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Snapping, Humming, Buzzing, Banging: Remembering Alan Splet

May 13, 2014 | by

Lynch Crucifixion

Millions of Americans heard the name Alan Splet (1940–1994) for the first time as a punch line on television. The occasion was the 1980 Academy Awards, where his sound design the previous year, on Carroll Ballard’s The Black Stallion, had earned him a special Oscar. Citing prior commitments, Splet did not attend the ceremony. When the presenter held up the statuette and the honoree failed to appear to accept it, the evening’s host, Johnny Carson, turned this perceived snub of Hollywood taste back on the truant. “It always happens,” he deadpanned to the audience, “first George C. Scott doesn’t show, then Marlon Brando, and now Alan Splet.”

Splet deserves better. He was no joke. In fact, to an exclusive circle of independent filmmakers who know how much his collages of sound and musical refinement added to their movies from the late seventies to the early nineties, his name is still invoked with an affection verging on awe. Tributes can be found on YouTube from Ballard, Peter Weir, Caleb Deschanel, and Philip Kaufman, with whom Splet collaborated on three films. Splet’s sound design and editing on The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988) ranks among the most haunting and sophisticated of its day—or any day. Leoš Janáček’s string and piano music is as ravishing as Sven Nykvist’s cinematography, underlining not only the distinctly tart Czech melancholia of the novel, but also serving, notes Kaufman, to “supplant Kundera’s voice as the narrator and give the film its drive.”

No filmmaker in those years bonded more intensely or productively with Splet than David Lynch. The two met in 1970 when the writer-director needed a sound track for his short film The Grandmother. (Splet was then employed at a Philadelphia industrial film company, having bailed on a career in accounting.)

With no money to foster the visions Lynch had in his uncompromising young head, the pair spent twelve-hour days inventing effects on the cheap, recording human mewls and gurgles and hissing machine-made sounds. Not until their concoctions matched the images on the editing table and the pairing created an elusive “mood” (a key term for Lynch) were they satisfied. Thereafter, until Splet’s death in 1994, he partnered with Lynch on every major film project, those that were completed (Elephant Man, Dune, Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart) and those that weren’t (Ronnie Rocket).

In the opinion of some, however, their masterpiece of “audio surrealism” remains Eraserhead. Begun in Philadelphia and finished in Los Angeles, its atmosphere is as marked by the sooty poverty of the filmmakers as The Grandmother had been. It was during this time (around 1973) that Lynch, who could not afford paints, did two meticulous drawings in ballpoint pen: a crucifixion, in a style that combines Mattias Grünewald and Francis Bacon, and a resurrection, now lost. Hoping to raise money to finish the film, they had prints made, an enterprise that was rewarded with total failure.

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The Big Book

April 11, 2014 | by

On photographer W. Eugene Smith’s unseen opus.

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A spread from the facsimile edition of W. Eugene Smith’s The Big Book.

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On September 2, 1958, W. Eugene Smith’s passport was stamped at the airport in Geneva, Switzerland. Hired by General Dynamics, he was there to photograph the United Nations Conference on Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy, known as “Atoms for Peace.” He was to be paid $2,500 for two weeks of work (about $20,000 in 2014 money), plus a $20 per diem. Commercial work wasn’t Smith’s preference, but he needed the money. He needed some distance from New York, too.

A week later, on September 9, Smith’s long-awaited extended essay on the city of Pittsburgh hit newsstands in Popular Photography’s Photography Annual 1959. It was the culmination of a three-and-a-half-year odyssey that began with a three-week assignment and led to 22,000 exposed negatives, two thousand of which he said were “valid” for his essay. He staked his reputation on the work, evoking Joyce, Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, and Beethoven, among others, as influences for the “layers” intended in his Pittsburgh layouts. Two consecutive Guggenheim fellowships (the first one coinciding with his friend Robert Frank’s fellowship for the work that became The Americans) further raised expectations. After turning down $20,000 from both Life and Look magazines when they would not agree to his demands for editorial control, Popular Photography offered to put thirty-six pages of their Annual 1959 at his disposal for $3,500. Smith accepted.

Now the anticipated magnum opus was set to arrive. But rather than stick around to toast his achievement, Smith jetted to Geneva. He had anticipated a Pittsburgh flameout earlier that summer, in a letter to his uncle, Jesse Caplinger: “The seemingly eternal, certainly infernal Pittsburgh project—the sagging, losing effort to make the first of its publication forms so right in measure to the standards I had set for it … it is a failure.” Later, he wrote his friend Ansel Adams to “apologize” for “the debacle of Pittsburgh as printed.” Read More »

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The First Footage from the Cinematograph

March 19, 2014 | by

On March 19, 1895, 119 years ago, August and Louis Lumière made the inaugural recording with their newly patented cinematograph, a sixteen-pound camera made to compete with Edison’s nascent kinetoscope. The cinematograph was powered by a hand crank, and it improved on the kinetoscope in that it incorporated a projector, which allowed a large audience to take in its spectacles. (Edison’s machine had only a peephole; maybe he thought moving pictures would appeal exclusively to voyeurs. And maybe they do.) The perforated film reel in a cinematograph was easier to hold in place, which meant it produced sharper, stabler images than had ever been seen.

This first film, La Sortie des usines Lumière à Lyon, features, as its title promises, workers leaving the Lumière factory in Lyon. What’s remarkable to me is how purely documentary this footage is: no one breaks the fourth wall. Even the dog isn’t terribly curious. If I were toiling in a factory all day, about to play a part in the debut of a revolutionary new technology, I would be sure to wave at the camera on my way out.

 

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Celebrating Alain Resnais, and Other News

March 3, 2014 | by

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A still from a 1961 interview with Alain Resnais.

 

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Los Angeles Will Never Look the Same in Movies, and Other News

February 4, 2014 | by

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Photo: Los Angeles Bureau of Street Lighting

 

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Beautiful Hide

January 9, 2014 | by

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Jane Powell and Howard Keel in a poster for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

Not that long ago, I was walking down a Brooklyn street and encountered an elderly woman surrounded by grocery bags. I offered to help carry them into her apartment, and I was sort of disappointed when she said yes and I saw what a long staircase it was and how heavy the bags were. After several trips we’d gotten them all in and she thanked me. “I was worried I was going to miss the beginning of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers on TV,” she explained. “It’s my favorite movie.”

“You know,” I said, “it’s out on DVD now. I’d be glad to loan it to you.”

“Oh, I have the DVD,” she said blithely.

The film inspires such irrational devotion. Whenever I am down, I go to YouTube and watch the barn-dance scene, which is famous not just because of the number of accomplished dancers in the cast but also because of the sheer, exhausting athleticism of Michael Kidd’s choreography. As a child, I decided that my wedding party would replicate the entire number—I was going to be Milly and do the pas de deux in the middle—but then you grow up and realize that unless you are a dictator on an international scale, this kind of thing is impossible. Nevertheless, I defy anyone to watch it and not get just a little bit cheered up. Read More »

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