John Waters In The (Criterion) Closet

The director of Female Trouble has always been out and proud. Still, John Waters recently ducked into the closet at The Criterion Collection to choose five of his favorite movies to take home. And since I keep a Waters candle and a Divine photograph perched on my desk, I took special note of the five Blu-Rays the Filth Elder added to his personal collection.

Beyond The Valley of the Dolls was a top Waters choice. Written by Roger Ebert, Waters claims Dolls is the critic’s finest cultural contribution. “It's the best thing he ever wrote,” Waters says. “This is what Roger Ebert should be remembered for.”

Waters also zoomed in on other cult classics, grabbing copies of The Blob (1958), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) and The Honeymoon Killers (1969). Although Steve McQueen starred in The Blob, Waters dug the theme song more, calling it his all-time favorite movie theme song. He’s right. It’s weird and wonderful.

Lest you think Waters isn’t into respectable fare, he also grabbed a copy of 8 1/2 (1963), which he remembers watching while tripping on acid.

The Criterion Collection video featuring Waters is here.


The sound of an opium haze

What does a crazed opium haze sound like?

Sound designers like Steve Boeddeker ask themselves these kinds of questions all the time. Boeddecker, who has been nominated for best achievement in sound design for his work on Black Panther and All Is Lost, shared a few secrets with radio producer Jonathan Mitchell in Sound Design From Hell. Grab a pair of really good headphones and give this story a quiet listen because really good sound design can elevate a film. In 2002, Mitchell won an award from the Third Coast International Audio Festival for the piece. He now produces the Truth Fiction podcast.

Apocalypse Now, 1979.

Apocalypse Now, 1979.

Don’t put away those headphones just yet.

It’s time to learn how the helicopter sounds at the beginning of Apocalypse Now. Walter Murch, author of In the Blink of an Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing, worked with director Francis Ford Coppola to create the sounds audiences hear actually seeing the war machines soaring above the jungle. This video explains how those sounds were made.

A sound examination of the helicopter flyovers in Apocalypse Now.

Murch isn’t quoted in the video, but here’s what he told Andreas Halskov about the sound of the helicopters: “In the beginning of the film, all you hear is the whap sound of the blade from this ghost helicopter–you don’t hear any of the other sounds. Then, gradually, as the music comes in, this sound disappears slightly, before it comes back again. And it’s only when Willard begins to wake up from his dream, that we start to introduce the realistic sound of the helicopter, and that’s what you hear when you are looking with Willard, and the fan is rotating on the ceiling. So that was a realistic sound of a helicopter, and that was one of the discoveries we made in the process of putting together the film. That was not part of the original plan for the film, but it seemed to work very well, so we went with it."


That Climatic Sword Scene In Sanjuro

What’s the most surprising sword fight in cinematic history? I humbly submit Sanjuro, the 1962 samurai film directed by Akira Kurosawa. The movie stars the brooding Toshiro Mifune, whose shoulders are more expressive than any actor I’ve ever seen. Kurosawa loves shots of Mifune walking away from the camera and rolling his right shoulder forward in a “let’s get on with it” kind of way.

In the movie’s final scene, Mifune faces off against Tatsuya Nakadai, a samurai he has defeated. And since Mifune has also outsmarted him, Nakadai’s honor is at stake. He requests a duel. Mifune makes a half-hearted attempt to talk him out of it, but fails. The men are inches apart. While nine other men look on from a very close distance, Mifune and Nakadai stare into each other’s eyes. The seconds seem like minutes.

In this Criterion Collection interview, Nakadai describes how the duel was set up and then we see the big reveal.

Women, Sound

Thelma Schoonmaker: It's All About Timing and Rhythm

If you like Martin Scorsese (and I do), you gotta love Thelma Schoonmaker, his long-time editor. Over the decades, she's spent untold hours in the editing booth with Scorsese, fretting over cuts.  "Editing is all about timing and rhythm," she says.

Schoonmaker, who has won three Oscars for film editing (Raging Bull, The Aviator, The Departed), told Studio 360 it can take as much as a year to edit a Scorsese film. "It takes a long time to get it right," she says. "We re-cut much more than most editors. You have to live with a film. Really live with it."

Goodfellas Medium Shot.png

Also in the interview, Schoonmaker analyzes the cutting choices in this famous restaurant scene from Goodfellas. “There are no close-ups at all because Marty [Scorsese] wanted to show what was happening to the people around Ray Liotta and around Joe Pesci," Schoonmaker says. "As it starts out very funny and people are laughing. Then pretty soon, things get a little scary, then scarier and scarier. You see on the faces of the people around them, they are really beginning to get worried. … You don’t always have to have close-ups. Sometimes a medium shot or a wide shot is just as good.”

The show also coaxed this analysis of a Raging Bull steadicam shot from Schoonmaker, which shows Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci walking into a boxing ring.

If you want more on Raging Bull, I've unearthed this Schoonmaker interview from 2005. She discusses when sound was removed from a fight scene, when a piece of film was placed upside down (on purpose) and many, many more details, including the reason the fight scenes in Raging Bull look different than other boxing movies. "He {Scorsese} had looked at every boxing film every made and the thing he noticed about most of them was that the camera was outside of the ring, of course, because it's so hard to shoot in. But he wanted to be in the ring," she says.

Oh! There's also this American Cinema Editors interview from 2010. In the video, Schoonmaker describes how tough it was to cut an improvised scene from Raging Bull with Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci inside a kitchen arguing about fight scenarios.

Dave, It's Been 50 Years Since You Unplugged Me

Fifty years ago, I convinced my mother to let me see 2001: A Space Odyssey. I was 8-years-old and knew nothing about Stanley Kubrick or evolution or much of anything. After dropping me off at the theater, I settled in and waited for cool space stuff to happen. Instead, apes fought.


Of course, seeing 2001 as an adult was a much richer experience, especially during 70MM screenings at an actual cinema. (Note to first-timers who like to smoke pot: toke up during intermission. The colors in the final sequence make for one helluva high.)


With the 50th anniversary of 2001 upon us, there's been a rush of articles and exhibitions about the outer-space-what-does-it-mean-to-be-human story. Vanity Fair chronicles how Kubrick and science fiction novelist Arthur C. Clarke huddled over tiki drinks at Trader Vic's. The New York Times profiles the Canadian actor who became the voice of HAL, the murderous computer. The Guardian gets The Empire Strikes Back cinematographer to admit he recommended 2001 cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth for the job. To which George Lucas replied, "He's not available."


NPR gets permission to print an excerpt of Michael Benson's new book on the film, "Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clark, and the Making of a Masterpiece." That's just a sampling! If you're really into 2001, consider a trip to Washington, D.C. for this Smithsonian exhibition or Frankfurt, Germany for another Dave-HAL museum experience.

Interviews, Silents

Buster Keaton v. Charlie Chaplin

Buster Keaton

Buster Keaton

We love most Quentin Tarantino movies, but man, do his characters fill the frame with words. Vincent Vega: a talker. Nice Guy Eddie Cabot: a talker.

There was a time, though, when motion pictures relied on visuals to tell stories. Silent star Buster Keaton says he and Charlie Chaplin once battled to see who could use the fewest title cards. (Title cards, for those who've never seen a silent movie, are interstitials with words telling viewers what characters are saying or providing a bit of background information.)

"We eliminated subtitles as fast as we could," Keaton says.

At the time, Keaton says most seven-reel movies used as many as 240 title cards. In their friendly competition, Chaplin won, wrapping up a film with just 21 cards, compared to 23 for Keaton.

The most he ever used in a film?

Fifty-six, Keaton says.

Keaton's short interview with the legendary Studs Terkel has dozens of other nice moments. Among them, Keaton offers tips on how to stage a fight scene, why he never wrote scripts for his films and why movies need a strong beginning and end before filming begins (the middle can be figured out later).

More here.