Autumn on Screen

Far from the Madding Crowd 

The show of the changing leaves, the preppy look,
the back-to-school atmosphere


 
There is no other time like autumn for travelling, especially by car. The weather cools, the roads are empty, and the spectacle of the fall foliage makes any drive even more attractive. But there is also the calmness and comfort of settling into a routine, the back-to-school feeling, and the long, quiet evenings spent at home as the days are drawing in that I love just as much in the fall. With its scenery blanketed in changing leaves, the musky smell of rain, the golden afternoon glow and the tweed jackets, autumn is a season that also lends itself to captivating storytelling, timeless style and gorgeous cinematography. So here are some of fall’s greatest on-screen moments (these are all examples of movies when I prefer colour to black and white).
 
Far from the Madding Crowd (1967)
Directed by: John Schlesinger
Cinematography: Nicolas Roeg

Cinematography is a key storytelling tool in John Schlesinger’s film adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 19th century romantic novel. The forces of nature are used to echo the emotional state of the characters, as the narration unfolds under the English autumn sky, on the backdrop of the picturesque rural countryside and an earthy, rusty palate. But however beautiful a visual depiction of life on the farm the film may be, I wish it depicted the real significance of the characters, not just show them as romantic lovers. And there is also that movie still of Julie Christie, as seen above, which, if it were a painting it would have been entitled to be named “Autumn”, so I had to include the film here.
 
The Trouble with Harry 1955 
The Trouble with Harry (1955)
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Cinematography: Robert Burks

“With Harry, I took the melodrama out of the pitch-black night and brought in out in the sunshine,” said Hitchcock. I am very fond of this black comedy of his. In the rural countryside of Vermont, on a fall day, three shots are heard. A little boy playing in the woods discovers the body of a man, who, upon investigation, turns out to be Harry. Several people in the community believe they may be responsible for his accidental death, and adding to the confusion, Harry keeps showing up in all the splendour of rigor mortis at the most embarrassing moments. Alfred Hitchcock’s jet black humour plays out beautifully against the fleeting leaves. They say New England leaf viewing is at its finest in Vermont – in fact, Hitchcock’s crew arrived too late to catch autumnal Vermont in its prime, so they were forced to glue fallen leaves back onto the branches.

One of the best lines, according to Hitch himself, is when old Edmund Gwen is dragging the body along for the first time and a woman comes up to him on the hill and says: “What seems to be the trouble, Captain?”
 
Rushmore 1998 
Rushmore (1998)
Directed by: Wes Anderson
Cinematography: Robert Yeoman

Rushmore is “at once arch and earnest, knowing and innocent,” says Matt Zoller Seitz in the book The Wes Anderson Collection. I think therein lies its beauty. Rushmore may be my favourite Anderson film. As soon as that opening scene rolled in (you watch Max Fischer completing “probably the hardest geometry equation in the world”, but soon realise he’s only dreaming), I just knew I was going to love it. Jason Schwartzman’s Max Fisher adds an edge to prep school sites. His grades are the worst in school, but he excels at extracurricular activities. Wes Anderson said in an interview in the aforementioned book that the idea of Max putting on the plays was from his own experience, but that the character is a combination of things from Owen Wilson’s (the movie’s co-screenwriter) life and his, though mostly it was from their imagination. “They don’t start out demanding that we adore Max simply because he’s the main character, nor do they indulge in the usual feel-good Hollywood mechanics capped by an eleventh-hour conversion of Max into a boring saint,” says Zoller Seitz. But what is most important is that Jason Schwartzman truly owns his Max Fischer. Max owns that school uniform, too, by the way. He rocks the formal blazer even when he is banished to the public school across the street, and through the humiliation that follows.

Best line: “I saved Latin. What did you ever do?” (Max Fischer)
 
Days of Heaven 1978 
Days of Heaven (1978)
Directed by: Terrence Malick
Cinematography: Nestor Almendros/Haskell Wexler

Terrence Malick has created some of the most visually arresting films in the history of cinema. Days of Heaven is one of the most beautiful films ever made, having set a new standard in cinema aesthetics. The collision of loneliness, human suffering or violence with natural beauty is one of the distinctive elements of Malick’s film-making style. He chose the endless Texas prairies as the natural backdrop for Days of Heaven. In the first hour, there is scarcely an indoor scene, and the film was frequently shot at the “golden hour”, that magical time for photography, near dawn and dusk. The credit for cinematography goes to Nestor Almendros, who won an Oscar for the film. But there is also a small credit at the end of the movie to Haskell Wexler for additional photography.
 
Harry Potter and the Pridoner of Azkaban  
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
Directed by: Alfonso Cuarón
Cinematography: Michael Seresin

Like all the films in the series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban covers one full school year – it’s one of the reasons why I love the Harry Potter films. And I love Hogwarts – during a Q&A with Ethan Hawke at the American Independent Film Festival which I recently attended, the actor mentioned that there is nothing else that he’d rather do instead of film, but added that he loves the Harry Potter series, which he watches with his daughter, and that if a place like Hogwarts existed, he wished he were cool enough to go there. That about sums it up for me, too. But what I particularly love about this third film in the franchise is that it is quite possibly the bleakest, most visually striking, and, yes, the best of them all. Harry’s world has grown darker and more menacing – The Prisoner of Azkaban is pivotal in Rowling’s cycle, as it’s the turning point when the existence of a darker side is acknowledged.

Not only does Cuarón’s Harry Potter world do justice to J.K. Rowling’s vision, but he rises up to her soaring imagination, too – the film pulls you in; you can feel this fantastic world, and that’s also thanks to the beautiful cinematography of Michael Seresin. I could watch this any time of the year, but I think it should be saved for those dark November evenings foretelling even darker winter nights to come. Just as The Prisoner of Azkaban foretells even darker things to come for Harry Potter.

Best line: “A child’s voice, however honest and true, is meaningless to those who’ve forgotten how to listen.” (Dumbledore)
 
Hannah and Her Sisters 1986 
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
Directed by: Woody Allen
Cinematography: Carlo Di Palma

In Woody Allen’s own words, the film has a simple plot about a man falling in love with his wife’s sister. The director described it as one of his “novels on film” – he had reread Anna Karenina and wanted to experiment with a novelistic style, intertwining various characters and stories. “I have a tremendous attraction to movies or plays or books that explore the psyches of women, particularly intelligent ones. I rarely think in terms of male characters,” Allen said. He likened Hannah’s (the most complex and enigmatic of the sisters) silent strength to that of Al Pacino’s Michael in The Godfather.

The filmmaker collaborated for the first time with Antonioni’s cinematographer, Carlo Di Palma, on this project, and began shooting in the fall of 1984 in New York City, using Farrow’s real-life apartment as Hannah’s home in the film. Di Palma’s ravishing autumn colours of Manhattan (the narrative goes throughout the course of two years and three Thanksgivings) are a highlight of the film and the movie itself is another one of Woody Allen’s love letters to the city of his heart (however realistic or unrealistic his view of NYC may be). That image of Hannah, Lee and Holly, on the poster of the film (one of those very rare occasions when the picture of the actors on the poster of the film has a lasting impression on the viewer), all dressed in camel and other shades of browns, I always associate with fall. On a side note, Hannah and Her Sisters is one of my favourite Allen movies from his early period (Match Point is my favourite from his recent filmography).

Best line: “For all my education, accomplishments, and so-called wisdom, I can’t fathom my own heart.” (Elliot)
 
Endnotes:
Hitchcock Truffaut , by François Truffaut

The Wes Anderson Collection , by Matt Zoller Seitz

Woody Allen: A Retrospective, by Tom Shone
 
photos: screenstills from “Far from the Madding Crowd”, 1967 (MGM) / “The Trouble with Harry”, 1955 (Alfred J. Hitchcock Productions) / “Rushmore”, 1998 (American Empirical Pictures/Touchstone Pictures) / “Days of Heaven”, 1978 (Paramount Pictures) / “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”, 2004 (Warner Brothers) / “Hannah and Her Sisters”, 1986 (Orion Pictures, Jack Rollins & Charles H. Joffe Productions)


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