The Aviator (2004)

Martin Scorsese | 2hr 49min

These days, the name Howard Hughes may not be as instantly recognisable as those famous actresses we see hanging on his arm throughout The Aviator, or the famous actors who surround him at parties. From Jude Law’s casting as Errol Flynn to Gwen Stefani’s cameo as Jean Harlow, Martin Scorsese’s ensemble is loaded with big names of the 2000s playing big names of Golden Age Hollywood, though none stand out so much as the two headlining this epic period piece.

Even in a supporting role, Cate Blanchett’s take on Katharine Hepburn shines bright, adopting the clipped consonants and elongated vowels of the star’s distinctive Transatlantic accent, and Leonardo DiCaprio makes an even bigger impact as the titular pilot, engineer, and director, Howard Hughes himself. This is a man with dreams as grand as his passions, often combining his two great loves of aviation and filmmaking to create spectacular displays of human ingenuity for the masses to enjoy, and as such there is something about his characterisation which captures the glory of the ambitious, creative culture he lived in.

A grand scale of filmmaking to match this larger-than-life figure – easily one of Scorsese’ most epic films.

Scorsese’s penchant for splendidly curated, period-appropriate soundtrack is particularly strong in evoking this era, using the Dixieland melodies of the Original Memphis Five and the swinging rhythms of Benny Goodman to surround Hughes’ ventures with an air of bold bravado. It is through Robert Richardson’s cinematography and Rob Legato’s visual effects though that Scorsese pulls together an even greater cinematic reflection of Hughes’ cultural figure, digitally colour grading his mise-en-scène to emulate the filmmaking technology of the time. As the young director rises the ranks of Hollywood during the 1930s, Scorsese recreates Multicolor, a two-color Technicolor process which Hughes himself owned, turning white to aqua, green to blue, and blue to a beautifully cool cyan. The visual impact is tangible in almost every scene for the first fifty minutes, though it is especially when he meets Hepburn for a game of golf that the grass catches our eye with its crisp, electric shade of turquoise.

Scorsese’s emulation of two-color Technicolor turns greens into blues, standing out in the bright colour grading of golf courses and the subtle tinting of peas.

As The Aviator’s epic narrative moves on into the 1940s, Scorsese’s colours settle into a naturalistic simulation of a more technologically advanced Technicolor procedure – the three-strip process, which captures a fuller range of the colour spectrum. This type of colour grading is also more recognisable from such monumental classics as Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, forming a perfect bridge between Hughes and the technical innovation that surrounds him. Even more important than Scorsese’s practical understanding of film history though is the vibrant visual style that comes of it, shading his images with bright pigments that draw out early Hollywood’s lush, opulent glamour.

A transition to the three-strip Technicolor process bringing out a fuller range of the colour spectrum, beginning to emphasise the greens that were previously blue.

Credit must of course also go to Scorsese’s regular production designer though, as Dante Ferretti curates a handsome array of formal function rooms, bustling air strips, and studio backlots, often captured through crane shots and moving cameras endeavouring to keep up with the madness. For Hughes, this chaos is often overwhelming, and as his OCD worsens over time, so too does Scorsese’s style grow more agitated. On a red carpet, Thelma Schoonmaker’s rapid montage editing of flash bulbs and shouting journalists become an assault on the senses, and Hughes’ preoccupation with trivial matters similarly draws the camera’s focus towards his fixations.

Scorsese uses flash bulbs to great effect in Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, Casino – and of course here in The Aviator, sharply punctuating Schoonmaker’s montage editing to disorientating effect.

As we move deeper into the film, Scorsese’s sets also begin conforming to more rigid architectural arrangements, embodying the extreme fastidiousness that comes with Hughes’ obsessive behaviours. In the public bathroom of one famous Hollywood nightclub, the exotic, green wallpaper and tiles suggest a clean rigour in their design, though being the germaphobe that he is, Hughes is still discomforted by the notion of passing a towel or touching a doorknob. So too do his luxurious mansion interiors surround him with beautifully patterned wallpaper and finely-carved, antique furniture, though even these eventually submit to his curious compulsions, with red and white streamers marking “germ-free” zones.

Kubrickian perfectionism in these set designs to match Hughes’ OCD, not unlike the bathroom in The Shining.
A degradation of previously ordered environments into complete disarray, with streamers marking the germ-free zones in Hughes’ house.

More than anywhere else, it is in cockpits and hangars that he often finds he is most at home, running his hands along the fuselage of his jets where we catch his reflection in warped close-ups on their shiny, metallic surfaces. When we step back, Scorsese relishes those bombastic aerial sequences that Hughes adores so much, sending a fleet of planes up into the sky like a flock of birds and even planting the camera in the cockpit with the man himself. Hughes’ directorial debut, Hell’s Angels, is very much founded on similar cinematic innovations, displaying an overwhelming excitement around the industry’s technological development, and even pushing him so far as to reshoot the entire film with sound after being inspired by The Jazz Singer.

Often running his hands along the shiny exteriors of his planes, and his face distorted in close-up reflections, binding the two together.
Truly impressive aerial sequences like those Hughes himself directed, and perhaps even a bit of Top Gun. Technically accomplished on every level, from the editing to the camera placement.

In essence, this rendering of Hughes is entirely Wellesian, as Scorsese matches the character’s grand ambition with equally spectacular visuals accompanying him through his rise and fall. Much like Citizen Kane, the glimpses we get of our protagonist’s childhood plants the seeds of the fatal flaw that will topple him later on, dooming him not to an early grave, but rather a sad, lonely life. Where Charles Foster Kane lacked any real passion though, Hughes is overwhelmed by it, almost literally flying too close to the sun before crashing back down to earth. He is the tragic centrepiece of Scorsese’s treatise on an industry that is both extravagantly pioneering and detrimentally controlling, and in its adventurous, colourful experimentations, The Aviator fully recognises both sides of this glamorous culture and the bright-minded pioneer it consumed.

A Wellesian rise and fall in this majestic character study ending in real tragedy.

The Aviator is currently streaming on Binge, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

Bad Education (2004)

Pedro Almodóvar | 1hr 46min

Like all the best neo-noirs, truth isn’t easy to come by in Bad Education. The way a writer recalls a memory may differ entirely to the artistic rendering of it, and while both might be divorced from reality, unexpected revelations also emerge from the unlikeliest fabrications. This story is further complicated when fraudulent identities come to light, warping the transgressive melodrama of child sexual abuse and corrupt religious authorities into a twisted Hitchcockian tale of murder. Pedro Almodóvar remains as boldly colourful as ever in his patterned wallpapers and vibrant set dressing throughout this film, and yet Bad Education also marks one of his most confident narratives in its leaps between flashbacks, re-enactments, and the present reality.

Pop art production design in the colours and arrangements. Every detail in Almodóvar’s mise-en-scène is placed with purpose, from the red bowl on the coffee table matching the phone, to the green curtains and stained glass window.

The reunion of young film director Enrique with old childhood friend Angel (previously known as Ignacio) right in the opening brings with it a torrent of old ghosts from their days at a Catholic boarding school in 1964. The flame that once sparked between them is one such memory, as is Father Manolo, the priest whose molestation of Ignacio is channelled into the screenplay Angel is now asking Enrique to direct, “The Visit.” As Enrique sits down to read it, Almodóvar pulls his camera back from outside the criss-crossed window bars of his apartment, the striking composition punctured by a vivid red lamp sitting on a coffee table, and we dissolve into this smaller story nested within the larger one.

An excellent composition in the framing through window bars with the pinpoint of red in the lamp, as the camera tracks backwards into the nested story.
The first hints of noir in these flashbacks where a young Ignacio is pulled into the dark orbit of Father Manolo.

Later when “The Visit” is properly produced as a movie, the production appears almost identical to what we witnessed earlier, minus a few extra dramatisations. Quite ironically though, some of these attempts to embellish the truth wind up closer to reality than expected, and Almodóvar’s great artistic ethos regarding the value of artifice emerges in some of the most acutely affecting moments of Angel and Enrique’s emotional journeys.

It is easy to consistently point to the Douglas Sirk inspiration in virtually everything Almodóvar has ever created, but from film to film there has been significant variation in his influences, and the noirish conspiracy which Bad Education eventually takes a turn towards points quite directly to Double Indemnity. This is the film that two covert lovers and murder accomplices choose to watch to pass time not long after completing their dastardly act. “It’s as if those films are about us,” they fearfully mutter, walking by its poster hanging on a bright orange wall while leaving the theatre. Outside, it is dark and rainy, and Almodóvar fully embraces the noir convention here as his characters descend into paranoia, their relationship beginning to crumble.

An inspired dissolve moving from the screenplay to the characters contained within its story.
Murder shot from this birds-eye view looking over the victim fallen upon their typewriter. These extreme high angles are common in Almodóvar’s oeuvre and here it comes with a noir-ish twist.

It isn’t simply in spite of Almodóvar’s magnificent strokes of colour that Bad Education’s murky noir narrative flourishes, but rather because of it, as it is through his extravagant interiors that these elaborate plot developments become utterly believable. Venetian blinds are very much present here in his backdrops and framing of characters, serving a similar purpose to those more classic entries into the genre in creating an uneasy tension in the atmosphere. Meanwhile, bursts of reds in towels, deck chairs, and ornaments continue to spill forth an intense passion throughout this film, like expressions of the rich, inner lives of its characters. This painstaking curation of mise-en-scène rivals the old masters of cinematic expressionism, though the uniquely Almodóvarian trademarks are all there. Through its dazzling swings of tone, plot, and colour, there is a thrill to picking apart Bad Education’s elaborate representations of truth and fiction, and in its self-referential examinations of these very concepts the Spanish auteur’s lovingly artificial cinematic style feels more at home than ever.

Reds all through Almodóvar’s mise-en-scène in Venetian blinds, towels, and deck chairs. Certainly one of his greatest visual accomplishments to date.

Bad Education is not currently available to stream in Australia.

The World (2004)

Jia Zhangke | 2hr 23min

Despite scepticism that cooperating with the Chinese Film Bureau would compromise his creative processes and incisive cultural commentary, Jia Zhangke remains as sharp as ever in his fourth feature film, The World. With greater recognition comes greater funding, and this evidently reveals itself in his masterful choice of shooting location – Beijing World Park, a theme park which showcases miniature replicas of famous international landmarks. Though this imagery it isn’t quite as whimsical as that which would appear later in his career, there is a beautiful surrealism to the use of such diverse, recognisable architecture. With a single pan Jia shifts from a view of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, to the Parthenon, to Rome’s Mouth of Truth, these clean, pristine edifices existing in stark contrast to the dirtied interiors where the onsite staff live and interact with each other.

Jia’s panning camera has been present through all his previous films, and is put to particularly good use here as he captures a multitude of miniature landmarks without cutting.
These pristine exteriors are presented in stark contrast to the dirtied interiors that tourists never see, representing the truth of the matter.

At this point in his career, Jia is fully embracing the Michelangelo Antonioni influence in his framing of lonely, wandering souls against such visually impressive architecture. If his previous film, Unknown Pleasures, felt like a sequential extension of Platform, then he only pushes that notion further here in The World, where he examines the new Chinese society born out of the 1980s era of economic reform and opening up to foreign investments. The results are plain to see – western and Chinese identities have meshed into a globalised amalgamation of cultural influences, and both are cheapened in the process. “The Twin Towers were bombed on September 11. We still have them,” boasts one park worker overlooking a replica of the Manhattan cityscape, simultaneously brushing over this integral part of New York’s history while taking ownership of its untarnished aesthetic.
 
Rather than building themselves up through their own ambitious creations, this corner of modern China has shrunk the rest of the world down to its level, and the effect is twofold. On one hand these people look like giants roaming around a park where everything they could want to see is condensed into a single place; on the other, they look pitifully small, opting for cheap imitations devoid of the artistic craft and culture attached to the original monuments. China certainly has its own historical landmarks to be proud of, but the nation that Jia is reflecting in The World has grown uninspired with time, trying to own everything and yet ending up with nothing.

It isn’t just about the miniatures. We also get some stunning shots framing characters against these gorgeous backgrounds elsewhere.
The Antonioni influence is real – Jia keeps his camera peering through these metal beams as the elevator rises up the faux Eiffel Tower, much like the industrial opening to La Notte where the camera descends skyscrapers.

Outside these imitations of architectural achievements, there is dedication on Jia’s behalf to the even the most ordinary infrastructure of Beijing’s Fengtai District. Much like Antonioni, his concrete and metallic divisions in the mise-en-scène are layered all through the foreground and background, separating our disaffected heroine, Tao, from those around her. Her boyfriend’s push for them to have sex drives them further apart, her one real friend speaks an entirely different language, and when she tries to make conversation with Chen, a new worker, their hopeful connection persists at odds with their harsh surroundings, adjacent to a construction site. Tall, concrete blocks with metallic spokes line up neatly in rows across an open plain of cement, and though the practical function of these formations is unclear, the emotional impact is alienating as they visually split this interaction right down the middle. As the two converse, a plane flies overhead, and Tao wistfully recognises that she doesn’t know anyone who has travelled by air.

A shooting location so minimalistic and gorgeous that Jia returns here again later.

Perhaps that is why she is so drawn to the Eiffel Tower replica which stands tall over the rest of the park, even while being a mere third the size of the real one. Jia recognises the power of its imagery, using the same stunning landscape shot of the monument overlooking a small lake as a formal motif to mark the passage of time, but Tao’s attraction to it has more to do with her own dissatisfaction with being grounded. Each time she returns to the site we watch her ride up the elevator, gazing out at the highest views she ever expects to see in her life.

Formal markers in this powerfully recurring shot.

Bit by bit over his career, Jia has been stepping further outside the realm of pure neorealism by introducing artificial elements to his narratives, and he pulls it off here with mixed results. The animated interludes simply don’t gel aesthetically with everything around them, lacking the beauty, meaning, and finesse with which Jia frames so many of his live-action images. Where it works much better is in the surreal, haunting ending in which two characters do finally find a melancholy connection with each other, their final words asserting in a dreamlike voiceover that “This is just the beginning.” Tao, like so many others, has been told to be satisfied with the shrunken husk of a world she has been handed, but her discovery of something which transcends the worldly structures and barriers of modern-day China makes for an especially stirring payoff to her discontent, restless wandering.

A haunting closing shot as these characters’ voiceovers are layered over the top.

The World is available to stream on The Criterion Channel.