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Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling

Film Art: An Introduction

Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages pdf online

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

Planet Hong Kong, second edition pdf online

The Way Hollywood Tells It pdf online

Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Figures Traced In Light

Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema pdf online

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

Video

Hou Hsiao-hsien: A new video lecture!

CinemaScope: The Modern Miracle You See Without Glasses

How Motion Pictures Became the Movies

Constructive editing in Pickpocket: A video essay

Essays

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

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Archive for the 'Festivale: Venice' Category

Venice 2017: Sensory Saturday; or, what puts the Virtual in VR?

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La Camera Insabbiata (2017) by Laurie Anderson and Hsin-chien Huang.

DB here (still at the Mostra):

Kristin and I are Virtual Reality novices, so when we got a chance to sample some pieces at Venice VR, we jumped. The demand was great for the 22 pieces on display, and you had to book each encounter separately in advance. The event was held on its own island, Lazzaretto Vecchio, which was startling in itself; the facility was once a hospital for plague victims.

We took in four pieces in one afternoon and may go back to see some others. We didn’t see exactly the same ones, so my report and speculations are limited to mine. Apart from being fairly wild, sometimes creepy, sensory experiences, they set me thinking about how VR seems to work as a medium.

 

Angels of artifice

My quartet was a varied assortment, each somewhat parallel to a film genre or narrative prototype. The first was Greenland Melting, by Catherine Upin, Julia Cort, Nonny de la Peña, and Raney Aronson-Rath. It’s part of a Frontline documentary series, and it follows the format, but with immersion. Presenters addressed the camera (me) and took me via helicopter to the glaciers so I could watch them heaving themselves into the sea.

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The camera took me underwater as well, and I experimented with voluntarily bobbing under and above the waterline; it worked. Again, as in a film, the transitions between shots was managed through quick dissolves.

La Camera Isabbiata, by Laurie Anderson and Hsin-Chin Huang, is an installation running 20 minutes. It presents a fantasy landscape that you can move through. With two controllers, one in each hand, you choose one of several virtual domains to explore. As far as I could tell, all of them were based on cavernous arrays of blackboards chalked with graffiti. (See the image surmounting today’s entry.)

I first chose the sound domain, which asked me to speak. My words were not only played back to me, but then assumed vase or candy-bowl shapes of gleaming color.

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Getting bored with hearing myself and seeing my words made solid, I switched to flying.

Flying was most excellent. Once I figured out how the remotes governed direction, speed, and angle, I could steer a swift path through, over, and around those huge black surfaces. The sense of self-initiated optical flow was powerful, although there were no other cues (e.g., balance, air pressure) to mimic actual flight. But I could have fun playing with this a long time. This was pure subjective POV cinema, or first-person gameplay if you like, and everything was one single shot.

If La Camera Isabbiata put the onus on the user to initiate everything, Draw Me Close: A Memoir by Jordan Tannahill, made me respond to a situation. Once the goggles went on, I was guided to a black-and-white broken-line image of a woman on her sickbed. The artist’s voice-over presented the situation of his mother, dying of cancer, and me-as-him visiting her. Unseen by me, except as her avatar in the goggles, a performer filled the role of the mother, occasionally taking my hand and responding to my responses with more or less scripted comments.

I made my way to a cartoon bed and actually sat on it. The illustrated woman spoke to me, with Tannahill’s voice-over responding. On instructions, I went outside to fetch her paper, but coming back in I moved into a flashback of Tannahill (me) as a little boy playing with Mum. She chatted with me and I feebly responded, and followed her instructions to make colored marks on paper stretched out on the floor.

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Later that night Tannahill’s narration guided me to a more unpleasant memory, one reminiscent of Terence Davies’ Distant Voice, Still Lives. It was a minimal narrative to match the images, but I could fill it thanks to the familiarity of the scenario and the tactility of furnishings (bed, door) and physical human contact.

The Deserted, a 55-minute piece, was frankly billed as “a film by Tsai Ming-liang.” A series of fixed long-shots joined by cuts shows a typical Tsai situation: a young man and his mother live in a ruined temple. He apparently administers electrotherapy to his back and chest; he floats in his bath with a fish; it rains in buckets and water comes seeping in to where you’re hovering. A woman in white, perhaps a ghost, appears at times, once in the man’s bathtub.

You make the choices in  La Camera Isabbiata, and you role-play in Draw Me Close, but in The Deserted you’re locked down as a witness. No images from the piece seem to be available, but this, from a shot of a camera monitor, roughly indicates the film’s first shot (which isn’t as distorted as this looks).

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You can’t move to another spot, and you can’t even crane your neck to peek around corners. You can swivel your head to look 360 degrees horizontally and vertically. But nothing much happens behind your back or over your head. All the action, such as it is, takes place squarely in front of you. Given Tsai’s penchant for static long takes and deep areas of space, The Deserted isn’t putting you inside a real or virtual space; it’s putting you inside a Tsai film.

 

Reality has the most bandwidth

Since I’m no expert on VR, all I have are initial observations based on this sampling and on a bit of reading.

First observation: VR doesn’t have to be photorealistic to engage you. The image in Draw Me Close is quite impoverished in terms of real-world cues, and the shots of The Deserted are almost shockingly fuzzy. (Tsai, a fan of razor-sharp focus, would never let them in one of his film films.) Other pieces in Venice VR, visible on monitors while users were getting the full dose, are often quite cartoonish. Why are they then so compelling?

E. H. Gombrich suggested long ago that illusion can rely more on stimulation than simulation. That is, choose just a few sensory triggers and you’ll be aroused even if the image isn’t particularly lifelike. Baby geese can, if primed properly, take a box for their mothers, and frogs can snap at anything floating in a fly-ish sort of way around their heads. Outlines, it seems, are central for creatures like us, but they don’t have to be detailed. We also respond, fast and stupidly, to configurations that suggest faces.

Tortilla 400     Butterfly eyes 400

Try not to see Jesus, or Janis Joplin, in the tortilla, or a stare on the wings of a Caligo butterfly.

As caricaturists and camouflagers know, a few distinctive features can suffice to summon up the target, and the same goes for the partial and degraded input we see in Draw Me Close and The Deserted. In addition, concepts play a role; our ideas about what to expect in certain surroundings, such as a household, help the illusion cohere. And the information needs to be consistent. When I turn my head in Tsai’s temple, nothing I see contradicts the other cues.

A second point: The VR experiences subtract on some channels of input and compensate on others. Normally, perceptual reality is massively redundant. Our sensory systems reinforce one another. Tilting your head sends signals about balance and vision, while sight and sound and touch and muscular activity offer mutually confirming information. And when things are uncertain, you can always test your environment by moving around.

But the VR systems I encountered impoverish the input on certain channels. Standing in the helicopter of Greenland Melting, I saw the passenger seat beside me as vividly three-dimensional, but when I tried to grab it for support, nothing was there. In The Deserted, I looked down and didn’t see my feet; in fact I was an eye in a bubble floating midway up the wall, where the camera was. And in neither of these pieces could I move voluntarily to poke around much in the space.

I could do that in La Camera Insabbiata, but it was an impoverished environment along other parameters. I could fly, but not touch any of the surfaces–which were without color or shadow, beyond a spotlight that shifted to follow my attention (presumably guided by eye-tracking software). I couldn’t land atop one one of the monoliths, or bump into an edge.

Reciprocally, Draw Me Close provided other sensory inputs: locomotion (though not wholly voluntary), touch (initiated by the performer playing Mum, and by the prop bed and door), and an array of skimpy visual-spatial cues. In principle, smell could have been included. Why not, then, go the whole hog and use a photorealistic rendering of the space and Tannahill’s mother? Perhaps a very faithful representation of Mum and the household would have raised the problem of the Uncanny Valley.

Just as important, we might ask: Since a performer is always required for the piece, why not simply play out the scenes with her and the user? Just go for reality, not virtual reality. I’m guessing that the move toward drawn imagery marks the project as stylized enough to be a media artifact, rather than a piece of interactive theatre. (Though it is partly that.) Here, I’m thinking, the impoverishment of information on certain channels was a deliberate aesthetic choice, rather than being obligated by computer processing power, though that would probably have been a factor too.

One of the biggest compensations for what’s missing in some channels would seem to be good old peripheral vision. This is a very strong cue to immersion, and it can override inputs that contradict it. I remember being in one of the Disney World attractions back in the 1980s, a wraparound theatre that put visitors at the center of a travelogue. Even though there were plenty of cues that you weren’t in front of Buckingham Palace–such as your awareness of people around you looking in different directions–if you concentrated on the filmed display, there was a compelling illusion that you were riding down the street toward the Palace.

Peripheral vision would seem to be a powerful sensory trigger for creatures like us. This was the insight that drove widescreen cinema and the curved screen of Cinerama. But efforts to activate peripheral vision maximally come at a cost. You lose the frame and thus a sense of significantly composed imagery. The Disney display had, as I recall, borders at top and bottom, but in modern VR those too are abolished. VR gives with one hand and takes away with the other, so to speak: Greater immersion yields less of the pictorial structuring that’s inherent in framing. Tsai’s film somewhat overcomes this problem by making the surrounding space neutral and fairly uninformative, but the result still loses the sharp dynamic of offscreen and onscreen space we find in his feature films.

One more thought, which seems more solid than the others. Some have asked whether VR can accommodate narrative. I had presumed so theoretically, but now I’m convinced. Greenland Melting told a real-world story, an alarming one at that. Draw Me Close had emotion-laden scenes, a crisis and climax, and a flashback. The Deserted presented a typical Tsai scenario of humid stasis–a thin narrative, but a narrative. (As often in Tsai, what we miss in psychology and causal density we get in slight spatial changes and pictorial surprises.) It wouldn’t be hard to “narrativize” the Camera Insabbiata soaring, either, say by prodding me to go on a cosmic scavenger hunt. I conclude that of course VR can deal with narrative.

John Landis worried that VR was too wedded to long takes to suit cinematic storytelling. That worry was in turn tied to the assumption that narratives must guide your attention. True! But it’s wrong to assume that only continuity editing can shape a film story. Our attention can be precisely guided through long takes. Indeed, to a degree the sort of open and exploratory attitude some find in VR was already there in locked-down long-take directors like Mizoguchi, Akerman, Hou, and Tsai. And they told stories, plenty of good ones.


Many thanks to Peter Cowie, Alberto Barbera, Michela Lazzarin, and all of their colleagues for inviting and assisting us. Special thanks to Andrea Vesentini for guiding us through the array of events at Venice VR.

For details on Venice VR, go here. Variety covers the Venice event in articles by Elsa Keslassy and Nick Vivarelli. Patrick Frater interviews Tsai on The Deserted here. I found this Wired piece a good VR  primer, and Ty Burr offers an update in MIT Technology Review.

Gombrich’s key essay on simulation and stimulation is “Illusion and Art,” available without illustrations here. In full form it appeats in Illusion in Nature and Art, edited by Gombrich and Richard L. Gregory (Scribners, 1973), 193-243.

For discussions of how storytelling cinema guides attention within the shot, see the categories Film Technique: Staging and Tableau Staging.

VR viewers

Better than a cellphone? Viewers at Venice VR.

Venice 2017: Lubitsch and Pickford, finally together again

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Rosita (1923).

KT here:

Few of Ernst Lubitsch’s and Mary Pickford’s silent films are as little known to modern viewers as Rosita (1923). It survived only in an incomplete print in the Soviet film archive, and a few other archives had copies of that print. Specialist researchers could see it, as I did while working on Herr Lubitsch Goes to Hollywood. (You can get a downloadable copy here.) Now the Museum of Modern Art has made a 4K restoration that played here at the Venice International Film Festival as a special screening on the night before the festival opening. Curator Dave Kehr introduced the film.

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Rosita has gained an unwarranted reputation as an inferior Lubitsch film. In Kevin Brownlow’s interview with Mary Pickford published in The Parade’s Gone By, Pickford claims that she was not happy with Rosita and parted ways with Lubitsch as a result. As I detail in Herr Lubitsch, however, correspondence between Pickford and Lubitsch reveals that a few years after Rosita, Pickford was still on cordial terms with him and asked for help on the editing of Sparrows. Why she made such a story up is anybody’s guess, but no one should see it for the first time believing that Pickford’s negative opinion, expressed late in her life, was her view of the film in the 1920s.

 Rosita was Lutbitsch’s first American film, though as I show in my book, he had learned American style while still working in Berlin and that it shows in his last two German films, Das Weib des Pharao (1922) and Die Flamme (1923). Rosita is a neat blend of Lubitsch’s two favorite genres during his German period, comedy and historical epic.

The plot has Pickford as the title character, a Spanish street singer and dancer (see top) who catches the eye of a philandering king. Despite the actress’ reputation as a sweet young thing with sausage curls, she was quite versatile. Here she plays a street-wise, confident young woman clever enough to hold off the king’s advances while tricking him into lavishing her and her family with clothes and a villa.

There’s also a handsome soldier; Rosita falls in love with him and must save from the gallows. His plight furnishes the more serious and suspenseful side of the plot.

Lubitsch uses the big sets and crowds that he had become famous for with films like Madame Dubarry (1919) and Anna Boleyn (1921). Working with a Hollywood budget, he created some huge vistas, including a street scene near the beginning where carnival revelers are seen from the foreground to the very distant background (with a glass shot providing the towers; see bottom). The endlessly tall prison wall is another impressive setting.

The print we have seen up to now was not in good shape visually, being quite contrasty with blown-out highlights. The MOMA has done an impressive job of restoration, improving the visual quality distinctly. The intertitles in the surviving print, being in Russian, had to be replaced by using many sources. One reel preserved by Pickford herself provided the visual design template (still photos of scenes used as backgrounds for art titles). The texts were translated from Russian, gleaned from Swedish and German censorhip lists, an early draft of the screenplay held by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a few lines quoted in reviews of the time, and a music cue sheet preserved at George Eastman House.

Gilly 250Gillian Anderson described to us the process of reconstructing the original score. It “was actually created from the 1923 cue sheet by James C. Bradford based on the original score by Louis F. Gottschalk.  I located 45 of the pieces called for in the cue sheet (from collections all over the world, including the LC), timed each scene, cut each piece of music to fit each scene (the music was specified by the cue sheet).  I only orchestrated one piece.  Then I created the piano  conductor score  and then cut and pasted each of the orchestral parts. to match.  The orchestrations for all but one of the pieces were the original orchestration from the teens and twenties.”

The result works beautifully with the film, as Anderson demonstrated when she conducted the Mitteleuropa Orchestra to accompany the presentation (right).

Rosita may not be among Lubitsch’s greatest films, but it is charming both in itself and as a display of Pickford’s talents. He would go on to discovery the genres that made him one of Hollywood’s top directors. In place of the delightfully broad comedy of his German comedies like Ich möchte kein Mann sein (1918) and Die Puppe (1919) he discovered the sophisticated romantic comedy in such masterpieces as The Marriage Circle (1925) and Lady Windermere’s Fan (1926). It would serve him well in the sound era with Trouble in Paradise (1932), The Shop around the Corner (1940), and others. Earlier, as sound came in, he turned out a variant of the genre in a brief series of romantic musical comedies (e.g., The Love Parade, 1929; The Smiling Lieutenant, 1931).

The applause after the screening of Rosita was enthusiastic and prolonged. The restoration should receive wide circulation at festivals and archival series, as well as on Blu-ray–presumably with this score included.


Our Rosita images come from a print derived from the Russian version. The MoMA restoration is far more crisp and clear.

Thanks for Gillian for correcting our original brief description of her work on reconstructing the score and for providing a more detailed account of how she did it!

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Rosita (1923).

Venice 2017: Early days

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DB here:

After the triumph of Rosita (more on that to come), the first full day of the Biennale launched with several press screenings and press conferences. The opening conference featured Festival President Paolo Baratta (below), Director Alberto Barbera, and jury heads including Annette Bening (below), Benoît Jacquot, and John Landis (below).

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During that session, two subjects recurred: Netflix and Virtual Reality. Some Netflix films are playing out of competition: Our Souls at Night, with Robert Redford and Jane Fonda (who will get honorary Golden Lion awards); and Netflix’s first Italian production, Suburra. In addition, the Mostra will show all the episodes of Errol Morris’s Netflix series Wormwood. Barbera remarked that festivals must follow where auteurs lead. Now that so many filmmakers are directing telefilms and series “with the same attitude” they employ in theatrical features, festival progamming must take notice.

Barbera 2 300Similarly with VR. Baratta pointed out that this medium is now being used by artists, and Venice has a historical and aesthetic obligation to keep up with moving-image explorations. Barbera added that for him VR was not the future of movies; it’s a new medium that will exist alongside them. Just as film didn’t kill theatre and television didn’t kill film, VR is likely to flourish on its own. It will likely have its dedicated venues, such as MK2’s VR theatre in Paris and similar spots in Amsterdam.

John Landis admitted that he was intrigued by VR and wanted to learn how to use it. Can it tell a full-length story? (Most VR pieces are short and situation-bound.) Can it focus the viewer’s attention—a key component of traditional visual narrative? Landis noticed that his experiences of VR gave the viewer great freedom of when and where to look. Could storytelling harness that freedom? It was good to see a filmmaker pondering these basic issues.

We saw the first screening of Alexander Payne’s Downsizing, a sharp and heartfelt satire on consumerism and ecology. Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig play a couple who decide to take advantage of a new technology that shrinks humans to 5-inch heights, and thus allows them to live more cheaply and reduce the strain on the planet.

The situation takes several unpredictable turns and in the face of impending disaster veers into a Capraesque optimism. Yet there’s a somberness here too, perhaps most akin to that in About Schmidt. Alexander mentioned Chekhov as an influence, and he admired the writer for realizing that emotional effects stand out against “a cold background.” The clinical scientific milieu of the downsizing operation and the arid cheerfulness of Leisureland, a sort of micro-EPCOT, provide that backdrop for the problems facing tiny Matt Damon.

In the press conference, Damon called Alexander’s direction meticulous and “sure-handed.” That shows in the film: No bouncy-camera grab-and-go, but precisely staged scenes. One sequence, that showing the medical mechanics of the downsizing process, is shot for shot as cogent and engaging a stretch of cinematic storytelling as I’ve seen in a long while. There’s also a good gag when Damon wakes up from the surgery and immediately…well, I can’t spoil it. Below, here are Jim Taylor, co-screenwriter; actor Hong Chau, who plays a Vietnames dissident; Payne; and Damon.

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Our old friend Mark Johnson produced the film. It was encouraging to see the huge press turnout and the excellent reviews (Variety Hollywood Reporter, The Wrap) that Downsizing got. It goes immediately to Toronto.


Thanks to Peter Cowie, Alberto Barbera, Michela Lazzarin, and all of their colleagues for inviting and assisting us.

We have a blog entry devoted to Alexander Payne here, where he mentions his and Jim’s long-germinating plans for Downsizing. Kristin compares his work to Chekhov there too.

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David Bordwell
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