Thursday, May 23, 2013

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - Fantasia

Curse you, Nathaniel!

Choosing a best shot from Fantasia is (as I mentioned earlier), a fool's errand, even when you're allowed to pick one shot from each sequence. Not to mention the fact that I haven't seen the film since I was a child, and even then I tended to fast-forward through the entire middle (the entirety of Rite of Spring and portions of Pastoral Symphony, both of which have exciting moments but are far too long for a child's attention span). On top of that, the purpose of choosing Fantasia is to celebrate the centennial of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring", which has always been my least favorite section of the movie.

And on top of all that, I have been super busy this week.

But rewatching some of the sequences over the past week, I've been reminded just how freaking gorgeous Fantasia is. Practically every frame is a work of art, even in the sequences I dislike. I mean, Disney itself has marketed just about every frame from The Sorcerer's Apprentice in one form or another, and for good reason. It's possibly the most iconic piece of animation in the Disney canon. Which is exactly why picking anything from Mickey's big moment would be way too easy. But upon watching the sequence again, I was struck by this moment:
Foreshadowing the last sequence in an anthology film? Has any other anthology film ever done that? Because, come on. Even if Yen Sid (heh heh) is conjuring a butterfly, in the beginning it totally looks like the malevolent terror Chernabog, the mountain/demon star of Night on Bald Mountain and scourge of countless childhood nightmares.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Fantasia - Dance of the Hours

For this week's Hit Me With Your Best Shot, Nathaniel has chosen Disney's Fantasia, which poses a near-impossible task. Whole sequences of Fantasia are true works of art - how can you choose just one shot from the whole film as "best"? I haven't seen the whole film in years (since I was a kid), but I remember a lot of it vividly. Given the nature of this blog, it should come as no surprise that my favorite sequences are the Nutcracker Suite and this one right here:
I defy anyone to hear "Dance of the Hours" and not instantly see those dancing ostriches, hippopotamuses, elephants, and crocodiles. What I love about this sequence is how the animators constantly play with expectations. The piece starts with the ostriches, who are appropriately light and graceful, but far more flexible than you might expect. Next come the hippos, and boy do they not move according to expectations, even if all that effort tires them out. The elephants are like the hippos, only more playful. But it's those kooky crocs who steal the show. Much as I love this piece, it never really captures my attention until they show up, with their silly capes and mile-wide mouths. They should be the villains of the piece, but because of their goofy grins, they end up being far more funny than menacing, to the point that you're never sure if they want to eat the hippo or romance her.

Animator John Hench apparently resisted working on this segment because he knew nothing about ballet, so to appease him Walt Disney gave him season tickets and backstage access to the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. The end result is a perfect blend of ballet technique and animalistic movement. Little things like the way the ostriches walk, the literal shifting of weight in the hippos and elephants, and the way the crocodiles slither and curl up all speak to the real-life animals that inspire them, but are incorporated seamlessly into how they dance.

Taking full advantage of the possibilities of animation, the laws of physics are given a big ol' heave-ho, allowing the lead ostrich to be thrown up very high in the air very quickly, and then float down with enough time to do at least a hundred changements. It also allows the crocodiles to lift the hippos in any number of different, exciting, sometimes funny ways, like just using their tails!

Fantasia has lots of dance in it, but this is the only sequence that really uses dance (ballet specifically) as its driving force. It's also arguably the most fun, which should quiet all those people who decry ballet as boring. There are plenty of comic ballets, just as there are comic operas. Plus, if you picture people performing this instead of animated animals, it's still pretty great. Actually, seeing as how the whole thing is even structured like an actual ballet (the various ensembles each dance separately, followed by a pas de deux, then a grand finale with everyone dancing together), I would love to see some adventurous ballet company attempt this. They'd need some wires and some crazy costumes, but it could be a lot of fun.

Favorite Moment: the crocodiles' entrance, at first menacing, until they throw back their capes and have the silliest look on their faces - in perfect unison, of course (at 7:50 in the clip); and hippo's run-and-jump onto the croc, who attempts to catch her (at 9:10 in the clip) - because some (poor) partners really do feel like that when you try to lift them.
Length: Approx. 11:50

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - Summertime

Hello. My name is Daniel and I am a hopeless romantic.

I can't help it. I live for a very specific kind of romance in films: Love that comes unexpectedly, burns bright for a very short amount of time, and cannot, must not last. Star-crossed lovers who don't end up together, for whatever reason. I can't help it. Casablanca, In the Mood For Love, Brief Encounter, Before Sunrise... these films are like crack to me. And one of my favorites, one that has kind of sadly fallen through the cracks of history a bit, is David Lean's Summertime.

I was thrilled when Nathaniel announced this Katharine Hepburn-Rossano Brazzi picture, because I first saw it about a year ago and haven't seen it since. I was eager to give it a revisit. It is swooningly, heartbreakingly romantic in the best way, and it takes place in that most captivating of Italian cities (at least for me), Venice. And while Summertime is certainly a beautifully-shot film in a very beautiful place, every single shot I thought about choosing for this piece was just of Katharine Hepburn.

This is one of The Great Kate's Oscar nominations, and it's well-deserved. I'd even go so far as to say she should have won the Oscar for it. I can't count the number of shots in this film in which she amazes me with her ability to show that her heart is blooming and breaking at the same time. She's the main reason why Summertime works as well as it does. It could very well have worked with another actress (Bergman, say, or Bancroft), because, hey, it's pretty damn hard NOT to fall head over sensible heels for Rossano Brazzi (SWOON). But I can't think of another actress that could have made Jane Hudson work as well as Hepburn, solely because the character runs almost completely contrary to our thinking about her - or at least, to the image she tried to cultivate of herself.

When we think of Kate, we mostly think of Tracy Lord, or Eleanor of Aquitaine, or Amanda Bonner, or Susan from Bringing Up Baby, or any other number of strong, forceful women. We may think of her as a romantic, but not in the sad, shy way of Jane Hudson. We do not think of her as someone who has never taken a vacation abroad, and certainly not as someone who would have trouble calling a waiter in a café. But Jane Hudson is all of these things, and Hepburn plays her as someone who resents that she is those things, even as she half-heartedly struggles to overcome them. She may laugh off her falling into a canal while wearing a white dress, but the second men start trying to dry her off, she finds the little boy who has attached himself to her and tells him to get her the hell out of there. Jane does not like attention. Perhaps being in her forties she has gotten used to not having it, and any time she gets it she finds it a strange, unnerving experience. Why would anyone pay attention to her? Why should they?

Well, they would because she looks like Katharine Hepburn, and even at her meekest, Kate has a presence about her. She just does. There's no hiding it or glossing over it. Perhaps this is what attracts Rossano Brazzi's Renato to her. That presence combined with her silence. She may be in her forties, but in many ways she is still an awkward teenager, amazed that such a beautiful, suave Italian man would take an interest in her, and not entirely sure if she wants it. There are very brief moments when you can see Kate rebelling against Jane - when Jane gets angry at herself for not being strong enough to do something she wants, that's clearly Kate - but it actually works in the character's favor. In the great scene when she tells Renato she is leaving later that day: She begins to cry, and Kate turns her head away from the camera, not willing to let the audience see her this weak, this sad. But at the same time, that makes the scene play much more interestingly than it might have, with Jane instead turning to the camera, or shaking her head back and forth. It's a simple motion that adds interest to the character where there really isn't on the page, and Hepburn's performance is filled with moments like that.

Which brings me to my Best Shot. It's from the final scene, one that has played out on the silver screen since time immemorial: Jane is getting on the train that will take her away from Venice, away from Renato. Will he come for her or not? This type of film is dependent on this scene to work. If this scene doesn't work, the film doesn't - it falls flat on its ass. As usual, the one leaving told the one that is being left specifically not to follow them, not to come after them, even though they really wanted the opposite. Even as she gets on the train, you can see the hope in Jane's eyes that Renato will disobey her. She wants him to; she doesn't want him to. She hates her self for wanting him to; she hates herself for hating herself. She must leave; she can't leave. She will leave.

And then, as usually happens, Renato does show up. With a gift. Just as the train is departing. She sees him. Even from very far away, she knows it's him. He runs with all his might to try and get the gift to her, but man is never faster than locomotive. So, standing at the end of the platform, he throws open the box and holds up the flower that was inside for her to see.

And then, this happens:

In six seconds, Kate goes from being down in the dumps to walking on cloud nine. Screenshots don't do it justice (sorry, I'm good with Photoshop but suck at making gifs). In motion, it's wondrous (you can see the whole scene here). This one shot made the movie for me the first time I saw it, and the second time it was the same punch to the gut. That's great acting. But more than that, it's great filmmaking. For a film like this to work just as well (if not better) the second time around, it has to hit some pretty deep emotions, and hit them well. Summertime, thanks to Katharine Hepburn, does just that.
*     *     *
I feel like I'm understating the importance of Rossano Brazzi in all of this. He is perfectly swoon-worthy as Renato, and he is personally on my list of Top Ten Sexiest Male Stars of All Time. Great as Kate is, this type of film doesn't work unless BOTH the leads are easy to fall in love with, and he is. OH, he is.

David Lean, too. Was there are an auteur as versatile as he? Great Expectations, Brief Encounter, Blithe Spirit, Lawrence of Arabia, Bridge on the River Kwai and this? The guy mastered practically every genre.