Saturday, September 29, 2012

French Connections: Directors and Narcotics

Another pass at screen-based communication: William Friedkin's The French Connection, from 1971. I have been traveling in recent days, and asked my seniors to gather in my absence to watch "a film" which I did not identify beforehand.

The French Connection won Best Picture (producer Phillip D'Antoni), Best Director (Friedkin) and Best Actor (Gene Hackman as Popeye Doyle) Academy Awards in 1972. Roy Schieder, who played Doyle's partner Russo, was nominated for Best Supporting Actor.

The film tracks a story concerning heroin smuggling from Marseilles to New York. Doyle brings wild energy to tracking the smugglers, with tragic results.

I screened the film because it includes precious little dialogue. We track the action through shot sequences. It calls to mind French film, a doubling of the "connection."

And that car chase! Zero digital effects.

So here's the question, people: cops in gray, black and brown; four-door sedans; people following other people.

Why aren't I bored? Discuss.  

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Thinking for the Screen, Homeric Period

Have been enjoying extended reflection on the screen as a pictorial communication system. Unlike pages (which can be controlled by a "user") or sets of comic panels (which may be manipulated into unequal segments by a composer), screens really are modular units, by iron decree of the technology.

Television sets (increasingly quaint, that term!) and movie houses (even more anachronistic) present a sequence of images in a set format, which cannot change.

This is not really a sacrifice, except to the most relentless avant-gardist. Who has ever sat in a theater and thought, "Gee, I wish that rectangle would change. I'm bored it." We take the screen format as a given; we watch what unfolds within it without much thought of the visual container. 

But the logic and grammar of screen sequences had to be worked out. A significant distinction must be drawn between cinematic versus theatrical storytelling. Sergei Eisenstein' theory of montage (image A plus image B equals associative leap C) isolated important narrative concepts.

 Sometimes, it can be extremely satisfying to watch cinematic sequence on more formal grounds. I don't watch much TV, but recently I caught an episode of Kenneth Branagh's Wallander, a BBC-produced detective series set in Sweden. The episode I saw, The Dogs of Riga, was extremely well directed by Esther Campbell. The shot selection was very smart and formally satisfying. I recall (for example) a particularly elegant solution to the narrative problem of "now our hero travels by plane to another location."

Several years ago (just checked: seven!) I saw an exhibition at the National Gallery tracing the career of Charles Sheeler, he of the grain elevator paintings and River Rouge photographs. I was astonished to discover an obscure film Sheeler created in association with Paul Rand, pioneering modernist photographer. The scarcely-narrative film shares a title with a Walt Whitman poem: Manhatta.

I don't have time at the moment to discuss it in the detail it deserves, but suffice to say it's a visual poem devoted to Manhattan. Both the film and city feel homeric, as in early, vital and somehow authoritative.

The film is available here for free streaming, courtesy of the Library of Congress, which appropriately identified it is as culturally significant. 

The film really knocked my socks off when I first saw it in 2005. It influenced my own experimental animation, Scenes from Starkdale, Ohio (2006). Shots from the film are sprinkled throughout this post.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

An Illustrated Affair

Five weeks ago I traveled to the Bay Area to attend the wedding of a former student. Illustrator Mike Hirshon married Robin Meyer, a linguist who recently won a Fulbright to Holland. The link above highlights Mike's design work for the affair, which was quite comprehensive. By now they will have made their way to Amsterdam for the coming year. I'm already looking forward to Mike's reportage drawing from that very picturesque city.

Mike and Robin invited me to the wedding. Not only that, they asked me to draw it. Like a wedding photographer, but a more oblique one, with a pencil. When they first asked me, more than a year ago, it seemed–to my relief–that my schedule would not permit it. But when it became possible, I consented, if more nervously than I let on. I agreed for several reasons, chief among them my fondness for Mike. But partly I decided to do it as a challenge. So you think you can draw? Well try this.

It was a full day, to say the least. I reasoned, correctly, that the earlier I got there the more time I'd have to scope the place out, plus I would be able to make some preliminary drawings to warm up. I drew flowers being prepared, an entryway, and a handful of other things, including this assemblage of stuff.

Once the photographer(s) arrived I had a moving tableau to work from. These drawings are the fastest ones I made that day, but some of my favorites, too.

No time to edit. A stout photographer. Practically instinctive responses.

Here I had a very quick shot at the bridesmaids. This was more strategic: draw legs and the spaces between them, plus get the dress-mass in one shot. If I'd had even another minute, I could have roughed in better heads. Not to be.

Mike's mother popped in very early to greet me. She whispered confidentially, If you draw me, make me younger and trim off about ten pounds. Unnecessary, of course. She has a great smile and a distinctive carriage, and when I got a brief opening during photographs, I took it. She was probably mortified by this drawing, but it seems to me that something of her spirit comes through it.

Then, a few set pieces. The signing of the ketubah–the marriage contract–something I had never witnessed. (Mike designed it; it's a lovely object.)

A sketch of the setting: the Outdoor Art Club, in Mill Valley, California. As the bar is being set up in the foreground. When we scanned these images–which are plain old No. 2 pencils on sketchbook spreads–we pumped the contrast a little. It works on the line drawings, but the tonal passages collapse some. Oh well.

The ceremony itself. I planned to make a drawing here that I'd work up later as a gouache painting. Here's the pencil, complete with notes to myself about color. It looks like a mess, but it captured the necessary information. Toward the top of this post, the gouache. Painted right on top of the pencil drawing, in the book. 

Drawings like this compress time. I started the picture on the left, with the bridesmaids. When the other participants processed, the party closed in on itself. As the ceremony unfolded, the bridesmaids turned to face the action, and thus would not have been in these positions at the moment of the blessing captured on the right. Aspects of this temporal compression run all through the image.

A detail. I love the shapes of the hairdos and the dresses.

Finally, two scenes from the reception. A priceless moment, of two little girls dancing in front of a jazz combo. (A detail of which appears at the top of this post.)

And chatting around the table. The woman on the left was a participant; a guest; the rabbi.

All told I made over 20 drawings that day.

When asked a few weeks before, I said I'd prefer to eat dinner with the vendors, not the guests. I supped with the photographers and the musicians. Despite my familiarity with the bride and groom (and as the day wore on, with their families, at least a little) I was there to practice my craft. Just like the others at my table. Pass the fish, please.

The Meyers put on a terrific event. Here they are with their daughter, earlier in the day. The only principal figure I failed to capture was Mr. Hirshon, Mike's dad, who kept moving out of view just as I turned to him. Next time!

Near the end, as the post-dinner dancing began, I hit my wall. As soon as my digestive system began to process the meal I'd just consumed, it became very clear that there would be no more drawing. I thanked my hosts and said farewell, then plopped my bag in the rental and drove off across the bay to Walnut Creek. Where I checked into a Motel 6 and collapsed. Needless to say, I slept well.

The next day I spent a very pleasant interlude with an old friend, then flew back to St. Louis. 

Several weeks later I shipped the book off to the newlyweds, with whom it will stay for many happy years. Bon voyage, Robin and Mike!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Get Me the Geography Desk!

Reading the New York Times this morning, pondering presidential election dynamics, looking at the ubiquitous electoral college map. Scanning the country, I found myself wondering, well that's odd, I wouldn't have thought the Democrats had much of a chance of winning Arizona.  


This is a cosmic sign, or a sinister signal from an alien mole in the graphics department, or just a hilarious goof-up. Page 13. Certainly offers a new take on the concept of a swing state. Happy Sunday!