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Entries in Production Design (141)

Monday
Apr092018

The Furniture: Demolition and Preservation in The Molly Maguires

Daniel Walber's series on Production Design. Click on the images to see them in magnified detail.

Every now and then, while poring over lists of Oscar nominees from years past, you stumble across a movie you’ve never heard of. Not even once. In 1970, the Best Art Direction category included two big war movies (Patton and Tora! Tora! Tora!), another hit Best Picture nominee (Airport) and Scrooge, the musical adaptation of A Christmas Carol starring Albert Finney. Then there’s The Molly Maguires, the only one not nominated in any other category.

So what’s The Molly Maguires? Well, for one thing, it wasn’t a hit. But that may have been more a result of the film’s dour subject matter than its quality. It stars Richard Harris as a real life undercover Pinkerton Detective, tasked with infiltrating a group of Irish industrial terrorists in 1870s Pennsylvania coal country. Though just a few men, the Molly Maguires have been creating tremendous chaos, blowing up mines and eliminating abusive company supervisors.

These are the early days of organized labor in America, when robber barons hired armies of ersatz police to brutally repress strikes and intimidate low wage workers. Sean Connery’s “Black Jack” Kehoe and his co-conspirators are immigrant miners who have been pushed too far...

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Monday
Mar262018

The Furniture: The Age of Innocence and the Living Museum

"The Furniture" honors the Production Design of The Age of Innocence (1993) for its 25th anniversary year. The Martin Scorsese classic is newly available from the Criterion Collection. (Click on the images to see them in magnified detail.)


by Daniel Walber

The final act of Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence leaps through time. The ever-roving camera comes to a temporary rest in the home of Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), married to May (Winona Ryder) and entering the longue durée of family life. But this relative physical stasis comes with the sudden acceleration of time. Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker fast-forward through years of business, leisure and child-raising. After nearly two hours of social whirlpools and lingering formalities, suddenly it’s a new century.

But despite the speed of this sequence, it’s important to pay close attention. On the wall of Newland’s family home rests one very famous painting. Somehow, through the magic of cinema alone, our hero has ended up with JMW Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire

 

It’s an icon for his last days, a masterpiece of a bygone era being towed away...

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Tuesday
Mar062018

The Furniture: *Not* Another Art Deco Oscars!

Daniel Walber's weekly series on Production Design. Click on the images to see them in magnified detail.

“Hey, how about these sets? Are these sets great? They’re just like the Orgasmatron in Barbarella.”
-Jane Fonda

Oh, would that they were, Jane Fonda. Maybe someday we’ll have a Space Oscars, with gravity-defying holographic moons and an ever-shifting alien landscape. Presenters would enter through a pair of giant airlock doors at the back of the stage. The statuettes would float. The 50th anniversaries of both Barbarella and 2001: A Space Odyssey are coming up -- maybe they’ll do it next year?

Of course, the 90th Academy Awards didn’t escape earth’s atmosphere. But were they able to at least escape the endless parade of Art Deco, the nearly uniform tradition of the past few decades of Oscar telecasts...? 

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Tuesday
Feb202018

Mike Leigh at 75: On Wallpaper, Topsyturvydom and Empire

"THE FURNITURE," by Daniel Walber, is devoted to Mike Leigh this week for his 75th birthday. (Click on the images to see them in magnified detail.)

Topsy-Turvy is a subtle, even deceptive film. It moves like a light-hearted showbiz comedy, almost a Victorian Waiting for Guffman. Yet there’s much more going on. Why is it so long, for example? What is Mike Leigh trying to express with so many characters? Why "The Mikado"?

These are questions that can be answered by paying close attention to its production design, the Oscar-nominated work of Eve Stewart and Helen Scott. This is a film about London at the peak of the British Empire, a metropolis gobbling up the riches and the bric-a-brac of the entire world. And the chosen entertainment of its people, eager to take in the sights and sounds of their imperial fantasies, were the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan.

The first to appear in Topsy-Turvy is "Princess Ida", a fantastical lampoon of Victorian mores that took place in a sort-of Pre-Raphaelite, Medieval court. 

The version presented here involves a stage flanked by a traffic jam of trees, vine-covered Classical architecture and a great many helmets and snoods...

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Monday
Feb122018

The Furniture: Canadian Brutalism Comes to L.A. in Blade Runner 2049

Daniel Walber's weekly series on Production Design. Click on the images to see them in magnified detail.

While planning the look of Blade Runner 2049, director Denis Villeneuve asked production designer Dennis Gassner for something very specific: brutality. As Canadians, Villeneuve and Gassner know a whole lot about that, at least architecturally. Canada’s big cities are inflected by brutalist buildings, stark and intimidating structures that have made their mark on cinema. Enemy is a good example, along with a lot of David Cronenberg’s early work.

Of course, Blade Runner 2049 takes place mostly in Los Angeles and was shot in Hungary. But its use of brutalist design transcends the specificity of place, resembling a vaguely Canadian nightmare as much as any waking version of California...

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