Posts Tagged ‘Kurosawa’

Note: I’ve spent the past two weeks visiting my mother in the hospital. The first ten days she was in ICU, but she was moved to a regular room over the weekend.  She’s in the later stages of COPD and, at the moment, kind of in that gray zone of not getting better and not getting worse. My sister and I are meeting with hospice today.

It has been a while since I’ve seen The Hospital (1971), but I’m looking forward to revisiting the satire that  Paddy Chayefsky won an Oscar for writing. After 13 days of dealing with a non-communicative hospital staff and a rotating door of case workers it is amazing how little information (and conflicting information) I’ve been given about my mother’s condition. No need to get into details, but I’ve talked to enough people about their hospital experiences in the past week to know my experience is not unique.

Of course, that didn’t help me hit my deadline of getting my book released in March as I had hoped. But sitting in a hospital ICU room for hours at a time actually did prove some fruitful time to keep working on fine-tuning book details. It was a healthy distraction. And I hope to release the book in April.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to post excerpts from screenwriter Frances Marion’s 1937 book How to Write and Sell Film Stories. Following chapters I’ve already hit on from her book (characterization, theme, and emotions), this week we’ll start with her thoughts on  plot.

Plot is the design, pattern or outline of the story action; it is a statement of the problem or obstacles that confront certain specific characters, their reaction to those problems or obstacles, and the result. It is a series of events or situations affected by the characters involved and affecting them, with the situations building up to a climax. It is a string of relevant and dramatic situations, preferably rising out of character and affecting it, and woven together in such sequence and ascending strength as to make an interesting story. 

A plot must have a definite beginning and ending. Plot structure, says Walter Pater, ‘is that architectural conception of work, which foresees the end in the beginning and never loses sight of it, and in every part is conscious of all the rest, till the last sentence does, but, with undiminished vigor, unfold and justify the first.’”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Frances Marion 
How to Write and Sell Film Stories 
Page 51

P.S. I love that line “which foresees the end in the beginning.” Perhaps it’s my current state of mind, but if you haven’t seen Kurosawa’s  Ikiru (1952) seek it out as a great example of where the end is perfectly matched to the beginning. It’s the story of a man caught up in the bureaucracy of a post-World War II Japan. As the endless paperwork piles up at his job he finds out that he has cancer and seeks meaning in his life. It’s a beautiful films and one of my favorites.

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Scott W. Smith

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“To me, Kurosawa is the Beethoven of movie directors.”
Director Sidney Lumet (Network, The Verdict)

“One of the hallmarks of Kurosawa’s style are his fluid camera moves… that go from a close-up, to a full shot, to an over the shoulder [shot] in a single unbroken take….What’s important here is every camera shot has a clear beginning. middle, and end.”
Tony Zhou

Tony Zhou has a voice, and a voice. And an audience. In fact, as I write this his Every Frame a Painting video on Kurosawa has over 1.8 million views.

Back in 2014 I became familiar with Tony Zhou’s Every Frame a Painting You Tube channel and it’s one of the best ways to get bite-sized information on filmmakers and filmmaking techniques.

And while video essays have been around for decades—Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog (1955), Chris Marker San Soleil (1982)—and probably since the silent film era, there is an entertaining as well as informative way that Zhou puts together his video essays that make them part of a new Internet-era way of communicating about movies.

He conveys information that normally would be buried in film theory books and tucked inside film commentaries and makes them visually accessible. Film is a visual medium so it makes perfect sense to marry film theory and film clips together in video essays.

What makes Zhou’s work exceptional is they are so well done. His does his research and takes his time on the edit (80 hours of editing on the above Kurosawa video). He’s a freelance editor in San Francisco and his professionalism shows. He also has a enjoyable voice to listen to and comes with a distinct point of view (his other voice) on each topic.

Ever since being introduced to his video essays I’ve been encouraged to start producing my own video essays as an extension of this blog, and a way to reach some new plateaus. So look for my first one this summer.

“ I would encourage anyone who would like to make films or video essays—or would like actually to make anything— go out and make it….It sounds so simple and so banal, but it really is one of those things where I didn’t realize until I had done it how gratifying it is emotionally and psychologically just to get it out of your system….The crazy thing is that if you make something like this it could be successful, it could not be, but I would argue don’t try to replicate anyone else’s success, just make something that you would want to watch. And the crazy thing about the internet is there almost certainly will be someone else out there who wants to watch it. “
Tony Zhou
Patreon Podcast Extended Interview

As far as copyright laws are concerned Zhou believes what he does falls under fair usage  (education, commentary, criticism) and is transformative in nature. He says some of his videos have been flagged and temporarily taken down, but he has not been sued and all his videos have been restated.  (Welcome any lawyers to chime in here.)

For those interested in technically how he edits his video essays, he uses Final Cut Pro X, in part because of the ability to use keywords. (For instance he could go though a bunch of Kurosawa’s films and tag all the dolly shots “Dolly” that would add the meta data so he could easily find so the all the dolly shots from the films he’s tagged.)

He also talks about writing, recoding, and editing simultaneously so the process is organic.  And it’s worth noting that Zhou did not attend film school. He was an English major at UCLA and simply loves watching and analyzing movies.

P.S. I do have a question for Zhou (or any of you editing existing footage). I have used Hand Brake and MacX DVD software to convert standard def DVDs to mp4 files. But I need a recommendation on converting Blu-Ray or iTunes moves to be able to edit them on Final Cut Pro X.  Put your solutions in the comment section or email me at info@scottwsmith.com.

Scott W. Smith



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“When film came to Japan,  the country had only allowed foreign imports for a few decades. The nation’s culture—which means its way of accounting for, of constructing, of assuming—was still its own.”
Donald Richie
A Hundred Years of Japanese Film

It’s been a while since I took a screenwriting road trip and today seems like a good day to do so. Yesterday I mentioned Louie Psihoyos and his Oscar-winning documentary The Cove which was shot in Japan so that seems like a fitting place to head.

My knowledge of Japanese cinema is limited but I know enough to say they have a long eclectic love affair with movies. From Godzilla to Kurosawa covers a lot of ground.

I imagine as a kid the Godzilla films were the first I ever saw that were made in Japan. Kurosawa I starting watching while in film school. In fact, Seven Samurai, Ikiru, Rashomon are pretty much the go to films that he made that are considered all-time cinema classics. Later via Paul Schrader’s book Transcendental Style in Film I became familiar with Yasujiro Ozu (Toyko Story, An Autumn Afternoon).

More recently (though I confess to never having seen any of his film) Academy Award-winner Hayo Miyazaki (Porco Rosso, Princess MonokeSpirited Away) is considered by some Japan’s top director and his anime the best ever. (These days more than half of the films produced in Japan are anime.)  I’m sure I’m leaving out many of the top filmmakers in Japan, but this is just meant as an overview to show films and screenwriting done far from Hollywood.

One film I did see just over the weekend that I would consider one of the best films I’ve seen in the last 10 years is Okuribito (Departures) directed by Yojiro Takita and staring Masahiro Motoki. At the Academy Awards in 2009 it won best foreign film. The script was the first feature film written by Kundo Koyama (known for his work as a TV writer) loosely based on Coffinman: The Journal of a Buddhist Mortician by Aoki Shinmon.

If I know little about Japanese cinema, I know even less about Buddhism and its rituals. (And I don’t know if the traditions in the movie were even rooted in Buddhism, but I know they were foreign to me.) But as an American and a Christian I found that Departures deals with the passage of physical death in a beautiful way that I wish was practiced here.

In western cultures we sterilize death. We’re told someone has died a few days later there is a service and that’s it. In fact, when my father died years ago I was at a TV studio in Florida getting ready to direct a program when I was informed of the news. To the man I had known a lifetime, had visited two weeks prior, and spoken to on the phone the day before–that was it, he was gone. I never saw his body, he was cremated, and then a while later there was a service at a military cemetery in Clearwater. Like most funerals or memorial services I’ve been to the whole thing seems like an abrupt ending to life, and impersonal.

The film Departures shows a culture and a tradition that I have never seen before in Western culture. A tradition rooted in respect and honor which seems to be the basis for many Japanese films. It’s a film that shows a tradition where time is stopped to reflect on the passing of a life in a way that is personal and meaningful. A time to say goodbye. A time to reflect on your own life.

And for all I know it may be a passing tradition in Japan itself as families become more fragmented, hurried and westernized.

So I was curious to find out a little more about this film and found this quote by the director;

“Because it deals with the very tricky subject of death he and the producers at the time weren’t sure how to go about making a film out of this. It probably took about 15 years since the idea was first conceived to the completion of the film. It was a producer at an independent production company who felt strongly that this film should be made. Many of us are around the same age, and we got to a certain point in our lives when death was slowly creeping up to become a factor around us with the people that we knew. And death, of course, is something that many of us around the world, of course, tend to avoid as a subject matter altogether.  We don’t like to think about it. But we felt at this point, we really should face it head-on and do something with that subject matter…But in the process of making the film, and looking at how we honor those who’ve passed I came to realize that the film is ultimately about the value of life and how we honor those who’ve passed and how we look at and confront out own lives and the act of living.”
Yojiro Takita
From an interview on the  Departures DVD

If you haven’t seen the film, here are a couple quotes from critics;
“The ultimate beauty of the film rests in its symbolic details that bridge the abyss between the living and the dead.”
Andrew Sarris, New York Observer

The music is lush and sentimental in a subdued way, the cinematography is perfectly framed and evocative, and the movie is uncommonly absorbing.”
Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

As it turns out, I have read that the topic of death is somewhat taboo in Japan so the filmmakers didn’t know if anyone would want to see this film. But it did very well in the box office in Japan and then won an Academy Award here in the states which were nice payoffs for the 15 year journey they took to get the film made.

So yeah, there is some good stuff happening east of L.A….even far-east of L.A.

P.S. In the forward of A Hundred Years of Japanese Film, Paul Schrader (screenwriter of Taxi Driver and The Yakuza) writes of the book’s author, “Whatever we in the West know about Japanese film, and how we know it, we most likely owe to Donald Richie.” (And for what it’s worth Richie—this expert on Japanese films who has lived in Japan since 1947— is originally from Lima, Ohio.) His commentaries can be found on the The Criterion Collection of many DVDs of Ozu and Kurosawa’s films.
Scott W. Smith

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