysteries of the criminal underground.

Akira Kurosawa: Influences and Influence Part 1

Rashomon (1950).
This film is such an innovation to the history of cinema that it spawned an entire new method of storytelling in the world of movie making. It would be the unique way of use flashbacks as the primary structural support of the film’s plot in order to tell the story. Each of the main characters that appear in the story is being interrogated about a crime that was committed, and each one had perceived the events in a completely different way. This places the audience in the viewpoint of the interrogator who has no clue of the actual events that have taken place until he is able to hear several versions of the same story and begins to piece together the consistent facts that are shared among every witness and participant.

In most cases of incorporating a flashback sequence into a story can run amok for the storytelling if it appears to the viewing audiences as a cliché. Very often, I find myself relentlessly bored if a filmmaker attempts to use a flashback sequence to tell any small portion of a story. It has grown mundane and useless to me in some instances. However, in the case of Rashoman the method has served the purpose of placing the audience into the mindset of the inquiring character who is attempting to piece together the numerous stories of several characters who have been connected with a crime that is in need of punishment. As each character recalls the previous events, despite various elements of each person’s story not quite matching with the stories of the other characters, the audience must disseminate the information and figure out the true events that have unraveled between them.

Akira Kurosawa has wonderfully created a method of storytelling that pulls the audience right into the situation and keeps their mind active in what is happening on the screen. The method of Rashoman storytelling has been used in other films such as Courage Under Fire (1996) and Vantage Point (2008). It proves the power of Kurosawa’s influence in the world of film making when other people are copying his style of storytelling.

Akira Kurosawa: Influences and Influence Part 2

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