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.


Play of the Week: The Iceman Cometh

The TV series “Play of the Week” aired a two-part, three-and-a-half-hour-long presentation of Eugene O’Neill’s play The Iceman Cometh in November 1960. Directed by Sidney Lumet, this production was called “one of the most electrifying evenings in the history of television drama” by the New York Herald Tribune. Jason Robards recreated the starring role of Hickey, which had given him his first triumph off-Broadway in 1956. It’s amazing to me that any of this could actually be shown on TV when it was; series like “Leave It to Beaver” and “The Donna Reed Show” – programs not likely to mention alcoholism, prostitution or murder as episode topics – were among the most popular shows on the air.

Myron McCormick and Robert Redford give the two standout supporting performances in this drama. McCormick is probably best remembered for the films No Time for Sergeants (1958) and The Hustler (1961), but his excellent performance here should not be forgotten. Robert Redford, a 24-year-old whippersnapper, plays a tormented young man who knew McCormick during his (Redford’s) childhood. Although I used to think that Redford wasn’t much of an actor and that he was usually pretty boring (though, it must be said, he was always pretty), in the past year I have definitely become more of a fan of his. I think he’s actually quite good in this particular play, emoting far more than I expected.

The last act of the play belongs almost entirely to Jason Robards. His monologue dominates Act IV and his performance is probably considered a master class for the stage. I must admit I don’t know too much about Eugene O’Neill’s works other than the adaptations I have seen on film, but I appreciate great acting when I see it and that’s certainly what you get here. Too often I have thought of Robards only as the supporting player from the 70s, 80s and 90s, in which he often did little more than steal a few scenes. I did not realize just what a vibrant theatrical career he had, particularly as an interpreter of O’Neill. He comes alive in The Iceman Cometh, like I have seen few others do. If you get the chance to see this slice of history, please give it a try.

I Can’t Decide How I Feel About Robert Redford

My opinions on Robert Redford tend to waver. For a time I thought of him as an exceptionally boring actor, but then I saw some performances that changed my mind… and again I continue to change my mind. Let’s take a trip back through all the Redford roles I’ve seen, chronicled in the order in which I saw them.

All the President’s Men (1976) – I think I saw this at the beginning of my junior year of high school, so that was around September or October 2008. There were some aspects of the film that I recall liking – Dustin Hoffman was as good as ever, Jason Robards was compelling – but overall I remember thinking that the movie was way too long (2 hours 18 min) and I started to doze off toward the end. Redford didn’t make much of an impression on me. Perhaps I just resented the fact that I had to watch the film in conjunction with reading the book of the same title for my American history class. I should probably see the film again; there’s a chance I might appreciate it more now.

P.S. Technically, the first Robert Redford film I saw was Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969), but that was so long ago that I hardly remember anything about it, except for the fact that my great-uncle Jerome was in it. Ditto A Bridge Too Far (1977), which I saw years ago as well.

The Milagro Beanfield War (1988) – I watched this Redford-directed exercise in magical realism in a terrific Literature of the 80s and 90s class that I took in my last semester of high school, spring 2010. (The film was paired with our reading of Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits.) I remember thinking that the film was quite lovely, even with Christopher Walken’s villain menacing the protagonists.

Quiz Show (1994) – This is the film that really made me a fan of Redford as a director. He elicited great work from Ralph Fiennes (pictured above), John Turturro, Paul Scofield, Rob Morrow, Hank Azaria, David Paymer, Christopher McDonald, Mira Sorvino and even Martin Scorsese. You should definitely see this film.

Sneakers (1992) – Redford stars in this boring “comedy” caper about computer hacking. No good, though it’s fun seeing him work alongside Sidney Poitier, Dan Aykroyd and River Phoenix (among others). This film set me back somewhat, making me feel like Redford was just too boring a screen presence to care anything about.

The Sting (1973) – George Roy Hill was a really excellent director and I can see why this is heralded as one of his greatest triumphs. Although I have not seen the earlier Hill-Newman-Redford collaboration Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), it’s obvious that Redford and Paul Newman had great comic chemistry. Plus Edith Head’s costumes are delightful. Overall I enjoyed it.

“The Twilight Zone” episode “Nothing in the Dark” (1962) – This is my second favorite episode of the series, topped only by the intensely creepy “The Hitch-Hiker” (1960). In “Dark,” Redford plays an injured cop who begs elderly Gladys Cooper to let him into her apartment and help him. Cooper is terrified of letting him inside because she fears he is actually the Grim Reaper. Young Redford is quite good here, giving his character a nice sense of compassion towards the old woman.

“Alfred Hitchcock Presents” episode “The Right Kind of Medicine” (1961) – Redford plays a criminal on the lam, a real bad boy. Another decent early role, granting him the opportunity to actually act.

The Company You Keep (2012) – Redford’s latest opus directed by and starring him is an annoyingly tepid thriller with a fabulous cast (besides the man himself, there’s also Julie Christie, Susan Sarandon, Nick Nolte, Chris Cooper, Richard Jenkins, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Elliott, Stanley Tucci, Terrence Howard, Stephen Root, Anna Kendrick… even Shia LaBeouf isn’t too bad in the film). There are some terrible moments of Redford running (or attempting to), so I guess that constitutes the “entertainment” portion of your viewing time.

The Great Gatsby (1974) – Wait a minute, this movie is fantastic. I’m not a huge fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writing (well, except for the short story “Winter Dreams,” which I suppose isn’t too far removed from the sphere of Gatsby), but this adaptation of Fitzgerald’s most enduring novel is a really beautiful film. Redford gives an understated, subtle performance as the title fellow.

All Is Lost (2013) – Ugh, this one, though. I thought All Is Lost was terrible. I’ll write a blog post on the film soon, but in short, it’s a bad film with barely a working script. I don’t know if I believe in the rumors I’ve read about Redford having had plastic surgery, but it’s kind of unfortunate to see how he’s aged when he still looked relatively handsome a decade ago. Yes, I’m more interested in Redford when he was prettier. So sue me.

Up Close & Personal (1996) – And now I’m back to being a sorta-kinda fan. Redford is downright charming in this incredibly cheesy chick flick. So where does that leave me? Sure, I want to see Butch Cassidy, The Candidate, The Way We Were, Three Days of the Condor. Heck, I’ll even test-drive Indecent Proposal. But it may be some time before I try An Unfinished Life or Lions for Lambs. The root of the problem would appear to be that I’m mainly interested in the younger, better-looking versions of Robert Redford. Oh well. That’s the way the cinematic world works sometimes.

2012: Part 6

Argo. Directed by Ben  Affleck. There’s no question that this thriller, telling the story of six people hiding out in Tehran’s Canadian embassy during the 1979-1981 Iran hostage crisis, is a fine film, but I wonder how well it will hold up as a Best Picture Oscar winner. There are definitely films from 2012 that I prefer Moonrise Kingdom, Skyfall, Life of Pi – although Argo is still an entertaining way to spend two hours. It has plenty of drama and action, helped out by Alexandre Desplat’s Middle Eastern-tinged score. I commend Ben Affleck not only for his skilled direction but for his ability to direct himself as an actor, making his performance better than it often is in the hands of other filmmakers. He also directed the large cast of supporting characters very well, especially the old stalwarts Alan Arkin and John Goodman, who have all the best lines from Chris Terrio’s Oscar-winning screenplay. Yes, there are inaccuracies and liberties taken in the retelling of the event, but to paraphrase the late Roger Ebert, you don’t go to the movies for “a history lesson.”

Beasts of the Southern Wild. Directed by Benh Zeitlin. I went into the film with certain reservations, knowing that it was a big indie hit. In fact, I saw it on DVD not long before the Academy Awards ceremony, so I knew which of those awards it had gotten nominated for (ultimately not winning anything). It took me a while to get into the spirit of the film, but when I did, I found myself really liking it. The film gets better as it goes along; you just need to stick with it. Quvenzhané Wallis really does do quite an amazing job as Hushpuppy given the fact that she was only five years old during filming. Dwight Henry is also superb as Wink, Hushpuppy’s often neglectful father. If the powers that be decided Oscar nominations based on merit rather than campaigning, Henry would have gotten a most deserved nomination. The score by Dan Romer and director Zeitlin also deserved an Oscar nomination, much more so than, for example, the Oscar-bait work composed by John Williams for Lincoln. Beasts of the Southern Wild, through its unconventional storytelling, actors and music, captures the unique flavor of New Orleans in the post-Katrina world.

Chronicle. Directed by Josh Trank. Better than your standard teenage fare, Chronicle is what I would term a “concept film,” combining teen drama with science fiction as its main characters are granted mysterious superpowers from a local underground cave. (If I remember correctly – though I may not – it has something to do with radiation.) The film’s main selling point ought to be its leading actor, Dane DeHaan, although he has not yet become a “name” actor, even though his career is on the rise with projects like The Place Beyond the Pines, Kill Your Darlings and The Amazing Spider-Man 2. His performance is easily the best and most nuanced in the film, especially since he’s still convincing as an adolescent despite being in his mid-to-late 20s. I felt that the ending portion of the film was weak, but otherwise it was a pretty good movie. The lack of soundtrack music makes it feel all the more realistic, in spite of its sci-fi situations.

The Company You Keep. Directed by Robert Redford. This flick is disappointing and bland, failing both as an attempted history lesson (to repeat Ebert) and more basically as the thriller that it tries to be since it lacks the excitement necessary to be called a thriller. I have never been much of a Redford fan, except in the case of Quiz Show, which proved to me that he can direct, and I suppose also The Sting, in which his performance is not altogether bad. Here he is clearly at least a decade too old for the role, especially noticeable in scenes where has to do a lot of running. (It must have been physically taxing for a guy in his mid-70s.) One of my biggest issues with The Company You Keep is that reminds me of other films Redford acted in, like All the President’s Men and Sneakers – neither of which I love – so I don’t feel like he’s breaking new ground with yet another story about radical political causes. (I’m a Democrat, but I can’t endorse everything liberal.) Redford’s ability to amass a huge star cast is impressive, but some actors end up getting roles with far less character development or interest. Susan Sarandon and Julie Christie do excellent work, but the characters played by Terrence Howard, Anna Kendrick and Brit Marling are so one-dimensional that they shouldn’t even be in the film. If there’s a bright spot to be found among the men in the film, Sam Elliott maintains his omnipresent “cool dude” personality and Shia LaBeouf is more tolerable than usual as the co-protagonist, an upstart reporter.

In Another Country. Directed by Sang-soo Hong. This is a movie that came and went without much fanfare, though it deserved some attention for being funny and charmingly low-key. (I wrote a post about it when I saw it two months ago, such was my immediate appreciation.) Isabelle Huppert is delightful in three roles that are iterations of the same woman, Anne, kind of like how Ozu made his “Noriko trilogy” with three versions of essentially the same Noriko character. In the second act of the film, Huppert’s Anne is particularly wonderful, making her a little bit loopy and quirky and bringing out a nice comic side from Huppert. Kwon Hye Hyo also does well as a Korean friend in love with Anne, regardless of which version of her is onscreen. The film can best be described as short (1 hour 29 minutes), sweet and simple. It proves that a film does not need to be narratively or technologically complex in order to be enjoyable.