The Lens of Fears and Dreams: Michael Ballhaus

German cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, most famous for his collaborations with the auteurs Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Martin Scorsese, passed away today at age 81. Here are scenes from eleven films (because ten just aren’t enough!) photographed by Ballhaus, unforgettable moments that are forever imprinted in my mind.

Beware of a Holy Whore (1971, dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder). An unhappy actress is fired from a film project after making too many demands; we watch her departure in an extended take that Ballhaus shot inside the boat taking her away from the set. I love the blueness of the water and the soft, golden light on Magdalena Montezuma’s face as she drifts further and further away as an aria from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor plays on the soundtrack, before we are abruptly brought back to a scene of the film shoot. Perhaps Fassbinder’s choice of aria, “Il dolce suono,” which depicts the aftermath of Lucia stabbing her husband to death on their wedding night and subsequently fantasizing about marriage to a different man, is applied to Magdalena Montezuma’s farewell scene (trust me, she exhibited tremendous histrionics) by implying that after the bout of madness that destroyed her career opportunity, she can still dream of a brighter future, even if it’s one that probably won’t happen.

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972, dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder). In the first video, Michael Ballhaus discusses his work on Petra von Kant in an interview conducted by the Criterion Collection for a new DVD release of the film in 2015. In the second clip, we see a scene showing the beginning of the first romantic encounter between fashion designer Petra (Margit Carstensen) and a young protégée, Karin (Hanna Schygulla), who is willing and eager to sleep her way to the top of the modeling world. The ornate costumes were designed by Maja Lemcke, her only film credit according to the IMDb.

Martha (1974, dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder). One of Fassbinder’s greatest films was produced for TV, a melodrama in the style of Douglas Sirk titled Martha. Margit Carstensen plays the main character, a young woman whose father (Adrian Hoven) dies while they are on vacation in Italy; on the same fateful day, she falls in love with an older man (Karlheinz Böhm), whom she soon marries (with disastrous consequences for her). Fassbinder introduces Böhm’s character and shows the instant attraction in the pair’s first meeting thanks to Ballhaus’s cinematography. The camera rotates hypnotically around the man and woman, a dizzying vision of lust. You’ll also note that the scene ends on a shot of a voyeuristic interloper played by El Hedi ben Salem, who played the male lead opposite Brigitte Mira in Fassbinder’s All That Heaven Allows remake, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, that same year. Salem was Fassbinder’s on again, off again boyfriend in the 1970s and he eventually committed suicide in a French jail in 1977, having been arrested and convicted of stabbing three people in a bar fight.

Fox and His Friends (1975, dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder). Possibly Fassbinder’s greatest masterpiece, Fox and His Friends is the tragic tale of Franz, a working-class man (played by Fassbinder) whose naive, guileless affection for his wealthy boyfriend, Eugen (Peter Chatel), allows Eugen to manipulate and exploit him. In one memorable segment of the film, Eugen convinces Franz to go on a pleasure trip to Morocco, where the couple pick up a local “guide,” Salem (the aforementioned El Hedi ben Salem). The cinematography in the scene in which Franz and Eugen cruise the “Meeting Place of the Dead” is exquisite, decorating the landscape in bars of light from the wooden slats above the market.

Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven (1975, dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder). Although this clip does not have subtitles, all you need to know is that a cabaret’s emcee (Peter Kern) excitedly introduces a singer’s act (Ingrid Caven), while her new boyfriend (Gottfried John) and her embarrassed mother and brother (Brigitte Mira, Armin Meier) look on. The family considers the performance quite tasteless, given that the family’s patriarch has recently committed suicide; even in the face of personal tragedy, the daughter is too vain and hungry for fame to consider postponing her stage show. Fassbinder loved images of people experiencing shame, frustration and other variations of pain, and this scene is no exception.

Chinese Roulette (1976, dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder). Alexander Allerson and Margit Carstensen, playing an estranged husband and wife, embrace in a scene depicted magnificently in one long dolly shot revolving around the two actors. Without dialogue, we get an intense feeling of intimacy from the swirling motions of the camera and the images of the performers’ faces, especially the expressive Margit Carstensen (one of Fassbinder’s favorite leading ladies).

After Hours (1985, dir. Martin Scorsese). Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne), a word processor who works for a publishing firm in Manhattan, experiences the worst night of his life after he meets an unusual young woman, Marcy Franklin (Rosanna Arquette), in a diner. As the two talk in Marcy’s apartment, Ballhaus keeps the scene minimally lit, but he zooms in on Arquette’s face when she leaves the room, a typically Scorsesean shot which is my favorite in the entire film.

Broadcast News (1987, dir. James L. Brooks). Television producer Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) leads news anchor Tom Grunick (William Hurt) through his first live show, a relationship that relies on her ability to direct his “performance” – a role-reversal of the Svengali and Trilby archetypes. Michael Ballhaus nicely conveys the depth of the TV studio, showing the distance and shifting perspectives of characters in the control room and down on the set.

Goodfellas (1990, dir. Martin Scorsese). One of the most celebrated scenes in the history of Martin Scorsese’s career is the unedited shot of mobster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and soon-to-be wife Karen Friedman (Lorraine Bracco) entering the Copacabana nightclub by way of the kitchen, a handheld shot achieved with the use of a Steadicam. The scene was shot eight times; reportedly, the eighth take is what Scorsese put in the finished film.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992, dir. Francis Ford Coppola). Enjoy the lush visual atmosphere of Coppola’s Dracula set: the lighting by Michael Ballhaus, Gary Oldman’s dedicated performance as the title vampire and Winona Ryder’s underrated work as Dracula’s great love, Mina Murray. The beautiful score composed by Wojciech Kilar completes the picture.

Quiz Show (1994, dir. Robert Redford). One of my favorite moments in Quiz Show is the scene in which Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes) comes close to revealing to his father, Mark (Paul Scofield), that he has been cheating during his winning streak on the TV quiz show Twenty One. Charles cannot bring himself to admit the sordid truth, though, and the cinematography reflects the metaphorical darkness weighing on Charles’s mind by displaying Mark Van Doren’s private study drenched in shadows. Michael Ballhaus’s use of close-ups, especially as Charles dances on the edge of revealing his secret, draws you in closer to the drama, but I also love the wide shot that the scene ends on, explaining without words that the brief window of opportunity for Charles’s confession has passed.

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2013: Part 7

Before Midnight. Directed by Richard Linklater. In many ways I think this is the most emotional film in Linklater’s “Before” trilogy since each sequel contains less fantasy and more hard truth than the film before it. After the loveliness of Before Sunrise (1995), in which two strangers, Jesse and Celine, meet and fall in love during one magical day spent in Vienna, and then Before Sunset (2004), which catches the pair in a surprise encounter in Paris that forces them to confront the consequences of their 24-hour fling from nine years earlier, Before Midnight is about the realities of what it means to actually be in a relationship and have children together. (The setting, Athens, is a place itself defined by history and the passage of time.) These struggles are reflected in Ethan Hawke’s and Julie Delpy’s characters and in how the actors wrote the script with Richard Linklater. It’s great to see the evolution of each character; while some traits have stayed the same, others have changed with the passage of time. I’m tempted to say that Before Sunset is my favorite film in the trilogy since it provides a good balance of the romantic hope and bitter revelations expressed in Sunrise and Midnight, but I cried much more in Midnight because I guess I care more about Jesse and Celine than I initially thought.

P.S. The tribute to Amy Lehrhaupt in the end credits is a bittersweet touch.

Fruitvale Station. Directed by Ryan Coogler. As much as watching the Rocky sequels was part of my preparation for Creed in late 2015/early 2016, so too was my viewing of the debut feature film by Ryan Coogler and his first pairing with star Michael B. Jordan, who reteamed for Creed. Jordan as main character Oscar Grant (an African-American man from Oakland, CA, who was fatally shot by a police officer on New Year’s Day 2009), Melonie Diaz as Oscar’s girlfriend Sophina and Octavia Spencer as Wanda (Oscar’s mother), who do a terrific collective job of bringing Oscar’s story to life, in addition to Rachel Morrison’s cinematography, which captures movement with natural light and handheld camerawork. I understand that many moviegoers felt that the film was “manipulative,” particularly because of the scene with the pit bull, but I find the film to be an effective and moving interpretation of Oscar’s last day on Earth. He is not painted as a saint; he made mistakes, for sure, and Coogler portrays the balance between Oscar’s flaws and his attempts to change, looking forward to a new year. Oscar Grant was so young when he died, and his life was not an extraordinary one; Coogler shows how painfully normal and mundane most of the actions on his last day alive were, as well as the cruelty of a tragic death that was the result of police brutality perpetuated by racism and fear.

Hateship Loveship. Directed by Liza Johnson. Like Linda Cardellini in Liza Johnson’s first feature, Return (2011), Kristen Wiig is given a good showcase for her abilities as a dramatic actress. The story is too ridiculous to take seriously – Wiig plays a caretaker so intensely introverted (quiet nearly to the point of being nonverbal) that it’s hard to believe that the object of her obsessive affection, a cocaine-addicted, pathologically lying louse of a single father (Guy Pearce), would see the light and fall in love with her. Wiig’s interactions with her employer, Pearce’s crusty father-in-law (Nick Nolte, undisputed king of crust), and the surly teenager she is charged with taking care of, Pearce’s daughter/Nolte’s granddaughter (Hailee Steinfeld), are fraught with tension because it seems as though Wiig has no idea how to talk to people. The strength of Wiig’s performance holds the flimsy Cinderella retelling together, although the film also picks up whenever there are brief but entertaining appearances by Christine Lahti (as Nolte’s love interest) and Jennifer Jason Leigh (Pearce’s similarly addicted on-again, off-again girlfriend). I don’t find the film particularly endearing since it’s so difficult to buy into the plot, but I appreciated the opportunity to see Kristen Wiig doing something other than wacky, unsubtle comedy.

Man of Steel. Directed by Zack Snyder. In another case of preparing myself for an upcoming sequel – this time, the behemoth Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which I saw last month – I watched the 2013 reboot of the Superman franchise, Man of Steel, starring dimple-chinned Henry Cavill as everyone’s favorite Kansan by way of Krypton. From what I can tell, Cavill is not much of an actor (he actually makes me miss “Smallville’s” Tom Welling, which is downright shocking since Welling wasn’t exactly Shakespearean in his abilities), and I find Cavill’s overly-muscled physique distracting, like he’s a hirsute Ken doll chiseled for the viewer’s enjoyment rather than looking like a real person. (Or are there guys out there who actually look like that without putting in endless hours with a personal trainer?) I’m biased in preferring Man of Steel’s villain, Michael Shannon, though; as General Zod, a Kryptonian warlord with a Caesar haircut of Supreme Evilness, Shannon brings his bug-eyed flair for craziness, imposing 6′ 4″ physique and incredibly hammy line readings (“I was bred to be a warrior, Kal. Trained my entire life to master my senses. Where did you train? ON A FARM???”) to his embrace of such an over-the-top role. It’s a pity that Shannon seems to be the only actor who really sinks his teeth into Man of Steel; I had hoped that Amy Adams would provide some fun and pluck as Lois Lane, particularly because she appears to be adventurous at the beginning of the film, but the character is quickly turned into a stereotypical damsel in distress, constantly getting into scrapes that require Superman to save her. (The worst scene: when Lois is aboard Zod’s ship and, despite being in control of her own faculties, she needs the ghost of Supes’ dad, Jor-El – played by Russell Crowe in phone-it-in mode – to tell her each direction she needs to turn in to shoot her space-gun at advancing foes.) Maybe if Zack Snyder’s film had incorporated more humor than it has (which is to say, almost none), I might have forgiven Man of Steel for some of its misgivings – primarily the lack of exciting dialogue and the by-the-numbers retelling of the Superman story, although the worst part is Snyder’s overuse of crash zooms to take us even closer to the action, a real headache-inducer that I’m glad I avoided seeing in IMAX – but perhaps the cruelest blow for the viewer is a Superman-Lois romance with zero chemistry between Henry Cavill and Amy Adams. Maybe someone should have sent them copies of “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex” and told them to lighten up a little and welcome the weirdness.

P.S. I didn’t mention Diane Lane and Kevin Costner at all, but they were both pretty good as Martha and Jonathan Kent, Superman’s (or, I should say, Clark’s) Earth-bound parents. It must be strange for Lane to have had to play a woman visibly older than herself when, at the time of filming, she was only 46 and usually looked like this. That’s Hollywood for you.

The Wolf of Wall Street. Directed by Martin Scorsese. A three-hour exercise in excess and indulgence, The Wolf of Wall Street tells the story of former stockbroker/scam artist Jordan Belfort and it is a sorry excuse for a Scorsese movie. Only one part of it, the scenes in which Leonardo DiCaprio slowly crawls across a country club floor (and into his car) while high out of his mind on expired Quaaludes, is truly well-executed and enjoyable; you get a feeling that you’re back in the hands of the old Scorsese. Everything else, however, is unfunny and, with few exceptions, displayed in subpar performances; going by this film alone, it’s hard to understand what anyone sees in Margot Robbie as an actress (unless people mistake “daring to do nudity/sex scenes” for “comedic/dramatic ability”). Scorsese stuffs Wolf to the gills with song after song, including Billy Joel, Cypress Hill, “What Power Art Thou” from the opera King Arthur (which I know best as Klaus Nomi’s “The Cold Song”), a Dap-Kings cover of “Goldfinger,” Sir Mix-a-Lot, Foo Fighters, the original Italian-language version of “Gloria” by Umberto Tozzi, Plastic Bertrand, The Lemonheads (my favorite cover of “Mrs. Robinson”) and Matthew McConaughey’s advice from the beginning of the film turned into “The Money Chant.” But what does all the music matter when the story isn’t interesting? I presume that Scorsese must have enjoyed filming all the sexual content (there are so many scenes involving it that I have no idea what the exact number is), but what some people may view as bold or fun is just a glitzy distraction trying to hide the problems of the narrative. It’s like nobody dared tell Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker what to cut out; the result is that many scenes run on far too long, and what’s worse, they don’t help move the story along or deepen our sense of character development. There is little to no depth in any of the characters – you see/get exactly what you would imagine – and the only performances worthy of any merit are only notable because of the actors playing the characters and attempting to rise above the material (Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jon Bernthal, Jean Dujardin, Cristin Milioti). Unless you are a Scorsese fanboy or fangirl, or you love Leonardo DiCaprio so desperately that you are willing to forgive obvious issues with filmmaking, you should avoid The Wolf of Wall Street. You are not missing anything special or profound.

P.S. I’m glad that director Meera Menon and screenwriter Amy Fox have made Equity (in theaters this July), which is a drama about women working on Wall Street. That’s a story I’d like to see told. Throughout Wolf, I kept wondering: what about the women who work in Jordan Belfort’s office? How do they deal with this boys’ club? Why do they subject themselves to this lifestyle? Are they more “human” than the male characters? (The story about Kimmie Belzer makes it seem so.) Etc., etc.

King of Sports: Three Minutes with Harvey Keitel

Taxi Driver is one of those movies that always needs to be seen with an audience. Whether in a movie theater or in a classroom, the only true way for the film to be experienced, as far as I’m concerned, is surrounded by lots of other people who feel as uncomfortable as you do. When Harvey Keitel shows up, which is fairly late in the film, his appearance (not just the acting but also his outfit and his physique) is such a sudden and exciting moment, a three-minute scene with exactly the right combination of sleaze and goofiness. I still remember how fantastic it was to see the film for the first time, a hot Friday night at the Museum of the Moving Image a few summers ago, asking myself “Who played the pimp, Sport? I’ve got to see more movies with him!” as the end credits rolled. The scene retains its impact now, even after multiple viewings. Every Brighton Beach-inflected line of dialogue – “I once had a horse…” “It’s entrapment already!” “You a funny guy… but looks aren’t everything” – is gold coming from Keitel. His look is note-perfect too. And is that his real hair? What a pro.

Predicting the Oscar Predictions: SAG and Golden Globes

Academy Award prognostication is a tough business. Even if you pay close attention to all the major pre-Oscar awards and nominations like the Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globes, along with notices from critics’ associations in New York, Los Angeles and other regions, it can be difficult to accurately predict whole Academy Award categories successfully. Let’s take a look at five of this year’s most tricky groups.

Best Actor. There are so many possibilities for nominations here that it’s going to be hard to judge until some major awards are given out in the next couple of months. At the moment it looks like the one definite lock for the Academy Award is Chiwetel Ejiofor for his performance in the Best Picture frontrunner 12 Years a Slave. It’s likely that Matthew McConaughey, who is currently in the throes of a major comeback, will earn his first ever nomination for Dallas Buyers Club. Tom Hanks has gotten SAG and Golden Globe nominations for his work in the crowd-pleasing Captain Phillips, so he’s got a good shot too. It’s unclear to me whether both Bruce Dern and Robert Redford, both 77-year-olds who have never won acting Oscars and who haven’t been nominated for said award since the 1970s, can both garner nods for their work (in Nebraska and All Is Lost respectively). If I had to guess, though, I’d say Dern has the better chance at a nomination. He’s been hitting the campaign trail pretty hard ever since winning the Best Actor award at Cannes last May, while Redford has no interest in lobbying for awards.

Other guys who might sneak into the race: Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis), perennial also-ran Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street), Joaquin Phoenix (Her), Forest Whitaker (Lee Daniels’ The Butler). Super-long-shots also include Idris Elba (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom), Christian Bale (American Hustle) and Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station).

Best Supporting Actress. The three locks for the nomination are newcomer Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave), last year’s Best Actress winner Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle) and 84-year-old June Squibb (Nebraska). The fourth and fifth spots are currently up for grabs, though. Julia Roberts, who is a lead in August: Osage County, is being pushed in the supporting category, so she has an opportunity for nominations there (SAG and the Globes have already done so). Oprah Winfrey (yes, the Oprah) has gotten a SAG nom for The Butler, so she has a fighting chance as well. Don’t forget Sally Hawkins either, recognized by the Golden Globes this morning for her work in Blue Jasmine, and Octavia Spencer, who won the National Board of Review award for Fruitvale Station.

Best Director. Right now the men (sadly only men this year) who look like definite nominees are Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) and Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity). I have hope that Alexander Payne, who just scored a Golden Globe nomination this morning, will be recognized for his fine work on Nebraska, but he faces stiff competition from Spike Jonze (Her), David O. Russell (American Hustle), Paul Greengrass (Captain Phillips), Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street) and the Coen Brothers (Inside Llewyn Davis).

Best Original Score. The unfortunate thing about this category is that a number of this year’s most noteworthy films either have scores which are ineligible (like Nebraska, whose composer used some work from a previous film) or use music which is not all original (I think that’s the case with Inside Llewyn Davis). Some composers who have gotten nominations here and there in recent weeks are Hans Zimmer (12 Years a Slave) and Steven Price (he did really good work on Gravity). I’m not sure if Arcade Fire and Owen Pallett are eligible for their contribution to Her, but if they are, that nomination would provide a nice, modern shake-up for a typically movie-music-sounding set.

Best Foreign Language Film. This is by far the most complicated category because this year’s most talked-about foreign film, Blue Is the Warmest Color, which I think missed the cutoff date for Academy Award eligibility by mere days. Some contenders include The Hunt (Denmark), The Great Beauty (Italy), The Past (Iran), The Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium), The Grandmaster (Hong Kong) and Wadjda (Saudi Arabia’s first-ever Oscar submission; also that country’s first feature film directed by a woman), but it’s anyone’s guess which of those films (maybe none of them?) will take the five coveted spots.

Great Cinematographers, Part 10: Michael Chapman

Michael Chapman (b. 1935) has photographed many films now considered classics: the three that I’m highlighting here (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and yes, The Lost Boys) and also many films in a huge selection of genres: The Last Detail, The Front, Fingers, The Last Waltz, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Hardcore, The Wanderers, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, The Man with Two Brains, Scrooged, Ghostbusters II, Kindergarten Cop, The Fugitive, Primal Fear, Space Jam, Bridge to Terabithia. You should definitely see Taxi Driver above all else; it’s a true masterpiece. As I wrap up my current series on ten great cinematographers, I realize I cannot wait for the next series of posts later in the year. This past week and a half has been a lot of fun.

Taxi Driver (1976, dir. Martin Scorsese) – Capturing the insanity of Travis BIckle and his relationship with gritty, grimy mid-70s New York City, Chapman uses the usual Scorsese style (a lot of panning) and contrasts the ugliness of the streets and, in Travis’s opinion, its citizens with the neon glow of porno theaters. The grit and the glow combine for cinematographic perfection.

Raging Bull (1980, dir. Martin Scorsese) – The “You never got me down, Ray” scene is a beautiful (if grotesque) marriage of photography and editing. The use of black-and-white makes the violence all the more realistic and jarring when every punch is thrown.

The Lost Boys (1987, dir. Joel Schumacher) – One of my favorite ridiculous 80s flicks, the “I Still Believe” performance is just so wonderfully silly. All that sweat (or oil?) on Tim Cappello! Jason Patric and Jami Gertz being at least a little bit interesting, not the annoying dude from Speed 2: Cruise Control and the shrill wife from “Still Standing” (respectively)! Gotta love it. Also the obvious inspiration for SNL digital short “The Curse.”

The Woman Behind the Man: Thelma Schoonmaker

Yesterday in my film production class, my professor talked extensively about the editing techniques used in Raging Bull, along with showing many clips from that film… but without ever mentioning editor Thelma Schoonmaker by name. Naturally, when students talked about the editing, they used male pronouns to talk about what the editor did. The assumption is that editors, like directors and cinematographers, are usually male.

Thelma Schoonmaker is an important film editor; she worked on so many highly regarded films from Scorsese’s oeuvre, including Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Casino, Gangs of New York and The Departed. Any discussion of Scorsese’s evolution over the decades would have to involve at least a passing mention of Schoonmaker’s contribution to his craft.

This is the scene my class studied more than any other: the Sugar Ray Robinson fight in Raging Bull. While the cinematography does accomplish a lot of the scene’s impact, the editing is also key.

Schoonmaker’s talent was obvious from the moment she worked on Scorsese’s first feature, Who’s That Knocking at My Door, in 1967. This is the famous sex scene montage set to the Doors’ “The End,” which is a great example of how to use music in film effectively. From the outset Scorsese knew what types of songs would work well in a cinematic context. The clip’s resolution isn’t terrific, but you’ll get the idea.

The 1991 remake of Cape Fear also has excellent editing by Schoonmaker. This scene in particular comes to mind (though you might not want to watch it if you haven’t seen the film… or if you have a weak stomach). Schoonmaker knew how to build suspense by cutting in the right places.

I think it would have behooved my professor to name the woman who has obviously been such an inspiration to her and to countless other professors, students and film fans.

The Gritty and the Gentle: Uses of Motion in Films by Martin Scorsese and Wes Anderson

One thing I have noticed in the work of Martin Scorsese and Wes Anderson is the great use of horizontal and vertical motion by both the camera and characters. In both Taxi Driver and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, the main characters go on journeys not just physically but mentally and emotionally, guided along by the camera that moves with them. (Lest you think this blog has become a Scorsese-and-Anderson lovefest, I’ll make sure to talk about other directors in my next post.) In Taxi Driver, Scorsese shows his talent for using the camera not only to zoom in and out but also to show motion from side to side and also up and down. (The specific up-and-down motions I’m thinking of are the two times that the camera pans up the building where Harvey Keitel has Jodie Foster working. Unfortunately, I can’t find GIFs of those shots.)

Here is Travis (Robert De Niro) calling Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a scene involving a famous tracking shot a few seconds after the one-minute mark:

The YouTube member who uploaded the clip describes it this way: “This tracking shot is underrated. Every time I see it I crack up. In the scene, Travis is trying to apologize for taking Betsy to a porno movie on their first and only date. She’s not having it, but Travis doesn’t get the hint. Well, the camera does! It decides to move the story along without him. Love it.”

Another of my favorite moments in the film is when Travis is in the diner he often hangs out in and stares into a glass of water. I love the way the camera focuses in on De Niro’s expressive face and then switches to focusing in on the water.

The rest of the film contains just as many great uses of motion, many of them involving guns. Travis’s simultaneous deteriorating mindset and growing violent tendencies feel as disturbing today as they must have been in 1976.

Taxi Driver wouldn’t be Taxi Driver without its uniquely Scorsese-esque style of camera work. I would like, however, to move on to The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, the fourth feature film by Wes Anderson. Slant Magazine sees Anderson’s work as having been influenced by Scorsese; I see it particularly in the attention to detail regarding the camera and cinematography, if not in the storytelling styles. (Anderson’s films hew closer to magical realism than “real” realism.) In a scene early in The Life Aquatic, Steve (Bill Murray) shows off his ship, allowing Anderson to demonstrate his penchant for lateral camera movement:

When pirates attack Steve’s ship, all hell breaks loose. This scene builds to having exactly the sort of kinetic motion that people have written about regarding Wes Anderson’s films:

And finally there are the ending credits, demonstrating slow-motion and the continuing walking motion (seen from different angles) of both Steve and his crew:

Don’t you love the use of the Bowie song? Like Scorsese, Anderson has a terrific ear for popular music. Although the films are markedly dissimilar in terms of content and tone, one can’t help but appreciate each director’s unique vision and their weirdly endearing filmmaking habits.

P.S. To the one Taxi Driver reviewer who wondered whether it was a film that women could “enjoy” – which is hardly the right verb to use – I ask this: what would happen if a female director made a movie about a female version of Travis Bickle? (I don’t have an answer for that, but I’d love to know what actually would happen. Homicidal… chick flick?) And then of course there’s this blog, which claims that Wes Anderson movies are like catnip for white people. I’m pretty sure the site is intended to be comedic, but I feel like a lot of people – I suppose a lot of white people – have reacted to Anderson’s movies in the ways that are listed in that blog post. I would like to set the record straight for myself: I have never actually laughed out loud at anything in a Wes Anderson movie. I love his filmmaking, but I don’t feel like his movies were designed to elicit guffaws. At most, they might cause big smiles and one or two chuckles.