David Bordwell's website on cinema   click for CV




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


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


Rex Stout: Logomachizing

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


Book Reports

Observations on film art

Archive for the 'Animation' Category

Coraline, cornered

DB here:

It’s common for academics in one field to borrow ideas from other domains of research. But people outside academe sometimes object when a film scholar talks about movies using a term or idea originating elsewhere. These people usually think of themselves as hard-headed pros. Everything we need to understand film, they think, can be derived from the concepts already used by practitioners.

No doubt, we should be attentive to the ways in which filmmakers think and talk about their work. There’s a lot to be learned from shop talk and insider information–hence the enduring value of interviews, DVD commentaries, and the like. Yet no activity explains itself. Often practitioners do things intuitively, without making their background ideas explicit. We can often illuminate a filmmaker’s creative choices by spelling out the unspoken premises behind the work.

Further, filmmakers themselves have traditionally drawn ideas from other arts and sciences. For example, storytelling techniques referred to as exposition, point of view, or motivation have their origin in theories of literature and drama. Filmmakers have been quite pluralistic in their creative practices; why can’t critics and historians be open to outside influences?

Back in the 1980s I began speculating on how the film image represented space, and I adopted the then-current terminology of perceptual psychology. Researchers spoke of depth cues, those features of the real world that prompt our visual system to make fast inferences about a three-dimensional layout. Classic depth cues are the Gestalters’ figure/ ground relation, da Vinci’s “atmospheric perspective” (the haze that envelops more distant planes), and Helmholtz’s “kinetic depth effect,” the way that when you’re moving, closer objects change at a different rate than more distant ones.

These features can also be invoked in two-dimensional images, as I tried to show in Narration in the Fiction Film. Nowadays, deeper explanations of these effects are available using geometrical or computational approaches to perception. But depth cues remain a useful informal way of studying how artists manipulate images. For this reason, in Film Art: An Introduction, we’ve continued to itemize some depth cues that are important in cinema. These concepts furnish analytical tools for understanding things that filmmakers do spontaneously when they compose or light a shot.

So imagine my happiness when I hear filmmakers talk directly about depth cues.

In a fascinating article in American Cinematographer, Pete Kozachik, Director of Photography on Coraline, explains that the filmmakers were very conscious of perceptual factors throughout, and not just in creating the stereoscopic effect. For example, they designed and filmed our heroine’s alternative world in normal perspective, but her boring normal world was designed to seem off-kilter and flat by means of inconsistent depth cues within the shots. “The compositions match in 2-D, but the 3-D depth cues evoke a different feel for each room.”

This is hard to illustrate in a two-dimensional medium, but the Coraline trailer offers some examples. Consider this image.

The tiles in the family shower don’t recede into the distance, either across or upward. They are more or less the same size, just arrayed along a diagonal.  A degree of recession is supplied by tonality and lighting, but the corner of the shower stall remains somewhat ambiguous. If you try to do a Gestalt flip, you can see the corner as a chimney poking out at you rather than one receding inward. (To see this, try covering the rest of the shot with your hands.)

In the garden of the “Good Household,” however, the bricks recede naturalistically in shape and size. The lighting and tonal gradients create a strong sense of depth.

Here is the Good Family’s hallway.

It displays central perspective, with everything receding as it should (as if seen by a wide-angle lens).

By contrast, here is an oblique shot of Coraline’s real-world bedroom. The doorway’s edges recede pretty steeply, but the baseboard doesn’t taper as it moves toward and past the corner. Instead, it moves in parallel lines. The same thing is happening with the floor planks.

You can see the effect more clearly if we drain the color and lower the contrast. (Sorry, Messrs. Selick and Kozachik.)

Now you can also see the weird, almost cubistic edges of floorboards poking up just behind the carton. Again, lighting and tonality create a sense of depth that the geometry of the edges denies. The depth cues within Coraline’s normal life are inconsistent.

Stare at the rear stretch of the baseboard awhile, and you’ll find that its contours may look a bit wider than those in the foreground. This sort of “parallel perspective” can be found throughout Asian art. Here is a Japanese book illustration from 1713, in which many of the edges run in parallel perspective. Again, instead of meeting in the distance, diagonals seem to be converging out in front of the picture plane, making some areas appear wider in the rear than in the front.

If my invocation of other artistic traditions seems a highfalutin way of talking about an animated movie, check the Van Gogh joke in the Coraline frame at the bottom of this entry.

Kozachik also explains how he spent a lot of time trying to vary the two images’ interocular distance, the distance between our two eyes, in order to give a greater sense of volume. The care paid off, at least for me. Coraline is the best 3D film I’ve seen, as well as the scariest. (For our take on Beowulf see this entry.)

In addition, Coraline helps me push a general point: Cinema is at least partly an affair of perception. Filmmakers are practical psychologists, artists who have mastered the skill of playing with our senses. We can open up their secrets a little by using tools borrowed from the sciences of mind.

For more on Coraline, see Bill Desowitz’s Animation World interview with Tadahiro Uesugi and his interview with Henry Selick. Background on the production is supplied by Thomas J. McLean’s article from last year.

For an overview of spatial perception, see Maurice Hershenson, Visual Space Perception (MIT Press, 1999). A more detailed account is Stephen E. Palmer, Vision Science: Photons to Phenomenology (MIT Press, 1999). A geometrical explanation of the kinetic depth effect is offered in James E. Cutting, Perception with an Eye for Motion (MIT Press, 1986).

Do sell us shorts, the sequel

This Way Up

Kristin here–

Last year I blogged about the program of Oscar-nominated live-action and animated shorts that played at our local Sundance multiplex. Award season has rolled around again, and Sundance will be among 60 theaters nationwide showing this year’s films. Some venues will open them on February 6, with others showing the program during the following weeks running up to the Oscar ceremony on February 22. (Sundance here will run them for a week starting February 13.)

It used to be very difficult to see the Oscar-nominated shorts, unless they were by Pixar or Aardman. Then Shorts International, a British company distributing its films via satellite and iTunes, and Magnolia Pictures, a theatrical and home-entertainment distributor, teamed up to make these programs available. The first set went out in early 2006, displaying the nominees for the year 2005. The press release for this year’s program says that the popularity of these theatrical releases has gone up 223% in the intervening period. On February 17, the 2008 nominees will be released on iTunes.

The first three years’ worth were released as DVDs, but there’s no such plan announced in the press release for this year. Links for the first two volumes can be found in last year’s entry. The one for the 2007 films is here. (Two of them, My Love and I Met the Walrus, were not included on the disc.)

Don’t take my opinions as guides for voting in your office Oscar pool. My choice for last year’s best live-action short, The Tonto Woman, didn’t win. Le Mozart de Pickpockets, which I dismissed as lightweight, did. I’m still baffled, since it’s quite a conventional little comedy. Maybe it’s because that was the only short among the five that involved a cute kid.

My favorite among the animated shorts, Même les pigeons vont au paradis, lost, but I did correctly predict that Peter and the Wolf among the 2007 animated nominees was the likely winner. Another cute kid plus Prokofiev equals Oscar bait. I voted for it in our faculty-grad student pool.

As I said last year, live-action shorts often have the feel of being portfolio projects—mainly because many of them are just that, first directorial efforts by film-school graduates trying to move from commercials to features. Perhaps as a result, they are very skillfully made but tend to stick to fairly conventional subject matter and treatment. They also go for Serious Themes, a tendency very evident in this year’s program. Of course, some people, including many Oscar voters, like Serious Themes.

Animated shorts, on the other hand, are often made by experienced pros and hence are often more daring and funny. Only one of this year’s cartoons goes for poignancy. I think most commentators assume that Presto, this year’s Pixar short, will walk away with the Oscar. Pixar always does. (At least in the shorts department. I am still annoyed that Shrek beat out Monsters, Inc.)

Here’s an overview of the program.

The Animated Shorts

Lavatory Lovestory, dir. Konstantin Bronzit, Russia, 2006, 10 minutes. Bronzit has gone for minimalism, with black and white line drawings and no dialogue. A lavatory attendent in a men’s room suddenly starts finding bouquets in her tips jar and searches for her secret admirer. The flowers are the only touches of color. It’s well animated, contains many clever, amusing bits, and without getting mawkish about it, makes the point that love can come to anyone.

Octapody. Directed by Emud Mokhberi, Thierry Marchand, Julien Bocabeille, François-Xavier Chanious, Olivier Delabarre, and Quentin Marmier, France, 2007, 2:10. A computer-animated film that goes for a spare look, with relatively few complexly rendered surfaces. The stylization works well for a tale of two octopi in love, one of whom is snatched from their tank in a fish shop and sent off in a van, presumably to a restaurant. The other gamely gives chase, freeing his? her? mate. More chasing ensues. All of this goes at a break-neck pace; note the length. I was glad to be watching on DVD, so I could go back and observe details that had whisked by almost imperceptibly. The expressions of the octopi are rendered vividly, despite the lack of mouths. Again, no dialogue, though the creatures occasionally make little peeping noises. The whole thing has the look of an earlier Pixar film, though one playing fast-forward. It would almost be plausible as an alternative to Presto, but I find it difficult to imagine the Academy membership voting for a two-minute film that it took six directors to make! (Only the first two listed above were nominated.)

This Way Up. Directed by Smith & Foulkes, United Kingdom, 9 minutes, 2008. This was my favorite among this year’s shorts, always excepting Presto. It and Octapody are the ones I would want to have, to watch again and bring out for the entertainment of friends. It’s a macabre little tale of father and son undertakers who struggle to get the coffin of a sweet little old lady to its waiting grave. A dislodged rose petal in her house falls, setting off a Rube Goldberg-style string of events culminating in the crushing of their hearse. Setting out on foot, they encounter numerous obstacles, resulting in gruesome adventures with the corpse. These culminate when all three are catapulted into Hell.

The animation is complex and very well done. During the somber, slow first half, a color scheme of shades of gray is maintained (see above), but the lively, spectacular Hell sequence pops with garish colors and dazzling movement. I liked the subtle touches, like the indications that young Shank is bored with the family business. It’s so smart and well done that I think it’s the only entry that might have a chance of pulling off an upset.

I had never heard of Smith & Foulkes or the production company, Nexus Productions. Turns out they mainly make commercials and the occasional short. This Way Up was done for the BBC. I didn’t see Lemony Snicket’s a Series of Unfortunate Events, but Smith & Foulkes created The Little Elf, the brief, sickly sweet Disney pastiche that opens the film. You can see it and other films on the Nexus website–if you can figure out the links, which seem to dodge away when you try to click on them.

La Maison en petits cubes. Directed by Kunio Kato, Japan, 12 minutes, 2008. Visually this is appealing, with what appears to be watercolor painting based on the style of Lyonel Feininger. (His paintings, not his comic strips.) The premise is that the hero, an old sailor, and his neighbors live in houses built gradually upward with added cube-like rooms as the ocean that surrounds them rises.

Anti-global warming, I thought, but no, turns out that the stalagmite-like houses are symbols of life, while the ocean is time. The hero scuba-diving downward and remembering his wife and daughter in successively lower rooms, as they appear younger and younger. I found it overly sentimental. Some others will presumably find it pleasantly poignant.

Presto. Directed by Doug Sweetland, USA, 5 minutes, 2008. Do I need to say anything about this? The vast majority of you presumably saw it when it was shown in front of WALL-E. It’s also on the WALL-E DVD. Presto is a pastiche of Warner Bros. cartoons of the golden era, though not one that looks merely derivative. Set in a vaudeville theater, it deals with a wascally, hungry rabbit punishing a magician who withholds his carrot. Not a wise-cracking Bugs Bunny type though, since there’s no dialogue. It proceeds at a breakneck pace and jams an absurd number of gags into its short running time.

The live-action shorts

On the Line. Directed by Reto Caffi, Switzerland-Germany, 26 minutes, 2007. A psychological study of a guard in a Swiss department store who falls in love with a woman who works in the book section. At first he appears to be a creepy stalker, watching her in his office via security cameras and times his commutes home to be on the same train (see below). Possibly, though, he is just shy and awkward. On one train trip he sees a young man he takes to be his rival set upon by thugs and ducks out at a stop, leaving the man to be beaten to death. Thereafter he agonizes over his act, hiding it after he unexpectedly develops a relationship with the woman. The story manages to keep us guessing about the protagonist’s character, suggesting at times that he is simply a decent fellow who made one dreadful mistake. So often the acting in short, independent films is a weak point, but Roeland Wiesnekker and Catherine Janke are excellent as the two main characters.

New Boy. Directed by Steph Green. Ireland, 11 minutes, 2007. In New Boy, a recent immigrant from Africa immediately draws the hostility of two bullies on his first day in a new school. At first we may assume they act out of racism, though the ending suggests that the problem is just boyish belligerence. The main sympathy for Joseph comes from a series of brief flashbacks to him at school in his original homeland, where his father is the teacher; one day some soldiers arrive and take him away to some unknown fate. The Irish teacher’s strict behavior with a boy who has endured such traumatic events ends up being key to the surprise ending—one which I found too optimistic to be plausible but definitely narratively satisfying.

Toyland. Directed by Jochen Alexander Freydank, 14 minutes, 2007. The Academy members love Holocaust films, so this film might well take the prize. Another film about a Christian boy and a Jewish boy who become close friends, only to have the Jewish family taken from their home to a train waiting to depart. To comfort her son, the Christian mother tells her son that they’re going to “Toyland” but that he can’t go along. Naturally he slips out and tries to do so. It’s a good film, I think, though the elaborate flashback structure is perhaps a little too ambitious for such a short narrative. Still, I give it credit for not going down the path that a spectator would almost automatically assume it will. (On the screener, this film was slightly squeezed and quite dark, so I haven’t supplied an illustration.)

The Pig. Directed by Dorte Høgh, Denmark, 22 minutes, 2008. This is a little lesson in ethnic tolerance that sneaks up on you. An elderly man checks into a hospital for a rectal operation and is then told he has polyps that may be cancerous. In the sterile environment, he battens onto a humorous painting of a pig, treating it as a sort of friend. It mysteriously disappears, and we suspect callous treatment by the hospital until we realize that the other patient in the room is Muslim. So no, the staff were being thoughtful toward that man’s family. Tensions rise as the protagonist insists on having his pig back, and the other patient’s son resists this on religious grounds. What to do if either side being tolerant means the other side is intolerant? Another surprise ending solves the matter pleasantly, which seems to be a common ploy in short films, as in short stories. I would probably vote for this film, though I suspect it will be seen as less hard-hitting than some of the others.

Manon sur le bitume. Directed by Elizabeth Marre and Olivier Pont, France, 15 minutes, 2007. A young woman struck by a car lies on the asphalt, surrounded by onlookers. We hear her voice, speculating on what her friends will do after her death. As we see the scenes she imagines, we wonder if these are flashforwards or imaged scenes. Is she really dying? A very polished item which manages to cut among her various friends going about their work or meeting to mourn her and allows us to keep track of who they are. Very, very French.

I’m old enough to have grown up watching programs that included shorts. Cartoons, travelogues, even newsreels when I was very young, in addition to trailers. It’s a pity that shorts, which have traditionally been intended to be shown in small groups before a feature, are now clustered in a way that makes them rush by one after another. Still, it’s hard to see shorts on the big screen, so this year’s program is an opportunity to be seized.

On the Line

A glimpse into the Pixar kitchen

DB here:

On some of Bill Kinder‘s business cards, the I in PIXAR is represented by Buzz Lightyear, the blustery, not-too-swift astronaut of Toy Story. It’s a typical gesture of self-deprecation from the studio that showed that computer animation didn’t have to be just plastic surfaces and mechanical expressions. Pixar is cool, geeky, and warm all at the same time. Its films are both smart and soulful, made by movie fans for movie fans, and for everybody else. Like the best of the Hollywood tradition, Pixar movies have the common touch and still offer the most refined pleasures.

Kristin and I have already written admiringly about Pixar on this site (here, here, and here). It’s quite likely that this studio is making the most consistently excellent films in America today. So we were delighted when our colleague Lea Jacobs arranged for Bill to come to the University of Wisconsin—Madison last fall. He toured our new Hamel 3-D media facility, met with faculty and students, and gave a talk, “Editing Digital Pictures.” Bill is Director of Editorial and Post-Production, a position that gives him an encompassing view of the Pixar process as he champions the efforts of the editors and their teams as key creative contributors.

A graduate of Brown, where he studied with our old friend Mary Ann Doane, Bill is like Pixar movies—intellectual, good-natured, energized, and adept at connecting with people. He started his career in news-gathering and TV editing before moving to work at Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope, in the days of Jack (1996) and the uncompleted Pinocchio project. He joined Pixar in 1996, while they were finishing Toy Story. When the success of A Bug’s Life enabled Pixar to move to a purpose-built facility in Emeryville, Bill went along.

Whittling vs. building

I’ve always been uncertain about what an editor does in the animation process. Since every shot is planned and executed in detail, what can be left for an editor to do? Bill started from that question. No, editing digital animation isn’t just a matter of cutting off the slates and splicing perfectly finished shots together.

As in live-action filming, the animation editor is working with dozens of alternate versions of every shot. The reason is that at Pixar, there are roughly five phases of production: storyboarding, layout, animation, lighting, and effects/ rendering. Each one generates footage that has to be cut together.

The static storyboards, for instance, present poses, expressions, and movements against a blank background. They are assembled in digital files that can be played back as if they were a movie. In order to plan the next phase, the resulting “footage” has to be edited, and choices are made at every cut. And each scene is storyboarded at least five different ways, with many variations of action and timing. A single film uses up to 80,000 boards!

At the next phase, layout, the scene’s overall action is planned. Layout artists develop the staging of each shot, testing different backgrounds and camera angles with the editors. Again, the alternatives have to be assembled and cut in various combinations.

Whittling versus building, Bill called it. The live-action editor gets a mass of footage that has to be triaged, but the animation editor is building and tuning the film from the start. Editing operates at each phase, from storyboarding to final rendering. This “almost overwhelming iteration,” as Bill called it, demands that the editorial department hold all the alternatives in its collective mind at once. Add to this the fact that Pixar can take up to five years to produce a film, maintaining several editorial teams to cover projects at different degrees of completion. When you realize that all this brainpower and bookkeeping are necessary for even the simplest shot, you appreciate the felicities of the finished product even more. These people make it all look easy.

Continuity and the viewer’s eye

Bill explained that digital animation occasionally requires something like live-action coverage. (1) Action sequences with fast cutting need to be spatially clear, and “chase scenes can be hard to board.” So sometimes the layout artists create master shots and closer shots from different angles that the editor will pick out and assemble, live-action fashion.

Like live-action editors, Pixar editors have to keep an eye on continuity of the objects in the frame. Because each shot is reworked across many phases, items of the set, lighting, color, atmosphere, effects and rendering have to be maintained, on many layers or levels of the program. (I gather it’s like the layers in PhotoShop.) Sometimes a layer, whether a prop, character, or set element, fails to “turn on” and so a discontinuity can crop up. A finished Pixar film typically has 1500 shots or more, so there’s a lot to keep track of.

In another carryover from live-action features, Pixar plots are conceived and executed in three discrete acts. It’s not only a storytelling strategy but a convenience in production. Rather than waiting until the entire film is done to examine the results of the different phases, the filmmakers can finish one act ahead of the others in order to troubleshoot the rest.

I’ve studied how filmmakers compose the image in order to shift our attention (2), so I was happy to hear that this process is of concern to the Pixar team. “Guiding the viewer’s eye,” Bill called it. He explained that in looking at storyboards and animated sequences, his colleagues sometimes use laser pointers to track the main areas of interest within shots and across cuts, especially when characters’ eyelines are involved. Nice to see that sometimes academic analysis mirrors the practical decisions of filmmakers.

The auteurs of Pixar

What makes Pixar films so fine? Bill supplied one answer: It’s a director-driven studio. As opposed to filmmaking-by-committee, with producers hiring a director to turn a property into a picture, the strategy is to let a director generate an original story and carry it through to fruition (aided by all-around geniuses like the late Joe Ranft). Within the Pixar look, John Lasseter’s Toy Story 2 and Cars are subtly different from Brad Bird’s The Incredibles and Ratatouille or Andrew Stanton’s Finding Nemo and upcoming Wall.E.

Bill covered many other fascinating topics, including the importance of sound (“the animated film’s nervous system”). But I’ll end with some pull-quotes from Bill’s talk.

*Francis Ford Coppola: “No film is ever as good as its dailies or as bad as its first assembly.”

*Gary Rydstrom: “Film sound is the side door to people’s brains.”

*Bill himself: “Editing is just writing, but using different tools.”

We’re grateful to Bill for his visit and look forward to seeing him again. Goes to prove what we’ve said before: Popular American filmmaking harbors many of the most intelligent, sensitive, and generous people you’ll ever find.

(1) In live-action production, coverage involves shooting a master shot of a scene that shows the entire action. Then parts of the action are repeated and filmed in closer views. This allows the editor several options for cutting the scene together.

(2) I talk about this in Chapter 6 of On the History of Film Style and throughout Figures Traced in Light. See also Film Art, pp. 140-153, and this blog here and here.

PS: Another glimpse into the kitchen: Bill Desowitz reports on Wall*E at Animation World. Now Pixar is trying to emulate the look of 70mm. And there’s footage from Hello, Dolly! in there? All the signs point to another nutty, dazzling achievement.

Lines of sight and light

DB here:

Two weeks ago the film critic and historian Paul Arthur died. (An obituary is here.) Apart from being a warm and robust man, Paul advanced our understanding of cinema in important ways. He was a committed teacher and an energetic writer. For years it seemed that almost every issue of Film Comment or Cineaste contained an essay by him. Although he had an encyclopedic knowledge of film, he wrote with particular brilliance about experimental work. His book, A Line of Sight: American Avant-Garde Film since 1965 (2005), reflects a lifetime of sensitive study.

Paul was naturally on my mind as I watched the avant-garde films on display here at the Hong Kong Film Festival. I’ve mentioned some in an earlier entry, but I wanted to signal others that seemed to me especially fine.

A set by Ben Rivers had quiet poetic overtones. Very short (We the People lasts only one minute), they center on landscapes. I especially liked House (2007), a spectral suite of images derived from a miniature house Rivers contrived.

Lewis Klahr‘s Antigenic Drift (2007) was a lovely and funny meditation on, I think, air travel in a post-9/11 age. Glossy images of airports are haunted by wandering bar codes, boarding passes, and anatomy drawings. Tablets burst out of blister packs and gather in colorful rank-and-file formations. The film bears the traces of Klahr’s visit to Wisconsin, some details of which are here.

Ken Jacobs is a legendary figure in the avant-garde. Prolific, outrageous, and wide-ranging in his interests, he has been at it for fifty years. His oeuvre includes the casually goofy Little Stabs at Happiness (1960), the epic Star Spangled to Death (1957-2004), and the classic Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son (1969). There Jacobs dissected a 1905 Biograph film on the optical printer (see P. S. below), revealing not only isolated faces and gestures in its crowded shots but also abstract masses of light and dark, and even the grain of the film stock.

Across several years, Jacobs and his wife Flo have developed a mode of multiple-projection performance. Their Nervous System shows films at different speeds, halts them, drops down filters, even superimposes slightly different frames from prints of the same film, creating vivid 3-D effects. Such spectacles trigger comparisons to nineteenth-century impresarios of wonder: the conjuror who calls up ghosts, the sideshow entertainer whose calliope happen to be a movie machine. (1)

Capitalism: Child Labor (2006) might at first seem a rerun of Tom, Tom. A photograph shows men and boys at work in a thread factory. This dire image, with the workers’ flat expressions only adding to the sadness, might suffice in itself. But Jacobs takes the picture to pieces and shows us everything. He creates close-ups and long-shots, embedding them within one another to create games of scale. And then? Informed by Nervous System discoveries, Jacobs takes things a step further.

The picture originated as a stereoscope card. A stereoscope card consists of two side-by-side images, shot at angles corresponding to the difference between our eyes. Looking at the card through the viewer, the viewer has an illusion of 3-D. (Remarkably, my top illustration also features a factory scene.) For a detailed account of stereoscopy, see the Wikipedia entry.

Jacobs intercuts the two slightly different photos, often allotting only a single frame to each. With simple geometric shapes this procedure would yield “wiggle stereo,” as illustrated in the Wikipedia piece. But the density of the images evidently allows Jacobs to create a fluttering, nagging sense of volume. We seem to move just a bit around the figures and their workstations before popping back to our starting place, then launching again, endlessly. Somehow my brain thinks I’m spasmodically starting to circle through the factory.

This is why we’re right to call such films experimental. They often try to discover how our senses, our minds, and our emotions reveal themselves in their encounter with cinema. The goals are different, I grant you: Art exposes, science explains. But scientists should have a special eagerness to study avant-garde films. I can’t imagine anyone interested in filmic perception—and not just cognitivist film researchers—who wouldn’t find Capitalism: Child Labor a provocation to marvel at how our vision jumps to conclusions about depth. This movie makes us say Wow.

Song and Solitude, a 2006 film by Nathaniel Dorsky, was simply stunning. (2) In the Brakhage tradition, it’s woven out of lyrical shots of details seized and abstracted. Reflections, silhouettes, out-of-focus textures, veils and grids shedding unexpected ripples of light: everything seems radiant. Sometimes you recognize a familiar object, like a window screen pebbled with rain. Often, though, you have to ask: What am I seeing? And then Why don’t I ever notice this?

Dorsky’s Buddhist-influenced aesthetic, revealed in his book Devotional Cinema, drew this commentary from Paul Arthur:

Old School doesn’t describe it. Dorsky has achieved such a subtle mastery over the most basic means of cinematic expression–composition, duration, juxtaposition–that he can squeeze a wealth of emotional vibrations out of the silent, seemingly banal interplay of foreground and background objects. A formalist with a brimming, elegiac soul, Dorsky will gently rock your attitude toward cinematic landscape. His world is a sublime mystery measured by patience and unmatched visual insight.

I didn’t know Paul well. I met him around 1974, when we had a good conversation about landscape in Anthony Mann. We ran into each other occasionally over the years and corresponded a little.

His generosity to Kristin and me came through on several occasions. In a roundtable discussion published in October no. 100, he called attention to the fact that Film Art tried to remind students and teachers of the importance of avant-garde film. (3) In reply to an essay of mine in Film Quarterly, he sent overabundant praise but added several pointed questions that forced me to tighten up my argument. Most vividly, when I was criticized (some would say personally attacked) in the pages of Film Studies’ most prestigious academic journal, he was moved to write me with encouragement. Of my critic he wrote: “To hell with him if he can’t take a joke.”

Like a great many others, I will remember Paul with affection and admiration.

Song and Solitude.

(1) An engrossing interview with Jacobs can be found here.

(2) By the sort of coincidence I like, Song and Solitude also played the Wisconsin Film Festival, which I had to miss this year. Trusty Joe Beres of the Walker Art Center, still a Badger at heart, provides coverage.

(3) The discussion is here, but beyond the first page the material is proprietary.

P. S. 21 May 2009 Keith Sanborn wrote me to point out that, in a reply to Ed Halter (who discusses Anaglyph Tom (Tom with Puffy Cheeks) in Artforum), Ken Jacobs corrects the frequent claim that the 1969-71 Tom, Tom was made on an optical printer. No, says Jacobs; he rephotographed the movie from the screen. Here is the inimitable explanation Jacobs supplied to Halter.

The movie so pushes forward the character of film projection.  Images explode out of darkness.  Nor was I using a specialized analytic projector that with a steady flicker minimizes exchange of frames. I used what had been a common RCA home sound-projector, from the 1940’s, possibly the late 1930’s, but one with a hand-controllable clutch that allowed for slowing and even stopping the film. Freezing as it’s called but usually more like burning. A heat-shield would fall in place to protect the film from burning but would then darken the image, and so I removed it and took my chances with burning. The energy that is light was a featured and constant presence in the work.  Darkness is death and the old reclaimed images constantly struggle against death to proclaim themselves.  Release of energy, via intermittent projection or in the return of rambunctious ghost-actors, was much of what the work was about.

Thanks to Keith for calling my attention to this.

David Bordwell
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