Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’ and the Forgotten

I really can’t express the disappointment I felt when watching Steven Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’. There was so much anticipation for the film.  After seeing Lincoln, I walked out of the theater thinking ‘ Great acting by Daniel Day Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones and James Spader but what a missed opportunity and sadly revisionist history.  

The film is about an Amendment to free Black Slaves, right? Where were the Black characters instrumental in the abolition of slavery?  Yes, there were Blacks who persistently challenged Lincoln to abolish slavery. Unfortunately, you wouldn’t know it.  The film ‘Lincoln’ forgot about them.

Let’s not forget Frederick Douglass, a leader of the abolitionist movement, who came to the White House and challenged ‘Lincoln’ about the injustice and inhumanity of slavery. Harriet Tubman, another abolitionist, also prodded and challenged Lincoln over his views of slavery. These individuals contributed greatly to the passing of the 13th Amendment. They were totally ignored.

One glaring omission was Black characters appearing in central roles in  ‘Lincoln’.  Many of the scenes with Black characters seemed truncated and worst often backdrops, marched in and out for effect. The black characters closest to Lincoln and the politicians were portrayed as fairly comfortable and satisfied in their servitude. There is a surprising relationship depicted in the film. At that time in history, those relationships were more likely rare. Rape, brutality, mental and physical abuse even in the most respectable homes was more the norm. Let’s not forget that slavery degraded the human spirit, ripped people from their homeland and tore families apart with reparable damage.  Negative repercussions that still reverberate and affect their descendants today.

Too often, we want to sugar coat and paint over aspects of our history that are painful. Why is this? My disappointment in ‘Lincoln’ was the lack of digging deeper regarding the evolutionary process of passing the 13th Amendment. The absence of the historical contributions of Black Americans to the abolitionist movement was disappointing because their contributions to the passing was so key.  Despite its artistry, for me ‘Lincoln’ is a revisionist view. Hollywood historically has a legacy of diminishing the important contributions of non-whites in America.   It’s 2012; we, as Americans, should know better. America is changing and becoming more diverse. Our films have to progress and reflect that truth.

‘Lincoln’ is a perfect example of how much work still needs to be done in cinema when dealing with the complexity of race in America.






‘Hitchcock’ A Homage to Psycho

There seems to be an obsession these days with films about the master of suspense, film director, Alfred Hitchcock.

HBO has one, now there is the feature ‘Hitchcock’ starring Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren. ‘Hitchcock’ reveals the psyche of the man during the shooting of the mother of all horror movies  ‘Psycho’.

‘Hitchcock’ has elements of a pretty conventional love story. Love and jealousy between  ‘Hitch’ (as some cinephiles refer to him) and his wife is the central theme of the film. Alma Reville is often overlooked, but Alma was a strong creative force behind Hitchcock films.

The best parts of ‘Hitchcock’ is the fun of sitting in the movie theater and wondering how Sacha Gervais, the director of  ‘Hitchcock,’ is going to recreate the making of the iconic ‘Psycho’ thriller. Gervais draws the audience into the mind of Hitch both with psychology and cinematic techniques. You see, the tone, when it works, is not a grand expose or biopic of the life of Alfred Hitchcock but a sneaky Peeping Tom look into the iconic director’s voyeuristic habits, predilections and psyche.

‘Hitchcock’ is voyeuristic, shocking and fun! That’s when the film is at it’s best. There is an almost ‘Where’s Waldo’ quality. The audience is searching to find, recognize and revel in the familiar details of the beloved classic, ‘Psycho’.

The scene during the casting session with James D’Arcy who plays the actor Anthony Perkins auditioning for the part of the creepy and deeply disturbed murder, Norman Bates, adoitly fits the tone of the film. The scene is a perfect mixture of humor, horror and mockery that captures the essence of the master of suspense.

I loved the scenes that reveal the dark corners of Hitchcock’s mind. When Hitch obsesses and wrestles with the real life murder that both ‘Psycho” the book and film was based upon. Those scenes come out of nowhere to jolt and scare and are reminiscent of the cinematic signature and technique of the master of suspense himself.

In interviews with the great Alfred Hitchcock he always had a sardonic and macabre sense of humor. Hitchcock didn’t take himself or anyone else too seriously. I wish the film took a bit of advice from the great Alfred Hitchcock’s own words ‘it’s only a moo-vie!’

I’m reminded of another film, which ironically is about a director making movies, the film ‘Ed Wood’. The director Tim Burton mixes humor; pathos and horror beautifully and the film never took itself too seriously even when dealing with complex human emotions.

Alfred Hitchcock was always playing a cruel cinematic joke on the audience. The director’s work was scary, macabre and terrifying but always enjoyable  like the scariest roller coaster ride. There were times in ‘Hitchcock’ that the tone was spot on and other times it veered off in a more conventional dramatic direction that lessened both the terror and the joy of the film.

Fahrenheit 451 Eerily Echoes Our Lives Today

It’s not surprising that I learned Ray Bradbury the author of Fahrenheit 451 was an avid film lover as well as one of the preeminent science fiction authors. Just look at Fahrenheit 451 and you get the feeling the film was based on the writing of someone who is not only eerily psychic but who also has a cinematic gift  for writing. Wow! I would never put Francois Truffaut and Ray Bradbury in the same sentence let alone collaborators on a movie. Truffaut seems so antithetical to science fiction. The filmmaker’s previous works are so grounded in reality. Usually science fiction is slick, cool and devoid of the everyday. Ironically, in Fahrenheit 451, Truffaut turns out to be the perfect director for this amazingly poignant and beautiful film that so eerily foreshadows the times we live in today.

Continue reading “Fahrenheit 451 Eerily Echoes Our Lives Today”

‘Black Girl’ A Must See Film

‘Black Girl’, Ousmane Sembene’s first feature won the 1966 Prix Jean Vigo Award, an annual prize given to a debut feature by The Cinema of France.  What makes this film so special is that ‘Black Girl’ accomplishes what most films try to do but few succeed. The director, Ousmane Sembene, moves an audience with pure emotion. There is a truism in the film world ‘the only motion in motion pictures is emotion’. Ousmane Sembene explores this axiom beautifully.

 Diouana is our central character, a beautiful young woman from Senegal who is hired by a White French couple to care for their 2 children. Planning to leave Senegal, Diouana anticipates a wonderful and rewarding life living in the South of France, even though her boyfriend and family are a bit apprehensive about her new position. Diouana arrives with high expectations of adapting to the family and her new surroundings. Unfortunately, the dreams slowly turns into a nightmare of dissolution, despair and disappointment.

Ousmane Sembene’s emotional tenor of  Diouana’s character really puts the audience in her shoes. The young Senegalese woman knows she deserves better but life has dealt her a cruel hand. The film explores the often uncomfortable and sometimes harsh relationship between a domestic and an employer. The devastating effect of African Colonialism is clearly and unmistakably depicted in ‘Black Girl’ with both sensitivity and brutality. The beauty of the film never masks the cruelty of colonialism.

What makes this film so special is the emotional resonance that goes beyond Diouana’s servitude as a household domestic to a universal unfairness. Ousmane creates a masterpiece in the character of Diouana who becomes a metaphor for the ‘majority’ of people around the world, stuck in menial employment, kowtowing to the often insensitivity of the powers that be and knowing you deserve better.  So adeptly directed, it’s a film that all of us can relate to in one-way or another whether we are the worker or the employer.

Poignant metaphors are present throughout the film, shoes in particular.   The employer’s shoes, which Diousana is ordered to take off, is a symbol of upward mobility. The clicking high-heels characterizes Diousana’s narcissistic desire for the elegance and beauty that is slowly being eroded. Finally, the removal of shoes reveals not only the soles of her Diousana’s feet but a soul so desperately connected to the homeland of ‘Senegal’ left behind. Sembene wants us to take a journey and walk in the shoes of a woman being striped of her identity, family and home.

Watch out for the ending, so beautiful and devastating, it may haunt you for days to come. ‘Black Girl’ is a must see film for everyone.

Leslie Harris’s Film Tip of the Day

Leslie Harris’ I Love Cinema”:

Film Tip of the Day

Remember color is effected by light. So as a director when creating a color palette for your film, certain colors may change according to the lighting. An orange sofa may look orange to the naked eye on set but may appear a different shade of orange or a different color when you see it on screen. Always keep lighting variables (such as  shooting in sunlight, or interior and exteriors, camera filters, CTO on windows etc.) in mind when choosing colors for your film palette. And remember, try to do lighting test before the shoot,  It may save you time, money and you’ll have a better chance of getting the most accurate colors you want for your film.

Truly Antonioni


Wow, I’m always shocked when I find a gem on Netflix. Sometimes we get jaded as movie fans and think we’ve seen it all. Well, ‘Story of a Love Affair’ took me by surprised. This is the first feature by the great Italian director, Michelangelo Antonioni. What I loved about this film is seeing the director’s individual style reflected so clearly and beautifully at the early stage of a career.  Antonioni’s camera set-ups, locations, emotions and blocking choices truly foreshadow the cinematic masterpieces of his later great works. ‘

Story of a Love Affair’ was the first narrative feature by Antonioni, he had done short documentaries before this film. What is so wonderful about discovering ‘Story of a Love Affair’ is to see Antonioni’s love of architecture and the way he depicts humanity through attachment and detachment of surroundings and landscapes.

The film could have turned into a melodramatic crime drama. A wealthy aristocrat, played by  Ferdinando Sarmi, is suspicious of his wife’s, Paoloa, ( Lusic Bose)  past and hires a private investigator to look into it. The private investigator does find adultery, jealousy and possible murder, but this isn’t what interests Antonioni. What we see is a filmmaker searching for a style to express the vacuous nature of wealth and poverty, loneliness and isolation. We see two people whose decisions could have turned into a clichéd  ‘Double Indemnity’ moment and become reminiscent of a traditional crime drama. Instead the film evolves into a reflection on the emptiness, pain and desperation more profound than a ‘film noir’ plot point. Antonioni’s world reflects the human journey on this planet and how we connect or disconnect from our surroundings and each other. Although, the director truly reveals himself as great artist in such films as ‘Blow Up’, L’Avventura’, L’Ecplise and ‘The Passenger’, in ‘Story of a Love Affair’ we see his unique vision was always there.  Even in his first film , Antonioni’s style shines through. Placing his actors almost like chess pieces in vast architectural settings and landscapes visually reveal deep human emotions.

The beauty of the film shines through; there are so many wonderful compositions of vast landscapes, industrial city venues and architecture that create a unique world like no other. So if you’re curious to see if a director ‘s style is evident in their early work, check out ‘Story of a Love Affair’. You’ll discover, when a director is true to his vision, a style bursts through. No two filmmakers approach a subject in the same way and every director has a unique and special perspective. A director’s style is like a fingerprint unique and in this case truly Antonioni.

The Man Behind the Curtain Color, Clothing, Camera and The Character of Boris Lermontov in ‘The Red Shoes’

The Man Behind the Curtain

Color, Clothing, Camera and The Character of Boris Lermontov in ‘The Red Shoes’

As a screenwriter, my job is to write characters that are three-dimensional. I am constantly writing and rewriting to make sure my characters aren’t caricatures. Make ‘em real on the page like real people you’d meet on the street.  It’s how the audience relates because they see themselves or someone they know in your characters. It’s the stuff of good literature and drama.

As a director I try to do the same thing, but there are so many different tools at a film director’s disposal. The choice of actor, story and plot are obvious. However, a director has other tools just as important to create mood, tone and ultimately a breathing human being on screen.

One of the best examples of this is the character of Boris Lermontov, the great ballet impresario in the Micheal Powell and Emeric Pressburger 1948 classic film ‘The Red Shoes’. If you haven’t seen ‘The Red Shoes’ it’s a treat and a feast for the eyes. The team of Powell and Pressberger creates the world of ballet like no other. This film was obviously a huge inspiration for the recent Darren Aronofsky’s “The Black Swan”. ‘The Red Shoes’ is the story of a woman torn between the man she loves and her passion for ballet. It’s based on a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale of the same name.

Now you might think the obvious choice is to focus on Victoria Page, the lead character, a ballet dancer at the center of the story, but my favorite character is not Vicky or her lover, Julian Craster, but the nemesis Boris Lermontov. Another of my favorite aspects of the film is Powell and Pressburger use of color, wardrobe and camera to reveal the character of Boris Lermontov.

The first time we see Lermontov, well we barely see him at all.  It’s the beauty of cinematography. After a quick glimpse, the camera reveals only the hands of a man behind the curtain. He sits high above in a theater box, at a ballet, taking fastidious notes, gesturing “no” to an invitation to a patron’s party. In filmmaking, the director chooses what an audience sees and more importantly what an audience doesn’t see. And this director chose wisely, just a hand gesture tells it all, the complete dismissal of an arrogant impresario of the arts. The wardrobe reveals character, meticulously pressed sleeve of a black tuxedo, starched white cuffs and an expensive gold pinky ring, says it all. He is too important, too busy and too arrogant to attend such a trivial party. When convinced the patron is a financially vital donor to his ballet, he reluctantly agrees to attend the soiree. This is all done with virtually no dialogue.

At the party, we see him fully dressed in an immaculate tux, white shirt, white bow tie and a gold watch chain accenting it all. The tux is black and although others guest also wear black somehow Boris Lermontov’s black stands out.  Lermontov is someone you don’t mess with, but our naive ballerina, Vicky is not afraid or intimidated. She confronts him head on regarding his refusal to permit her dance performance, which of course is really an audition. Lermontov is “spared such a horror”. Powell and Pressburger use of the color black in this film is like no other.  And the camera circles around Lermontov at the party so subtly like a fan or a stalker. It’s a brilliant use of camera movement that makes you, the viewer, feel like an invited guest, just remember to keep your distant and fear Lermontov. Here camera, color, clothes and superior acting are used in a masterful way to convey character.

Later in the film, early in the morning we’re in Lermontov’s apartment, he reads his mail. The wardrobe choice is quite shocking.   Dressed in robe with oriental, ornate and oddly embroider motif, he almost looks like a mannequin figure on display at a museum. The wardrobe reflects another time and another era. This is how wardrobe foreshadows story. Lermontov is from another era; he can’t accept the new, the young and the furture.   Lermontov’s wardrobe includes beige slippers, the choice is a bit odd and somewhat comical, but again reveals character.  At home, the man is not only an impresario but an artist as well. The wardrobe reflects an artistic, brooding yet eccentric man, not just concerned with business but a man of the arts.  The colors reflect character as well; muted and subtle the color reveals a thinker, pensive and sensitive. It’s a brilliant choice because we see the eccentricity and perhaps a little of the ‘crazy’ and mentally disturbed side of this genius. Although the camera shoots from above and looks down on Lermontov as he eats breakfast, Lermontov is insouciant and above it all. The young composer, Julian, is so frustrated that he is about to walk out but is enticed by a job offer and is drawn into the web of this controlling impresario. The web is created with color, clothing, camera movement and of course, the great acting of Anton Walbrook.

The most powerful scene of Lermontov’s comes during the third act of the film. Lermontov is completely side swiped by his protégé, Vicky, and the young ambitious composer, Julian’s marriage. He becomes insanely jealous and as Vicky puts it a ‘monster’. Lermontov plays the jilted ‘lover’. We see him in a scarlet red velvet smoking jacket, which almost matches the velvet window curtains caging him in and the curtains are reminiscent of stage curtains seen at the theater. This is not just any red! This is red that will make your blood boil. The actor Anton Walbrook gives a stellar performance depicting the very intimate moments of a proud man who pines over the loss a young woman. We rarely see such a scene, a powerful man who is so vulnerable and so deeply hurt. Tortured, Lermontov’s literally shatters himself to pieces with self-hate and loathing. The color blood red and the way he tears open the red jacket revealing a white tee shirt, yes the impresario like every man wears a simple white tee shirt underneath the expensive clothing. That simple wardrobe choice somehow expresses his humanity, he’s just another ‘jilted’ lover like many of us.  The flash of yellow in the lining exposes a man who is really a coward. He’s conniving, jealous and petty and Lermontov let’s other do his dirty work. This is the ‘real’ man behind the curtain. Oh, one other wardrobe accessory that has to be noticed. Please don’t miss the sunglasses.

Oh, those shades! Lermonotov’s wears them at critical moments in the film. You can feel the anger and hurt hidden behind the dark glasses. The impresario does have feelings but he is too arrogant and proud to show them so he hides behind the glasses until the end of the film but unfortunately,  it is too late.

So in filmmaking remember color, clothing and camera and how these three elements can create character along with a brilliant performance by a screen actor.

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Truffaut’s ‘Day for Night’

I love films. Most writers love reading, they adore books. Well, I’m the same way with cinema. My personal philosophy is that watching great films helps you be a better filmmaker. Some disagree and that’s okay. We all come to our passions in different ways. Francois Truffaut, the director of the film ‘Day for Night’  was a very interesting filmmaker. Although, he was well versed in the history of film. Truffaut sort of found his own way and combined his style with inspirations from great filmmakers like Hitchcock, Hawks and Bergman. I don’t always agree with his sentimentality. The reason why I love ‘400 Blows’ and ‘ Jules and Jim’, two of his great films,  is  while having sentimental aspects both had a darker undertone about life.  Which brings me back to Truffaut’s ‘Day for Night’. The story is the making of a movie. How actors and crew become a sort of traveling circus and then become family. Yes, family with all the dysfunction that sometimes comes along  with our closest relatives.  Jaqueline Bisset,  is the lead actress in ‘Day for Night’ as well as the lead in the film within a film. Bisset’s character ‘Julie’ has just recovered from a nervous breakdown and wants to make good. Throughout the film you get the sense that something is going to happen to her, whether it does or doesn’t  remains to be seen. Truffaut’s talent comes in setting up suspense. It might be odd to say but I think his influence from the great director Alfred Hitchcock works well here. And it’s not even a Horror  Film or a Thriller!  Truffaut created his own genre with ‘Day for Night’. It’s not a documentary about making a film, yet it is. It’s not a love story, yet it is. ( well, perhaps a love story about Truffaut’s own love of cinema) It’s not a melodrama, yet it is a bit. It’s not your traditional comedy, but it does have some hilarious moments (especially with the very talented actress Valentina Cortese). So for all of you who have not seen ‘Day for Night’ check it out and for those who have seen it before. like me,  it’s even more of a treat! Watch how Truffaut foreshadows plot points and takes you on an enjoyable journey, you almost feel like you’re part of the film crew.