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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

new! Chapter 6 | Film Futures 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

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 added September 2014

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 'Film comments' Category

Shameful or shameless self-promotion? YOU decide!

This just in:

All the authors of pieces in Matt Zoller Seitz’s forthcoming Grand Budapest Hotel book are given the Max Dalton treatment, in the vein of  The Wes Anderson Collection. Herewith, the contributor portrait of your obedient servant. And in CinemaScope!

Yes, I am happy. Yes, it’s a credible likeness. Yes, said book is due out on 10 February from Abrams. No, I will not be getting a tattoo of it.

 

Thanks to Matt and Eric Klopfer of Abrams.

Visual storytelling: Is that all?

Mission: Impossible (1996).

DB here:

The phrase “visual storytelling” is a very modern invention. It seems to be unknown before the mid-1940s, and it doesn’t really become common until the 1990s. It applies to film, of course, but it also refers to comic strips and other media. Sometimes it carries a prescriptive edge: In a pictorial medium, you should tell your stories visually—rather than, say, through lots of talk. The motto is sometimes summarized as Show, don’t tell.

Elsewhere on this site, I’ve argued that sometimes that advice should be ignored. A monologue about incidents in the past can sometimes be more powerful than a flashback depicting them. That power often owes something to the actors’ performances—which are, after all, no less visual than the story action being told us.

Similarly, who would attack great films like His Girl Friday for being too talky? An essential pleasure of American cinema from the 1930s on is the way that some scenes let dialogue take the lead. And it’s not just the words but how, and how fast, they are spoken.

Still, I do enjoy scenes that cut the gab and give us a flow of pictures that coax us to follow a story. My pantheon of great filmmakers includes Eisenstein, Keaton, Griffith, Lang, and many other silent masters. But mentioning them reminds me of something else that needs to be said.

Visual storytelling is seldom purely visual. In film, it needs concepts and music and noises and even dialogue to work most fully. We can learn a lot, I think, by starting with “purely visual” passages and see how they’re reinforced by other inputs.

 

Pictures, plus

     

Take the most vociferous defender of visual storytelling, Sir Alfred Hitchcock.

I want to put my film together on the screen, not simply to photograph something that has been put together already in the form of a long piece of stage acting. This is what gives an effect of life to a picture—the feeling that when you see it on the screen you are watching something that has been conceived and brought to birth directly in visual terms.

Yet Hitch needed words and music throughout his career. Put aside the talkathons that are Lifeboat, Rope, Under Capricorn, and Dial M for Murder. His silent films, including The Lodger and others, need written intertitles (dialogue-based, expository) to present the drama. The brilliant Albert Hall sequence in the first Man Who Knew Too Much (run here, analyzed here) would lose much of its power without the tight synchronization of shot-changes with the musical score. I yield to no one in my admiration for the climax of Notorious, which cuts rhythmically as the main characters gather in a knot and step slowly down a staircase. But the progress of the drama needs the snatches of dialogue no less than the close-up glances and POV shots, and they get integrated into the implacable beat of descent.

Then there’s Rear Window, which has a fascinating double opening. The first uses imagery, music, and sound effects to present the situation of Jeff laid up in his apartment over the courtyard. After a tour of the neighbors’ flats, seen from a distance, we’re shown why Jeff is lying there in a sweat.

              

But during the next scene Jeff gets on the phone with his editor. Now much of the information we got visually is reiterated in dialogue.

Jeff’s optical POV cuts during the phone conversation also recapitulate the neighbors’ routines that we’ve seen in the first sequence. By the end of this second scene, image and sound have explained his situation wholly, thanks to a division of labor. The first, wordless sequence is a kind of test for the viewer, and the second serves as the answer key.

Which brings me to Brian De Palma, Hitch’s self-conscious heir. Of the 1970s generation, he was the most explicit in defending the purity of the pictures in motion pictures.

1973: I always have very precise visual ideas and then try to construct a story around them as opposed to writing a story and then trying to figure out how I’m going to shoot it. . . . As far as I’m concerned, you are dealing with pure cinema—that is, with what is right on the screen—and you should try to think what it will look like.

1984: Images run through my brain all the time. Lately I’ve been thinking about rearview mirrors. You can see people in the next car out your rearview mirror. They’re always doing the most personal things—putting on makeup, fighting, kissing, whatever. I want to put that in a movie. Someone could see a murder in their rearview mirror.

1992: Do you really want to go to work every day and shoot two-shots of people talking to each other? Is that directing?

2002: I’ve been obsessed with this kind of visual storytelling for quite a while, and I try to create material that allows me to explore it. I did quite a lot of it in Femme Fatale. And it put me on a course of, “How can I find visual ideas and work them into the stories I want to tell?” That’s something that haunts me all the time.

Hence the famous De Palma set pieces. Usually scenes of violence, they’re handled through elaborate crosscutting, optical POV, steep high and low angles, slow-motion, bravura camera moves, and extreme deep focus (often with a split-focus diopter). We think of the murders in Sisters and Dressed to Kill, the stalking of Nancy Allen in Blow Out, the baby carriage in Union Station in The Untouchables, and the outrageous Cannes festival opening of Femme Fatale.

Then there’s the invasion of CIA headquarters by Ethan Hunt’s scratch team in Mission: Impossible (1996). In the director’s search for pure cinema, this might be the purest of all.

 

From here on in

The invasion sequence runs an astonishing eighteen minutes and, as typical of a film’s Development section, constitutes almost pure delay. You can imagine doing it in a couple of minutes, or a lot more.

The main portion of the sequence crosscuts several lines of action. The hacker Luther crouches over his monitor in the firetruck, tracking the parties in the building. Inside Claire tags and dopes the analyst Donloe. From the air duct the venal Krieger suspends Ethan on a rope as he drops down into the black vault (which is white). Ethan must dangle above the computer keyboard extracting the NOC list of agents. We also get occasional glimpses of Kittridge, Ethan’s nemesis, in a central control room.

These lines of action are conveyed through several striking visual ideas. We get the geometry of De Palma’s beloved bird’s-eye camera positions.

     

There’s extreme depth, jamming two dramatic elements into sharp relationships: Ethan and Donloe, Krieger and the rat approaching him from behind.

     

Even the rather perfunctory tag, the firing of poor Donloe (“Mail him his clothes”), is rendered in a flashy split-focus shot.

Compared to what we expect from a blockbuster, this sequence depends to a remarkable degree on a quiet flow of visual information. David Koepp, one of the screenwriters, explains De Palma’s plan:

He had another great idea, which was a reaction to the current state of summer movies at the time. He was tired of all the noise, of the bigger bigger bigger noisier noisier noisier setpieces, and desperately wanted to come up with one that used silence instead. He cackled at the idea of a big summer movie set piece that was predicated on silence.

The result is nice case study in visual storytelling. It also indicates how even a pure instance needs non-visual elements to be understood.

Top among those elements is genre. We know a heist situation when we see one, and that knowledge forms a kind of hollow form, a schema into which we slot the elements that generate suspense. What elements? There’s the need for silence and concealment. There’s Donloe, the oblivious analyst who comes in and out of the vault; he must be distracted, but he may still return at the wrong moment. There are unexpected obstacles—a suspicious guard, a curious rat, and a drop of sweat. There’s the risk of a telltale detail that may betray the invaders, such as Krieger’s dagger, dropped onto an arm rest. Over it all hovers a deadline, so that the heist becomes a race against time. (Not only is there a clock in the room, but a digital readout warns us of the rising temperature in the room, another potential giveaway.) Visual storytelling is enormously helped when we bring so much prior knowledge about the type of situation we confront.

“From here on in,” Ethan warns the team, “absolute silence.” For them, maybe, but not for us. The music continues a bit before subsiding for about ten minutes. Even then, the silence isn’t absolute. We hear the hum of the vault, the scratchy patter of the rat approaching Krieger in the ductwork, and the squeaking of the rope as Krieger pays it out and strains to keep Ethan poised above the floor.

Clearly, in his concern for visual storytelling De Palma isn’t ruling out noise and music. What he’s opposed to is talk. But there is talk, however discreet, here too. In M:I, I count about two dozen lines of dialogue once Krieger and Ethan get positioned above the vault. These chiefly involve Luther whispering information to Ethan about Donloe’s whereabouts. Granted, many of his lines are very terse (“He’s in the bathroom,” “Check,” “Good”). Still, dialogue serves as a good redundancy factor, accentuating the suspense of the situation and at one moment giving us access to Luther’s reaction, when he discovers that what Ethan has nabbed is the precious NOC list.

Just as important, our experience of the full suspense of the scene depends on talk we’ve heard earlier. Ethan has gathered his team on the train and is explaining how the security system at Langley works. Using a strategy that goes back to Lang’s M, M:I presents Ethan’s verbal walk-through of the procedures as a voice-over for footage of Donloe executing them. The sequence introduces us to Donloe, familiarizes us with the constraints of the heist, and maps out the normal going-and-coming rhythm that Donloe’s spasmodic upchucking will disrupt.

So the vault break-in can rely on relative silence partly because the situation has been given fully by Ethan’s verbiage. In a way, it’s the reverse order of the Rear Window tutorial: dialogue first, then images to give it dramatic impact.

 

Drop by drop

Let me close today’s entry with a less obvious but still nifty passage of (audio-) visual storytelling. It comes at the start of Mission: Impossible.

Instead of the usual and wasteful extreme long shots of the city we’re in, taken from a distance or coasting high above the streets, we start immediately, in the closet where Jack Harmon is bent over a monitor. Already we have two things to watch: the sting operation captured by a hidden camera, and the reactions of Jack as he watches.

     

Correction: Three things to watch. There’s also the owner of the feminine arm on the frame edge of the opening setup. The camera’s track-in eliminates it, but the reverse angle on Jack reminds us that some woman is there, in the right background and out of focus. The script calls her a “whorehouse waitress,” but that’s not apparent from what we see in the film.

Cutting back and forth between Jack and the monitor not only gives us his reaction, but reminds us of the woman, who changes position in the shots.

     

Once the official Kasimov has given the name Ethan needs, the team’s goal is achieved and Jack can search it on his computer. In the meantime, Kasimov needs to be dragged off without fuss, and so must be given a drugged drink. That, we now understand, is the task of the woman hovering in the background of Jack’s shots. We’ve also been primed by the tray with bottle and glasses in the first shot.

One option would be to pan or cut to the woman behind Jack and show her doping the drink. (This is what the shooting script seems to call for.) We might even see the woman’s face as she does it, but even if we don’t, a shot emphasizing her would give us a lot of other inessential information about the room.

De Palma makes another choice. This woman is important only in terms of what she does. Panning to her, or supplying a separate shot, and showing her face might make her seem as important a character as Jack, Ethan, or Claire. She’s not. So De Palma reduces her to her function: doping the drink. And for economy, she does it in the same setup previously devoted to Jack’s reaction. She’s kept in the background.

But the problem now is making sure the audience sees the gesture. De Palma could presumably have given us one of his split-focus shots, but here he does something more daring. The woman’s hand is above the upper frame edge, so all we see is the eyedropper in action. As it squeezes dope into the glass, all sound except Jack’s typing is cut from the track. We hear the drops very loudly, in what Jean Epstein called a “sonic close-up.” The precision of the sound compensates for the fact that the gesture is out of focus.

The bit ends when she slips out of the room in the background….

…and enters the scene shown on the monitor to serve the drink.

This is a tidy piece of classic continuity. If we don’t understand what’s happening, it’s not De Palma’s fault. Now that we see the serving woman more clearly, as one among several functionaries, there’s no reason for us to think she’ll be important in the action to come. By contrast, as Ethan revives Claire, we get tight reverse shots of them—not only underscoring their importance but setting up the quasi-affair that will be important in the plot ahead.

     

As often happens, the scene conforms to an action schema we have about crime and spy skullduggery: drugging your adversary’s drink. Here the schema is actualized in a way we don’t normally see, but the essential cues are present. And even this gesture has a larger purpose. We can expect the M:I team to drug somebody else, as indeed they will in the Langley exploit. Then we can get a proper close-up to understand that Claire’s task is accomplished. And of course drops will become pretty important when Ethan is dangling just above the vault floor.

     

I wish I had time to consider other examples of visual storytelling in Mission: Impossible. There’s the credits sequence, for instance. In reviving the TV series’ original glimpses of the episode to come, the sequence yields something that is very rare in feature film: anticipations of particular things we’ll see. TV network programming gave us bumpers that offered  teasing previews of high points in the next show up. Did M:I, like I Spy, swallow up such “flashforwards” into its credit sequences? And how much did these TV credits owe to the anticipatory images in the credits of Goldfinger?

Above all, I’d like to spare time for the very clever flashbacks that, at the climax, show us how the initial murder of the team actually went. I call them clever because it’s not at that moment certain whether they are flashbacks constructed solely for us, to tip us off to the betrayal, or whether they also represent Ethan’s new understanding of that early bloodbath. But of course those quick flashbacks depend on nonvisual information as well, especially the voice-over that accompanies them.

Still, I hope I’ve said enough to suggest that “visual storytelling” in film needs both sound and more impalpable factors—context, familiar situations, genre conventions—to work. And those factors in turn depend on our knowledge of conceptual structures (schemas) that the film prompts us to lock in. As usual, narrative movies provide the audience an instruction kit, coaxing us to apply our knowledge to a fresh instance. In other words, the eye is part of the brain.


Many thanks to David Koepp for information about the production of Mission: Impossible. For some of David’s ideas about visual storytelling go here. The shooting script is available online here. Watch for David’s next directorial effort, the 60s-style intrigue comedy Mortdecai, coming 23 January!

My Hitchcock quotation comes from his 1937 essay, “Direction.” The version of that piece I’ve used is in Hitchcock on Hitchcock, ed. Sidney Gottlieb (University of California Press, 1995), 256. The De Palma quotations are all from Brian De Palma Interviews, ed. Laurence F. Knapp (University Press of Mississippi, 2003), 12, 84, 131, 177.

Why do Development sections tend to include delays? See Kristin’s blog entry here and her Storytelling in the New Hollywood. I discuss her layout of plot parts in another Mission: Impossible installment in “Anatomy of the Action Picture.” On the imagery of Dial M for Murder, there’s this blog entry.

Mission: Impossible.

Say hello to GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE

DB here:

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

Two soft spoilers ahead!

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

     

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

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

 

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Goodbye to Language.

Of horses, avalanches, and architecture

Of Horses and Men (2013).

DB here, with some first impressions of this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival.

We alternate days of rain and days of sunshine, but crowds still keep turning up. Some screenings are packed full, and most of those we’ve visited are solidly attended. Herewith some notes on three of the most intriguing movies I’ve seen so far.

 

The getting of wisdom

La Sapienza (2014).

The last Eugene Green movie I saw was The Portuguese Nun, which I discussed in a 2010 entry. His latest, La Sapienza, is more user-friendly, somewhat closer to American art-house accessibility.

A married couple in a politely disintegrating relationship takes a trip to Italy, and then their paths diverge. Alexandre, a famous architect who conducts research on the side, takes along on a field trip the young Goffredo, who wants to be an architect as well. Aliénor, a psychoanalyst, stays with Goffredo’s sister Lavinia, who suffers from fainting spells. Each character comes, by a quiet path, to a degree of peace and reconciliation. Alexandre even renews his creative energy, thanks partly to Goffredo, who insists that architecture is not only about space but what fills it: Light and people.

As ever with Green, everybody is gorgeous; the clothes are casually splendid; the backgrounds are magnificent. Threaded through La Sapienza is overwhelming architecture (Turin, San Carlino, Rome), accompanied by Alexandre’s discussion of Francesco Borromini’s career. The climax, a muted one, takes place in the Chapel of San Carlo, filmed in appropriately radiant majesty. In a way, the movie is a fine art-history class.

Crosscut with the two men’s journey are the ministrations of Aliénor to Lavinia, who comes out of her shell when shown kindly attention—and exposure to the theatre. (Le Malade imaginaire, no less.) Green is one of the few filmmakers today who makes movies in homage to the pleasures of aesthetic experience. No wonder that one of his films has the title Le Pont des Arts. But he’s not completely highfalutin. One scene makes fun of pretentious contemporary artists, chiefly to throw the purity of classic art into greater relief.

Green’s signature staging and cutting are still in force; he offers a sort of parodic simplification of analytical editing’s progression of master-shot, over-the-shoulders, and singles. Given these familiar patterns, we quickly get used to the artifice of to-camera address, sometimes in extreme close-up. Viewers who admire Wes Anderson’s style should check out Green’s more austere handling of planimetric imagery.

     

Most American studio pictures allot a separate shot for each character’s line, and Green does much the same, but his pace never seems as rushed. I think it’s partly because of the pauses between lines, which allow us to wait for more from the speaker, or to anticipate how the listener will react.

All in all, another piece in that cloisonné mode that Green has made his own. But La Sapienza has freshness because of its new subject matter. We get not a romance among young people but a fading love among their elders. The film harks back to a great tradition of disenchanted couples visiting alien places, from Voyage to Italy to Certified Copy. And the actors, particularly Christelle Prot as the wife, have an intelligent vivacity. Alexandre’s demeanor and expressions, robotic in the opening scenes, warm and relax across the film as he comes to enjoy visiting Borromini’s sites and learning from his young companion. The film exemplifies what Alexandre describes as one building’s integration of human bodies and rigorous patterns: “Living figures in geometrical constructions.”

 

A Nordic problem play

Another film about a couple’s troubles while they’re away from home is Force Majeure, a new Swedish film with the original title Turist. Tomas and Ebba seem to have a fine upper-middle-class family, with beautiful kids Vera and Harry. Seeking quality time, they arrive at a high-tone ski resort in the French alps. They have a pleasant visit at first, punctuated by the cannons that trigger controlled avalanches, until one such snow slide seems to threaten them on a patio. Tomas’ reaction puts their marriage in question, and Vera and Harry become fussy and scared. Tomas comes to see the family crisis as the collapse of his male identity.

As with the Green film, people talk a lot. In the great tradition of Nordic drama and Bergman psychodrama, what we’ve been shown must also be discussed, and the past dredged up, and bystanders dragged into intimate crises. The central scene, in which Ebba presses Tomas to explain himself in front of another couple, runs by my count over twelve minutes. Its painful but riveting drama drifts into satire when Tomas’ intellectual friend tries to find evolutionary explanations for what happened.

Unlike the Green film, Force Majeure is the opposite of austere. Even without the breathtaking scenery, the ski lodge is given a sort of ersatz grandeur itself. And the big moments swallow up speech in sumptuous visual effects, most obviously the avalanche but also an eerie scene that appears to record a flying saucer’s surveillance of the lodge. The spectacle doesn’t stop in the coda, a vertiginous bus ride that leaves issues of courage and family unity uneasily suspended.

 

Horse whisperers, and shouters

According to reports, John Ford once remarked that a running horse is the most beautiful thing in the world. There’s some evidence for the claim in Of Horses and Men, an Icelandic film about life in a valley among horse farmers. It’s composed of episodes of local life, sometimes trivial and sometimes life-or-death, taking place across a summer.

The locals let much of their stock roam across the valley until they herd them into a corral for the winter. The massive roundup, spiced with some sexual shenanigans, forms the film’s climax, with majestic shots of galloping horseflesh. The final crane shot celebrates the vastness of the herd against the stupendous landscape, while giving it human scale with an ambling musical score reminiscent of Morricone’s lighter tunes.

So this is not your standard hardscrabble-life-in-distant-places film. Granted, the neighbors, a scruffy lot given to passing around flasks and snuff, are attractively cranky and realistically unpretty. None would get an audition for Eugene Green. But their petty quarrels, as when one rancher keeps snipping the barbed wire that another rancher keeps stringing across a thoroughfare, become comic (though some lacerations are involved). Particularly hilarious is the scene of a rancher so devoted to drink that he goads his poor steed to swim out to meet a Russian fishing boat carrying lethally strong alcohol.

What a pleasure to meet a movie that tells its story visually! Details of behavior matter. The ritual of bridling a horse gets carried out in ways that characterize the riders, and there is one moment, in which a young woman accomplishes the apparently impossible, that is crowd-pleasing without being over the top—all presented briskly and with hardly any dialogue.

Another laconic scene takes place after the credits. A lantern-jawed rancher proudly steers his trotter to breakfast with a neighbor woman. Director Benedikt Erlingsson introduces other major characters by showing them in their yards watching the gentleman’s ride. In turn, he learns they’re watching by catching the glint of sun on their binoculars.

This bit of routine suggests what passes for entertainment among these nosy folks. It also becomes a running gag, so that in later scenes, as soon as we cut to the horizon and see the telltale flash, we know someone’s eyeing the action. This sort of pictorial economy, rare in today’s films, eliminates exposition and lets us think we’re smart.

In fact, the act of looking becomes a persistent motif, as most episodes are introduced by a screen-filling close-up of a horse’s eye, with humans or landscapes reflected there. It’s as if these beautiful beasts are quietly observing their masters’ foibles.

 

Kino Lorber will distribute La Sapienza in the United States, Magnolia will do the same with Force Majeure, and Music Box Films will be offering Of Horses and Men.

La Sapienza.

David Bordwell
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