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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

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Archive for the 'Directors: Hitchcock' Category

Can the science of mirror neurons explain the power of camera movement? A guest post by Malcolm Turvey

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

DB here:

Over the years we’ve brought you several guest posts from friends whose research we admire. The list includes Matthew Bernstein, Kelley Conway, Leslie Midkiff DeBauche, Eric Dienstfrey, Rory Kelly,  Tim Smith, Amanda McQueen, Jim Udden, David Vanden Bossche, and our regular collaborator Jeff Smith (most recently, on Once Upon a Time in Hollywood…).

Today our guest is Malcolm Turvey, Sol Gittleman Professor in Film and Media Studies at Tufts University. Malcolm has long been a voice calling for rigorous humanistic study of film. His books include Doubting Vision: Film and the Revelationist Tradition (2008) and The Filming of Modern Life: European Avant-Garde Film of the 1920s (2011). Just this year he published Play Time: Jacques Tati and Comedic Modernism. (More on this in a future blog entry.) Among his many specialties, Malcolm applies the philosophical tools of conceptual analysis to problems of film criticism and theory.

My previous entry discussed some ways psychological research has helped me understand how films work, and I touched on the recent efforts to invoke mirror neurons to explain some effects that movies have on us. Today Malcolm takes a deeper plunge into this line of thinking, and the result is an exciting instance of how careful intellectual debate can be carried out in film studies. It’s also a cautionary tale about relying on scientific research to explain the appeal of artworks. A more extensive version of this piece is slated for publication in Projections: The Journal of Movies and Mind.

In Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946), Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains) is one of a group of Nazis who have relocated to Brazil after WWII. He has unwittingly married Alicia Hubermann (Ingrid Bergman),  an undercover American agent seeking his circle. When Alicia learns that their scheme somehow involves the wine bottles locked in her husband’s cellar, she decides to procure the key so that she and her handler (and lover), Devlin (Cary Grant), can investigate.

Her opportunity comes in a characteristically suspenseful scene. Alicia nervously contemplates her husband’s keychain lying on a bureau as he finishes taking a shower nearby. She bravely steals the key and barely escapes discovery as Alex emerges from the bathroom. But what is the source of the scene’s suspense?

In a provocative new book titled The Empathic Screen, Vittorio Gallese and Michele Guerra claim the suspense should be attributed primarily to a brief, “human-like” camera movement toward the keys that occurs as Alicia looks at them. Moreover, they draw on neuroscience, specifically the science of mirror neurons, to make their case.

Here is the scene.

Are Gallese and Guerra right about the role played by the camera movement? For reasons I’ll give shortly, I doubt they are. More importantly, I question whether the neuroscientific evidence they lean on supports their case. This may seem like nit-picking, but I think their appeal to neuroscience contains valuable lessons about how students of film should–and shouldn’t–engage with scientific research.

 

Science and film studies

Readers of this blog are likely familiar with the idea that science has an important role to play in film studies. Since 1985, David Bordwell has drawn on contemporary cognitive psychology to answer questions about perceiving and understanding narrative films, thereby launching a new paradigm in film theory that has come to be known as cognitivism. In his previous entry, David offers an overview of his current thinking about cognition and movies.

Cognitivism has generated much heat in academic film studies. But at its heart is what should be an uncontroversial principle: that those who wish to understand the perceptual, cognitive, and affective capacities with which we engage with art should turn to the work of those who know something about these capacities, namely, the psychologists and other scientists who study them empirically and propose theories about them in light of their findings.

This is because our pre-scientific, “folk” understanding of our psychological capacities is usually non-existent or flawed. It is, for instance, hard to explain why we see still frames as moving images when they are projected above a certain speed merely by reflecting on our “phenomenological” experience of watching movies.

Perceptual psychologists, however, have studied this phenomenon empirically and have proposed explanations for it, such as critical flicker fusion frequency and the phi phenomenon (although like all scientific explanations, these are open to revision and even falsification in the light of new evidence and theorizing). The same is true of other features of our experience of films, and cognitive film scholars have built on David’s work by drawing on contemporary scientific knowledge of emotion, music, moral psychology and much else.

This does not mean that film studies is or should be a science. As David and Kristin’s blog entries repeatedly demonstrate, many of the things we want to know about cinema and the other arts can be discovered through non-scientific, humanistic methods such as analyzing films and researching the context in which they were made. In other words, our methods should be tailored to the questions we ask. Cognitivism argues that some important questions about the cinema can be answered by science, not that all or even most can.

 

The deceptive authority of Science

That said, I worry that engaging with science in a responsible manner is much more difficult than some of my cognitivist colleagues acknowledge. That difficulty is due, in part, to the “authority” of science.

Because of this authority, many non-scientists might assume that science is more settled than it often is, especially in a human science such as psychology. Those of us who aren’t scientists could be tempted to think that a scientific argument must be true because, well, there are scientific data to support it.

But as the recent “repligate” controversy in psychology and elsewhere shows, just because a scientist can present evidence for their views does not make them true. Data can be unreliable and the conclusions drawn from themunwarranted, as we are witnessing on a daily basis during the coronavirus pandemic.

Although there are occasional scientific revolutions, if science makes progress, something that some ph0ilosophers have questioned, it usually does so incrementally through trial and error, and there is much more failure than success. Those of us who don’t participate in this dialectical process might be apt to forget the provisional, tenuous status of much scientific research and accord it more certainty than it warrants.

 

Mirror neurons: The controversy

This has happened, I believe, with mirror neurons, a new scientific paradigm that has emerged over the past few decades and that some film scholars have started to draw on to explain some of our responses to films, such as empathizing with characters.

Mirror neurons are neurons that fire both when a subject executes a movement and when the subject sees the same movement executed by another. They were first discovered in the early 1990s in the motor cortex of pigtail macaque monkeys by a group of neuroscientists in Parma, Italy, and they have been invoked to explain a wide array of human behaviors such as language, imitation, empathy, art appreciation, and autism.

This is because mirror neurons appear to provide an explanation for how macaques and human beings understand the actions of their conspecifics. Researchers speculate that, if the same neurons fire when a subject reaches for an object, say food, and when the subject observes another agent reaching for food, the subject must be simulating the observed reaching-for-food action in its brain without actually executing it.

By simulating the observed reaching-for-food movement in its neurons, the subject knows the meaning of the movement–reaching for food–because it has performed the movement itself in the past, and attributes that meaning to the action being executed by the agent it observes, thereby comprehending it. As Marco Iacoboni puts it in a popular treatment of the subject:

To see . . . athletes perform is to perform ourselves. Some of the same neurons that fire when we watch a player catch a ball also fire when we catch a ball ourselves. It is as if by watching, we are also playing the game. We understand the players’ actions because we have a template in our brains for that action, a template based on our own movements. 

Yet within neuroscience, mirror-neuron explanations of human behavior are controversial and contested, and no less an authority than Steven Pinker has referred to them as “an extraordinary bubble of hype.” Meanwhile, cognitive scientist Gregory Hickock has written an exhaustive book on the subject with a title that says it all: The Myth of Mirror Neurons.

Film scholars who appeal to the mirror neuron paradigm have not engaged with criticisms of it. Hence, their neural explanations of cinema appear to be supported by a scientific consensus that is in fact lacking, and they may not be drawing on the best current science.

For example, the philosopher of film Dan Shaw maintains that “The discovery of the existence and emotive function of mirror neurons confirms that we simulate other people’s emotions in a variety of ways, even in cinematic contexts,” and he views mirror neurons as the neurophysiological foundation for cinematic empathy. Notice how Shaw makes a strong claim here by using the word “confirms.”

Yet, although Shaw writes that “it is a cliché that monkeys are good imitators,” Pinker suggests that macaques do not imitate and they have “no discernible trace of empathy.” This is despite their possession of mirror neurons. Thus, the mere presence of mirror neurons or a mirror system in a creature cannot be evidence, in and of itself, for the creature’s capacity for empathy. While it might provide one of the neural foundations for empathy or contribute to its realization in some way, much more is needed than mirror neurons or a mirror system for a creature to empathize. Their presence certainly doesn’t “confirm” that we empathize with characters in film.

It is, however, a different, equally pernicious consequence of the authority of science that I wish to highlight here using mirror neurons. The apparent authority of a scientific paradigm can lead scholars to cherry-pick and mischaracterize our artistic practices in order to fit the science. This brings us back to Gallese, one of the co-discoverers of mirror neurons, and Guerra, and their claims about camera movement.

 

Camera movement and mirror neurons

Gallese and Guerra argue that our mirror neurons not only simulate the emotions of film characters but also the anthropomorphic movements of the camera recording them.

We maintain that the functional mechanism of embodied simulation expressed by the activation of the diverse forms of resonance or neural mirroring discovered in the human brain play an important role in our experience as spectators. Our ability to share attitudes, sensations, and emotions with the actors, and also with the mechanical movements of a camera simulating a human presence, stems from embodied bases that can contribute to clarifying the corporeal representation of the filmic experience. [My emphasis.]

In support of their contention that the mirror neurons of film viewers simulate human-like camera movements, Gallese and Guerra cite an experiment they participated in. This measured the motor cortex activation of nineteen subjects who were shown short video clips of a person grasping an object. The action was filmed in four different ways: with a still camera, a zoom, a dolly, and a Steadicam.

“The results were positive,” Gallese and Guerra conclude. “Shortening the distance between the participant and the scene by moving the camera closer to the actor or actress resulted in a stronger activation of the motor simulation mechanism expressed by the mirror neurons” relative to the clips shot with a still camera. Moreover, the subjects rated those scenes filmed with a moving camera as more “involving.”

Gallese and Guerra rely on this single experiment to make a bold argument about the role of camera movement in the design of films and its effect on the experience of film viewers. “The involvement of the average spectator [in a film] is directly proportional to the intensity of camera movements.” This is because “the sense of participation in the camera action is undoubtedly enhanced by the fact that its behavior is interpreted by both filmmakers and spectators according to evident and automatic anthropomorphological analogies.”

When scenes are recorded with human-like camera movements, they seem to be suggesting, our mirror neurons simulate these camera movements because they are like actions we ourselves have performed. This in turn results in a feeling of “involvement” or “participation” in the scene on the part of the film spectator.

There is much one could question about this experiment and the conclusions Gallese and Guerra draw from it. For example, if it is camera movement that elicits mirror neuron simulation which in turn gives rise to a sense of immersion, viewers should feel involved in the camera movement, not the sceneit films. Indeed, what is depicted in the scene should be irrelevant to the viewer’s feeling of involvement if it is the camera movement that gives rise to this feeling by eliciting mirror neuron simulation.

 

Making the art fit the science

It is, however, the theory’s cherry-picking and mischaracterization of the artistic practice of cinema that most concern me here. According to this theory, as we have seen, “the involvement of the average spectator [in a film] is directly proportional to the intensity of camera movements.” The explanatory claim is that anthropomorphic camera movements, in other words those that resemble the human action of walking through space, elicit the mirror neuron simulation that gives rise to the viewer’s immersion in the film.

This is a strong claim, and if it were true it would have profound implications for both the study of film and filmmaking. It would mean that the more anthropomorphic camera movements that films contain, the more involving they would be for viewers. It would also mean that scenes filmed with human-like camera movements would be more involving than those shot with a still camera, and that scenes filmed with non-anthropomorphic camera movements would be less involving than those shot with anthropomorphic ones.

The latter is due to the mirror neuron simulation theory’s argument that we can only simulate movements we ourselves have performed. Hence, camera movements must be like ones we have executed ourselves in order for our mirror neurons to simulate them and produce the requisite sense of immersion.

Before assessing this claim, one question needs to be answered. What, exactly, is meant by involvement, participation and immersion? After all, there are a number of different kinds of possible involvement in a film.

We can be cognitively immersed in a film when we are intensely interested in the outcome of the plot or the revelations of a documentary. We can also be emotionally involved, as when we feel strong emotions toward the people or events depicted in the film. There is also aesthetic involvement when we pay close attention to and evaluate the design properties of a film. Then there’s physical or corporeal involvement, as when we are physically impacted by film techniques, such as the startle effect or bright lights and loud sounds. Doubtless there are other kinds of involvement too.

Gallese and Guerra never explicitly define what they mean by involvement, although on occasion they mention a “sensation of immersion in the spatiotemporal dimension of film.” In an earlier text they claimed that, by using the camera to mimic bodily movement, filmmakers make audiences feel that “we are inside the diegetic world, we experience the movie from a sensory-motor perspective and we behave ‘as if’ we were experiencing a real life situation.”

Personally, I am not sure what they mean by this. I have never felt immersed in the space and time of a film in the sense of somehow thinking or feeling that I am actually inside it. More importantly, it is not clear that the subjects of the experiment on which their theory is based meant spatiotemporal involvement as opposed to cognitive, emotive, aesthetic or other kinds of immersion when they rated how involved they felt in the clips they were shown. Thus, Gallese and Guerra’s experiment may provide no empirical evidence at all for their occasional references to spatiotemporal participation.

Confusingly, however, Gallese and Guerra sometimes seem to mean involvement in another sense of the term I have clarified. Regarding the brief camera movement toward the keychain in the scene from Notorious of Alicia stealing the key, they contend that “The problem that Hitchcock had to solve in this complex sequence was how to bring the spectator to an almost unbearable level of suspense.” They suggest that if Hitchcock had only used “classical editing” to film the scene, “our level of involvement would not be nearly so high.” They conclude: “This is why Hitchcock uses camera movement; it is this movement that creates the overpowering tension.”

Here, Gallese and Guerra seem to be using “involvement” in the emotive sense of feeling strong emotions such as “tension” and “suspense” about the characters and events in the scene, and they make no mention of “spatiotemporal immersion.” Either way, Gallese and Guerra provide no evidence at all that it is this brief camera movement “that creates the overpowering tension” in the scene. While the camera movement is certainly effective in drawing our attention to the keys and conveying Alicia’s anxious focus on them, I conjecture that there is a far more obvious, broadly “cognitive” reason for the scene’s suspense.

This is the possibility that Alicia, with whom we sympathize, will be caught stealing the key by her husband, who is a ruthless Nazi. Gallese and Guerra, however, discount such a narrative-based explanation for the suspense. They argue that “What strikes us most in films like Notorious is Hitchcock’s almost complete indifference to the plot” and that “the state of suspense in which we find ourselves at every viewing of Notorious has nothing whatsoever to do with the story.”

Yet, according to Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto, Hitchcock himself wrote the outline for Notorious in late 1944, and then spent three weeks closeted with Ben Hecht writing the script, which was further modified in late-night script sessions with David O. Selznick before the project was eventually sold to RKO and filming began in October 1945. While it may be true that Hitchcock tended to see the plots of his films as merely a means to creating the arresting images and eliciting the strong emotions from his audiences that truly interested him, this does not mean he was “indifferent” to plot. He spent considerable time developing his scripts, and he was keen to work with talented screenwriters such as Hecht.

Nor is it plausible that the suspense in Notorious “has nothing whatsoever to do with the story.” Indeed, suspense is usually defined as a state of anxious uncertainty about what will happen in the story. If suspense has nothing to do with the story, it is hard to know what viewers feel suspense about. In the key-stealing scene in Notorious, it is surely the case that we are anxious about the possibility that Alicia will be caught in the act of stealing the key by her husband, an event that might happen in the narrative. If not, what else might the suspense be directed at?

Of course, the suspense in this scene is not solely dependent on the story but also on the scene’s style. But there are other stylistic techniques that play a much bigger role than the camera movement in the creation of suspense in the scene. For example, Alex’s shadow is visible on his partially open door as he towels himself dry and moves around the shower room.

This activity suggests that he has finished his shower and will emerge at any second. It starts to seem more likely that Alicia will be caught stealing the key, thereby intensifying the suspense. Meanwhile, other than delaying the scene’s outcome by a few seconds, it is not clear how the camera movement toward the keychain itself intensifies the scene’s suspense.

What is happening in the narrative and what is conveyed by other stylistic techniques, such as Alex’s shadow on the door and the music on the soundtrack, are the factors that intensify the scene’s tension. It seems highly unlikely that “our level of involvement would not be nearly so high” in the absence of the camera movement, in the sense of feeling tension and suspense about the scene’s outcome. Certainly, Gallese and Guerra provide no evidence to this effect.

Furthermore, as I’ve already mentioned, Gallese and Guerra’s theory at best explains our sense of involvement in the camera movement, not the scene it films. Recall that it is the camera movement itself that our mirror neurons simulate. It is unclear from their theory, therefore, how our putative feeling of immersion in the camera movement, if indeed we do feel immersed in it, can yield suspense about the concrete actions being filmed.

The category of human-like camera movement, if such a category is functionally relevant to cinema, comprises many fine-grained variations with different effects. Camera movements, for example, can elicit curiosity by making us wonder what they will reveal, as well as surprise when they come to rest on something unexpected. They can startle through their rapidity, as when swish pans suddenly disclose something off-screen, or they can uncover information at an agonizingly slow pace. They can reveal characters’ mental states through push-ins that show us that a character is concentrating hard on something, or they can hide information from us by moving away from it. They can also be aesthetically pleasing, as when we marvel at their gracefulness or the intricacy with which their movements are coordinated with those of the characters. None of these sources of the power of camera movement are explained by arguing that mirror neurons fire in response to anthropomorphic camera movements, if indeed they do.

Most broadly, as David points out in his previous entry, there is much that their theory cannot capture or explain about the power of framing. A static camera can evoke tremendous suspense, as David’s example from Hou’s Summer at Grandpa’s illustrates. It is hard to see what a tracking shot would add at such a moment.

 

The lessons of film history

Of course, just as damaging to the theory are the countless examples from the rich history of film of highly suspenseful, tension-filled, and in other ways involving scenes that lack anthropomorphic camera movements or that contain non-anthropomorphic ones.

In Notorious, right after the scene in which Alicia steals the key and is nearly caught by Alex, there is a crane shot in which the camera, having panned across the party in the hallway below from a first-floor landing, glides smoothly down toward Alicia talking to Alex and some guests in the hallway and ends in a close-up on her hand holding the key to the cellar.

Given that no human being could perform this movement, our mirror neurons shouldn’t be able to simulate it and produce a feeling of involvement in it. Yet, I hypothesize that, for most viewers, this camera movement creates a strong sense of cognitive, emotive, aesthetic, and other forms of engagement in the scene.

     

Among other things, this movement prompts us to wonder how Alicia is going to gain entry to the wine cellar without her husband noticing, thereby intensifying our sympathetic concern for her and our suspense about whether she will be caught. And in its overtness, it might make us think about Hitchcock’s choice of technique and the reasons behind it. For some, it might even induce that sense of “spatiotemporal immersion” that Gallese and Guerra mention given that it brings our perceptual perspective close to Alicia’s in the midst of the party, although I personally don’t feel this.

Either way, in this case, it cannot be due to mirror neuron simulation that we experience these forms of immersion. This is a non-anthropomorphic camera movement that human beings cannot execute themselves and therefore cannot simulate with their mirror neurons.

An example from a film by a different director would be the shots in 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) of Dr Floyd (William Sylvester)’s ship docking with a space station while Strauss’s Blue Danubewaltz plays on the soundtrack. (See image surmounting today’s entry.) For many, the smooth camera movements through space in this sequence evoke an intense sense of weightlessness, thereby creating a physical or corporeal form of involvement in the film. Yet, very few of us have moved in space or have experienced weightlessness, meaning that our mirror neurons should not be able to simulate these camera movements.

Then there are the copious examples of involving scenes that lack camera movement. Hitchcock’s oeuvre contains many, such as the infamous shower scene in Psycho (1960), which is devoid of camera movement during the 20 seconds or so in which the stabbing of Marion Crane takes place. Another example is the highly suspenseful sequence in Strangers on a Train (1951) in which Bruno (Robert Walker) drops Guy (Farley Granger)’s cigarette lighter down a drain while he is on his way to plant the lighter at the amusement park where he murdered Guy’s wife, Miriam (Kasey Rogers). Bruno wishes to implicate Guy in the murder, and Guy, who is a professional tennis player, has guessed Bruno’s plan and is trying to complete a tennis match in time to stop him from planting the lighter. Hitchcock cuts back and forth between the tennis match and Bruno’s efforts to reach down into the drain and retrieve the lighter.

     

Interestingly, while there is some camera movement at the beginning of the sequence, as the suspense builds, the camera movement lessens. Hitchcock relies largely on still shots of Bruno’s grimacing face as he reaches into the grate, his hand inside the grate and the lighter below it, and the faces of the referees and spectators at the tennis match. Only the shots of Guy and the other tennis player contain a little movement when the camera slightly reframes them as they move to hit the tennis ball.

This sequence is considered one of the most suspenseful (and thereby emotionally involving) in Hitchcock’s oeuvre, yet it defies Gallese and Guerra’s prediction that “The involvement of the average spectator [in a film] is directly proportional to the intensity of camera movements.”

So does the astonishing sequence in William Wyler’s The Little Foxes (1941) in which Horace (Herbert Marshall), having told his estranged wife, Regina (Bette Davis), of his plans to leave his fortune to their daughter, begins experiencing painful symptoms of his heart disease as she tells him how much she despises him.

Horace reaches for his heart medication but knocks over the bottle and its contents and begs his wife to fetch another bottle of medication from upstairs. She, however, sits immobile while Horace, realizing she will not help him and wants him to die, staggers around her, clinging to the wall, and stumbles upstairs before collapsing on the staircase. An agonizing long take lasting about forty seconds shows Regina in medium shot sitting while her husband, who is out of focus, moves toward the stairs, and the shot is immobile except for slight reframings to keep Horace partly visible in the shot.

This is an intensely suspenseful, emotionally involving moment as we wonder whether Horace will reach his medication in time, or Regina or someone else will take action to help him. Yet, there is no anthropomorphic camera movement to elicit our sense of involvement in the scene. On the contrary, according to many critics, it is precisely the lack of camera movement that contributes to its emotional intensity. As André Bazin noted, “Nothing could better heighten the dramatic power of this scene than the absolute immobility of the camera,” in part because it mirrors and emphasizes the “criminal inaction” of Horace’s wife, Regina, who is hoping he will fail to reach his medication and die so that she can be rid of him and claim his fortune.

Gallese and Guerra could perhaps protest that I have misconstrued their theory. Although their claim that “The involvement of the average spectator [in a film] is directly proportional to the intensity of camera movements” seems to suggest that anthropomorphic camera movement is both a necessary and sufficient condition for occasioning involvement in a film, they might admit that immersion can be elicited in other ways. Instead, they could allow, human-like camera movement is merely a sufficient condition for involvement, not a necessary one. When it is present, we feel immersed in films, although this is not the only route to immersion.

However, it is not difficult to think of films containing lots of camera movement of both the anthropomorphic and non-anthropomorphic kinds that fail to engage viewers. An example is Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), a film in which, as David Ansen of Newsweek put it, “The camera, and the actors, are always in a mad dash from here to there” (Ansen 1994). Nevertheless critics, who according to Gallese and Guerra “usually get much more excited” when camera movement is present, largely panned the film. (For what it’s worth, the film has a critics’ score of 38% and audience score of 49% on Rotten Tomatoes.) As Ansen put it:

What we get is Romanticism for short attention spans; a lavishly decorated horror movie with excellent elocution. [Branagh’s] strategy undermines itself–there’s a lot of sound and fury, but all the grand passions are indicated rather than felt. Watching the movie work itself into an operatic frenzy, one remains curiously detached: the grand gestures are there, but where’s the music? [My emphasis.]

Anthropomorphic camera movements do not, therefore, even appear to be a sufficient condition for immersion in a film, let alone a necessary one.

 

The way forward?

Gallese and Guerra, it seems to me, cherry-pick examples from films that appear to support their theory, and ignore obvious counterexamples even in the films they examine. They also mischaracterize scenes such as the one in which Alicia steals the keys, overlooking other evident sources of “involvement,” a term they fail to define consistently. They do, I suspect, because they are in thrall to the mirror neuron theory, and they therefore force the art to fit the theory.

None of this means that cognitivism should be abandoned and that film scholars shouldn’t be turning to science. Nor does it mean that camera movement doesn’t sometimes elicit and intensify emotions such as suspense. Moreover, neuroscience may well be able to shed light on some of the reasons why this happens, although many more experiments are needed to demonstrate this than the single one relied on by Gallese and Guerra.

But it does suggest that our engagement with the sciences should be governed by two principles.

First, when drawing on a scientific theory, it is crucial that film scholars also consider criticisms of it. Despite its authority, scientific research is typically provisional. Those of us in the humanities are not usually in a position to determine who is right in a scientific debate. So we should entertain criticisms of the scientific theory, in case they reveal pitfalls and other problems in applying the theory to cinema, or show the theory to be on far less secure ground than it may seem to be.

Second, those of us who are humanistic scholars of film should trust the knowledge we have gleaned from decades of work on the cinema. We shouldn’t simply accept conclusions that contradict this knowledge because they are supposedly scientific. We should not, in other words, be cowed by the authority of science. While we haven’t gotten everything right, most of us know from a little reflection, for example, that anthropomorphic camera movements aren’t required for greater “involvement” in a film.

Of course, we should allow for the possibility that our assumptions about these and other matters are incorrect. But given the weight of experience and knowledge behind them, the evidentiary bar should be set very high for their disconfirmation by empirical scientific research.


Thanks to Malcolm for all his work in preparing this version of his paper for our blog. Another essay of his along these lines is “Can Scientific Models of Theorizing Help Film Theory?” in Philosophy of Film: Introductory Texts and Readings, ed. Angela Curran and Tom Wartenberg (Blackwell, 2004), 21-32

Quotations from Vittorio Gallese and Michele Guerra’s Empathic Screen come from pp. 68, 111, 91, 94, and 114. Their claims about Notorious are found on pp. 53-58. The quotation from their earlier piece can be found in “Embodying Movies: Embodied Simulation and Film Studies,” Cinema: Journal of Philosophy and the Moving Image (2012) 3: 188.

The crucial experiment is documented in Katrin Heimann et al., “Moving Mirrors: A High-Density EEG Study Investigating the Effect of Camera Movements on Motor Cortex Activation during Action Observation,” The Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience (2014), 26,9: 2087-2101. with the discussion of involvement coming on p. 2097. The  Marco Iacobobi citation comes from Mirroring People: The New Science of How We Connect with Others (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), 5.

Pinker’s remarks about mirror neurons and empathy are to be found in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Penguin, 2011), 577. The quotations from Dan Shaw are from “Mirror Neurons and Simulation Theory: A Neurophysiological Foundation for Cinematic Empathy,” in Current Controversies in Philosophy of Film, ed. Katherine Thomson-Jones (Routledge, 2016), 148, 151.

André Bazin discusses The Little Foxes in “William Wyler, or the Jansenist of Directing,” in Bazin at Work, ed. Bert Cardullo (Routledge, 1997) 3, 4. A blog entry here supplies further thoughts on the famous scene, which DB also analyzes in  On the History of Film Style.

Donald Spoto discusses Hitchcock’s working methods in The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock (Da Capo, 1999; Centennial Edition), 284-287. David Ansen’s strictures on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein appeared in “Monster Mush,” Newsweek (6 November 1994). More on Notorious is here.

During the current health crisis, Berghahn has made all issues of Projections: The Journal of Movies and Mind freely available. Several articles over the years debate issues around cognitive film theory and brain-based explanations of media effects. Malcolm Turvey has made many contributions to Projections; see especially his book review here.

2001: A Space Odyssey.

Stuck inside these four walls: Chamber cinema for a plague year

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972).

Privacy is the seat of Contemplation, though sometimes made the recluse of Tentation… Be you in your Chambers or priuate Closets; be you retired from the eyes of men; thinke how the eyes of God are on you. Doe not say, the walls encompasse mee, darknesse o’re-shadowes mee, the Curtaine of night secures me… doe nothing priuately, which you would not doe publickly. There is no retire from the eyes of God.

Richard Brathwaite, The English Gentlewoman (1631)

 

DB here:

We’re in the midst of a wondrous national experiment: What will Americans do without sports? Movies come to fill the void, and websites teem with recommendations for lockdown viewing. Among them are movies about pandemics, about personal relationships, and of course about all those vistas, urban or rural, that we can no longer visit in person. (“Craving Wide Open Spaces? Watch a Western.”)

Cinema loves to span spaces. Filmmakers have long celebrated the medium’s power to take us anywhere. So it’s natural, in a time of enforced hermitage, for people to long for Westerns, sword and sandal epics, and other genres that evoke grandeur.

But we’re now forced to pay more attention to more scaled-down surroundings. We’re scrutinizing our rooms and corridors and closets. We’re scrubbing the surfaces we bustle past every day. This new alertness to our immediate surroundings may sensitize us to a kind of cinema turned resolutely inward.

Long ago, when I was writing a book on Carl Dreyer, I was struck by a cross-media tradition that explored what you could express through purified interiors. I called it “chamber art.” In Western painting you can trace it back to Dutch genre works (supremely, Vermeer). It persisted through centuries, notably in Dreyer’s countryman Vilhelm Hammershøi (below).

Plays were often set in single rooms, of course, but the confinement was made especially salient by Strindberg, who even designed an intimate auditorium. For cinema, the major development was the Kammerspielfilm, as exemplified in Hintertreppe (1921), Scherben (1921),  Sylvester (1924), and other silent German classics. Kristin and I talk about this trend here and here.

In the book I argued that Dreyer developed a “chamber cinema,” in piecemeal form, in his first features before eventually committing to it in Mikael (1924) and The Master of the House (1925). Two People (1945) is the purest case in the Dreyer oeuvre: A couple faces a crisis in their marriage over the course of a few hours in their apartment. (Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem available with English subtitles.) But you can see, thanks to Criterion, how spatial dynamics formed a powerful premise of his later masterpieces Vampyr (1932), Day of Wrath (1943), Ordet (1955), and Gertrud (1964).

Dreyer wasn’t alone. Ozu tried out the format in That Night’s Wife (1930), swaddling a husband, wife, child, and detective in a clutter of dripping laundry and American movie posters.

     

Bergman exploited the premise too, in films like Brink of Life (1958), Waiting Women (1952), his 1961-1963 trilogy, and Persona (1966). (All can be streamed on Criterion.)

Chamber cinema became an important, if rare expressive option for many filmmaking traditions. Writers and directors set themselves a crisp problem–how to tell a story under such constraints?

The challenge is finding “infinite riches in a little room.” How? Well, you can exploit the spatial restrictiveness by confining us to what the inhabitants of the space know. Limiting story information can build curiosity, suspense, and surprise. You can also create a kind of mundane superrealism that charges everyday objects with new force.

On the other hand, you need to maintain variety by strategies of drama and stylistic handling. Chamber cinema–wherever it turns up–offers some unique filmic effects, and maybe sheltering in place is a good time to sample it.

Herewith a by no means comprehensive list of some interesting cinematic chamber pieces. For each title, I link to streaming services supplying it.

 

Bottles of different sizes

From David Koepp I learned that screenwriters call confined-space movies “bottle” plots. There’s a tacit rule: The audience understands that by and large the action won’t stray from a single defined interior. In a commentary track for the “Blowback” episode of the (excellent) TV show Justified, Graham Yost and Ben Cavell discuss how TV series plan an occasional bottle episode, and not just because it affords dramatic concentration. It can save time and money in production.

Usually the bottle consists of more than a single room. The classic Kammerspielfilms roam a bit within a household and sometimes stray outdoors. But their manner of shooting provides a variety of angles that suggest continuing confinement. Dreyer went further in The Master of the House. He built a more or less functioning apartment as the set, then installed wild walls that let him flank the action from any side. Then editing could provide a sense of wraparound space.

     

The variations in camera setups throughout the film are extraordinary. Dreyer would create more radically fragmentary chamber spaces in La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928), while his later films would use solemn, arcing camera movements to achieve a smoother immersive effect. (For more on Dreyer’s unique spatial experimentation, here’s a link to my Criterion contribution on Master of the House.  I talk about the tricks Dreyer plays with chamber space in Vampyr in an “Observations” supplement on the Criterion Channel.)

Likewise, Koepp’s screenplay for Panic Room allows David Fincher to move 360 degrees through several areas of a Manhattan brownstone. The film also offers a fine example of how our awareness of domestic details gets sharpened by a creeping camera.

     

Trust Fincher to find sinister possibilities in a dripping bathtub leg and a kitchen island.

 

Confined to quarters

Detective Story (1951).

Many chamber movies are based on plays, as you’d expect. Unlike most adaptations, though, they don’t try to “ventilate” the play by expanding the field of action. Or rather, as André Bazin pointed out, the expansion is itself fairly rigorous. They don’t go as far afield as they might.

Bazin praised Cocteau’s 1948 version of his play Les parents terribles (aka “The Storm Within”) for opening up the stage version only a little, expanding beyond a single room to encompass other areas of the apartment. This retained the claustrophobia, and the sense of theatrical artifice, but it spread action out in a way that suited cinema’s urge to push beyond the frame. The freedom of staging and camera placement is thoroughly “cinematic” within the “theatrical” premise.

     

Depending on how you count, Hitchcock expanded things a bit in his adaptation of Dial M for Murder. Apart from cutting away to Tony at his club, Hitchcock moved beyond the parlor to the adjacent bedroom, the building’s entryway, and the terrace.

     

     

An earlier entry on this site talks about how 3D let Sir Alfred give an ominous accent to props: a particularly large pair of scissors, and a more minor item like the bedside clock.

Hitchcock gave us a parlor and a hallway in Rope (1948), but when Brandon flourishes the murder weapon, the framing audaciously reminds us that we aren’t allowed to go into the kitchen.

     

Bazin did not wholly admire William Wyler’s Detective Story (1951), despite its skill in editing and performances; he found it too obedient to a mediocre play. True, the film doesn’t creatively transform its source to the degree that Wyler’s earlier adaptation of The Little Foxes (1941) did; Bazin wrote a penetrating analysis of that film’s remarkable turning point. Detective Story is more obedient to the classic unities, confining nearly all of the action  to the precinct station. Although I don’t think Wyler ever shows the missing fourth wall, he creates a dazzling array of spatial variants by layering and spreading out zones of the room. In his prime, the man could stage anything fluently.

     

As Bazin puts it: “One has to admire the unequaled mastery of the mise-en-scène, the extraordinary exactness of its details, the dexterity with which Wyler interweaves the secondary story lines into the main action, sustaining and stressing each without ever losing the thread.”

Some films are even more constrained. 12 Angry Men (1957), adapted from a teleplay, is a famous example. Once the jury leaves the courtroom, the bulk of the film drills down on their deliberation. Again, the director wrings stylistic variations out of the situation; Lumet claims he systematically ran across a spectrum of lens lengths as the drama developed.

     

But you don’t need a theatrical alibi to draw tight boundaries around the action. Rear Window (1954), adapted from a fairly daring Cornell Woolrich short story, is as rigorous an instance of chamber cinema as Rope. Here Hitchcock firmly anchors us in an apartment, but he uses optical POV to “open out” the private space.

     

     

With all its apertures the courtyard view becomes a sinister/comic/melancholy Advent calendar.

Fassbinder’s Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) denies us this wide vantage point on the outside world. This space seems almost completely enclosed. But Fassbinder finds a remarkable number of ways to vary the set, the camera angles, and the costumes. We’re immersed in the flamboyant flotsam of several women’s lives. The result is a cascade of goofily decadent pictorial splendors.

     

     

It’s virtually a convention of these films to include a few shots not tied to the interiors. At the end, we often get a sense of release when finally the characters move outside. That happens in 12 Angry Men, in Panic Room, in Polanski’s Carnage (2011) , and many of my other examples. Without offering too many spoilers, let’s say Room (2015) makes architectural use of this option.

 

On the road and on the line

Filmmakers have willingly extended the bottle concept to cars. The most famous example is probably Kiarostami’s Ten (2002), which secures each scene in a vehicle and mixes and matches the passengers across episodes. The strictness of Kiarostami’s camera setups exploit the square video frame and  always yield angular shot/reverse shots. They reveal how crisp depth relations can be activated  through the passing landscape or in story elements that show up in through the window.

     

Perhaps Kiarstami’s example inspired Danish-Swedish filmmaker Simon Staho. His Day and Night (2004) traces a man visiting key people on the last day of his life, and we are stuck obstinately in the car throughout. This provides some nifty restriction, most radically when we have to peer at action taking place outside.

     

Staho’s Bang Bang Orangutang (2005), a portrait of a seething racist, takes up the same premise but isn’t quite so rigorous. We do get out a bit, but the camera stays pretty close to the car. I discuss Staho’s films a little in a very old entry.

Like autos, telephones provide a nice motivation for the bottle, as Lucille Fletcher discovered when she wrote the perennial radio hit, “Sorry, Wrong Number.” The plot consists of a series of calls placed by the bedridden woman, who overhears a murder plot. The film wasn’t quite so stringently limited, but the effect is of the protagonist at the center of several crisscrossed intrigues.

A purer case is the Rossellini film Una voce umana (1948), in which a desperate woman frantically talks with her lover. It relies on intense close-ups of its one player, Anna Magnani.

     

It’s an adaptation of a Cocteau play, which Poulenc turned into a one-act opera. In all, the duration of the story action is the same as the running time.

I wish Larry Cohen’s Phone Booth displayed a similarly obsessive concentration, but we do have the Danish thriller The Guilty, where a police dispatcher gets involved in more than one ongoing crime. We enjoyed seeing it at the 2018 Wisconsin Film Festival.

And of course car and phone can be combined, as they are in Locke (2013)–another play adaptation. Tom Hardy plays a spookily calm businessman driving to a deal while taking calls from his family and his distraught mistress. Those characters remain voices on the line while he tries to contend with the pressures of his mistakes.

 

House arrest, arresting houses

Sometimes you must embrace the chamber aesthetic. In 2010 the fine Iranian director Jafar Panahi was forbidden to make films and subjected to house arrest. Yet he continued to produce–well, what? This Is Not a Film (2012) was shot partially on a cellphone within (mostly) his apartment.

Wittily, he tapes out a chamber space within his apartment. Then he reads a script to indicate how absent actors could play it and how an imaginary camera could shoot it.

     

But his imaginary film still isn’t an actual film, so he hasn’t violated the ban. So perhaps what we have is rather a memoir, or a diary, or a home video? Panahi’s virtual film (that isn’t a film) exists within another film that isn’t a film. Yet it played festivals and circulates on disc and streaming. The absurdity, at once touching and pointed, suggests that through playful imagination, the artist can challenge censorship.

Panahi slyly pushed against the boundaries again with Closed Curtain (2013, above). Shot in his beach house, it strays occasionally outside. Next came Taxi (2015), in which Panahi took up the auto-enclosed chamber movie, with largely comic results.

More recently, he has somehow managed to make a more orthodox film, 3 Faces (2018), which considers the situation of people in a remote village.

The chamber-based premise needn’t furnish a whole movie. As in Room, Kurosawa’s High and Low (1963) is tightly concentrated in its first half. We are in two enclosures, a house and a train. The film then bursts out into a rushed, wide-ranging investigation. Large-scale or less, the chamber strategy remains a potent cinematic force.

They say that the last creatures to discover water will be fish. We move through our world taking our niche for granted. Cinema, like the other arts, can refocus our attention on weight and pattern, texture and stubborn objecthood. We can find rich rewards in glimpses, partial views, and little details. Chamber art has an intimacy that’s at once cozy and discomfiting. Seeing familiar things in intensely circumscribed ways can lift up our senses.

 

So take a break from the crisis and enjoy some art. But return to the world knowing that for Americans this catastrophe is the result of forty years of monstrous, gleeful Republican dismantling of our civil society. Rebuilding such a society will require the elimination of that party, and the career criminal at its head, as a political force. This pandemic must not become our Reichstag fire.

Yeah, I went there.


Thanks to the John Bennett, Pauline Lampert, Lei Lin, Thomas McPherson, Dillon Mitchell, Erica Moulton, Nathan Mulder, Kat Pan, Will Quade, Lance St. Laurent, Anthony Twaurog, David Vanden Bossche, and Zach Zahos. They’re students in my seminar, and they suggested many titles for this blog entry.

Bazin’s comments on Detective Story come in his 1952 Cannes reportage, published as items 1031-1033, and as a review (item 1180), in Écrits complets vol. I, ed. Hervé Joubert-Laurencin (Paris: Macula, 2018), pp. 918-922, 1059. My quotation comes come from the review, where he does grant that Wyler is the Hollywood filmmaker “who knows his craft best. . . . the master of the psychological film.”

The tableau style of the 1910s probably helped shift Dreyer toward the chamber model, which he learned to modify through editing. I discuss Dreyer’s relation to that style in “The Dreyer Generation” on the Danish Film Institute website. Also related is the web essay, “Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic.”

Some other examples could be mentioned, but I didn’t find them on streaming services in the US. It would be nifty if you could see the tricks with chamber space in Dangerous Corner (1934); fortunately it plays fairly often on TCM. There’s also Duvivier’s Marie-Octobre (1959), a tense drama about the reunion of old partisans.

I especially like the 1983 Iranian film, The Key, directed by Ebrahim Forouzesh and scripted by Kiarostami. It’s a charming, nearly wordless story of how a little boy tries to manage household crises when Mother is away. It has the gripping suspense that is characteristic of much Iranian cinema, and the boy emerges as resourceful and heroic (though kind of messy). Kids would like it, I think.

Also, I’ve neglected Asian instances. Maybe I’ll revisit this topic after a while.

P.S. 1 April 2020: Thanks to Casper Tybjerg, outstanding Dreyer scholar, for corrections about the nationality of The Guilty and the Staho films.

Gertrud (1964).

When Hollywood ruminates: Calm after THE MORTAL STORM

The Mortal Storm (1940).

DB here:

We don’t usually think of classic studio cinema as particularly contemplative. But many films open up spaces for quiet reflection on what we’re seeing, or have seen. In the 1940s, that tendency owed a good deal to the ways that Hollywood became, to put it roughly, more novelistic.

Movies had been based on novels for many decades, but in Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling, I claimed something more specific. I think that many 1940s filmmakers became more acutely aware of sound film’s capacities for manipulating time and point of view. These are novelistic techniques par excellence, distinctly different from the largely “theatrical” conceptions of presentation that we find in most studio cinema of the 1930s. Films turned inward, probing perceptions, memories, and dreams. If you need a storytelling twist, one journalist cracked, just call it psychology, and it will get by.

Of course, there are plenty of precedents for time and POV shifts in early decades. Still, I wanted to show that between 1939 and 1952 many major options emerged and were developed in ambitious directions. The results left a legacy. Today, when flashbacks are common and we easily grasp elaborate shifts in viewpoint, our films rework the possibilities refined and consolidated in the 1940s.

One stretch of the book considered some films from early-to-mid 1940 that offered glimpses of innovations we’d see in later years. Married and in Love, One Crowded Night, Stranger on the Third Floor, and Edison, the Man previewed techniques that would dominate the next decade. Particularly chock-full of storytelling ideas, I argued, was Our Town, a daring transposition of 1930s theatrical devices into the key of cinema.

Missing from my roster, though, is The Mortal Storm, a film that went into release in June of 1940. I had neglected to rewatch it when writing the book. A couple of weeks back I caught up with it during a screening at our Cinematheque. Restored by UCLA, it fairly shimmered off the screen.

How could I not have remembered the stunning closing sequence? It’s a bundle of narrative strategies that would get elaborated in the years to come. And it achieves its effect from being somber, slow, and based on human absence. In this epilogue, the movie pauses to think.

To talk about this passage and its counterparts, I have to parade plenty of spoilers. Sorry. But at least you get video.

 

Emptying the nest

The Mortal Storm.

The plot starts in Germany at the moment of Hitler’s ascension to power in 1933. Elderly Viktor Roth is a much-loved Jewish professor of medicine. His household includes his stepsons Otto and Erich, his wife Emilia, and their daughter Freya. Two other young men are close to the family: Fritz, who aspires to marry Freya, and Martin, a farm boy training to be a veterinarian.

Otto, Erich, and Fritz become enthusiastic Nazis, but Freya draws closer to Martin, who quietly resists the growing bigotry in their small town. Professor Roth is arrested and killed. Martin and Freya, now deeply in love, try to escape by ski to Austria. A squad of soldiers, under Fritz’s direction, fires on them. Freya is killed.

In the crucial scene, Fritz returns to the family home to tell Otto and Erich.

The sequence blends several narrational choices. Most obvious is the camera movement that seems to drift off on its own. It is, we might say, semi-subjective. It suggests Otto’s slow walk through the now-empty home, but it isn’t clearly marked as his optical POV. The opening stretch of the shot shows him pacing more or less obliquely to us, before the camera pans and tracks to the table and beyond.

     

     

The framing insistently keeps Otto offscreen. Only the sound of his footsteps and pauses suggest that he’s present, off left or behind us, at each station of the shot.

As the camera drifts along, we get auditory flashbacks to earlier scenes, three at the table, and one echoing the Professor at his lectern. Flashbacks are characteristic features of 1940s cinema, and purely auditory ones will come into prominence, as in The Fallen Sparrow (1943). Since we’ve seen the action these flashbacks evoke, they’re as much flashbacks for us as for Otto. Indeed, Otto has been a minor character in the story. His walk triggers them, but his absence from the frame makes it easier for us to project our memories onto these spaces.

The transition among the flashbacks prepares for Otto’s defection. The voice shifts from Freya, whose death Otto is grieving, to the men challenging authority. We hear Professor Roth urge youth forward, and Martin advocating peace and free thought. These later moments seem to crystallize Otto’s change of heart. Dwelling a bit on the statuette of Youth carrying the torch of knowledge suggests that Otto may become inspired to take up his father’s commitment to humanism.

At the climax of the shot, the camera frames the staircase (another icon of 1940s cinema) and starts to back up. This can hardly be Otto’s optical viewpoint. The rapid footsteps suggest that he has left the house by striding out, as it were, behind us. The sound of a closing door confirms our inference. He has left us behind.

As he does in the final moments, when Otto’s flight is depicted as footprints in the snow. Perhaps, now that he has become revolted by the cruelty of Fritz and the Nazi regime, he will take up resistance in Martin’s spirit.

Accompanying the shots of the footprints is the voice-over narrator whom we heard at the film’s start. (Such narrators proliferate in 1940s movies.) His speech, from a poem called “The Gate of the Year,” echoes the visuals: a man “at the gate,” the prospect that one may “tread safely into the unknown.” In giving up Nazism, Otto is giving up home.

The camera tilts up to show the empty house.  The snow-encased home is quite different from the bustling view we saw at the film’s start, when the postman delivered gifts for Professor Roth.

     

Hitler has destroyed the family. Still, as the snow buries the footprints, the narrator urges that divine guidance can provide safety for Otto’s escape, and perhaps a decision to fight Nazism.

We don’t normally think of MGM as a hotbed of cinematic innovation in the studio years. But the company had its moments (here and there), and this is one of them. The Mortal Storm‘s play with time (flashbacks, the solemn duration of the house tour) and viewpoint (Otto triggering some bits of remembered dialogue) resembles what we might get in a psychologically slanted novel of the time. We’re given a few minutes to breathe deeply and think about what we’ve seen, and to build up expectations about what Otto may do.

 

The house as memory vessel

The Miniver Story (1950).

One section of Reinventing Hollywood analyzes Enchantment (1948), a film narrated by a house. The house presents itself as a cozy repository of the memories of several generations. More generally, houses are powerful images in 40s films; think of Tara, Manderly, the estate in Dragonwyck, and the Gothic mansions of Jane Eyre, Gaslight, and The Spiral Staircase. Often they’re presided over by ominous portraits, as Steven Jacobs and Lisa Colpaert have shown.

One lesser-known example is House of Strangers (1949), directed by Joseph Mankiewicz. This story of an Italian immigrant who has become the head of a big bank is framed by his son Max returning to their massive home. The bulk of the film is given in flashback, but the flashback is launched by a wandering camera accompanied by “M’apparti tutt’amor” (from the opera Martha) playing on the phonograph. After a trip up the stairs we are taken via dissolve to the patriarch singing it in his bath.

The plot’s central section treats the lyric (“You all seem to love me”) with doubled implication: Gino’s reckless loans endear him to his customers, but his sons resent his power over them. The long flashback ends at Gino’s funeral, passing from the portrait in the past to the phonograph and to his son Max, brooding under the looming picture.

     

     

The huge Minafer mansion is practically a character itself in The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). One of Welles’ late script versions  envisioned a climax in which George, distraught by the shabbiness of their neighborhood, would pass numbly through the house, and our sense of it would be given through his eyes.

145 FULL SHOT of the Amberson Mansion, seen from behind George who is standing in front of camera. He starts walking toward the mansion. CAMERA FOLLOWS, moving faster than he does and soon is so close to him that his body creates a dark screen for a DISSOLVE TO:
146 CAMERA is on the steps of the Amberson Mansion, MOVING up to the door and STOPPING. George’s hands enter the scene, insert a key in the lock, turn it —
147 On the Narrator’s words, “move out” the door opens and CAMERA MOVES thru it into the house.
MOVING SHOT as CAMERA WANDERS SLOWLY about the dismantled house — past the bare reception room; the dining room which contains only a kitchen table and two kitchen chairs, up the stairs, close to the smooth walnut railing of the balustrade. Here CAMERA STOPS for a moment, then PANS down to the heavy doors which mask the dark, empty library. HOLD on this for a short pause, then CAMERA PANS back and CONTINUES, even more slowly, up the stairs to the second floor hall where it MOVES up to the closed door of Isabel’s room. The door swings open and we see Isabel’s room is still as it always has been; nothing has been changed. FADE OUT

This passage is strikingly similar to what we see in The Mortal Storm. True, the cues for George’s optical viewpoint are more explicit than what Borzage gives us for Otto. But Welles is subtler along another dimension. He counts on our remembering earlier scenes without benefit of auditory flashbacks. The camera revisits the reception area we saw during the ball, the dining room where George challenged Eugene Morgan, and the staircase where George and Fanny quarreled, before coming to rest in Isabel’s room, where we saw her waste away and die. We are asked to supply our own flashbacks.

Some of this POV passage might have been filmed, but it wasn’t retained in Welles’ final version, even before RKO’s mangling. In the film as we have it, only Welles’ lead-in and conclusion remain. The narrator supplies a moving-camera montage, as George registers the changes in Amberson Avenue.

The street sequence ends in darkness and tracks back from George kneeling at the bed begging forgiveness. The fact that the shot starts from his darkened head reinforces the subjectivity of the montage.

Welles’s handling is novelistic in the sense of wrapping a character’s flowing impressions inside an omniscient verbal commentary using free indirect discourse (“Tomorrow they were to move out”). George’s moments of rueful meditation are moments for us as well.

Like the narrator that closes The Mortal Storm, this voice is external to the story world. But the same house-haunting effect can be achieved by a narrator who lives in that world. Coupled with the wandering camera, this can turn our view of a scene in the present into a view of the past–or of an eternal future.

The example I have in mind is from The Miniver Story (MGM again, 1950). In Reinventing, I analyze a sequence that creates layers of time: Clem Miniver’s voice-over in our present, an image of he and Kay in the past, and references in the commentary to periods still earlier than what we see. (The clip of this sequence is online here.) At the end of the film, after the Minivers have married off their daughter Judy to Tom, they must face Kay’s impending death from cancer.

The final sequence shifts from the day of the wedding to a kind of timeless realm in which Kay’s spirit lives on. Again, camera movement suggests an invisible presence.

By 1950, we’ve had several permutations. The camera wanders without verbal narration (music alone in House of Strangers). It does so with auditory flashbacks (The Mortal Storm). It does so with a nondiegetic (external) narrator (The Magnificent Ambersons). And it does so with a diegetic (story-world) narrator (The Miniver Story). I try to show in the book that 1940s filmmakers swiftly expanded, even exhausted, menu options involving many storytelling techniques.

Trust Hitchcock to give us yet another variant, and in a tour de force at that.

 

Enough rope

In the eleven shots of Rope (1948), set almost completely in an apartment, the camera’s peregrinations are usually motivated by character movement or simple track-ins and track-outs. At the climax, though, the camera cuts loose. Sort of.

Brandon and Phillip have strangled their friend David and hidden his body in a chest in their living room. They’ve ghoulishly used the chest as a buffet table for their afternoon party. After the party, one guest, their prep school teacher Rupert Cadell, has returned. He suspects that something bad has happened to David. Rupert challenges the pair and sketches out how they might have murdered their friend.

His reconstruction isn’t wholly correct. David wasn’t bludgeoned, and apparently the armchair played no role. What’s fascinating is that the camera supplies a hypothetical, virtual flashback. As in our earlier examples, David becomes an invisible guest, summoned up by the mobile frame.

The camera traces out the action Rupert posits, emphasizing the hall closet (where Rupert earlier discovered David’s hat) and edging eventually toward the chest. At that point Brandon steps in, with his hand tensing around the pistol in his pocket. He stands in front of the drinks table.

     

That’s the climax of the shot. Cut to a shot of Rupert. He seems to intuit that he should avoid mentioning the chest, so he proposes that they might have carried the body out of the building. As the camera traces out that possibility, Brandon steps back into the frame to confront Rupert.

     

     

Here I think Hitchcock made a mistake. At the end of the first shot, Brandon and his pistol are quite close to Rupert, near the drinks table. But in the followup shot, he’s not visible when the camera pans left past the table to enact the scenario Rupert is considering. Brandon would have had to skip backward like the Road Runner to get as far away as he is when he steps back into the frame in the second shot.

Still, the important effect is the representation of Rupert’s thinking. Goaded by Brandon, he ponders how the crime might have been committed, and the camera carves into space to reveal the scheme he conjures up. A sort of flashback? Yes, but an unreliable replay, left largely to our imagination. Semi-subjective? Yes, since when we cut to Rupert he seems to be staring down at the chest. Yet the camera is too free-ranging to be purely Rupert’s optical POV. He’s not moving around, as Otto is in the Mortal Storm sequence.

In this most “theatrical” of movies, Hitchcock manages to give us a verbal-visual flow that is something like a cinematic equivalent of the novelist’s conditional perfect tense. If Brandon and Phillip had killed David, they could have done it this way. The camera enacts a speculative train of thought. Call it psychology.

 

One thing I shouldn’t ever forget: Hollywood in the Forties is a booming rush of visual, auditory, and narrative ideas. In the approximately 5,655 features released in the period I marked off, there are surely many other startling instances of creative craft. I’ll keep looking.


Thanks as ever to our Wisconsin Cinematheque for fine programming under the auspices of Jim Healy, Mike King, and Ben Reiser and excellent projectionist Roch Gersbach. Thanks as well to Joe McBride for sharing material on The Magnificent Ambersons. More on Ambersons can be found here and here.

The Mortal Storm‘s “novelistic” final moments owe nothing to its source, Phillis Bottome’s The Mortal Storm (1938). An earlier version of my ideas about Enchantment are here.

Chapters 4 through 6 of Patrick Keating’s The Dynamic Frame: Camera Movement in Classical Hollywood offer a careful survey of creative choices facing filmmakers of the period, along with explications of their “practical theories” about cinematography. After writing this entry, I learned that Patrick has also made a fine video essay on the Ambersons sequence.

For earlier blogs on related subjects, see the category 1940s Hollywood.

PS 2 March 2020: Patrick Keating reminds me of another 1940 release I should have mentioned: Hitchcock’s Rebecca. When Maxim narrates his confrontation with Rebecca, the camera moves autonomously to “replay” the scene. It anticipates my Rope example, except that Maxim is recounting what really happened, while Rupert is sketching out his (partially inaccurate) reconstruction of David’s death. Still, though, it’s another variant on an emerging pictorial convention. Thanks, Patrick!

PS 2 March 2020, later: Thanks also to John Belton, who writes to remind me not only of the Rebecca scene but a comparable camera movement in Under Capricorn. Crowdsourcing works.

Rope (1948).

Il Cinema Ritrovato: More and more

Il Cinema Ritrovato Book Fair (photograph Margherita Caprilli).

Kristin here:

I mentioned in my entry on the African thread at this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato that I filled in blank spaces in my program with a miscellany of intriguing films. Here are some of those films I saw, and others that David saw.

 

O Pão (1959)

Manoel de Oliveira’s first film, the gorgeous black-and-white documentary short, Douro, Faina Fluvial, was released in 1931. His last, Um Século de Energia, another documentary short, came out in 2015, the year of his death aged 106 (as did Visita ou Memórias e Confissões, a deliberately posthumous legacy film shot in 1982). That’s an 84-year career. I doubt any other filmmaker can claim as much.

Initially that career proceeded in fits and starts. He made more documentary shorts in the 1930s and then a black-and-white feature, Aniki-Boko (1942), during the war under an authoritarian regime. After the war he could not find funding and decided to study color filmmaking in Germany. During the 1950s he applied his resulting expertise to two documentaries: O Pintor e a Cidad (“The Painter and the City,” 1956) and O Pão (Bread). A beautiful print of the latter was shown in this year’s Ritrovati e Restaurati thread. It was to be his last film before he turned to feature filmmaking, though he never entirely gave up documentaries, particularly near the end of his life.

This hour-long film slowly follows the entire progress of bread, from wheat-fields to milling to baking to consumption. The images, whether in field or factory, are lovely, showing that Oliveira had indeed learned a great deal about color.

     

There is no voice-over narration, even during a lengthy scene in a large mill where technicians perform mysterious tests on samples of flour. The slow progression creates a soothing, almost mesmeric tone. Only toward the end does some social criticism emerge. A hungry urchin stealthily retrieves a roll dropped by a shopper, only to have it snatched away by a little street thug. Clearly bread, despite the lyricism of its production, is not for everyone.

 

Ghazieh-e Shekl-e Avval, Ghazieh-e Shekl-e Duvvum (1979)

Another must-see was Abbas Kiarostami’s early film, First Case, Second Case, also presented in the rediscovered-and-restored thread. Like Oliveira, Kiarostami began in documentary work. This remarkable film was started before the 1979 Iranian Revolution and finished after it–and then banned.


The film’s beginning rather resembles other Kiarostami openings, with a simple scene in a classroom. A teacher drawing the anatomy of an ear on a blackboard is interrupted by a knocking noise caused by one of his students. No one confesses or reveals who caused the noise, and the teacher suspends seven of the boys, who spend the next days in the hall outside the classroom.

This scene is revealed to be a 16mm film being shown to a succession of teachers, government officials, religious leaders, and the fathers of some of the boys. In the latter cases, some variant of the framing above is shown, with an arrow pointing to the son of the father being interviewed. Unseen, Kiarostami asks them the same question: did the boys do right in refusing to reveal who disrupted the class? Some of these interviewees became key figure in the Islamic Revolution. (Jason Sanders’ program notes for a screening of the film provide some information about this historical context.)

This “documentary” has of course been carefully staged. A page from Kiarostami’s script reveals how he designed the passing days of the boys’ suspension, with different ones standing or sitting each time. The illustration is from Ritrovato programmer Ehsan Khoshbakht’s blog entry on the film, where he credits First Case, Second Case with introducing the interview technique into the director’s work.

This first case shows the boys maintaining their refusal to identify the culprit. In a new scene, the second case, an alternative outcome shows one of the boys naming the guilty classmate to his teacher. Again, Kiarostami interviews many of the same people as to whether they believe the boy’s decision can be morally justified.

If not as charming as some of Kiarostami’s later work, First Case, Second Case contains a familiar combination of complexity and simplicity, as well as a fascination with people telling their own versions of events.

The film has been picked up by Janus in the USA, which should mean that it becomes available from Criterion on Blu-ray and/or its streaming service, The Criterion Channel.

 

Twelve O’Clock High (1949)

In recent years, Il Cinema Ritrovato has featured the films of a major Hollywood director as one of its main threads. This year it was Henry King. I managed to miss nearly all of his films. In part I feared that, since the auteur du jour is always one of the the more popular items in the program, the screenings would be crowded. Word of mouth suggested that they were.

Still, I had an afternoon free, and I wanted to guarantee myself a good seat for Varda par Agnès, showing later in the day. I went to an earlier screening in the same theater, and I was glad I did. Twelve O’Clock High is an impressive and entertaining film, if not an outright masterpiece.

Fitting into David’s set of innovations typical of the 1940s, the action is enclosed by a framing situation. A man we eventually discover was an American officer posted in England during World War II bicycles out into the countryside and visits the derelict remains of the military airport where he served. (Above, played by Dean Jagger in a role that won him a best-supporting-actor Oscar).

For a long time the story concentrates on General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck), who takes over command of an underperforming bomber unit in the same air station we saw at the beginning. He proves an absolute stickler for discipline, initially alienating the pilots he commands. Eventually he wins their respect, of course, and he learns to unbend a bit.

Eventually a series of air battles occur, with some very impressive and genuine combat footage, including aerial views of bombs exploding on their German targets. The film was presented in a nearly pristine 35mm print, which certainly contributed to my pleasure at having ended up at that screening somewhat by chance.

 

Faubourg Montmartre (1931)
I definitely planned from the start to see this film. I very much admire director Raymond Bernard’s 1932 World War I drama Wooden Crosses, his next feature after Faubourg Montmartre. Indeed, I had done a video on it for The Criterion Channel (“Observations on Film Art” #16 “The Darkness of War in Wooden Crosses“)

While a slighter film than Wooden Crosses, Faubourg Montmartre is quite stylish and technically impressive, considering that it was Bernard’s first sound film. In it he abandons his concentration during the silent era on historical epics (his best-known being The Miracle of the Wolves, from 1924).

Here he tackles a melodrama in a contemporary setting, centering around Ginette, a somewhat naive young working-class woman, played by popular star Gaby Morlay. She and her older sister Céline live and work in the titular district of Paris, the disreputable area of cheap entertainment and brothels. Céline works as a prostitute but tries to protect Ginette from such a life. Becoming more dependent on drugs, however, she nearly dupes Ginette into following her into prostitution.

Despite its grim setting, the film has many light moments, mostly provided by the amiable Morlay. It also contains some impressive musical numbers, one a variety number by Florelle and a café song about prostitution by Odette Barencey.

The film was yet another in the festival’s Ritrovati and Restaurati thread.

 

Georges Franju

There was an unaccustomed focus on documentaries this year, which presumably was the occasion for devoting a small thread to Franju. Of the thirteen shorts which he made or at least is tentatively credited with (most of them commissioned documentaries), eleven were shown. Judex, his fiction feature paying homage to the serial of the same name by Louis Feuillade, was also on the program.

I tried to see all the Franju shorts, since only Le Sang des bêtes (above) and Hôtel des Invalides are well-known in the US. The prints shown ranged widely in quality, some being in 35mm and some 16mm. En passant par la Lorraine was almost unwatchable, though most of the rest were in varying degrees acceptable.

The most interesting revelations were perhaps Mon chien (1955), a melancholy narrative based on the common habit of people abandoning their pets in the countryside. The amazingly callous parents of the little heroine dump her beloved German shepherd in the woods on their way to a vacation spot. The film follows the faithful animal’s trek home, only to find a locked house and a dog-catcher waiting. An empty cage signals that the animal was euthanized, with the voiceover of the girl calling forlornly for her pet. The other was Les poussières (1954), a lyrical survey of many kinds of dust generated in the world, ending in a strong anti-pollution message.

It was a pleasure to see this body of work brought together, but the screenings also demonstrate the pressing need to restore many of these films.

 

A Gabin tribute

DB here (with films I saw in boldface):

Jean Gabin has become emblematic of French cinema from the 1930s and after, so the several films devoted to him were welcome. Programmer Edward Waintrop included the classic Pépé le Moko (1936) but correctly assumed he didn’t have to show this crowd La Grande Illusion (1937), La Bête Humaine (1938), and Le Jour se Lève (1939). Edward’s catalog entry wisely emphasized how much Gabin owed to Julien Duvivier, an underrated director who helped the young actor find starring roles.

From the heroic thirties, we got the less-seen but still fabled Cœur de Lilas (1931), in which a detective disguises himself as a workman and plunges into the underworld to investigate a murder. The chief suspect, Lilas, is protected by the surly Gabin.

In her book on popular song in French cinema, our colleague Kelley Conway has written a superb analysis of Cœur de Lilas, and you can find a clip of Gabin’s big musical number here. Director Anatole Litvak handles his performance in a long tracking shot that keeps our attention fastened on Gabin’s half-scornful, half-boastful mug as he spits out lines about his girlfriend’s bedroom calisthenics (“The rubber kid. . . She dislocates you”).

Gabin plays the third point of a love triangle in Cœur de Lilas, but he’s somewhat more central to the lesser-known Du Haut en Bas (1933), a sort of network narrative that reminds us that The Crime of M. Lange (1936) isn’t the only film tracing the tangled passions in a courtyard community. More easygoing here but still a force to be reckoned with, Gabin plays a footballer with his eye on an aspiring teacher forced to work as a maid. Other plotlines, including Michel Simon’s raffish wooing of his landlady, intermingle in this thoroughly agreeable movie by the great G. W. Pabst.

A generous sampling of Gabin’s later career included La Marie du Port (1949), Le Plaisir (1951), Maigret tend un piège (1957), and the brutal Simenon adaptation Le Chat (1970), the first film I saw on my first visit to Paris. En Cas de Malheur (1957), an efficient plunge into sex and crime by Autant-Lara, features Gabin as a prestigious but dodgy lawyer drawn to the pouting self-regard of Brigitte Bardot. In youth and age, as a sort of French Spencer Tracy, Gabin could exude both relaxed joie de vivre and stolid menace. An icon, as we say.

 

Americana, urban and rural

State Fair (1933).

Speaking of Spencer Tracy, it was a pleasure to see this Milwaukee native in a long-neglected racketeer drama. Quick Millions (released May 1931) arrived in the middle of the first big gangster cycle and was overshadowed by two Warners hits, Little Caesar (January 1931) and The Public Enemy (May 1931). As part of Dave Kehr’s welcome second Fox cycle, Quick Millions had its own pungent force.

It traces the familiar trajectory of a working stiff, trucker “Bugs” Raymond, who claws his way to the top of the mob. Thanks to blackmail and crooked labor maneuvers (“The brain is a muscle,” he tells his moll), he winds up triggering a spate of gangland killings that eventually swallows him up.

Quick Millions was noticed as one of the earliest films to find a smart tempo for talkies, one that relies less on long speeches than snappy scenes delivering one point apiece. The passage of time is signaled by changing license plates, and the ending is a shrug, shoving Bugs’ death offscreen and giving him none of the tragic flourishes of Little Rico or Tom Powers. For almost every scene, the little-known director Roland Brown finds an unexpected twist in visuals or performance . Who else would film a sidling George Raft jazz dance from a high angle and then supply inserts of his legs, from behind no less?

     

Fox found more success with a folksy Grand Hotel variant based on the popular novel State Fair (1932). Henry King’s 1933 film was planned as an “all-star” vehicle, and it did boast Will Rogers, Janet Gaynor, and Lew Ayres. An Iowa family heads to the fair, aiming for blue ribbons in pickle preserving and hog-fattening. The son has a surprisingly carnal affair with a trapeze artist, while the daughter meets a roguish reporter who makes her rethink her engagement to a hick back home. State Fair‘s script gives the plot a happier ending than the book did, but that’s not necessarily a problem; we want these kind souls to enjoy a bit of glory.

Henry King became famous for rustic realism with Tol’able David (1921), a model for Soviet filmmakers, and Ehsan Khoshbakht’s King retrospective reminded us that he worked this vein a long time. From 1915 Twin Kiddies (a Marie Osborne vehicle) to Wait ‘Till the Sun Shines, Nellie (1952), this loyal Fox craftsman showed himself, like Clarence Brown at MGM, an adaptable director with an unpretentious gift for celebrating small-town life.

 

Still more, more…

Under Capricorn (1949).

I could go on about other films, such as Zigomar: Peau d’Anguille (“Zigomar, the Eelskin,” 1912), Victorin Jasset’s forerunner of Feuillade’s delirious master-criminal sagas. (In one episode, an elephant’s trunk fastidiously picks the lock on a circus wagon and drags away a strongbox.) Our next entry will spend a little time looking at a neat Genina film from 1919. In the meantime, I’ll sign off by mentioning two other high points.

The pretty Academy IB-Tech print of Under Capricorn (1949) made me like the film quite a bit better than previous viewings. As ever, one high point was La Bergman’s virtuoso soliloquy admitting her guilt. Any other director of the time would have reenacted the crime in a flashback, but, in the shadow of Rope (1948), Hitchcock makes her squeeze out her confession in a ravishing single-take monologue running almost eight minutes.

Its power comes partly from the fact that the framing withholds the facial response of the man who loves her. He’s slowly understanding the depth of her devotion to her husband during penal servitude. “How did you live all those years?” he murmurs. How’d you think? Her glance flicks over him, in both guilt and defiance (above).

Finally, no film gave me more pure pleasure than the restoration of Boetticher’s Ride Lonesome (1959). Sony archivist Grover Crisp explained that the original prints had all been made from the camera negative (!) and so he had no internegatives or fine-grain masters to work from. Nevertheless, this digital version, made in 4K with wetgate scanning, looked superb.

I tend to judge Boetticher westerns by the strength of the villains, meaning that Seven Men from Now (Lee Marvin) and The Tall T (Richard Boone) sit at the top of my heap, but it’s hard to resist the laconic dialogue Burt Kennedy supplied everybody in Ride Lonesome. And the antagonists facing Randolph Scott here–Lee Van Cleef (brief but unforgettable), Pernell Roberts (the good-bad rascal), and sweet-natured dimwit James Coburn (on his way to rangy knife-wielding in The Magnificent Seven)–add up pretty powerfully. Against them stands Scott as vengeance-driven Brigade, an unyielding chunk of sweating mahogany.


Thanks as usual to the Cinema Ritrovato Directors: Cecilia Cenciarelli, Gian Luca Farinelli, Ehsan Khoshbakht, Mariann Lewinsky, and their colleagues. Special thanks to Guy Borlée, the Festival Coordinator. Thanks also to Dave Kehr, Grover Crisp, Mike Pogorzelski, and Geoffrey O’Brien for talk about many of the classics on display.

The entire Ritrovato ’19 catalogue, with full credits and essays, is online here. There are also videos of many events, including master classes with Francis Ford Coppola and Jane Campion.

Quick Millions was remembered several years after its release for “the rapid rhythm of its continuity.” See Janet Graves, “Joining Sight and Sound,” The New York Times (29 November 1936), X4.

John Bailey’s introduction to Under Capricorn included a revealing short explaining the Technicolor dye-transfer process. For further information there’s the remarkable George Eastman House Technicolor research site and of course James Layton and David Pierce’s superb book The Dawn of Technicolor.

Kristin discusses Kiarostami’s landscape techniques in a Criterion Channel Observations entry. In American Dharma, discussed by David here, Errol Morris reveals that Twelve O’Clock High was an inspiration for Steve Bannon’s political career.

The Ritrovato program notes credit Fréhal as the working-class singer in Faubourg Monmartre, but Kelley Conway’s Chanteuse in the City: The Realist Singer in French Film (linked above) identifies her as Odette Barencey, a lesser-known chanteuse of the period who resembled Fréhal.

Opening shot of Ride Lonesome (1959).

David Bordwell
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