Essay by writer and actor Paul Mougey
“Living is funhouse and fortress, bright spot and dark corner, a place of play and places apart. Mostly, though, it’s a frame of mind.” Writer and actor Paul Mougey explores through various scenes the relationship between life and films.
Nick Tanis and his moustache stood in front of a group of people I’d never seen before. I’d never even seen Nick.
“This is Sight and Sound,” he said, his voice chocolate and oil. “It’s a course in film. In filmmaking. It’s a jumping off point to test your mettle. Your talent. I’ll be teaching it, but you’ll really be teaching each other.”
He walked to the corner of the room, a parochial place of white-painted cinder block and linoleum, a blank and typical classroom with one exception: into the back wall was cut an 8×8 inch hole, covered in glass. The projection room. Our eyes followed Nick. He’d worked on a Visconti film over the summer, we heard. We listened. We wanted to get his image into our heads.
“Film is a collaborative art. Hear me when I say that. Collaborative. Art. Art is truth, and the truth is, how can you paint a picture with, say, twenty painters? Build a building with twenty architects? We call it a film crew, because a shoot is like a ship and if everyone does not work towards the common goal, it sinks. A ship of fools. We’re all fools.” He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “Just know that out in Los Angeles, they make movies. But here on the east coast,” he said, his finger flicking the room into darkness, “here on the good coast, we make films.”
A spiraling beam of light shot through the wall and hit the screen at the front, carrying a shot of Harvey Keitel’s beautifully youthfully angular face, in the shadow of an early morning, or maybe late afternoon, as he awakens, rouses, up and then torso, standing and walking to the mirror, to see himself, only a second and then another and then back into bed in t-shirt and boxers and, just as his head in slowed motion descends and hits the pillow, at the very moment of impact, the first chords of “Be My Baby” strut. ‘bum-buh-bum-BUM, bum-buh-bum-BUM’.
A film projector turns to face the camera, and us, flickering its images of a screen within a screen, grainy images like home movies, which they were, the main characters out on the streets of New York, their home. Our home. The credits start to type on screen one letter at a time, plain, introducing the central characters. Robert DeNiro as Johnny Boy. Type type and in porkpie he clumsily walks past a storefront, up to a mailbox, yanks open the door and tosses in a homemade bomb. ‘Boom!’
Inside a church, the camera descends and peers up at Keitel, his character named type type Charlie, holding his finger over a prayer candle’s flame and then in it, and then in a voiceover intones, “The pain of hell has two kinds. The kind you can touch with your hand, and the kind you can feel in your heart, your soul. The spiritual kind. And you know, the worst of the two is the spiritual.”
The sound of the projector whirred to a stop. The real one. The screen stayed lit, though, all white, the biggest white square in the cinder block room, and then it went dark, too. All we could see were images burned on retinas by the first three and a half minutes of ‘Mean Streets’.
“Marty Scorsese, the director of this film, taught here. He was 26 when he made this movie. From the first frame, he introduces the rhythm of the story, the pulse. We meet the characters, the milieu, the penance, the redemption. The story of a saint in modern times, looking to do the right thing. That’s what they called it in that neighborhood. The Right Thing. Marty studied in the seminary before becoming a director. He lived in Little Italy growing up. He knew of these things. He saw these things.” Which all of us in that room wanted to see.
“It trespasses where other films hadn’t. DeNiro throws a molotov cocktail into the mailbox and that little explosion blew the movies to smithereens. It was raw. It was new. It was the pure vision of a director. Which doesn’t happen all the time.” The lights flicked on. Nick crossed his arms across his dark shirt. His skin was alabaster. He was absolutely black and white.
“It’s as clear as this. I’m going to hand each of you a camera, and you’re going to go out and make a film. To trespass. Put something on film that only you could put there. That only you could see. You’ll shoot it. We’ll watch it. And then we’ll listen to what each other has to say about them. The chosen images. The mise en scene. The way you’ve decided to edit. The music, dialogue. How they move us as an audience. Sights and Sounds.” He clapped his hands. The noise was crisp and sudden. “That’s where we start.”
Rarely is there a film that doesn’t have a shot of architecture or living space. Whether buildings are actually shown in the film or not, the framing of an image, as the definition of scale or story, implies the existence of a distinct place.
The man alone on the land. The house on the horizon. Stairs as transition between safety and fear. Doors as mediators between worlds. Windows as framing devices. The intimacy and power of a fireplace. The ritualizing role of a kitchen table. The secrecy of a bedroom. The sensuality—and potential terror—of a bath. The masters of cinema keenly identify the potent encounters of architecture.
King Vidor, in “The Crowd,” identifies the small man in the big city. In a rush of expressionism, he pans up a massive office building’s exterior towards rows of windows and then cross fades into a huge room housing rows of desks and he dollies and dollies and dollies over a sea of workers all the way in to one tiny desk in the middle of it all where sits the everyman.
In John Ford’s films, nature is architect. Ford situates the loner against the deep panorama of the west. He’s the man who can’t abide the blessings of civilization and so removes himself from it. John Wayne, looking for the family he can’t ever have, gets framed in the doorway at the end of “The Searchers.” The interior is completely black. It lacks any indication of ‘home’, and in the background, the frontier upon which he’s doomed to live alone. The west itself, defined by the majesty of Monument Valley, both diminishes a man and gives him power.
Some of Hitchcock’s great power emanates from the way his films begin so calmly, in idyllic environments that reflect a nice and naive bourgeois life—until the setting itself generates and sustains fear. The comfortable courtyard apartment in “Rear Window” slowly reveals the activities of a murderous neighbor. Bodega Bay, the northern Californian seaside getaway in” The Birds,” transforms into a place of no escape. Martin Balsam in “Psycho” falls down seemingly endless stairs, and Janet Leigh steps into a sparkling clean shower, and it isn’t until later that we learn there’s a basement…
Everything was in the realm of the possible. Down fifteen steps, inside the created world of a Long Island cellar, glued to black and white movies on the black and white TV on Sunday mornings, alone in the quiet, you could live in film. Alone with everyone in the world.
Onscreen, the pace was hurried. You were either a New York gangster or a Broadway producer, rakish heroes fighting to create fictitious worlds. 42nd Street. White Heat. The Naked City. Or you were soldier, fighting for both democracy and a chance at the beautiful co-star. Or Robert Mitchum, a crag of rock behind him in “The Longest Day,” addressing his troops before the battle at Normandy: “Only two kinds of people are going to stay on this beach. Those that are already dead and those that are gonna die.”
Or you lived in the magical midwest. The family in “Meet Me in St Louis,” Vincent Minnelli’s memory album set at the turn of the 20th century, aren’t professional performers, but everyone can sing or act. Everyone can just blow it out of the ballpark if they want to, and every time they do, it’s as natural as breathing.
Or you lived at MGM. Where the world WAS a stage.
“Why do you want to dance?” poses the imperious ballet impresario in “The Red Shoes,” by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
The ballerina, hair aflame and skin creamy and pure, looks up at him and answers, “Why do you want to live?”
It’s a lunatic and beautiful line, and so guilelessly said, that we know she believes it with everything she has. And we, as audience, we are meant to believe it, too.
When you watch a movie over and over again, the plot begins to feel something like fate. You just sense what’s going to happen. Everything feels inevitable.
There are signs of it all around, when you look, things seeding themselves for later revelation. It happens in screenplays. In life, too. You spot someone on the el train, in a coat that snags your attention, and three months later it shows up at the same dinner party, in the closet as you’re hanging up yours. While in line at the MCA, your best friend plugs you into his iPod and plays you the very same song you heard on the radio, the one you missed the name and artist and haven’t even really gotten it out of your head yet and there it is, defined. You go to NYU film school and then you work for Marty Scorsese, archiving films for him in the Brill Building.
The Brill. Big arched golden doors, flecked black marble foyer lined with gilt floor to ceiling mirrors, the long lobby hallway leading to shiny brass elevator doors that opened onto the dumpiest of compartments. A building of creativity. Songwriters and music publishers had offices there, and got replaced by filmmakers in the mid-80s. Demme editing “Married to the Mob.” Paul Shrader. The Kids in the Hall literally down the hall. Jean-Luc Godard in the waiting room, for chrissake.
Marty lived history. The more pictures he makes, he said, the more he realizes he doesn’t know about them. He watches films because he’s a student of them. Like a painter looking at old masters. He’d project the newest 16mm prints for us, booking a cozy 12-seat screening room downstairs in the Brill and standing up front of the six or seven of us to introduce them. Silver Lode by Allan Dwan: “He’s one of the unheralded film pioneers. Dwan made 400 films, his first all the way back in 1911. At the end of his career, he was relegated to making B-movies and genre pictures. But it didn’t matter. Pay attention to things like the beautiful simplicity of the sweeping tracking shots that are literally guiding John Payne, sweeping all the way across town, pushing him towards his final sanctuary, the town church.”
And then he’d flick off the lights and plunge us into the dark.
I can no longer think what I want to think. My thoughts have been replaced by moving images. Things happen and I say, “It was like a movie.”
Architecture and cinema articulate lived space. They form and curate comprehensive images of life. They define dimension and existential space; they create experiential scenes of life situations.
Netflix. It’s untenable to see movies at a moviehouse anymore. It’s no longer sacred. It’s not a movie palace. It’s a Cineplex. It’s average. It’s sub-average. It’s loud, and not clean, and those who need shooshing tell you to f*** off.
The funhouse, the fortress is the comfy sofa in the apartment in the sky, feng shui’d in front of a big lovable TV, lamps clicked off and nighttime lights of the city stretching.
The movie starts. “The Bad and The Beautiful.” Kirk Douglas and Barry Sullivan are friends given the chance to do their first movie. A genre pic, called “The Doom of the Cat Men.” The budget is cheap, and the costumes look that way, and one day in the editing room they begin to figure it out, they begin to realize that people are afraid of the dark, and they like it there. Not seeing the Cat Men is a better idea. To prove his point, Kirk clicks off the lights, and the room goes dark, and from the desk lamp shoots one single beautiful spiraling beam of light.
Paul Mougey is a brand and strategy storyteller. He’s currently at work on his first novel.