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Entries in Colorology (59)


The Furniture: Wiener-Dog's Sickly Green Cages

by Daniel Walber

Wiener-Dog is a deceptive movie. It is technically a sequel to Todd Solondz’s cult classic Welcome to the Dollhouse, but only for about a quarter of its running time. It’s actually an anthology, built around the often tragic life of an adorable, stoic dachshund. Each stop is totally separate from the last, each new character a slightly different riff on solitude and bitterness.

Yet even this structural diversity is deceptive. For while the film contains a variety of stories and locations, it is essentially one long expansion of a single set. The opening credits play over an anonymous animal shelter, where Wiener-Dog patiently waits to be adopted. One side has bars, the other a clear panel. The bright light highlights the sickly green walls, like the antiseptic glow of a dystopian hospital.

Wiener-Dog makes it out, but the cage lingers...

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Interview: That Neon-Loving Demon, Nicolas Winding Refn

Nicolas Winding Refn. Photographed by Tom Hoops for Lab MagazineNicolas Winding Refn, the Danish auteur whose made a career of candy colored violent films after grimier movies at home, is both exactly what you'd expect and unexpected. The expected: he's a little bit eccentric pacing the room rather than sitting, a little intimidating, and a little impish -- it's difficult to know if he truly means what he says in some instances, or if he has just mastered the art of provocation. The unexpected: he's relatively friendly, surprisingly generous about his collaborators despite the auteur's ego, very tall, thin and surprisingly attractive, something you wouldn't necessarily think since he's so often been photographed with inhuman gods like Ryan Gosling who make everyone but other movie stars look crumpled and basic.

As we talk we find mutual ground in Christina Hendricks adoration ("the perfect woman," he says) but elsewhere it's like he's speaking a foreign language and I don't mean Danish. His films, though quite serious on the surface, betray a dark sense of humor, and yet it still surprises me to hear him drop "I think it would be fun to make a spy movie" as we're saying our goodbyes. Why is this surprising? I couldn't quite tell you but such is the fascination of meeting this singular director, whatever you make of his increasingly divisive movies.

Our interview follows....

NATHANIEL: Let's talk about your opening scene. It's such a bold tableau. Did you ever worry you were coming on too strong. Like 'how will I top that first image?'

NICOLAS WINDING REFN: I'm setting the stage knowing that, if you look through the film, you'll see the same dynamic in all the other scenes of death and beauty.

NATHANIEL: So you're laying the theme.

NWR: I'm laying the theme right on. Most films -- storytelling in mass media -- start slowly, introducing. Eventually it gets to some kind of dramatic point in the first act. That means the second act is how do we solve it and the third act is resolution. But i don't necessarily believe that's the right order...

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Judy by the Numbers: "Be A Clown"

Just as there are films that shine bright in a star's history, there are also films whose histories are controversial at best. The Pirate is an odd contradiction of a movie. As one of Judy Garland's most expensive films, it was also her first MGM bust. Released two years after childrearing had put Judy on hiatus, it was nonetheless stuck in preproduction for five years before that. While it landed Judy another hit song, the knockoff written four years later would become a classic. Though The Pirate was the loudest, brightest movie Judy had made to date, its most interesting sequences were left on the cutting room floor. What to do with The Pirate?

The Movie: The Pirate (1948, MGM) 
The Songwriter: Cole Porter
The Players: Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, The Nicholas Brothers, directed by Vincente Minnelli

The Story: The Pirate must have seemed cursed from the start. By the time Vincente Minnelli started filming, it had already been stuck in pre-production hell since 1943. This meant that even though Minnelli tried to keep costs down, enough money had already been sunk into it that the budget ballooned to almost $5 million. Judy wasn't helping either - she reported sick to work 99 times. Then there was the issue of reshoots. The song "Voodoo" apparently enraged Mayer so much that he ordered the nitrate negative burned. The ending was a mess and had to be reshot. Then that ending got the boot in the South because it featured black men tapdancing

All of these production problems took their toll, and the resulting movie is a little bit of a beautiful mess. Nonetheless, there are three reasons to see this movie:

  1. It's the first A Movie appearance of the Nicholas Brothers
  2. Vincente Minnelli makes really beautiful color movies
  3. Judy Garland throws china like a red-haired Bucky Walters 

However, the scene that would make the film famous was "Be A Clown." As previously mentioned, it would become a modest hit for Judy, but the real hit came four years later when Judy's friend Donald O'Connor sang "Make 'Em Laugh" in Singin' in the Rain. Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed whipped up the song while trying to find a number for O'Connor. Luckily for them, Cole Porter was under MGM contract and wasn't feeling particularly litigious. While Judy would continue to sing the original throughout her career, ultimately Singin' in the Rain made Freed's version more popular. Even great talent couldn't keep The Pirate from sinking.


The Furniture: Black Narcissus's Maddening Matte Paintings

"The Furniture" is our weekly series on Production Design. Here's Daniel Walber...

In movies, if perhaps not in life, people can be driven mad by mountains. In films by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, they can be driven mad by paintings of mountains.

Black Narcissus is the story of a group of Anglican nuns who trek up to an abandoned cliffside palace in the Himalayas to establish a new convent. Deborah Kerr, cinema’s most consistent nun, is Sister Clodagh, the young mother superior. Her mission is doomed from the beginning, of course, though not necessarily because the locals reject their presence. Rather, it is the landscape that overwhelms their emotions and breaks their faith and their vows.

Powell and Pressburger did not shoot on location in India, however. The set was built at Pinewood Studios. [More...

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The Furniture: Joy's Emerald City of Home Shopping

"The Furniture" is our weekly series on Production Design. Here's Daniel Walber on Joy, now available on DVD and Bluray

It seems impossible that production designer Judy Becker has only received a single Oscar nomination, if not supremely unfair as well. At the very least, she should have snagged a second nomination for Carol. Her resume includes such diverse triumphs as We Need to Talk About Kevin, Brokeback Mountain, Shame and I’m Not There, as well as a neat early credit as a set dresser on Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. And so it seems totally appropriate that Becker is the first production designer to merit a repeat appearance in 'The Furniture'.

Becker’s most fruitful collaboration has been with David O. Russell. She's worked on every one of his features since The Fighter and she earned her lone Oscar nomination for American Hustle. Her sets for Joy, particularly the charismatic QVC studio at the film’s core, are among the best design work of last year. They also make quite a one-two punch with Carol, Becker showing a remarkable affinity for the stylistic underpinnings of American shopping. [More...]

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The Furniture: The Lady with the Van Paints a Crime Scene Into a Home

"The Furniture" is our new design series. Here's Daniel Walber...

The Lady in the Van begins with a bloody hit-and-run accident. The title van-driving lady, played by Maggie Smith, collides with a young man and leaves him for dead. On the lam, bound by necessity to a vehicle that may also be a murder weapon, she finds her way to a quiet neighborhood full of artists and bourgeois intellectuals.

Then it turns into a delightful comedy about the social anxieties of Alan Bennett.

It’s a bit abrupt, to be honest. And it may take a fair while to warm up to the neurotic, Adaptation.-style doppelgangers that represent the split personalities of the playwright protagonist. The vans themselves, though, quite effectively capture a much more gradual transition, one that charts Mary/Margaret’s arc with care. What begins as an all-in-one murder weapon and crime scene becomes a home. [More...]

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The Furniture: Brooklyn and Carol's Dramatically Different Department Stores

It's our new Production Design series, "The Furniture." Daniel Walber kicked things off last week with the bedroom in The Exorcist. Now a different era and public spaces - Editor

Thanks to Brooklyn and Carol, 2015 was a banner year for the 1950s department store. Both Eilis and Therese spend a fair amount of time as New York City shopgirls, selling to housewives and dealing with stern floor managers. Yet, despite the ostensibly common setting, Brooklyn's Bartocci's and Carol's Frankenberg's could not be more different.

The staff areas are a good place to start. Bartocci’s has a simple enough space for its employees, with open coat lockers to keep their belongings. It’s not beautiful, but the wood lends it a cozy quality. Production designer François Séguin (The Red Violin) and art directors Irene O’Brien (This Must Be the Place) and Robert Parle (Riddick) have a subtle, but assured touch. [More...]

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