August 2, 2014
David Kalat
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First things first, but not necessarily in that order

The Killing is many things.  It’s a 1956 film noir heist film.  It’s the earliest work that Stanley Kubrick embraced as representative of what he wanted to do.  But The Thing You Need to Know About The Killing is: it’s a daringly non-linear jigsaw puzzle of a story that jumps back and forth through its own timeline, looping through the same events as it shifts perspective among its many characters.  Such innovative narrative gymnastics remain striking even today, and give the film a weird modernity for a B&W picture set in an era before airport security.  Quentin Tarantino has identified The Killing as (part of) the inspiration behind his own exploration of non-linear storytelling in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.

But, for all that, there’s a risk here of taking this too far.  The more we praise the supposedly non-chronological storytelling in The Killing the more we risk misunderstanding how movie storytelling works in the first place, and crediting this film for innovations that it doesn’t really innovate.  I don’t mean to be churlish here, it’s just that the events in The Killing did not actually take place—they’re made up.  So there is no “other” chronology involved.  The only order in which these events “happen” is the order in which Kubrick tells them to us.


KEYWORDS: Edwin S. Porter, Life of an American Fireman, Stanley Kubrick, The Killing

The Story of Film: The Life of an American Editor

As any fan of reality TV can tell you, the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction are poorly policed.  Reality shows emphasize drama—often following entirely predictable and palpably artificial storylines—yet are constituted of footage of events that actually happened.  The irony is that for all the ways that this may feel challenging or new, it has been part of cinema since the very beginning.  This is where movies began, in the 1880s and 90s.

The earliest motion pictures were just what their name said: pictures that moved.  And as such they had a lot in common with pictures that didn’t move—records of real events.  Take a quick look at whatever pictures you have on your phone.  How many are attempts to tell stories, or to be artistic, versus how many are documentary records of things that happened to you?  Think about what comprised the first ever Lumiere Brothers film show in 1895—here’s our office, here’s our friends, this is somebody’s baby.  It’s a photo album that moves.  All that’s missing are some Lumiere Brothers selfies throwing up deuces.



Forgotten Films to Remember: ‘Between Two Worlds’

btwopener2Ever since Morlock Greg Ferrara questioned why some classic movies are remembered and others are forgotten in a post earlier this month, I have been turning over in my mind the implications of his point. As the Golden Age slips further into the past, a canon of familiar classics has emerged to represent that era; in other words, beloved movies like Casablanca, The Philadelphia Story, Rebel without a Cause, An American in Paris, The Searchers, the comedies of the Marx Brothers, screwball comedies, etc., tend to stand in for  all of Hollywood history. Their importance is reinforced by film festivals, continual releases on DVD, and references in other pop culture. Getting young generations to recognize older films as a vital part of our culture is difficult, so I am not complaining that the canon of classic movies gets its due. But, what about the hundreds of other unusual, charming, provocative, quirky, and otherwise remarkable films that are less famous? Will they be forgotten, especially because vintage black-and-white movies are simply off the radars of most people? Are they doomed to be lost in an era when the costly preservation of original negatives and prints is essential to their safeguarding?


Resolve Nothing, Roll Credits

Occasionally, I hear people (very foolish people indeed) complain that a movie doesn’t have an ending.  Of course, this is nonsense.  Unless the film in question has an infinite running time, it has an ending.  When the credits are done and the lights go up, trust me, the movie is over.  Nevertheless, just a few short years ago, when No Country for Old Men (2007) was released, many of the same complaints were heard again, even if they were easily dismissed by anyone actually watching the movie with open eyes.   You can even find websites with “Movies with No Endings” lists (though I won’t link to such garbage here) that find such movies troubling.  In the end, literally, it’s a matter of how the viewer wants it to end, on the tonic, so to speak, but not every movie goes down that path.   Now, I’m not here to provide a list of every movie like that but there are three movies I saw several times growing up that defined the non-traditional ending for me, and if I ever get around to making a feature film, all three of these will play a definite role in how I end it.


Who the Heck Was Slavko Vorkapich?

A still from the opening montage in "Crime Without Passion" 1934

Think of a montage in a classic movie.  Are you picturing falling calendar pages, or swirling newspaper headlines spinning toward the camera lens, stock market crashes, the outbreak of wars or the mounting hysteria of an anonymous crowd evolving into a mob?

Perhaps we’ve seen them so many times, we are no longer conscious that these sequences in familiar movies were often composed with such artistry by unseen hands. Yet, if you are an inveterate credit reader of classic films, one of the creative individuals who developed these artful transitions had what is still an unjustly unfamiliar name to many of us.

Even if the name of Slavko Vorkapich (1894-1976) fails to ring a bell, you definitely know his work, especially if you happened to catch Wednesday evening’s broadcast of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939-Frank Capra) on TCM. In a matter of moments, a lively montage unfolded in that film, telescoping the overwhelmingly heady experience of Jimmy Stewart‘s impressions of the nation’s capitol as he went on a whirlwind travelogue of the sights, ending at one of the most moving, the Lincoln Memorial. Bursting with movement and rapid visual imagery, the sequence conveys the naive Stewart‘s ebullience, awe and sense of freedom once he eludes his handlers, (led by the inimitable froggy-voiced Eugene Pallette).

That was just one example of Vorkapich‘s remarkable ability to goose the story of just about any film using a visual shorthand blending wipes, dissolves, flip-flops, and super-impositions to summarize and punctuate events during films, especially in the period from the 1920s to the 1940s.
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