David Bordwell's website on cinema   click for CV

Home

Blog

Books

On the History of Film Style pdf online

Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling

Film Art: An Introduction

Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages pdf online

Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies pdf online

Planet Hong Kong, second edition pdf online

The Way Hollywood Tells It pdf online

Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Figures Traced In Light

Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Exporting Entertainment: America in the World Film Market 1907–1934 pdf online

Video

Hou Hsiao-hsien: A new video lecture!

CinemaScope: The Modern Miracle You See Without Glasses

How Motion Pictures Became the Movies

Constructive editing in Pickpocket: A video essay

Essays

Lessons with Bazin: Six Paths to a Poetics

A Celestial Cinémathèque? or, Film Archives and Me: A Semi-Personal History

Shklovsky and His “Monument to a Scientific Error”

Murder Culture: Adventures in 1940s Suspense

The Viewer’s Share: Models of Mind in Explaining Film

Common Sense + Film Theory = Common-Sense Film Theory?

Mad Detective: Doubling Down

The Classical Hollywood Cinema Twenty-Five Years Along

Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic

William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea

Another Shaw Production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong

Paolo Gioli’s Vertical Cinema

(Re)Discovering Charles Dekeukeleire

Doing Film History

The Hook: Scene Transitions in Classical Cinema

Anatomy of the Action Picture

Hearing Voices

Preface, Croatian edition, On the History of Film Style

Slavoj Žižek: Say Anything

Film and the Historical Return

Studying Cinema

Articles

Book Reports

Observations on film art

Archive for the '3D' Category

3D in 2019: RealDvided?

Kristin here:

From August of 2009 to April of 2012, David and I (mostly I) posted a series of entries on the spread of 3D film production and exhibition. The series kicked off with my provocatively titled, “Has 3-D already failed?”. It had a lot of background facts and figures, but the main point was to express skepticism about the extravagant claims that were being made by some in the industry who predicted that eventually most or even all films would be released in 3D. I opined that 3D would probably remain confined to certain genres, mainly animated films and big action pictures. At the time, Julie & Julia was my example of the type of film that would never be made in 3D. Today it could be Can You Ever Forgive Me?

I followed up four times during 2011, as 3D continued to spread. In January I posted “Has 3D already failed? The sequel: RealDlighted.” Hollywood was just coming off the year that 3D admissions as a percentage of total box-office peaked at 21%, to a considerable extent thanks to Toy Story 3. Of the top eleven grossers, seven were in 3D. 3D TVs had become a significant force in the electronics market that year as well, though sales were lower than predicted.

Conversion of screens overseas was also proceeding apace. That surge would eventually fuel the continued production of 3D films in the US, despite their decline in the domestic market.

Already, though, industry commentators were predicting that decline. I cite some of them and their arguments in this entry.

Our entry was followed later in January by the second part: “Has 3D already failed? The sequel: RealDsgusted.”  I dealt with the backlash among audiences and critics, especially in the face of conversions of past films to 3D. Not being a fan of 3D, I pointed to the one film in that format that I looked forward to seeing: Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010). It did not disappoint, and its tour of the Chauvet cave, not open to the public, struck me at the time as an ideal use for 3D. I still think so.

In July, in “Do not forget to return your 3D glasses,” I examined the fact that 3D films’ shares of total box-office takings were falling. It wasn’t by much, only from 21% in 2010 to 18% in 2011–but there were more 3D films released that year, and a lot more theaters were equipped by that time to show them.

On August 30, I ended my series with “As the summer winds down, is 3D doing the same?”

In April, 2012, David weight in on the roles played by James Cameron and other powerful directors in pushing digital projection and 3D, in his “It’s good to be King of the World.” That entry, extended and updated, became a chapter in his e-book, Pandora’s Digital Box.

Our series got quite a bit of attention because Roger Ebert, a foe of 3D, cheerfully linked all of our entries.

As it turned out, our series appeared just after the technique had begun its slow drop in the percentage of total box-office receipts provided by 3D screenings.

Assuming the decline has continued, by 2018 that percentage might have been as low as half the high of 21% in 2010 (fueled primarily by Avatar, which was released on December 18, 2009). Will Cameron’s current big 3D project turn the tide? I’ll have a little to say on that at the end.

 

It has its moments

Ironically, at about the same time that our series closed, we became increasingly interested in the format. Not that we had completely rejected it to begin with. There had been some  excellent animated films made by Pixar, Laika, and Disney. The occasional auteur dabbled in the format, as when Scorsese made Hugo (2011). This is a far cry, though, from believing or hoping that 3D would become universally used. Again, who would want to see If Beale Street Could Talk or Vice in 3D?

But the technology improved, and the films got better-looking. More auteurs utilized 3D.  There was Cuarón’s Gravity (2013), perhaps the first film in which the 3D effects were utterly convincing. That was partly because so many shots were largely or entirely digitally created and partly because of innovative lighting technology. I still think it’s the only film I’ve seen that is dramatically better in 3D than flat. In 2016, Spielberg made the underappreciated The BFG. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Jean-Luc Godard proved that 3D technology could be simple indeed and still create a masterpiece like Adieu au langage (2014; see here and here). That and Gravity are the only films that I think really must be seen in 3D.

Older 3D films also got a new lease on life through home video. It was the 2012 release of Dial M for Murder on 3D Blu-ray that spurred us to invest in a 3D television. (David saw the screening at the Toronto International Film Festival and wrote about it.)

Interestingly, 3D televisions provide the first method which allows someone analyzing a 3D film to watch it on a personal viewer rather than needing it professionally projected on a screen. You can freeze the frame, and the 3D image hovers before you.

Unfortunately 3D lasted on television for a very short time. By 2012, DirectTV dropped it, and sports, the great hope for 3D television, failed to sustain the format as ESPN stopped showing 3D in 2013. From 2014 to 2017, the major manufacturers of 3D TVs ceased production of them. We shall simply have to nurse ours along or somehow buy a backup machine before it’s too late. Fortunately most 3D Blu-ray discs have been sold as a set with standard Blu-ray copies of the same film, so we can go on watching Moana and Kubo and the Two Strings and others once the set ceases to function. (Robert Silva offers a good rundown on the history of 3D TV, including the reasons for its failure. As he points out, home-theater video projectors with 3D capacity are still available.)

 

Blink and it’s gone

These days, it seems that unless you live in a large city, if you don’t catch a 3D screening early a film’s run, it will later only be showing flat.

I first noticed this diminution in the number of 3D screenings last summer. Incredibles 2 was showing at our local multiplex, Marcus Point Cinema, part of the Marcus chain of nearly 700 Midwestern theatres, and I wanted to see it in 3D. Checking the theater’s schedule, I was startled to discover that the 3D version was playing only once a day, at 8am. There were 17 showings in 2D. The film had opened on June 15 and thus had been out a little over two weeks.

David and I usually wait for a few weeks to see a popular film so that the crowds will die down. I expected that there would be few people at an 8 am show, so I set my alarm and set out early the next morning for Point Cinema. I purchased my ticket, and as I was moving away from the ticket desk, I heard the woman behind me purchase tickets to Incredibles 2 for herself and her two children. She bought them for the 8:10 am screening in 2D. The children were not too young to cope with 3D glasses, and the family was there early enough to attend the 8 am screening with me. Whether through a wish to save money or simply by preference, they had chosen to see the film in 2D. Indeed, I had the pleasure of a completely private screening.

Another of 2018’s big 3D films was also playing, as the schedule above shows. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (which I didn’t see) had two 3D screenings per day, against sixteen flat ones. It is notable that five of those were on the “Ultrascreen.” This may suggest that large-screen showings with elaborate sound systems, including IMAX, are more attractive to audiences than 3D, even when these large-screen showing also involve an upcharge. More about that later.

I wondered if this imbalance between 3D and 2D screenings was part of a larger pattern, so I have occasionally checked schedules for other 3D films. Also, might Marcus be limiting the number of 3D screenings so severely, or were other theaters doing the same? On August 1 I looked up the schedule for Mission Impossible: Fallout, showing at two local multiplexes:

Point Cinema was showing the film twice in 3D, four times flat on its Ultrascreen, and nine times “standard,” as 2D on an ordinary screen is now known. Its rival theater, New Vision Fitchburg 18 + Imax, had no 3D screenings at all; as the possessor of our only IMAX screen, it had four flat screenings and seven standard ones.

On September 17, I found this schedule for another popular animated film:

Again we see the considerable imbalance, with two 3D screenings versus fourteen in 2D.

Might this imbalance result from the fact that I was waiting a while into the run to check? I looked at Ralph Breaks the Internet for November 26, 2018, the Monday after its opening on Wednesday, November 21:

The same pattern holds even during the first week of the film’s run, in both theaters. In this case, however, the 3D screenings seem to have ended sooner than we expected. We went to Ralph on December 7, and there was no 3D showing available, so we saw it in 2D. The same ended up being the case with Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse, which apparently had no 3D screenings after its first or second week. That’s a film we have been told would distinctly benefit from being seen in 3D, but we missed our chance. So far it’s not even clear whether the film will be released in 3D for home video.

I decided to try a similar exercise with a much larger city: Chicago. Of the theaters selling tickets on Fandango for Saturday, January 26, 375 screenings were of 2D versions, and eight of 3D films, all of the latter at AMC theaters. One of the latter is of A Beautiful Planet, an Imax documentary. Five of the 3D screenings were of Aquaman and two of Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse.

I realize that awards season is not the ideal time of year to be looking at statistics of 3D films. Many of the films currently playing in cinemas have Oscar and other nominations, and have been held over to play only a few times a day to take advantage of that fact. On the other hand, there are some films, including Oscar nominees, that could plausibly have been made in 3D a few years ago and were not. These notably include Mary Poppins Returns, Glass, Bumblebee, and First Man. (M. Night Shyamalan has said he would never make a film in 3D, but Glass is the sort of film that another director might have made in that format.) I’ll try the same exercise during the summer movie season and see what the balance is. I’m sure there will be more 3D screenings proportionately than there are now–but probably not as many as in 3D’s heyday of 2010 to 2013.

Even an event film that depends heavily on its flashy technical aspects, Peter Jackson’s restored, colorized, 3D-ized, sonorized documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old (2018), was shown here in Madison more often in 2D. It played on two days in late December. On the first day, 3D was available, but we saw it on the second and had to settle for 2D. It was brought back again recently for a short run, and we saw it again, this time at the single daily 3D matinee screening available. There were five 2D shows on the Ultrascreen.

This time Marcus’ other local multiplex didn’t show it in 3D at all.

We thought that seeing They Shall Not Grow Old in 3D was interesting and worthwhile. Still, we had thought it very effective without the 3D. The restoration, color, and sound were the most remarkable parts of Jackson’s transformation of the old footage.

All of these schedules are for 3D films that had been running for a while. I also, however, checked the opening Friday, February 8, for The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part. (It opened Thursday, February 7, but Friday was the first day with a full schedule.)

Four theaters, including three multiplexes, were playing the film that day. There were a total of 40 screenings, 16 of them standard, 18 in IMAX or Ultrascreen DLX auditoriums, and six in 3D. None of the latter were on large-format screens. As in earlier cases, the Marcus Palace Cinema had no 3D screenings, even for the opening weekend; it does have 3D capacity. It has two Ultrascreen DLX auditoriums, which the managers seem to favor over 3D. Flix Brewhouse Madison does not have 3D facilities, but as its name implies, one can consume sandwiches, beer, and so on while viewing films.

 

PLF vs 3D

This reluctance on the part of theaters to devote their screens and time-slots to 3D reflects the general decline in the format. According to Variety, ever since Avatar (2009) pushed cinema owners to invest in 3D equipment (and in the case of those who hadn’t converted yet, to switch to digital projection), 3D has declined. From $2.2 billion in grosses in 2010, fueled largely by Cameron’s film, the figure had shrunk to $1.3 billion in 2017. That year only 44 films were released in 3D, dropping from 52 in 2016.

We’re all familiar with the reasons for this, which we discussed in our series linked above and which continue to be chewed over in the press. People don’t feel the upcharge is worth it. Small children can’t keep the glasses on. Some moviegoers get headaches from the glasses. The projection system and the glasses often create a dimmer image. Virtually all 3D live-action films have some shots converted to 3D in post-production. The post-production conversion process has improved, but some early shoddy post-production conversions gave people the idea that only native 3D films are worth watching.

Theater owners and managers have their own set of reasons for not wanting to show 3D. We haven’t been able to find out the range of terms distributors set for theaters renting a film. Are 3D screenings required for any film offering that option? Are there minimum numbers of screening? Must the screenings be in auditoriums of a minimum size? How long does the 3D run have to be?  Still, I have gleaned a bit of information from people involved in exhibition.

One employee of a multiplex told us that a film released in a 3D format had to be given some 3D screenings at the opening week of the run. The exhibitor could then continue the 3D shows if the box-office receipts warranted it. This makes sense, as the distributor is getting a cut of the takings. Given 3D’s decline in popularity, this pretty much explains the pattern of the small numbers of screenings reflected in the schedules illustrated above.

The owner of one Midwestern small-town theater pointed out to us that the 3D upcharge in itself hurts the theaters. He declined to convert to 3D back when distributors were pushing theaters to do so. At the time, he recalls that about fifty cents of the proposed $2 upcharge went to the 3D firm and the distributor got a percentage of the remainder. Moreover, as he put it, “For a family of four that’s $8 less for vending – that’s my reasoning.” As we know, movie theaters typically depend on their customers buying expensive treats at the concession stand (and increasingly on meals, whether consumed in their theater seats or at a restaurant positioned in the lobby) to make a profit.

3D also is losing out to an attraction that moviegoers are proving more willing to pay extra for: PLF or Premium Large Format auditoriums. The most high-profile of these is IMAX, which starting out in the 1970s as a largely museum-based attraction showing its own short documentaries. It branched out into occasionally showing studio feature films, starting with Disney’s Fantasia 2000 (2000) and continuing with such event films as the last five Harry Potter installments. It was when IMAX films went from being shown on 70mm film to a digital format (introduced in 2008) that it really took off, since existing multiplexes could convert an auditorium to an IMAX venue. From 299 screens worldwide in 2007, IMAX expanded to 1302 by September, 2017. Of those, 1203 were in multiplexes.

For much of this time IMAX screenings were often in 3D. With the waning popularity of that format, however, in July, 2018, IMAX announced that it was cutting back on 3D. The success of Dunkirk in 2D IMAX was cited as proof that people would accept even a period war film not involving Americans if shown in the large format and flat. The announcement specified that IMAX screenings of the forthcoming Blade Runner 2049 would be only in 2D. The fact that Christopher Nolan had shot much of Dunkirk using an IMAX film camera became a publicity point for the film. Similarly, the fact that Cuarón shot Roma in digital large-format featured in popular coverage (the camera was an Alexa65). The irony that the film would mainly be seen on TV screens was not lost on commentators, but at least it received a limited theatrical release, including 70mm screenings. Large, sharp, flat images were winning out over 3D.

The Ultrascreen DLX mentioned above in some of the Marcus schedules is a somewhat smaller version of IMAX combined with luxurious surroundings. The chain’s website provides details.

The UltraScreen DLX® concept features three important S’s – screen, seating and sound. A massive screen size coupled with HEATED DreamLounger℠ leather recliners provide maximum comfort, including a spacious seven feet of legroom between the rows of seats. Add immersive, multidimensional sound for a lifelike experience that makes guests feel part of the action. Speakers are located in the front, back, sides and ceiling to bring even more dimension to the audio of a film.

The system of speakers described is an Atmos installation.

Theater chains typically brand their own PLF installations. Ultrascreen DLX is Marcus’ version, while the B&B chain (the country’s seventh largest, operating mainly in the plains states) has its B&B Grand Screens (see bottom). The first was introduced in 2010 in St. Louis. Some chains mix IMAX with their own brand, depending on the local market. Regal, for example, has 87 IMAX houses and 89 with its proprietary RPX screens. (For a detailed history of the spread of PLF installations to 2016, see Daniel Loria’s “Large Screens, Premium Experience.”)

In many cases, these large-screen auditoriums include other “premium” aspects, such as the big reclining seats, wide gaps between rows, and elaborate sound systems. As with 3D, the ticket price involves an upcharge, but since no fee goes to the 3D company for the glasses and other expenses, the theater owner keeps more of that extra money.

 

Blame China

It’s common to point out that China, now the world’s second largest movie-exhibition market and soon to become the first, loves 3D. The Chinese are building new theaters at a fast clip, and a high proportion of the new screens have digital 3D capacity. In fact, in 2016, fully 78% of  screens in the Asia-Pacific region could show 3D, an astonishingly high proportion considering that in the US the figure was half that, at 39% (according to IHS Markit). And that 78% was a share of far more theaters, 46,949 3D-capable theaters in the region versus 16,745 in the US. Undoubtedly China’s share was larger than its neighbors in Eastern Asia and the Pacific Rim. Other areas of the world also had higher proportions of 3D screens than the US, though not by nearly as much. Europe, the Middle East, and Africa together had 45% 3D screens, and Latin America 43%.

Thus the common wisdom is that Hollywood continues to make 3D films to a large extent to cater to Chinese enthusiasm for the format. Indeed, some films that are released only in 2D in the States are shown in 3D in China, including 2012 (2009), Looper (2012), Iron Man 3 (2013), Lucy (2014), Transcendence (2014), and Jason Bourne (2016). The latter ended up nauseating quite a few Chinese viewers, given its “run-and-gun” style compounded by the 3D.

Naturally Hollywood wants to cater to this giant market, even though the percentages of the ticket receipts returned to the American studios by Chinese distributors are considerably lower than in the US and other markets.

So why show 3D films in the US at all? Presumably there remains enough of a market for them that studios don’t want to risk leaving money on the table. Since they’ve laid out the extra money to make a film in 3D, they might as well show it. There are presumably some people, especially teenagers, who are much more likely to see a film if it’s in 3D.

The question is, will the slow decline of 3D, with fewer films made each year and a lower share of the box-office contributed by them, eventually lead to the complete demise of 3D? Will the failure of 3D TV mean that fewer and fewer 3D films will be released for home-video in 3D? Already this has happened to some extent.

In 2014 for the first time Disney released one of its successful 3D animated films, Frozen, only on standard DVD and Blu-ray. It has continued this policy. In England, though, some Disney films are still released in 3D Blu-ray. Remarkably, amazon.com offers the imported region-free Irish 3D Blu-ray, Blu-ray, and DVD combo of Moana at a bargain price, and it’s not from a third-party seller. We may be out of luck with Ralph Breaks the Internet, since Amazon UK has announced a Blu-ray-DVD set, with no 3D option.

I for one would regret the total demise of 3D. There are relatively few films that I strongly prefer to see in their 3D versions, but it would be a pity if filmmakers did not have the option of making a film like Gravity or Cave of Forgotten Ancestors or Moana in 3D.

It may happen, though. In mid-January an online post in Chinese speculated that people there were becoming less obsessed with 3D. (The original Chinese piece is here, with a brief summary in English here.) How long might take for Chinese moviegoers’ enthusiasm to cool to the extent it has in the USA? Perhaps within a few years China and other overseas markets will no longer provide an adequate support for 3D.

 

The return of James Cameron

While the world awaits the four threatened sequels to Avatar (currently announced for 2020, 2021, 2024, 2025), we have another another Cameron project to re-excite us about 3D. Originally Cameron had planned to direct Alita: Battle Angel himself, but given the burden of responsibility for all those sequels, he turned those duties over to another advocate of 3D, Robert Rodriguez, with Cameron producing and co-writing. (Sin City is much admired by 3D fans.)

I post this on the second of two days featuring special evening screenings of Alita only in 3D, even as it shows. This has literally been publicized as an event movie, an “Early 3D Fan Event.” (See top.) Only one of our local multiplexes is showing this early screening. Interestingly, it’s the Marcus Palace, which seemed to avoid 3D for the earlier films for which I checked. This being a special fan event, modest swag is involved.

Cameron must be disappointed that 3D has not spread to the point where all screenings of Alita could be in 3D. The existence of this “3D fan event” basically acknowledges that there is a core audience for 3D and another audience, probably much larger, who usually, if not always, would prefer standard screenings. The 3D fans presumably are inclined to come to the film when it first opens, and this event caters to that habit–and ideally generates favorable word-of-mouth for the 3D version.

The film has had a mixed reception from critics, with a 60% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Nearly all the reviews I have read, even favorable ones, fault the script but praise the visual effects (by Weta Digital). Most do not mention the 3D. One enthusiastic reviewer, Molly Freeman on Screen Rant, did mention and laud the 3D, writing, “However, the true star of the movie isn’t the writing or any of the performances, it’s the visuals. To the filmmakers’ credit, the visuals are absolutely stunning and if moviegoers have to choose only one 2019 release to see in IMAX 3D, Alita: Battle Angel is it.” This is a good news/bad news comment. On the one hand, Cameron would be glad to see the 3D in this film recommended so highly. On the other, it does suggest what is happening in reality: that many moviegoers are avoiding 3D unless it has the sort of event cachet that has been created around this particular film. And only time will tell whether audiences will take this advice, at least after the first week or two. Initial reports are not sanguine.

Early on in the run, the Alita will be showing on many screens, PFLs or not. The opening weekend, February 15-17, has this set of offerings in Madison:

Setting aside the IMAX screenings, New Vision has opted for one fewer 3D showings than standard ones. The two Marcus multiplexes have no 3D screenings apart from on their Ultrascreens. The same pattern carries into the following weekdays, except that New Vision has no morning matinees. (The Marcus cinemas, as we’ve seen, starts some screenings as early as 8 am every day.) Marcus management seems to assume that 3D is less appealing on a regular screen than a PLF one, despite the double upcharge. This upcharge, by the way, is significant, especially for a family. An adult ticket for a 2D screening at New Vision costs $11.40, a 3D ticket $15.10, and a 3D IMAX ticket $17.21. That’s just about 50% more for the highest ticket than the lowest.

A news item about Alita reveals one more reason why theater managers might not be overly keen on showing 3D. We all know that 3D glasses are notorious for cutting down the brightness of the projected image. It turns out, however, that there’s much more to it than that. Projecting 3D is not simply a matter of slapping a different lens onto the projector and ingesting a DCP file into the projector, as a fascinating article on Rerelease News reveals. Theaters receive several DCP files, and which one they use depends on the sort of projection set-up they have. Given that projection is now done by people with minimal training, the wrong file sometimes is used. Cameron, Rodriguez, and Jon Landau (who also was a producer on the film) were clearly concerned about this and included a message to theaters playing Alita:

IMPORTANT 3D NOTE: The key to the 3D experience is the light. You have been provided with both a general release 4.5 FL 3D DCP and a premium 6 FL-XBrite 3D DCP. Projecting an XBrite 3D DCP at the standard 4.5 Foot Lamberts of light will result in a dark, hard-to-see presentation. It was especially color graded at 6 foot lamberts and must be run at 6 FL. Projected in this way, it will look amazing!

Conversely, if a general release 3D DCP is shown at 6 FL it will look overly bright. It must be run at 4.5 Foot Lamberts, and it will look terrific at that light level. Since you may have some auditoriums capable of running at 6 FL 3D with others that can only hit 4.5 FL 3D, please confirm that the correct DCP file is loaded in the appropriate theater and that each is run at its proper light level.
This will make a huge difference in the presentation and to audience enjoyment. Thanks so much from Robert Rodriguez, Jon Landau, and Jim Cameron.

I’m sure this is excellent advice, and I hope it is followed, especially at the Marcus Point multiplex near us. Still, I suspect not all theater managers enjoy being confronted with this sort of complexity.

 

The takeaway from all this is that I and I’m sure many others, were right in predicting that 3D would remain a niche within popular cinema as a whole, confined largely to animation and to fantasy and sci-fi films. More interesting, though, is the fact that PLF auditoriums have proven more popular as a reason to get off the couch and go to a theater, even if the comfort, spaciousness, mega-multi-track sound, and huge screens come at a higher ticket price.


Thanks to David Hancock of IHS Markit for his assistance over the years. Also, thanks to Steve Guttag and Russ Collins for information about 3D. For the story of how 3D became the Trojan Horse in the digital conversion of theatres, see Pandora’s Digital Box.

Thanks also to Jim Healy for some expert opinions and for pointing me to the Rerelease News piece.

PS [Added February 18, 2019] More evidence, for the opening weekend of How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World here in Madison:

Vertov, sound technology, and 3D: Recent Blu-ray releases

Man w the Movie Camera poster and cameraman

The Man with a Movie Camera.

Kristin here:

Every now and then we accumulate a few new DVDs and Blu-ray discs and write up a summary of each. This entry is the first time when all the discs discussed are Blu-ray. In fact, none of these releases is available in the DVD format.

 

Vertov and more Vertov

Soviet director Dziga Vertov is known primarily for The Man with a Movie Camera (1929), one of the most revered silent films. It is a documentary, an experimental film, a city symphony, and a witness to Soviet society in the late 1920s, all in one. Flicker Alley has done great service to silent Soviet cinema with its Landmarks of Early Soviet Cinema and the serial Miss Mend by Boris Barnet and Fedor Ozep. Now it has brought out a Blu-ray disc of a remarkable 2014 restoration of The Man with the Movie Camera.

This version is based largely on a print struck from the original negative and left by Vertov with the Filmliga of Amsterdam, an early cine-club. It subsequently passed to the Nederlands Filmmuseum. The restoration added clips culled from other archival prints to fill in gaps in this copy, producing an edition that will be a revelation to many who are used to the scratchy, contrasty, and cropped prints that have circulated for decades.

For one thing, seeing that missing left side of the frame makes a big difference. A booklet includedMan with the Movie Camera cover with the disc points out that modern versions are usually taken from sound prints of the film, which required that the left portion of the frame be reserved for the sound track. As a result, that area of the image was cropped out. This new release restores the full-frame original, and the result is dramatically different from earlier versions. Its visual quality is also impressive (see top).

Yet Flicker Alley has been too modest in emphasizing this as a release simply of The Man with a Movie Camera. The full title of the release is “Dziga Vertov: The Man with the Movie Camera and other Newly-Restored Works.” Yet the “Other Newly-Restored Works,” featured in very small print on the cover, are hardly incidental. They include features that many researchers and cinephiles have long wished that they could view in good prints–or any prints at all.

These other works include most of Vertov’s famous features of the 1920s and early 1930s: Kino-Eye (1924), his first feature; Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass (1931), his first sound feature; and Three Songs about Lenin (1934), a celebration of the tenth anniversary of the death of Lenin.

I don’t think any of these films is as important as The Man with the Movie Camera. For me, Kino-Eye is the most charming, with candid depictions of peasant festivals and the like. It was Vertov’s first opportunity to stretch his ambitions after years of work in newsreels and documentaries. It has a spontaneity that perhaps disappeared in the later features.

The disc includes an informative booklet that discusses both the films and their restorations. As an extra, there is the 1925 Kino-Pravda newsreel episode that Vertov made to commemorate the first anniversary of Lenin’s death. It incorporates rare newsreel footage of Lenin, cutting it together in ways that look like modern gifs.

The visual quality is inevitably variable, with the earlier films looking contrasty, but these are no doubt the best versions that we are likely ever to have. This Man with a Movie Camera supersedes the one from the BFI (in the UK) and from Kino (in the USA), though many will want to have the latter for its lovely score by Michael Nyman. The Flicker Alley version has a very different, but highly appropriate, score by the Alloy Orchestra.

Not all of Vertov’s early features are included. For those who want more, Edition Filmmuseum’s release of A Sixth Part of the World (1926), The Eleventh Year (1928), both with a Michael Nyman score, and one shorter film plus a documentary on Vertov, remains a necessity.

 

3D curiosities

Flicker Alley has also developed a specialty in releasing DVDs and Blu-rays exploring film formats.  The company has paid particular attention to Cinerama (This Is Cinerama, Cinerama Holiday, South Seas Adventure, Windjammer, Seven Wonders of the World, and Search for Paradise). Now, in celebration of the centennial of 3D exhibition , it branches out into 3D with 3-D Rarities, described as “A Collection of 22 3D Rarities coverUltra-rare and Stunningly Restored 3-D Films.” (Since we cannot reproduce 3D frame enlargements, the images below are taken from the Flicker Alley webpage just linked.)

This BD brings together a thoroughly heterogeneous collection of short items, assembled into two programs. The first, “The Dawn of Stereoscopic Cinematography,” covers the years from 1922 to 1952, with short films made outside mainstream Hollywood. Some test footage by Edwin S. Porter and William E. Waddell shown in 1915 no longer survives, so the earliest films on the program are “Kelley’s Plasticon Pictures” (1922-23), including Thru’ the Trees, a travelogue of Washington, D. C. featuring shots of famous buildings framed primarily by foreground tree branches to create planes in depth.

The items that follow range from promotional films to animated shorts to a burlesque comedy featuring two fairly tame striptease segments and two fairly unfunny comedians. A Now Is the Time, McLarenpromotional film for Chrysler shown at the New York World’s Fair (New Dimensions, 1940) traces the assembly of a new Plymouth in great detail and with impressive animation, with the parts hopping around and sliding into place on their own.

For many the highlights of this first program will be four shorts from the National Film Board of Canada, two of them by Norman McLaren. The first, Now Is the Time (1951), uses the filmmaker’s familiar drawn-on-film style (right), while the second, Around Is Around (1951), employs an oscilloscope to create more abstract patterns.

Films by two of McLaren’s colleagues are also included: O Canada (1952) by Evelyn Lambart and Twirligig (1952) by Gretta Ekman. These films are among the only ones on the whole program where objects are not thrust or thrown “out” at the audience.

The first program ends with an advertisement, Bolex Stereo (1952), a camera which supposedly was going to bring 16mm 3D home-movies into people’s living rooms. The complicated technology demonstrated shows why the idea did not catch on.

The second program, “Hollywood Enters the Third-Dimension,” consists mainly of trailers interspersed with a few shorts. The trailers include It Came from Outer Space and Miss Sadie Thompson (both 1953). One fascinating film is Rocky Marciano vs. Jersey Joe Walcott (1953), and I say this as one who has no interest in boxing. This 16-minute black-and-white film starts at the training camps of the two opponents and moves on to the match itself, in which Marciano famously knocked out Walcott in less than two minutes. The in-ring controversy over the call occupies the last part of the film, giving the whole thing a distinct dramatic shape. Multiple-camera filming and 3D add visual interest.

Stardust in Your Eyes (1953), a comedy short starring comic and impersonator Slick Slavin (aka Slaven in the credits), is said in the program notes to have been “a big hit at 3-D festivals. Judge for yourselves, but I advise keeping a finger on the next-chapter button for this one.

Few of these shorts can be said to be important classics of the 3D repertoire, but overall one gains a sense of the surprising range of films made with the process. One also learns that thrusting guns, spears, swords, and even sling-shots toward the audience, as well as throwing stones and other missiles at them, never grow old as far as the makers of these films are concerned. We have a pistol aimed at us in one of the “Kelley’s Plasticon Pictures” from 1922 (below left) and a rifle in the trailer for Hannah Lee (1953, right).

Kelley's Plasticon Pictures gun to camera     Hannah Lee, rifle into camera

At least we now have the 3D version of Mad Max: Fury Road to recharge this particular visual trope in highly original ways.

 

Sound marches on

Way back in 2008, when this blog was a mere two years old, I reported on the first volume of a two-disc set of DVDs inaugurating the highly ambitious project, A Century of Sound: The History of Sound in Motion Pictures. That first volume covered the period to 1932. This one is entitled “The Sound of Movies: 1933-1975.” There was of course a lot more recorded sound in that period, and the new set stretches to four Blu-ray discs, for a total of over twelve hours of running time.

I can’t claim to have watched all those hours, but every section I sampled boasted extraordinary amounts of information. Robert Gitt, who originated the project with a 1992 lecture, again narrates. The coverage includes a huge number of rare diagrams, photographs, documents, and demo reels. In addition, many of the chapters add clips from films that contained the most innovative sound techniques of their day. The Garden of Allah, Okhlahoma!, Medium Cool, and many other titles are excerpted in superb copies.

The set as a whole is a gold mine for specialist researchers and technology buffs. The discs include long and detailed passages on such topics as push-pull recording and noise reduction, the latter a crucial challenge to the sound-recording industry for decades. Teachers who searched assiduously could find many clips suitable for classroom use.

A fair amount of the material ought to be interesting to nonspecialists too. For example, the third disc includes a history of early multi-channel and directional sound. The section on early stereophonic systems is fascinating, with its coverage of Leopold Stokowski’s participation in the two most important early films to introduce this new technology to a popular audience: 100 Men and a Girl (1937) and Fantasia (1940). We get generous clips from each. From 100 Men and a Girl, we see most of the famous scene in which an orchestra plays on different levels of Stokowski’s house and multiple channels allow sonic “close-ups” of each type of instrument over close views of that section of the orchestra:

100 Men shot 1     100 Men shot 2     100 Men shot 3

A thorough history of Fantasia includes the image below, typical of the sorts of material The Century of Sound presents: the Fantasound optical printer invented in order to print the multiple optical tracks used for the film’s stereo.

Fantasia Fantasound optical printer

And someone obviously could not resist including a goodly dose of the short dances from the Nutcracker Suite section of the film (see bottom).

The Century of Sound is not for sale commercially. It “is available free of charge to educational, archival and research institutions and to qualified individual educators, researchers and scholars as a not-for-profit educational resource.” There is a modest fee for shipping. For information on ordering, write to CenturyofSound@cinema.ucla.edu.


Flicker Alley’s release of This Is Cinerama provoked David to a survey of Cinerama aesthetics in an earlier entry.

Fantasia dance

Fantasia.

 

DVDs and Blu-rays for your letter to Santa

The Cure (1917)

Kristin here:

One occasional feature of our blog has been to point out new releases on DVD and Blu-ray, especially of titles that haven’t gotten much publicity. Some of these are easily available at major sources like Amazon, while others have to be ordered directly from their publishers, often abroad. But if you have a multi-standard player, don’t hold back. Ordering from abroad isn’t as intimidating as it might seem. Many sites have English-language sales pages.

We’ve done a lot of these entries by now. You can find them through the DVD category in the list at the right, but I thought it might be useful to give links to all of them here, with brief indications of what each deals with. Some of the DVDs are probably out of print by now, but in this era of eBay and third-party sellers, one can usually track down such things. Then I’ll give a rundown on some recent releases.

The first was Dispatch from the Land of the Long White Cloud, written when David and I were fellows at the University of Auckland in May, 2007. I discussed  some of the DVDs of New Zealand films that I had found in stores there. Some are famous, some obscure.

2008 was either a great year for DVDs or we just had more time to deal with them. On January 18, I posted Tracking down Aardman creatures, a guide to the classic animated films of Nick Park, Peter Lord, and their colleagues at Aardman. At the time it was probably the most complete information one could get on these films. Of course, Aardman has gone on to make other films and TV series, but this was the studio’s golden age. On February 1, I described with two boxed sets dealing with early sound films in All singing! All dancing! All teaching! As the title implies, these are a boon to film teachers, as well as buffs and researchers. In Coming attractions, plus a retrospect (June 6), David discussed the release of Robert Reinert’s very peculiar silent film, Nerven, and in Summer show and tell (July 28, 2008), he briefly dealt with a miscellaneous set of DVDs and books that we discovered during our annual visit to Il Cinema Ritrovato and other destinations. On December 10, in Preserving two masters, I discussed the restored version of Lubitsch’s Das Weib des Pharao (which at that point wasn’t out on DVD) and a Walter Ruttmann set.

2009 was a pretty good year, too. On February 18, I wrote about the Flicker Alley release of Abel Gance’s influential classic La roue, including historical background on the film, in An old-fashioned, sentimental avant-garde film. David took the occasion of of a new Criterion boxed set to summarize the work of the fine Japanese director Shimizu Hiroshi (May 9). On May 21, in Forgotten but not gone: more archival gems on DVD, I described two major boxed sets, one of Lotte Reiniger’s lovely but seldom-seen fairy-tale shorts, and one of early Belgian avant-garde cinema–and yes, the early Belgian avant-garde cinema includes some important titles. On August 2, David again caught up with the mixed batch of DVDs and books picked up in Europe over the summer or sitting in the stack of mail upon his return, in Picks from the pile. Finally, on November 9 I discussed the British release of Dreyer’s Vampyr with a very worth-while commentary track by Guillermo del Toro, who said, among other things, “I am not Carl Dreyer, and I should shut up.”

In February of 2010, I wrote DVDs for these long winter evenings, dealing with three sets with the work of three crucial filmmakers: Georges Méliès, Ernst Lubitsch (most of the German features), and Dziga Vertov. In October, it was More revelations of film history on DVD: a documentary on Veit Harlan, a new series of Soviet silent films, and the Flicker Alley set of Chaplin’s Keystone films. (For the follow-up, see below.) On November 28, Silents nights: DVD stocking-stuffers for those long winter evenings covered little-known Norwegian and Danish silents, a rare Expressionist film, Ford’s The Iron Horse, hilarious Max Davidson comedies, and the Kalem company.

For some reason it was a full year before we posted more DVD coverage in our second Christmas-gift-themed entry, Classics on DVD and Blu-ray, in time for a fröliche Weihnachten! (November 29, 2012). It probably took us that long to get through all the discs we picked up in Bologna and elsewhere. The title reflects the heavily German coverage: early Asta Nielsen films, Pabst’s first feature, the release of Das Weib des Pharao on DVD and Blu-ray, as well as the 1939 Hollywood version of The Mikado.

Earlier this year, on June 20, we posted our most recent DVD/Blu-ray entry, Recovered, discovered, and restored: DVDs, Blu-rays, and a book. It deals with a burst of releases of Norwegian silent films, a new entry in the “American Treasures” archive series, and some American films, famous and obscure.

Now more DVDs are piling up, and the time seems ripe for a third set of holiday-present suggestions, to give or hope to receive.

 

Caligari, restored at last

In our survey of the ten best films of 1920, I mentioned that Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari was one of the films that lured me into film studies during my undergraduate days. I know it very well.  I was tempted to go to one of the screenings of the recent restoration this year at Il Cinema Ritrovato, but it was opposite other films I had never seen before, so I passed it up. Luckily now Kino Lorber has brought that restoration out on DVD and Blu-ray (sold separately).

The negative of Caligari does not survive in its entirety, but the restoration has taken the usual steps to fill it in and provide authentic tinting. The information comes from titles at the beginning of the DVD print:

The 4K restoration was created by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung in Wiesbaden from the original camera negative held at the Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv in Berlin. The first reel of the camera negative is missing and was completed from different prints. Jump cuts and missing frames in 67 shots were completed by different prints.

A German distribution print is not existing. Basis for the colours were two nitrate prints from Latin America, which represent the earliest surviving prints. They are today at the Filmmuseum Düsseldorf and the Cineteca di Bologna.

The intertitles were resumed from the flashtitles in the camera negative and a 16mm print from 1935 from the Deutsche Kinematek-Museum für Film und Fernsehen in Berlin.

The digital image restoration was carried out by L’Immagine Ritrovata-Film Convservation and Restoration in Bologna.

The images are definitely clearer, with more detail visible than in prints I have seen before, and the film runs more smoothly. An inauthentic intertitle has been removed. In most prints, when the grumpy town clerk hears that Caligari wants a permit to exhibit a somnabulist, he calls him a “Fakir” and turns him over to his underlings to deal with. That title is now gone, and it’s clear that Caligari is annoyed at the man’s disdainful attitude rather than a specific insult. The intertitles have their original jagged, Expressionistic graphic design (see above) rather than the plain backgrounds used in many prints hitherto available.

There are optional English subtitles. The modernist musical track  fits well with the film.

The supplements include a short essay which I provided and a documentary, Caligari: How Horror Came to the Cinema. The restoration is also available from Eureka! in the United Kingdom, with a different set of supplements and with DVD and Blu-ray sold together.

 

Flooded by flickers

If you want a lot of good laughs and have 1005 minutes to spare, Flicker Alley’s “The Mack Sennett Collection Volume One” offers 50 restored shorts which Sennett acted in, wrote, directed, and/or produced. (This 3-disc set is available only on Blu-ray.)

The films are presented in chronological order, starting with a 1909 comic short directed by D. W. Griffith at American Biograph and starring Sennett, The Curtain Pole. Two comedies directed by Sennett at American Biograph follow. In 1912 he founded Keystone, represented starting with The Water Nymph (1912) and ending with A Lover’s Lost Control (1915). In 1915 Sennett became one of the three points in the Triangle Film Corporation, along with co-founders Griffith and Thomas Ince. Keystone continued operating as Triangle Keystone, and films from that production unit from 1915 to 1917 are included. At that point Sennett went independent as Mack Sennett Comedies, making mainly two-reelers, beginning in this collection with Hearts and Flowers (1919) and running to The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933).  See here for a complete list of titles. Each of the three discs contains a group of films as well as a set of bonuses at the end.

Sennett built a team of excellent comedians, including at various points Ben Turpin, Chester Conklin, Charlie Chaplin, Ford Sterling, Wallace Beery, Louise Fazenda, Mabel Normand, and others. The action typically moves at a breakneck pace, and the editing is similarly fast. Being able to go back and watch some of these routines again, perhaps in slow motion, is ideal for making sure you catch every throw-away gag.

A Clever Dummy shows off the dexterity of the cross-eyed Turpin. Two inventors build a mechanical dummy, modeling “him” on the janitor played by Turpin. At first the dummy is a rather cheap-looking fake, but Turpin plays him in some scenes and the janitor in others. Then he decides to masquerade as the dummy, and his antics persuade some vaudeville agents to buy him for their show (left below). Once in the theater, he defies a stagehand’s (Conklin) efforts to make him stand quietly (right):

    

Savor these a few at a time, and you’ll have entertainment for months to come.

Of course, some of that 1005-minute total comes in the bonuses. There are newsreel and television appearances by Sennett, including “This Is Your Life, Mack Sennett” (1954) and a half-hour radio appearance on the Texaco Star Theater in 1939.

Back in 2007, we posted an entry called Happy Birthday, Classical Cinema!, where we explained how the guidelines and techniques that came to underpin what we now call classical Hollywood cinema came together in 1917. At the end we offered a list of the ten best films of that year, and thus inadvertently our annual ninety-year celebration, “The ten best films of …” came into being. On it were two Charlie Chaplin films, The Immigrant and Easy Street.

They were both made during the third phase of Chaplin’s career, when he had left Keystone and gone first to Essanay and then to Mutual. Those who find the pathos in many of Chaplin’s films from the 1920s onward might plausibly consider his Mutual period to be the height of his career. The twelve films are not all equally brilliant, however. One watches Chaplin developing a better sense of story-telling to go with the slapstick. The Rink comes across as two one-reelers stitched together. In the first half having Charlie does a fairly conventional waiter schtick, but when he visits a rink on his lunch-hour, the films moves into high gear as he performs a dazzling set of moves on skates:

Other films show Chaplin learning to make a sustained, tight story built of non-stop gags, none more skillfully than The Cure. An alcoholic forced into a sanatorium evades all attempts to make him shape up while charmingly defending the heroine from an offensive, gout-ridden villain (see top, where all involved briefly strike a pose).

Flicker Alley has released a steelbox commemorative set of five discs, two Blu-ray and three DVD, to celebrate the centenary of Chaplin’s first appearance as the Little Tramp–though of course that appearance had been made at Keystone.

For a list of film titles and bonus features, see here.

If these sets contain some of the most famous films and performers of their day, another recent Flicker Alley release, We’re in the Movies: Palace of Silents & Itinerant Filmmaking, turns to some of forgotten and obscure offerings of the silent era: films made in small towns by independent regional producers, using local citizens for their casts. Earlier this year, David wrote about Wheat and Tares, a 1915 film made in his home town by the Penn Yan Film Corporation. That’s not one of the locally made films included in We’re in the Movies, but this two-disc set (both DVD and Blu-ray) does contain The Lumberjack, a short film made in Wausau, Wisconsin and discovered in the early 1980s by Stephen Schaller, then a graduate student in film studies here at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Schaller didn’t just discover the film. He created a lovely, poignant documentary, When You wore a Tulip and I Wore a Big Red Rose (1983), about the making of the film and the history of the one print and how it survived. He tracked down and interviewed several elderly people who had been involved with its making. These included Florence Gilbert Evans, the only surviving cast member, and relatives and friends of others “actors.” At intervals throughout the film, he interviews Louise Elster, who had accompanied silent films on piano in local theaters. She provides a lively commentary on such accompaniments and plays examples as skillfully as she must have done in the day. (Modern-day silent-film accompanists might find many tips from this documentary.)

The only problem with the film is that no identifying titles are superimposed to tell us who these people are, and often their names are not mentioned in the interview excerpts included. One has to struggle at times to figure out who the speakers are and what they had to do with The Lumberjack. Names are only given in the final credits, and even then their connections to the film are not specified. Still, the story of the film’s making comes together clearly enough.

Schaller reenacts the finding of the film itself in a scene with Robert S. Hagge. Hagge, who apparently worked at the Grand Theater, where the sole print resided until 1946, when he took it to his home:

The poignancy of The Lumberjack‘s history emerges gradually as we get to know those involved and their histories. One of the producers was accidentally killed during a quarry explosion staged for the film. Settings shown in the movie are compared with the current appearances of the same places, with some beautiful old buildings preserved and others replaced by bland modern structures. There is a hint that the making of the film created an excitement that transformed the lives of the Wausau citizens involved.  When You Wore a Tulip and I Wore a Big Red Rose illustrates the power of even the most modest of films and the inevitable losses caused by the passage of time.

The set also includes a 2010 documentary, Palace of Silents: The Silent Movie Theater in Los Angeles, devoted to a theater built in 1942 and dedicated for over 68 years to showing silent films. The rest of the contents are The Lumberjack and other early local films.

These films strike me as an excellent way of intriguing students and film fans about the silent era of the movies.

 

Oktoberfest as seen through the movies

I was somewhat surprised to see the new two-DVD set in the Filmmuseum München series: Oktoberfest München 1910-1980. It’s an interesting approach, gathering together the surviving films about a single annual event, Munich’s famous Oktoberfest. As the accompanying booklet points out, the Oktoberfest was a venue where early traveling exhibitors set up their tents to show movies, though little documentation of these shows survives. No one knows when the first films about or set at the festival were made. The earliest one to survive is from 1910.

Oktoberfest was and is more than beer-drinking. There are parades, rides, and various fairground activities as well.

To many film historians, one of the attractions of this collection will be a film starring the comedian Karl Valentin, Valentin auf der Festwiese. The nominal plot involves Valentin taking his wife to the festival while planning to meet his mistress there and sneak away. This story gets shunted aside for most of the film’s length, however, as the couple wander through various sideshow tents. We see their grotesque reflections in a fun-house mirror (above), and the camera perches in a ferris-wheel seat to record the long-delayed confrontation of wife and mistress.

One curiosity of the set is a 3D film from 1954, Plastischer Wies’n-Bummel. The analglyph 3D glasses (red and cyan) required for the effect are included in the set. I found it something of an effort to resolve the 3D in many shots, but there are some dramatic depth effects involving balloons and some fairground swings that work quite well:

The booklet is in German, English, and French, and there are optional subtitles in English and French. The DVD set can be ordered online here.

 

Making a list, Czeching it twice

When we were in Prague this summer, Michal Bregant, head of the National Film Archive, gave us some books and DVDs related to early Czech animation.

One was a catalog published by the archive, Czech Animated Film I 1920-1945 (2012, bilingual in Czech and English), with a short historical introduction and descriptions of all the known films of the period. It relates to a two-DVD set, Český animovaný film 1925-1945 (Czech animated film). This delightful collection contains 30 shorts and has optional English subtitles. Some of the cartoons are outright imitations of American series of the day, such as Hannibal in the Virgin Forest (1932), clearly inspired by early sound cartoons from Disney and Warner Bros.:

There are also two early György Pál (later aka George Pal) cartoons. Many of the shorts, though, are advertisements. As in other countries where major filmmakerss like Len Lye were doing inventive work for ads, Czech animators came up with some amazing images. Margarine never looked as good as in Irena and Karel Dodal’s 1937 Gasparcolour short for the Sana brand, The Unforgettable Poster (see bottom).

The Dodals were the most important Czech animators of this era, as is shown in a well-illustrated biography, The Dodals: Pioneers of Czech Animated Film, by Eva Strusková (published by the National Film Archive in 2013). It’s in English and comes with a DVD. (There is some overlap between its contents and those of the two-disc set.)

Both are musts for animation experts and fans. The Dodals is available from Amazon. The DVD set won as “Best Re-discovery 2012/13” at the Il Cinema Ritrovato awards last year. It and the catalog can be ordered directly from the National Film Archive website or from a specialized cinema shop in Prague, Terry Posters (this link takes you to the English-language version of the site).

The Unforgettable Poster (1937)

Say hello to GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE

DB here:

Godard is making trouble again. Adieu au langage–known now as Goodbye to Language– is doing better in the US than any of his films have done in the last thirty-some years. It has a per-screen average of $13,500, which is about twice that attained by Ouija in its opening last weekend.

But that average represents only two screens, and it’s going to be hard to expand because Goodbye to Language is in 3D. Many art houses would love to play it, but they lacked the money to upgrade to 3D during the big digital conversion of recent years. Even high-powered venues in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago don’t have 3D installed. Here in Madison we’re showing it as a benefit for our Cinematheque. But the film’s prospects may be brightening.

Re-seeing it (twice) at the Vancouver International Film Festival back in September, I was struck by a few more ideas about it. Kristin and I avoid listicles, but after writing an expansive entry on the film, all I’ve got at this point is some scattered observations. Two ragtag comments are semi-spoilers, and I’ll warn you beforehand.

 

The Power of post As far as I can tell, Godard hasn’t used the converging-lens method to create 3D during shooting. Instead of “toeing-in” his cameras, he set them so that the lenses are strictly parallel. He and his DP Fabrice Aragno apparently relied on software to generate the startling 3D we see onscreen.

This reminds me that postproduction has long been a central aspect of Godard’s creative process. Of course he creates marvelous shots while filming, but ever since Breathless (À bout de souffle, 1960), when he yanked out frames from the middle of his shots, he has always made post-shooting work more than simply trimming and polishing. His interruptive aesthetic is made possible by editing that wedges in intertitles (sometimes the same one several times). He breaks off beautiful shots and drops in bursts of music that snap off just before they cadence.

In both sound and image, the post-production process for Godard is a kind of transformation, an openly admitted re-writing of what came from the camera. He slaps graffiti on his own film. In Narration in the Fiction Film, I argued that our sense of a Godard film being “told” or narrated by the director proceeds partly from his ability to create the impression of a sort of Cineaste-Emperor, a sovereign master who is governing what we see and hear at any given moment. The collage principle suggests someone behind the scenes pasting these fragments together. Not only his commentary (once whispered, now croaked) but every shot-change and bit of music and noise, every intertitle and look to the camera all bear witness to Godard as God. Before he cut a strip of film; now he twiddles a knob or guides a slider. In all cases, we still feel his playful, exasperating hand.

Godard’s famous collage aesthetic relies on aggressive changes to image and sound in postproduction that all but deface the surfaces of his movie. No surprise, then, that Godard 3D lays out those surfaces boldly, with distant planes sharply edged and volumes that stretch out before us.

Yet with his superimposed titles, sometimes hovering among the audience, he can flatten volume and stack up planes like playing cards. It’s partly a joke that the 2D title below is closer to us than the 3D one behind it, but even that sticks out further than the unidentifiable light array that is farthest away.

 

The Rule and the exception. Just as Hollywood cinema erected rules for plotting, shooting, and editing, it has cultivated rules for “proper” 3D filming. An informative piece by Bryant Frazer points out some ways that Godard breaks those rules. Still, just calling him a maverick makes him sound merely willful. Part of his aim is to explore what happens if you ignore the rules.

This is Godard’s experimental side: He considers what “good craftsmanship” traditionally excludes, just as the Cubists decided that perspective, and smooth finish, and other features of academic painting blocked off some expressive possibilities. To get a positive sense of what he’s doing, we need to understand what the conventional rules are intended to achieve. Consider just two purposes.

1. 3D, the rules assume, ought to serve the same function as framing, lighting, sound, and other techniques do: to guide us to salient story points. A shot should be easy to read. When 3D isn’t just serving to awe us with special effects, it has the workaday purpose of advancing our understanding of the story. So, for instance, 3D should use selective focus to make sure that only one figure stands out, while everything else blurs gracefully.

But 3D allows Godard to present the space of a shot as discomfitingly as he presents his scenes (elliptical, they are) and his narrative (zigzag and laconic, it is). As in traditional deep-focus cinematography, we’re invited to notice more than the main subject of a shot, but here those piled-up planes have an extra presence, and our eye is invited to explore them.

2. According to the rules, 3D ought to be relatively realistic. Traditional cinema presents itself as a window onto the story world, and 3D practitioners have spoken of the frame as the “stereo window.” People and objects should recede gently away from that surface, into the depth behind the screen. But Adieu au langage gives us a beautiful slatted chair, neither fully in our lap nor fully integrated into the fictional space. It juts out and dominates the composition, partly blocking the main action–a husband bent on violence hustling out of his car.

That chair, or one of its mates, reappears, usually with greater heft than the human characters shoved nearly out of sight behind it.

In sum, visual realism of the Hollywood sort is only one mode of moviemaking. Godard lets us know from the very start that he’s after something else. The film’s first title announces: “Those lacking imagination take refuge in reality.” Goodbye to Language is an adventure of the imagination.

 

Innovation, intractable. Godard has been around so long that some of his innovations—jump-cuts, interruptive intertitles—have become common in mainstream movies. But there remains an intractable core that is just too difficult to assimilate, and he has always been a few jumps ahead of people who want to de-fang his experiments.

Supposedly Picasso told Gertrude Stein: “You do something new and then someone comes along and makes it pretty.”

 

A fresh eye. French thinkers have long pondered the possibility that language separates us from the world. It drops a kind of scrim that keeps us from seeing things in their innocent purity. Given the film’s title, I suggested in an NPR interview that Godard’s use of 3D, along with the insistence on the dog Roxy, is aiming to make us perceive the world stripped of our conceptual constructs (language, plot, normal viewpoints, and so on). Personally, the idea that language alienates us from some primordial connection to things seems to me implausible, but I think it’s a central theme of the film. This very talky movie exploits a paradox: we must use language to say goodbye to it.

Learning curve. Critics put off by Godard, I think, have too limited a notion of what criticism is. They seem to think that their notion of cinema, fixed for all time, is a standard to which every movie has to measure up. They are notably resistant to a simple idea: We can learn something from films. Not only can we learn things about life but we also learn things about cinema. We learn things that we never realized that film can do.

But then, how many critics actually want to learn something about cinema, which can only happen the way we learn anything: by wrestling with something that strikes us as difficult?

 

Two soft spoilers ahead!

On re-viewing, I was struck by other ways in which the two long parallel stories echo one another: a big bowl of flowers, later one of fruit; the repetition of “There is no why!”; and an odd colorless or nearly colorless image of each principal woman.

     

As with so much else in the film, Godard posits his own slippery version of a parallel-universe plot, and this overall formal option is underscored by these stylistic choices. In the first prologue, the woman on the left above is also given to us in a color shot, as if the disparity color/black-and-white points ahead to the nearly black-and-white color shot to come.

The (apparent) deaths of the principal men are rendered very obliquely, but apparently out of story order. This juggling with chronology, a staple of modern cinema, is fairly rare in Godard, at least as I recall.

 

Clearly, 3D is becoming something we cinephiles need to face up to. I balked at the beginning, but I’ve come around. Important filmmakers like Godard, Herzog, and Wenders are working with it. Just as important, we’ve never until now been able to study 3D movies closely. I remember watching Bwana Devil and others on a flatbed in the Library of Congress in the early 1980s, but if I stopped on any frame, I couldn’t tell what the 3D effect was like. Of course any 2D print of a classic 3D title represents only one camera’s view.

The victory of digital projection yielded a benefit I hadn’t foreseen when I wrote Pandora’s Digital Box. After Dial M for Murder came out in BD in 2012, I realized I needed to upgrade. We bought a bargain TV and BD player just when 3D TV had been declared dead. Now our 3D collection has expanded to include Hong Kong titles as well as favorites like Wreck-It Ralph, Gravity, and A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas. Costs of 3D discs are sometimes low, and while you need a bigger monitor than we have to approach the force of a big-screen viewing, we can at least study a director’s use of the format frame by frame.

So for viewers who can’t get to Goodbye to Language in theatres but who have a 3D TV may take heart: Kino Lorber will be releasing a 3D Blu-ray disc.


Vadim Rizov has a brief but intriguing interview with Aragno in Filmmaker Magazine. “”Hollywood says you shouldn’t have more than six centimeters between cameras, so I began at twelve to see what happened.” Obviously a simpatico collaborator.

I discuss aspects of Hitchcock’s use of 3D in Dial M for Murder here.

P.S. 4 November 2014: The distribution of Goodbye to Language has become a cause célebre. Justin Chang surveys the situation in Variety.

P.P.S. 13 November 2014: Geoffrey O’Brien’s enthusiastic appreciation of the film not only illuminates it but conveys the excitement of seeing it.

P.P.P.S. 14 November 2014: Two more thoughts, after seeing the film again last night at our Cinematheque screening. First, the “unidentifiable light array” I mention above is actually on the cover of the French edition of A. E. Van Vogt’s The World of Null-A shown later in the film. Second, this time I noticed that the war imagery in the film’s first part subsides in the second, to be replaced, it seems, by Roxy’s wanderings–a more lyrical, peaceful counterweight to the horrors invoked earlier. The pivot would seem to be the first helicopter crash at the end of the first part. There among the flaming ruins we can see the burned head of a dead dog. Roxy’s proxy? Anyhow, the original survives, exuberantly, in the film’s second long part.

Goodbye to Language.

David Bordwell
top of page

have comments about the state of this website? go here