Archive for the 'Film technique: Performance' Category
We’ve said several times that this website is an ongoing experiment. We started just by posting my CV and essays supplementing my books. Then came blogs. We quickly added illustrations to our entries, mostly frame enlargements and grabs. Eventually, video crept in. In 2011 we ran Tim Smith’s dissection of eye-scanning in There Will Be Blood. Last year, in coordination with our new edition of Film Art: An Introduction, we added online clips-plus-commentary (an example is on Criterion’s YouTube channel), and near the end of the year Erik Gunneson and I mounted a video essay on techniques of constructive editing.
Today something new has been added. I’ve decided to retire some of the lectures I take on the road, and I’ll put them up as video lectures. They’re sort of Net substitutes for my show-and-tells about aspects of film that interest me. The first is called “How Motion Pictures Became the Movies,” and it’s devoted to what is for me the crucial period 1908-1920. It quickly surveys what was going on in cinema over those years before zeroing in on the key stylistic developments we’ve often written about here: the emergence of continuity editing and the brief but brilliant exploration of tableau staging.
The lecture isn’t a record of me pacing around talking. Rather, it’s a PowerPoint presentation that runs as a video, with my scratchy voice-over. I didn’t write a text, but rather talked it through as if I were presenting it live. It nakedly exposes my mannerisms and bad habits, but I hope they don’t get in the way of your enjoyment.
“How Motion Pictures Became the Movies” is designed for general audiences. I’ve built in comments for specialists too, in particular, some indications of different research approaches to understanding this period of change.
The talk runs just under 70 minutes, and it’s suitable for use in classes if people are inclined. I think it might be helpful in surveys of film history, courses on silent cinema, and courses on film analysis. If a teacher wants to break it into two parts, there’s a natural stopping point around the 35-minute mark.
Some slides have several images laid out comic-strip fashion, so the presentation plays best on a midsize display, like a desktop or biggish laptop. A couple of tests suggest that it looks okay projected for a group, but the instructor planning to screen it for a class should experiment first.
I plan to put up other lectures in a similar format, with HD capabilities. Next up is probably a talk about the aesthetics of early CinemaScope. I’d then like to spin off this current one and offer three 30-minute ones that go into more depth on developments in the 1910s.
The video is available at the bottom of this entry, but it’s also available on this page. There I provide a bibliography of the sources I mention in the course of the talk, as well as links to relevant blogs and essays elsewhere on the site.
If you find this interesting or worthwhile, please let your friends know about it. I don’t do Twitter or Facebook, but Kristin participates in the latter, and we can monitor tweets. Thanks to Erik for his dedication to this most recent task, and to all our readers for their support over the years.
Bette Davis, ca. 1950; caricaturist unknown.
Janet Frobisher, mystery writer, has murdered her husband. Naturally, she telephones her lover and asks him to come over. But before he arrives, Janet finds that the runaway George Bates has come calling. George has been her husband’s partner in bank fraud, and now they’ve gone further. They robbed the bank at gunpoint, and a policeman was shot. George faces Janet and demands to know where her husband is.
Nobody is likely to call Another Man’s Poison (1952) a masterpiece, or an undiscovered auteur gem. (Irving Rapper has, however, signed some better-than-average pictures.) Like many ordinary movies, though, it can tell us some interesting things about cinema if we look closely. Especially when that look takes in Bette Davis.
I had to restrain myself from adding a soundtrack link for this entry. You know the one. The earworm may be at work already. But having you listen while you read would probably only distract from my point.
Eyeball to eyeball
That point is one I’ve made before. We humans are very good at watching each others’ eyes. Evolutionary psychologists debate how that skill might have evolved, but there’s little doubt that we can “mind-read” on the basis of others’ gaze direction and other eye-related cues. Of all the arts, cinema probably has the most powerful ability to galvanize and channel our reactions solely through the way people use their eyes.
But what’s an eye? I argued in an earlier entry on The Social Network that eyeballs as such aren’t very expressive, despite poets’ claims to see the soul there. Dilations are about all you get. The real expressive work gets done by gaze direction, the brows, and the lids. Blinks help too. Lately, watching films from the 1940s and early 1950s for a book I’m planning, I was struck by how the great divas of that era used their eyes.
Consider for example Barbara Stanwyck in the Mitchell Leisen weeper No Man of Her Own (1951). Helen Ferguson has innocently assumed the identity of the dead daughter-in-law of a wealthy family, and she’s torn between revealing her lie and protecting her baby. So in most scenes her look is intent and direct. She uses the screen actor’s usual tactics of steady gaze and motivated blinks, with brows and mouth carrying the emotional impact (below, shocked anxiety; then distress).
Even when she’s thinking, her eyeline remains steady and she doesn’t play much with her eyelids.
What about when Stanwyck is much less innocent, as in Double Indemnity (1944)? Devious as she is, Phyllis Dietrichson meets Walter Neff’s eyes squarely. “There’s a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff.”
When Phillis isn’t looking straight at Neff, it’s when she’s pretending to be demure and concerned about her husband’s safety—and acting as coy as Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon. But once Neff sees through her effort to insure her husband, she glares at him unwaveringly.
Part of Stanwyck’s star persona is the bold woman who responds frankly to whatever is put before her. When it comes to evasive maneuvers, though, there’s Bette.
Putting a lid on it
Publicity photo for Jezebel.
Her eyes are big and can be quite round, of course. They also sit remarkably centrally on her face, thanks to her high forehead; this quality is accentuated when her hair is brushed back, as it often is. What especially interests me today, though, is her eyelids. If Bette rolls her eyes at us in those Warners publicity shots, she can also create hooded eyes that suggest she’s harboring secrets.
Bette has remarkable control of those eyelids; she can close them to a very exact degree. In performance, the slight drooping of the upper lid, combined with a small shift in her gaze and a turn of her head, can shade the line or word she speaks. Add that sullen mouth and her vocal tone and rhythm, and you get a nuanced suite of micro-emotions.
Take the moment in Another Man’s Poison after Janet Frobisher tells George that she’s killed her husband. She rushes into a two shot favoring her as George says: “You could’ve divorced him.” Her reaction is an eye-flick, evading his look but still radiating defiance.
Now begins a series of micro-movements that shift Janet’s reaction away from George. She explains how her husband kept her tied to him. “He/ was/clever”: On each word, her expression, eyelines, and eyelids change minutely. Then she pauses.
“He saw/ to that/ too” gets mapped onto three more changes, with traces of a smirk accompanying an eye-shift on the word “too.”
But Janet isn’t looking straight at George yet. She’s got more to say by way of explaining why divorce wouldn’t work: She and her husband continued to have sex. She puts it more indirectly: “He paid me”—pause when she lifts her eyes to look back at George—“visits.”
This instant of looking sharply back at George, as she had at the start of the shot, drives the point home and becomes the climax of this phase of the exchange. Eyelids, brows, chin, mouth, and gaze have all cooperated in creating an emotional detour away from and back to her questioner. Bette’s tiny side-glances show us a woman thinking and reacting to what she’s thinking, relishing what she’s going to say and then watching the effect of what she says. It all takes eight seconds.
Don’t be the wide-eyed ingenue
You can see the two stars’ technique operating very early in their careers. Stanwyck is the name star of So Big! (1932) and Davis is fifth-billed. Above, we find Stanwyck, playing the nobly suffering mother Selina, using her direct-gaze strategy (though as she ages, the eyes get a little pinched). By contrast, we have Davis as the saucy young illustrator Dallas O’Mara. Selina’s son Dirk asks Dallas why she doesn’t love him. When she answers, William Wellman’s staging gives Davis a little aria of face-time at the piano.
Dallas explains that she’s attracted to men who have confronted the rough side of life. I can provide only excerpts of what is a forty-second shot, full of shifts of head position, facial expressions, and eye movements, complete with finely calibrated eyelid work. The passage reminds us that Davis’ dynamic expressions and eye movements are often motivated by her playing characters full of jittery pep, talking fast and thinking faster. She will even deliver phrases with her eyes closed—here, speaking of men with hands scarred from work and struggle.
As she says, “You haven’t a mark on you, Dirk,” Dallas reaches across to grip his forearm. A new phase of the scene begins, but still with the suite of slight head turns and eyelid action.
Dallas says that if he’d kept on as an architect instead of taking refuge in a safe business job, his face would show it. As in Another Man’s Poison, Davis concludes her monologue by turning to face the man and deliver the final line directly. From early in the scene, however, Dirk has turned his face aside in shame.
Where would his marks of character show? “In your eyes, in your whole being.” She peers up at him, her face closer than at any other point in the scene, and her hand lifts from his arm to accentuate her frank but brutal blow to his pride.
Which makes our last view of her all the more arresting. In the final scene, Dallas meets Dirk’s mother and imagines her as an ideal subject for a portrait. Now the flighty young artist is riveted on the steady, serene gaze of the older woman.
In this climax, Dallas becomes what Dirk has called her—“a wide-eyed ingenue”—but in her rapt admiration she proves herself worthy to be Selina’s daughter-in-law.
Bette, eyeballing us
Now that we know the role Bette’s upper eyelids play, we can appreciate other moments when she milks their effects virtuosically. Go back to Another Man’s Poison. George tells Janet that he has the weapon used in the bank robbery—the pistol that bears her husband’s fingerprints. As George starts his line, she’s taking a drink in the foreground. Lifting the glass, she tips her head back too so that her eyes are just visible under her lids—and they’re looking out at us.
George says, “I’ve got the gun.” Janet lowers the glass, but she keeps it poised. Now her lids and eyelines present her reaction to George’s information that the pistol bears the husband’s fingerprints. You see her thinking about evasive action.
This moment in effect spotlights Davis’ use of her eyes; she’s frozen in place, and they’re the only things that move.
Early in the film, we’re given a sort of primer that trains us to watch Janet/ Bette’s eyelids. The first scene shows Janet making her call to her lover from a phone booth. It’s staged with her in profile, so that her brows and mouth are relatively unmoving and the eyelids, centered in the frame, become quite salient. I won’t try to follow all their tiny fluctuations, in coordination with the chin’s angle and the mouth, but these samples should give you the flavor. (Note the very slight difference between the first and the third image, and the second and the fourth).
A more frontal view of La Davis would have been a more characteristic star introduction, but it’s as if the film is saving her full-face firepower for later scenes.
There’s other evidence that Bette was considered to be able to hold a scene by an eyelash. In Payment on Demand (1951), flashbacks from Joyce and David’s miserable marriage take us to happier days. One scene shows the couple embracing on a hospital bed after Joyce has given birth to their second child.
Joyce learns of David’s plans to move out of town, but she resists and sits upright. This brings her distraught reaction home to us with the now familiar coordination of eyeline, eyebrows, and eyelids with the mouth and shakes of the head—another suite of micro-behaviors I can merely sample here.
But then Joyce relaxes and falls back, hiding her face as the camera cranes up slightly.
Director Curtis Bernhardt has reframed the shot so that as Joyce curls up on the pillow, one eye peeps out. We don’t see her mouth replying to David’s lines, but we get the customary fractional eyelid changes, as in the phone booth scene above.
Eventually Davis moves her shoulder and reveals Joyce’s mouth, but for several seconds we’ve been obliged to follow the small movements of her lids as the only clue to her calming down—and getting her way with David. This is, needless to say, all done without a close-up.
Hollywood cinema is a highly formal cinema, as conventional in some ways as commedia dell’arte. Yet that doesn’t mean it must trade only in gross effects. Admittedly, much of today’s cinema has sacrificed nuance for brute force. All the better, then, that returning to even minor films from the studio era can remind us of how many opportunities the medium affords. Bette Davis isn’t the only virtuoso performer, of course, and many of her contemporaries show the same kind of gifts, sometimes put to different ends. She offers a convenient illustration of how film actors can cultivate meticulous control over facial regions we don’t normally think about. She makes up for being short and rather slight by playing her face like a chamber ensemble, with every “voice,” eyelids included, contributing to the restless dramatic flow.
Okay, I know: The song was running through your head all the way through. You deserve a break. Go ahead, but you might as well watch something too.
On the evolutionary implications of our eye behavior, see Michael Tomasello et al., Why We Cooperate (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009). Tomasello argues that the need for social cooperation favored signals of shared attention; to work together, we need to notice things that other people are looking at. He also points out:
All 200-plus species of nonhuman primates have basically dark eyes, with the sclera—commonly called the “white of the eye”—barely visible. The sclera of humans (i.e., the visible part) is about thee times larger, making the direction of human gaze much more easily detectable by others. A recent experiment showed that in following the gaze direction of others, chimpanzees rely almost exclusively on head direction—they follow an experimenter’s head direction up even if the experimenter’s eyes are closed—whereas human infants rely mainly on eye direction—they follow an experimenter’s eyes, even if the head stays stationary (pp. 75-76).
But tracking my eye direction helps you, not me; how could it have evolved? Tomasello hypothesizes that making eye direction salient developed in a cooperative social environment. It’s part of social intelligence, in which mind-reading works to everyone’s benefit in shared tasks.
A vast resource on all things Bette is this site. Some perceptive remarks on her acting style are at Uncle Eddie’s Theory Corner. Jim Emerson offers an interview with Miss Davis in a smoke-filled room, while Roger Ebert presents an admiring appreciation of All About Eve.
An earlier blog entry here reflects on the performance of another sacred diva of the period, Joan Crawford. If you’re interested in a wider account that fits such matters into a broader theoretical perspective, including folk psychology, try this essay.
I don’t believe in waiting for the masterpiece. Masterful subject matter comes up only rarely. The point is, there’s something to advance your technique in every movie you do.
Across half a century he outpaced his contemporaries. He was the last survivor of the vaunted 1950s generation of East-Coast TV-trained directors, men who went over to theatrical films just as the studio system was in decline. John Frankenheimer, Martin Ritt, Richard Lester, and Franklin J. Schaffner won big projects early on, but they also faded faster. As they were moving out of the game in the 1970s and 1980s, Lumet was getting his second wind. He ground movies out–good, so-so, or wretched–like a contract director of the studio days. Sometimes he had a strong stretch, as in the early 1980s, and sometimes not. He started in his early thirties with Jean Vigo’s cameraman Boris Kaufman, shooting crystalline black and white. At the end he was making a feature in high-definition video.
When Lumet died on 9 April, journalists were generous in their praise. But most of the eulogies seemed to me constraining. They overlooked his complicated role in postwar American film, and they neglected to supply the sort of historical context that make even his negligible films of interest. Concentrating on his official masterpieces (Dog Day Afternoon, Network), the obituaries cast him as a hard-nosed urban realist. That’s part of the story, but if we want a fuller picture of this long-distance runner, we need to trace his path in more detail. That in turn can teach us something about shifting generational opportunities in American cinema.
We can start by noting what the recent accolades seem to have forgotten: at the start of his career Lumet faced brutal hostility from the critical intelligentsia that ruled his home town.
Reading 1960s film criticism, you might think that Sidney Lumet was the biggest threat to film art since the Hays Code. Young cinephiles today may be unaware of the vituperation that New York’s highbrow critics showered on him at the start of his career.
John Simon: “What is Lumet good at? Intentions, underlining, and casting.”
Manny Farber: “Giganticism is, of course, the main Lumet contribution [to The Group]. . . . Miss [Shirley] Knight, in a concentrated post-coitus scene atop [Hal] Holbrook’s chest, has a head the size of a watermelon.”
Andrew Sarris: “The Pawnbroker is a pretentious parable that manages to shrivel into drivel.”
Most tireless was Pauline Kael, who throughout the decades picked off nearly every Lumet movie with the casual contempt of Annie Oakley shooting skeet. From the backhanded compliment (“The Pawnbroker is a terrible movie and yet I’m glad I saw it”) to the eviscerating dismissal (Deathtrap is “an ugly play and what appears to be a vile vision of life”), Kael did not relent. She found Lumet’s staging “slovenly,” his color schemes inept; in Serpico “scene after ragged scene cried out for retakes.”
The hunt was in full cry in Kael’s 1968 essay, “The Making of The Group,” one of those behind-the-scenes journalistic forays that always end in tears for the production. Every such think-piece mysteriously assures the film’s commercial failure, while guaranteeing that posterity will remember each participant as a knave or a fool. Yet for sheer bloodthirstiness, Kael’s reportage easily surpasses that of her predecessor Lillian Ross in Picture.
Kael is out to show that the conditions of acquiring, producing, and marketing films have become almost utterly corrupt. No artist can survive the system. So she starts by establishing Lumet as merely a journeyman, shooting the script as a straightforward job of work.
But then things get rough. He is, for one thing, a poor craftsman.
He cannot use crowds or details to convey the illusion of life. His backgrounds are always just an empty space; he doesn’t even know how to make the principals stand out of a crowd . . . . Lumet is prodigal with bad ideas . . . . He will take the easiest way to get a powerful effect; in some conventional, terribly obvious way he will be “daring” . . . The emphasis on immediate results may explain the almost total absence of nuance, subtlety, and even rhythmic and structural development in his work. . . . I was torn between detesting his fundamental tastelessness and opportunism and recognizing that at some level it all works. . . . Because Lumet can believe in coarse effects he can bring them off.
He is also a severely deficient human specimen.
[He was] the driving little guy who talked himself into jobs . . . He seems to have no intellectual curiosity of a more generalized or objective nature . . . For Lumet, a woman shouldn’t have any problems a real man can’t take care of . . . . He’ll go on faking it, I think, using the abilities he has to cover up what he doesn’t know.
Kael has her generous moments, praising Long Day’s Journey into Night (1962), chiefly because of the performers, and in later years she would admire scenes in Dog Day Afternoon (1975). But usually her admiration boomerangs into a complaint (Lumet yields a fast pace, but that makes him slapdash). On the whole she and her Manhattan peers, who seldom agreed on anything, conceived Lumet as dangerous.
Why? Partly because they mostly set themselves against the middlebrow culture of the newspapers and newsweeklies. Many of Lumet’s early films were admired by staid critics. Praise from these quarters was anathema to the sophisticates. Somebody had to tell the Times’ Bosley Crowther that The Pawnbroker (1965) was not “a powerful and stinging exposition of the need for man to continue his commitment to society.”
Another strike against Lumet was his pedigree. He was said to have brought TV technique, simultaneously bland and aggressive, to theatrical cinema. Early live TV drama, confined by the home screen’s 21-inch format and weak resolution and hamstrung by punishing shooting schedules, pushed directors to rely on flatly staged mid-range shots, goosed up with close-ups, fast cutting, and meaningless camera movements.
Kael suggests that Frankenheimer, a common foil to Lumet at the period, managed in films like The Manchurian Candidate (1962) to convert the TV look into “a new kind of movie style,” though she never explains what that consists of. By contrast, Lumet simply followed the line of least resistance, emptying out his shots and “hammering some simple points home.”
There’s nothing on the screen for your eye to linger on, no distance, no action in the background, no sense of life or landscape mingling with the foreground action. It’s all there in the foreground, put there for you to grasp at once.
The TV style threatened to suffocate the glories of cinema: the full view, a more leisurely unfolding of action, a sense of life flickering on the edges of the plot. For Kael the TV-trained Lumet exemplifies the loss of the great tradition of artistic moviemaking personified in Jean Renoir.
Lumet was dangerous in another way. He seemed part of a trend toward heavy-handed showoffishness. Partly the trend was seen in the sweaty strain of Method acting, typified in Kazan’s work. Manny Farber proposed that the Method was at the center of the “New York film,” a fake realist package predicated on psychodrama, arty compositions, and liberal pieties. 12 Angry Men was “counterfeit moviemaking,” filled with “schmaltzy anger and soft-center ‘liberalism.’” Hard-sell cinema, Farber called it. Dwight Macdonald saw the same bludgeoning in The Fugitive Kind.
Lumet’s direction is meaninglessly over-intense; lights and shadow play over the close-up faces underlining lines that are themselves in bold capitals; every situation is given end-of-the-world treatment.
The new tendency toward self-conscious artifice didn’t just have New York roots. The French New Wave’s somewhat disjunctive cutting, unexpected camera movements, freeze-frames, and other flagrant techniques made audiences and filmmakers aware of film style to a new degree. Tony Richardson, John Schlesinger, and other directors scavenged these devices to give their films an up-to-date panache. Once more a critic needed to invent a new label for Lumet: Macdonald claimed that he was an exponent of the Bad Good Movie, “the movie that is directed up to the hilt, avant-garde wise,” in the vein of Mickey One, The Servant, The Trial, and the work of Godard. The Pawnbroker’s fragmentary flashbacks led Sarris to call it Harlem mon amour.
Harsh as they are, these comments do have a point. The early films shout and scream a lot, both dramatically and pictorially. Lumet admitted his love of melodrama, conceiving it not simply as overplaying but rather as conflict at the highest pitch of arousal: extreme personalities in extreme situations. So a silence is usually prelude to an outburst, and a bellow or a slap is never far off. The jury deliberations in 12 Angry Men (1957) become a group therapy session (or an Actors Studio class?) in which bigots must confess their traumas.
Stage Struck (1958) and The Group (1966) are pictorially innocuous, perhaps partly because they were shot in color, but The Fugitive Kind (1960) is a banquet of elaborate lighting effects whipped up by Kaufman. Macdonald wasn’t fair in his dismissal; the film is dominated by medium and long shots, with close-ups held in reserve for big moments, and the line readings don’t seem to me as overbearing as he suggests. Still, there is a sense of pressure, with very precise reframings and sets densely packed (mirrors, curtains, staircase railings) in a way that accords well with Williams’ overripe dialogue. There is an upside-down shot, and at some moments, as Macdonald notes, the illumination lifts or drops in magical ways—a surprise gift, Lumet claims, from Kaufman.
As a pluralist, Lumet would stage some scenes in full shots and long takes, sometimes at a surprising distance from the camera. But it was hard not to notice the other extreme. His most famous black-and-white films mixed in tight close-ups, oppressive sets, wide-angle distortions, and chiaroscuro. 12 Angry Men is relatively subdued in this regard, building toward more looming images at the climax, with some powerfully jammed ensemble frames.
Fail-Safe (1964) surrenders itself to flamboyant shot design once we get into the war room and then into the President’s sealed chamber. Contra Kael, as in 12 Angry Men, many of these shots have busy backgrounds, albeit not of the Renoirian sort.
The Pawnbroker (1965) is Lumet’s most famous orgy of strident technique, with Sol Nazerman nearly as caged at his counter window as he was in the camps. Even more overwrought is The Hill (1965) in which short lenses pump officers’ raging faces into gargoyle shapes, with pores and welts and gobs of sweat thrust under our noses.
In sum, this is not the director eulogized in Entertainment Weekly: “He never tried to dazzle audiences with flash and style.”
What critics didn’t note, however, was that the more outré look cultivated by Lumet, Frankenheimer, Ritt, and company fitted fairly snugly into 1950s Hollywood black-and-white dramatic style. The blaring deep-focus and violent close-ups exploited by the TV-born directors were already visible in the work of Mann (The Tall Target, 1951, below), Aldrich (Attack! 1956, below), Fuller, and many other directors.
During the 1950s what we might call roughly the “post-Welles” look was well-established for serious subjects and genre pictures alike. The Hill pushes things a bit, as Frankenheimer did in Seconds (1966), but the cramped, low-angle style on display in Lumet’s early work is part of a tradition that goes back years (and which had its echoes in many overseas directors, such as Bergman and Fellini). The wilder reaches of that style, it now seems clear, belonged to Fuller and company, not to mention the Kubrick of Strangelove and the Welles of Touch of Evil. Like Richardson, Schlesinger, and others, the TV émigrés may have gotten their wrists slapped for trying to map onto prestigious social-message movies the visual pyrotechnics already acceptable for program pictures.
Not incidentally, some directors had already found the wide-angle deep-focus look useful in their TV productions. Below are frames from Requiem for a Heavyweight (directed by Ralph Nelson, Playhouse 90, 1956); The Defender (directed by Robert Mulligan, Westinghouse Studio One, 1957); and Lumet’s own omnibus program Three Plays by Tennessee Williams (Kraft Television Theatre, 1958).
You can argue that their move to cinema actually smoothed out the directors’ style. The less square frame and bigger scale of the theatre screen made films like Frankenheimer’s debut The Young Stranger (1957) more spacious and relaxed than what could be seen on the box. 12 Angry Men was a polished effort, starting with an elaborately staged six-minute crane shot assembling the cast in the jury room, and using the width of the screen to enclose several faces. Looking back, we can see that Lumet offered something quite close to then-current Hollywood norms, and it looked less crude than what would be found on live TV of the period.
Still, The Pawnbroker and other films can be credited (or blamed) with helping spread the in-your-face style that would come to dominate American cinema of the next fifty years: disjunctive editing, slow motion, the arcing tracking shot (The Group), handheld shooting for moments of violence or anguish, glum color schemes (preflashing for The Deadly Affair), the teasing flashbacks that will be gradually filled in. Lumet’s early films are anthologies of most of today’s tics and tricks.
Yet by the time of his death, the director who was once feared as the vanguard of something new and awful had come to embody something old and trustworthy. Somehow the unambitious journeyman and pretentious copycat became a “classicist.”
How did that happen?
A prince of the city
Before the Devil Know You’re Dead.
Instead of indicating that he was joining or extending a tradition, Lumet reacted to the hailstorm of criticisms with surprising equanimity, at least in the interviews he gave so abundantly throughout his career. He was modest, acknowledging that many of his films turned out to be feeble, and he declared himself a learner. He tried different projects, he said, to improve himself. He wanted to learn to manage color, to work in different genres (e.g., the dark comedy Bye Bye Braverman, 1968), eventually to fall in love with digital video capture. To some extent Lumet changed because he really wanted to learn more and explore various sides of moviemaking.
Lumet always claimed that he didn’t apply a personal style to his projects; he tried to find the best way to handle the script. He thereby confessed himself to be what auteur critics of the 1960s were calling a “metteur-en-scène,” the director who judiciously enhances the material rather than transforming it to suit his personality. This was probably a good survival strategy in the new churn of the 1970s.
The mid-1970s was the Great Barrier Reef of American cinema. Virtually no members of Hollywood’s accumulated older generations, from Hitchcock and Hawks through the 1940s debutantes (Wilder, Dmytryk, Fuller, Siegel) and the 1950s tough guys (Aldrich, Brooks) to the TV émigrés, made it through to 1980. Many careers just petered out. The future belonged to the youngsters, the so-called Movie Brats. In this unfriendly milieu, Lumet fared better than most. He tried a semifarcical heist film (The Anderson Tapes, 1971) that mocked the rise of the surveillance society, with everybody wiretapping and taping and videoing everybody else. He mounted a classic mystery (Murder on the Orient Express, 1974), a musical (The Wiz, 1978), and a free-love romance (Lovin’ Molly, 1974). Of the items I’ve seen from these years, the most daring is The Offence (1972). This study of a sadistic British police inspector’s vendetta against a child molester offers a sort of seedy expressionism. In another gesture toward psychodrama, long conversations with the perpetrator reveal that the copper is a bit of a perv himself.
Lumet’s most successful rebranding took place in a sidelong return to the Pawnbroker milieu: low-end, location-shot, crime-tinged social commentary using New York theatre talent. Filming in color and casting off the baroque precision of the earlier work, he made his compositions more casual and his shot changes less precise. His cutting pace picked up: six seconds on average for Serpico (1973), five for Dog Day Afternoon (1975), both courtesy of the high priestess of the quick cut, Dede Allen. The driving tempo of these movies gave them an urgency that critics could tie to the ticking-clock plots, the atmosphere of urban pressure, and of course the extroverted acting of Al Pacino.
With the two crime films, and the satiric Chayefsky talkfest Network, Lumet remade his image. He was a New York filmmaker, offering raucous, hard-nosed, semi-cynical takes on corruption in the police, the justice system, politics, and the media. His protagonists tended to be Jews, Italians, and Irish, all working stiffs or bare-knuckle power brokers; and the enemy, again and again, turned out to be the Ivy elite. A tailor-suited WASP, male or female, was likely to sell you out. Only ethnic minorities knew the real score. The line could come from almost any mid-career Lumet film: “I know the law. The law doesn’t know the streets.”
The crowning achievement in this vein, for critics if not for audiences, was Prince of the City, a sprawling study of a cop’s patient years of taping and informing on his corrupt colleagues. More slowly paced than the earlier urban dramas, the film also marked Lumet’s move toward something else again. The style was drier and more sober, almost passive, emphasizing static and somewhat distant setups; the cutting slowed down to nearly nine seconds on average. As mid-period Lumet had blotted out the early years, now something more calm, even comparatively austere, came into view.
Whatever the project, however, by the later 1980s he was offering his own alternative to the fast-cut, whirlicam style that was bewitching young filmmakers. While directors in all genres were building scenes out of endless choker close-ups and cutting every four or five seconds, Lumet applied the brakes, lingering on two-shots, letting whole scenes play out in full frame, moving his actors around and ordaining a cutting pace close to ten seconds on average. The first eight minutes of The Verdict (1982) consist almost entirely of long shots and extreme long shots. The protracted takes and antic bodily contortions of Deathtrap might have come from a French boulevard farce; the first tight single of Christopher Reeves is delayed for half an hour. In an age in which critics decried the choppy confusion of tentpole action, the plainness on display in movies like Running on Empty (1988) and Night Falls on Manhattan (1997) looked anachronistic. Right to the end, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007) could spare a lengthy and distant shot to register a high-end drug boutique and shooting gallery. We had come from the Hysterical Lumet by way of the Gritty Lumet to the Restrained Lumet.
Acting in the frame
Yet he did not milk the urban crime vein dry. He continued to try a wide range of projects, even probing the Red Scare in Daniel (1983). The rationale was chiefly performance. Lumet was an “actor’s director.” He demanded at least two weeks of rehearsals, which included not only table readings but eventually full blocking of scenes, including fights and chases. Derived from his TV and theatre days, the method suited his belief that actors needed a firm structure in order to invent their characters. Interestingly, this actors-first rationale can be adjusted to any phase of the rough stylistic development I’ve plotted. The high-pressure facial shots of the early films can highlight the minutiae of the performances. But so can mid-shots that let actors build in bits of business.
Manny Farber praised the moment when Fonda in 12 Angry Men dries his fingers at length, one by one. It shows, Farber says, “the jury’s one sensitive, thoughtful figure to be unusually prissy” and provides a “mild debunking of the hero.” But it’s not the unintegrated detail Farber claims; Fonda’s coldness is set up early in the film, when he stands remotely from his peers and shows no interest in them as men. And Fonda was always a master of finger-work, which Lumet could exploit in fastidious framings. In Fail-Safe as the President tries to halt the bombers rushing toward the USSR, Fonda projects the man’s minutely controlled apprehensions by pausing to rub his fingertips together, off in the corner of the shot.
This micro-gesture suddenly leaps, as Eisenstein might say, into a new quality: a worried facial expression.
More explicit is the characterizing moment in The Verdict when Frank Galvin (Paul Newman) starts his day with a sugar donut and a full glass of whiskey. The setup is concise: He has crossed off the wakes he’s visited, and his palsied hand can’t pick up the glass without spilling some.
So Frank checks to see if anyone is looking before, like a dog, he bends his head to slurp off a little.
It’s a simple but powerful image of degradation, far removed from the trembling mouth and bulging brows of Steiger in The Pawnbroker.
Lumet cared as much for camera technique as for acting maneuvers. His book Making Movies provides a virtual manual of movie style as draftboard engineering. His gearhead side was probably another legacy of the buccaneering days of live TV and the New-Wave inspired awareness of artifice. He took inordinate pride in his “lens plots” and lighting arcs, charting purely technical changes that would weave their way through the film. (In this he was ahead of his time; now most filmmakers develop these technique arcs, or at least they say they do.) Despite this almost mechanical conception of technique, though, late Lumet rediscovered a bare-bones simplicity of performance and framing that was willing to risk looking flat. In Daniel, he lets the angry young man whose sister has wasted away into madness confront the poster agitating for their dead parents. No tracking in, no circumnambulating camera, no heightened cuts or nudging score. And no need to see Daniel’s face. Susan merely lifts her head.
It’s as if the visual rodomontade of the Movie Brats drove Lumet toward a new sobriety. When Galvin is preparing to try the case of the girl left in a coma through medical malpractice, he visits the hospital and takes Polaroids of her inert body. The slowly developing images not only give us the fullest view of the girl we’ve had so far. They also come to suggest his dawning realization that this is more than just a chance for big money.
Galvin starts to grasp that letting the hospital settle out of court will allow the officials to write off their mistake. There is a human cost to simply getting the check. If he does it, he will now be a better-paid ambulance chaser. Yet he doesn’t stand valiant for truth; the drunk is scared, drained of dignity, and he clutches his portfolio as a sad, ineffectual shield.
Offered the money, Frank takes out the photos and weighs them against the check. Then with a sigh of exhaustion, contemplating the fool’s crusade he’s launching, he returns the check and drops the pictures into his bag.
Very simple visual storytelling; it might have come from a 1930s movie. But this stark presentation of moral decision, given as a straightforward framing of a man’s body, achieves a measure of artistic nobility in a year that gave us Porky’s and Rocky III.
Telling it all, holding some back
Prince of the City.
It’s good to remember such moments of pictorial storytelling because Lumet’s films, especially the early ones, tend to be gabfests. If Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Paddy Chayefsky, along with the Method acting tradition, are your coordinates, you will be drawn to chatterboxes and blowhards. Lumet loved the spoken word, which was after all the mainstay of live TV (“illustrated radio,” it was sometimes called). It’s not clear that he ever shook the habit. His characters usually step onstage leaking exposition, announcing their pasts, their personalities, their plans, and their deepest feelings. This has the advantage of making plot premises clear, but it reduces the figures’ mystery and their ability to surprise us, or to complicate our feelings about them.
Sometimes Lumet did let story construction do heavier lifting. It happens in The Pawnbroker, because the nearly catatonic Nazerman speaks so little that the fusillade of flashbacks provides his backstory. More daringly, the large-scale back-and-fill of The Offence, peppered with small memories but also looping around the central incident in the interrogation room, seeks to reveal Sergeant Johnson’s affinities with the suspected child murderer. We need to remember Lumet’s early fondness for time-shifting plots before we declare Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead an old guy’s effort to catch up with Pulp Fiction.
Even without benefit of broken timelines, Lumet could occasionally hold back information to reshape our first impressions. Take the central revelation of Dog Day Afternoon, when cuddly Al Pacino reveals that his “wife” is not the woman he’s married to (a nice plot feint here) but the man whom he loves. This apparently sensationalistic twist comes early enough to modulate into pathos when Pacino’s character dictates his two wills.
Prince of the City realigns our sympathies in a more intricate way. At the start, Danny is presented as a tormented soul. We’re led to think that he turns snitch because of things we see: the invitation to go undercover, his brother’s and father’s angry concern that his pals are crooked, and above all the shameful efforts he makes to get drugs for his informant. Once he turns, however, he can’t limit the investigation, and at nearly the end his treachery has broken the most important ties in his life.
But “nearly the end” is the operative term, because Prince of the City boldly appends a ten-minute epilogue showing Danny being investigated himself. The Danny we saw at the film’s beginning may have been steeped in corruption; the drug bust we saw included, behind the scenes, a major ripoff of money; he has lied more than we realized; and it seems likely that he cheated on his wife with the prostitutes whom he supplied with drugs.
A modern filmmaker, or Lumet in his bodacious early mode, might have spiced these flat testimony scenes with lurid flashbacks. But sticking simply to Danny’s feeble, evasive stonewalling raises questions of his own vulnerability. Having watched him break down over years and having heroicized his suffering to a considerable degree, we have to judge him anew. Is he simply too weary to fight the charges, or has he been caught out? The ending might seem to allow for cynicism, but we can’t cast off our respect for what Danny has risked.
Further, Lumet intercuts the court scenes with government meetings about whether to prosecute Danny. In the manner of a Shavian problem play, this tactic obliges our sympathies to be clear-eyed. If The Verdict lays all its cards on the table and invites straightforward sympathy for Galvin, Prince of the City, by hiding major aspects of Danny’s character and circumstance, leads us to a more nuanced experience. The narrational dynamic of the film invites us to rethink our protagonist’s actions and decide whether to grant him mercy.
In the vanguard of a new style in the 1960s, Lumet remade himself as part of the 70s renaissance. That freed him to cover nearly every bet on the board, and some paid off. As hotshot younger directors sped past him into tentpole territory, he put the independent sector to use–financing through presales, working with stars on the way down and on the way up, releasing the films through boutique distributors, trying many options with a stubborn pragmatism. He handled failure, ignoral, and disdain better than probably any of us could. “Though his films are invariably flawed,” wrote Sarris in 1968, “the very variety of the challenges constitutes a sort of entertainment.” This zigzag career trajectory provides a unique, even heartening EKG of success and survival in the modern American film industry.
At the same time, he helped make audiences and critics more conscious of film technique, in ways both salutary and damaging. He was part of my film school: The very first movie I saw in a theatre during my freshman year of college was The Pawnbroker, and I revisited it several times. Here was a modern instance of “pure cinema,” worth comparing with A Hard Day’s Night and 8 1/2. (Yes, I hadn’t seen much.) Prince of the City has drawn me since I first saw it in a moldy two-screener in Florida and thought: “Can Hollywood have made a Brechtian film?” I leave for another time the tale of watching Prince in a nearly empty screening sponsored by Nick Cave.
You can probably tell that Lumet is not my favorite filmmaker. Several of his movies I earnestly hope never to see again, and even the ones I admire contain moments I would wish otherwise. But he has given me unique pleasures and prodded me to ask some questions that intrigue me. More broadly, I can’t understand the failures and accomplishments of modern American film without taking into account this marathon man.
For this entry, I haven’t managed to see or re-see as much of the Lumet output as I’d hoped, but the twenty-three films I revisited include his most famous titles (except for The Wiz, which might better be called infamous). My comments here supplement those I make about Lumet and his generation in The Way Hollywood Tells It, 145-147.
I’ve drawn my critics’ quotations from anthologies of their writings. The one I should probably signal explicitly is Pauline Kael’s “The Making of The Group,” in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Little, Brown, 1968). The piece is dated 1966, but I can’t prove that it was actually published then. I find it endlessly interesting, not least because it may help us trace some origins of critical clichés. I’m thinking not only of the art/ business dyad but also the appeal to Renoir as the prototype of the spontaneous film creator. Ironically, for at least some projects we have evidence that Renoir rehearsed his actors quite a bit and retook scenes until he was satisfied. Double irony: Somewhat before Kael was celebrating the careless grace of Renoirian spontaneity, he had in Testament of Dr. Cordelier (1959) turned to a multicamera technique for his own television project. Renoir and Lumet intersect in unexpected ways!
On live TV shooting methods, a succinct overview can be found in Erik Barnouw, Tube of Plenty (Oxford, 1975), 160-166, and of course Gilbert Seldes’ Writing for Television (Doubleday, 1952), which I’ve praised elsewhere on this site. Seldes scatters some intriguing comments on live TV drama through his The Public Arts (Simon and Schuster, 1956). Just as important, Criterion continues to serve film studies by releasing precious documents from early television. Watch the items included in The Golden Age of Television and the three Lumet/ Williams playlets folded into Criterion’s Fugitive Kind box to see what these directors were up against, and with what relief they must have greeted the wider choices available on film.
The indispensable sources on Lumet are the fine collection Sidney Lumet Interviews, ed. Joanna E. Rapf. It’s here that Gavin Smith can be found sketching a case for Lumet as continuing classic Hollywood while also pressing into “80′s modernism” (132). And of course everyone must read Lumet’s own Making Movies. On editing The Pawnbroker, see Ralph Rosenblum and Robert Karen, When the Shooting Stops… The Cutting Begins: A Film Editor’s Story (Penguin, 1975), 145-166. Glenn Kenny has an excellent 2007 interview with Lumet on digital techniques in the DGA Quarterly.
Credits: Stage Struck; Night Falls on Manhattan.
Today’s entry is our first guest blog. It follows naturally from the last entry on how our eyes scan and sample images. Tim Smith is a psychological researcher particularly interested in how movie viewers watch. You can follow his work on his blog Continuity Boy and his research site.
I asked Tim to develop some of his ideas for our readers, and he obliged by providing an experiment that takes off from my analysis of staging in one scene of There Will Be Blood, posted here back in 2008. The result is almost unprecedented in film studies, I think: an effort to test a critic’s analysis against measurable effects of a movie. What follows may well change the way you think about visual storytelling.
Tim’s colorful findings also suggest how research into art can benefit from merging humanistic and social-scientific inquiry. Kristin and I thank Tim for his willingness to share his work.
Tim Smith writes:
David’s previous post provided a nice introduction to eye tracking and its possible significance for understanding film viewing. Now it is my job to show you what we can do with it.
Continuity errors: How they escape us
Knowing where a viewer is looking is critical to beginning to understand how a viewer experiences a film. Only the visual information at the centre of attention can be perceived in detail and encoded in memory. Peripheral information is processed in much less detail and mostly contributes to our perception of space, movement and general categorisation and layout of a scene.
The incredibly reductive nature of visual attention explains why large changes can occur in a visual scene without our noticing. Clear examples of this are the glaring continuity errors found in some films. Lighting that changes throughout a scene, cigarettes that never burn down, and drinks that instantly refill plague films and television but we rarely notice them except on repeated or more deliberate viewing. In my PhD thesis I created a taxonomy of continuity errors in feature films and related them to various failings during pre-production, filming, and post-production.
Our inability to detect continuity errors was elegantly demonstrated in a study by Dan Levin and Dan Simons. In their study continuity errors were purposefully introduced into a film sequence of two women conversing across a dinner table. If you haven’t seen it before, watch the video here before continuing, and see how many continuity errors you can spot.
Two frames from the clip used by Levin and Simons (1997). Continuity errors were deliberately inserted across cuts (e.g., the disappearing scarf), and viewers were asked after watching the video whether they noticed any.
The short clip contained nine continuity errors, such as a scarf that changed colour, then disappeared, plates that changed colour and hands that changed position. During the first viewing, viewers were told to pay close attention but were not informed about the continuity errors. When asked afterwards if they noticed anything change, only one participant reported seeing anything and that was a vague sense that the posture of the actors changed. Even during a second viewing in which they were instructed to detect changes, viewers only detected an average of 2 out of the 9 changes and tended to notice changes closest to the actors’ faces such as the scarf.
Although Levin and Simons did not record viewer eye movements, my own experiments investigating gaze behaviour during film viewing indicate that our eyes will mostly be focussed on faces and spend virtually no time on peripheral details. If you as a viewer don’t fixate a peripheral object such as the plate, you are unable to represent the colour of the plate in memory and can, therefore not detect the change in colour when you later refixate it.
To see how reductive and tightly focused our gaze is whilst watching a film, consider Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (TWBB; 2007). In an earlier post, David used a scene from this film as an example of how staging can be used to direct viewer attention without the need for editing.
The scene depicts Paul Sunday describing the location of his family farm on a map to Daniel Plainview, his partner Fletcher Hamilton, and his son H.W. The entire scene is treated in a long, static shot (with a slight movement in at the beginning). Most modern film and television productions would use rapid editing and close-up shots to shift attention between the map and the characters within this scene. This frenetic style of filmmaking–which David termed intensified continuity in his book The Way Hollywood Tells It (2006)–breaks a scene down into a succession of many viewpoints, rapidly and forcefully presented to the viewer.
Intensified continuity is in stark contrast to the long-take style used in this scene from TWBB. The long-take style, which was common in the 1910s and recurred at intervals after that period, relies more on staging and compositional techniques to guide viewer attention within a prolonged shot. For example, lighting, colour, and focal depth can guide viewer attention within the frame, prioritising certain parts of the scene over others. However, even without such compositional techniques, the director can still influence viewer attention by co-opting natural biases in our attention: our sensitivity to faces, hands, and movement.
In order to see these biases in action during TWBB we need to record viewer eye movements. In a small pilot study, I recorded the eye movements of 11 adults using an Eyelink 1000 (SR Research) eyetracker. This eyetracker uses an infrared camera to accurately track the viewer’s pupil every millisecond. The movements of the pupil are then analysed to identify fixations, when the eyes are relatively still and visual processing happens; saccadic eye movements (saccades), when the eyes quickly move between locations and visual processing shuts down; smooth pursuit movements, when we process a moving object; and blinks.
Eye movements on their own can be interesting for drawing inferences about cognitive processing, but when thinking about film viewing, where a viewer looks is of most interest. As David demonstrated in his last post, analysing where a viewer looks whilst viewing a static scene, such as Repin’s painting An Unexpected Visitor, is relatively simple. The gaze of a viewer can be plotted on to the static image and the time spent looking at each region, such as a characters face or an object in the scene can be measured.
However, when the scene is moving, it is much more difficult to relate the gaze of a viewer on the screen to objects in the scene. To overcome this difficulty, my colleagues and I developed new visualisation techniques and analysis tools. These efforts were part of a large project investigating eye movement behaviour during film and TV viewing (Dynamic Images and Eye Movements, what we call the DIEM project). These techniques allow us to capture the dynamics of gaze during film viewing and display it in all its fascinating, frenetic glory.
To begin, the gaze location of each viewer is placed as a point on the corresponding frame of the movie. The point is represented as a circle with the size of the circle denoting how long the eyes have remained in the same location, i.e. fixated that location. We then add the gaze location of all viewers on to the same frame. Although the viewers watched the clip at different times, plotting all viewers together allows us to look for similarities and differences between where people look and when they look there. This figure shows the gaze location of 8 viewers at one moment in the scene. (The remaining 3 viewers are blinking at this moment.)
A snapshot of gaze locations of 8 viewers whilst watching the “map” sequence from There Will Be Blood (2007). Each green circle represents the gaze location of one participant, with the size of the circle indicating how long the eyes have been in fixation (bigger equals longer).
You have a roving eye
Plotting static gaze points onto a single frame of the movie allows us to see what viewers were looking at in a particular frame, but we don’t get a true sense of how we watch movies until we animate the gaze on top of the movie as it plays back. Here is a video of the entire sequence from TWBB with superimposed gaze of 11 viewers.
You can also see it here. The main table-top map sequence we are interested begins at 3 minutes, 37 seconds.
The most striking feature of the gaze behaviour when it is animated in this way is the very fast pace at which we shift our eyes around the screen. On average, each fixation is about 300 milliseconds in duration. (A millisecond is a thousandth of a second.) Amazingly, that means that each fixation of the fovea lasts only about 1/3 of a second. These fixations are separated by even briefer saccadic eye movements, taking between 15 and 30 milliseconds!
Looking at these patterns, our gaze may appear unusually busy and erratic, but we’re moving our eyes like this every moment of our waking lives. We are not aware of the frenetic pace of our attention because we are effectively blind every time we saccade between locations. This process is known as saccadic suppression. Our visual system automatically stitches together the information encoded during each fixation to effortlessly create the perception of a constant, stable scene.
In other experiments with static scenes, my colleagues and I have shown that even if the overall scene is hidden 150milliseconds into every fixation, we are still able to move our eyes around and find a desired object. Our visual system is built to deal with such disruptions and perceive a coherent world from fragments of information encoded during each fixation.
The second most striking observation you may have about the video is how coordinated the gaze of multiple viewers is. Most of the time, all viewers are looking in a similar place. This is a phenomenon I have termed Attentional Synchrony. If several viewers examine a static scene like the Repin painting discussed in David’s last post, they will look in similar places, but not at the same time. Yet as soon as the image moves, we get a high degree of attentional synchrony. Something about the dynamics of a moving scene leads to all viewers looking at the same place, at the same time.
The main factors influencing gaze can be divided into bottom-up involuntary control by the visual scene and top-down voluntary control by the viewer’s intentions, desires, and prior experience. As part of the DIEM project we were able to identify the influence of bottom-up factors on gaze during film viewing using computer vision techniques. These techniques allowed us to dissect a sequence of film into its visual constituents such as colour, brightness, edges, and motion. We found that moments of attentional synchrony can be predicted by points of motion within an otherwise static scene (i.e. motion contrast).
You can see this for yourself when you watch the gaze video. Viewers’ gazes are attracted by the sudden appearance of objects, moving hands, heads, and bodies. The greater the motion contrast between the point of motion and the static background, the more likely viewers will look at it. If there is only one point of motion at a particular moment, then all viewers will look at the motion, creating attentional synchrony.
This is a powerful technique for guiding attention through a film. But it’s of course not unique to film. Noticing points of motion is a natural bias which we have evolved by living in the real world. If we were not sensitive to peripheral motion, then the tiger in the bushes might have killed our ancestors before they had chance to pass their genes down to us.
But points of motion do not exist in film without an object executing the movement. This brings us to David’s earlier analysis of the staging of this sequence from TWBB. This might be a good time to go back and read David’s analysis before we begin testing his hypotheses with eyetracking. Is David right in predicting that, even in the absence of other compositional techniques such as lighting, camera movement, and editing, viewer attention during this sequence is tightly controlled by staging?
All together now
To help us test David’s hypotheses I am going to perform a little visualisation trick. Making sense of where people are looking by observing a swarm of gaze points can often be very tricky. To simplify things we can create a “peekthrough” heatmap. A virtual spotlight is cast around each gaze point. This spotlight casts a cold, blue light on the area around the gaze point. If the gazes of multiple viewers are in the same location their spotlights combine and create a hotter/redder heatmap. Areas of the frame that are unattended remain black. By then removing the gaze points but leaving the heatmap we get a “peekthrough” to the movie which allows us to clearly see which parts of the frame are at the centre of attention, which are ignored and how coordinated viewer gaze is.
Here is the resulting peekthrough video; also available here. The map sequence begins at 3:38.
Here is the image of gaze location I showed above, now matched to the same frame of the peekthrough video.
The gaze data from multiple viewers is used to create a “peekthrough” heatmap in which each gaze location shines a virtual spotlight on the film frame. Any part of the frame not attended is black, and the more viewers look in the same location, the hotter the color.
David’s first hypothesis about the map sequence is that the faces and hands of the actors command our attention. This is immediately apparent from the peekthrough video. Most gaze is focused on faces, shifting between them as the conversation switches from one character to another.
The map receives a few brief fixations at the beginning of the scene but the viewers quickly realise that it is devoid of information and spend the remainder of the scene looking at faces. The only time the map is fixated is when one of the characters gestures towards it (as above).
We can see the effect of turn-taking in the conversation on viewer attention by analyzing a few exchanges. The sequence begins with Paul pointing at the map and describing the location of his family farm to Daniel. Most viewers’ gazes are focused on Paul’s face as he talks, with some glances to other faces and the rest of the scene. When Paul points to the map, our gaze is channeled between his face and what he is gazing/pointing at.
Such gaze prompting and gesturing are powerful social cues for attention, directing attention along a person’s sightline to the target of their gaze or gesture. Gaze cues form the basis of a lot of editing conventions such as the match an action, shot/reverse-shot dialogue pairings, and point-of-view shots. However, in this scene gaze cuing is used in its more natural form to cue viewer attention within a single shot rather than across cuts.
As Paul finishes giving directions, Daniel asks him a question which immediately results in all viewers shifting the gaze to Daniel’s face. Gaze then alternates between Daniel and Paul as the conversation passes between them. The viewers are both watching the speaker to see what he is saying and also monitoring the listener’s responses in the form of facial expressions and body movement.
Daniel turns his back to the camera, creating a conflict between where the viewer wants to look (Daniel’s face) and what they can see (the back of his head). As David rightly predicted, by removing the current target of our attention the probability that we attend to other parts of the scene is increased, such as H. W., who up until this point has not played a role in the interaction. Viewers begin glancing towards HW and then quickly shift their gaze to him when he asks Paul how many sisters he has.
Gaze returns to Paul as he responds.
Gaze shifts from Paul to Daniel as he asks a short question, and then moves to Fletcher as he joins the conversation.
The quick exchanges of dialogue ensure that viewers only have enough time to shift their gaze to the speaker and then shift to the respondent. When gaze dwells longer on a speaker, such as during the exchange between Fletcher and Paul, there is an increase in glances away from the speaker to other parts of the scene such as the other silent faces or objects.
An object that receives more fixations as the scene develops is Paul’s hat, which he nervously fiddles with. At one point, when responding to Fletcher’s question about what they grow on the farm, Paul glances down at his hat. This triggers a large shift of viewer gaze, which slides down to the hat. Likewise, a subtle turn of the head creates a highly significant cue for viewers, steering them towards what Paul is looking at while also conveying his uneasiness.
The most subtle gesture of the scene comes soon after as Fletcher asks about water at the farm. Paul states that the water is generally salty and as he speaks Fletcher shifts his eyes slightly in the direction of Daniel. This subtle movement is enough to cue three of the viewers to shift their gaze to Daniel, registering their silent exchange.
This small piece of information seems critical to Daniel and Fletcher’s decision to follow up Paul’s lead, but its significance can be registered by viewers only if they happened to be fixating Fletcher at the time he glanced at Daniel. The majority of viewers are looking at Paul as he speaks and they miss the gesture. For these viewers, the significance of the statement may be lost, or they may have to deduce the significance either from their own understanding of oil prospecting or other information exchanged during the scene.
The final and most significant gesture of the scene is Daniel’s threatening raised hand. As Paul goes to leave, Daniel stalls him by raising his hand centre frame in a confusing gesture hovering midway between a menacing attack and a friendly handshake. In David’s earlier post he predicted that the hand would “command our attention.” Viewer gaze data confirm this prediction. Daniel draws all gazes to him as he abruptly states “Listen….Paul,” and lifts his hand.
Gaze then shifts quickly; the raised hand becomes a stopping off point on the way to Paul’s face. . .
. . . finally following Daniel’s hand down as he grasps Paul’s in a handshake.
We like to watch
The rapid sequence of actions clearly guide our attention around the scene: Daniel – Hand -Paul – Hand. David’s analysis of how the staging in this scene tightly controls viewer attention was spot-on and can be confirmed by eyetracking. At any one moment in the scene there is a principal action signified either by dialogue or motion. By minimising background distractions and staging the scene in a clear sequential manner using basic principles of visual attention, P. T. Anderson has created a scene which commands viewer attention as precisely as a rapidly edited sequence of close-up shots.
The benefit of using a single long shot is the illusion of volition. Viewers think they are free to look where they want but, due to the subtle influence of the director and actors, where they want to look is also where the director wants them to look. A single static long shot also creates a sense of space, clear relationship between the characters, and a calm, slow pace which is critical for the rest of the film. The same scene edited into close-ups would have left the viewer with a completely different interpretation of the scene.
I hope I’ve shown how some questions about film form, style, practice, and spectatorship can be informed by borrowing theory and methods from cognitive psychology. The techniques I have utilised in recording viewer gaze and relating it to the visual content of a film are the same methods I would use if I was conducting an experiment on a seemingly unrelated topic such as visual search. (See this paper for an example.)
The key difference is that the present analysis is exploratory and simply describes the viewing behaviour during an existing clip. What we cannot conclude from such a study is which aspects of the scene are critical for the gaze behaviour we observe. For instance, how important is the dialogue for guiding attention? To investigate the contribution of individual factors such as dialogue we need to manipulate the film and test how gaze behaviour changes when we add or remove a factor. This type of empirical manipulation is critical to furthering our understanding of film cognition and employing all of the tools cognitive psychology has to offer.
But I expect an objection. Isn’t this sort of empirical inquiry too reductive to capture the complexities of film viewing? In some respects, yes. This is what we do. Reducing complex processes down to simple, manageable, and controllable chunks is the main principle of empirical psychology. Understanding a psychological process begins with formalizing what it and its constituent parts are, and then systematically manipulating and testing their effect. If we are to understand something as complex as how we experience film we must apply the same techniques.
As in all empirical psychology the danger is always that we lose sight of the forest whilst measuring the trees. This is why the partnership between film theorists and empiricists like myself is critical. The decades of film theory, analysis, practice and intuition provide the framework and “Big Picture” to which we empiricists contribute. By sharing forces and combining perspectives, we can aid each other’s understanding of the film experience without losing sight of the majesty that drew us to cinema in the first place.
On the importance of foveal detail for memory encoding, see J. M. Findlay, Eye scanning and visual search, in The Interface of Language, Vision, and Action: Eye movements and the visual world, ed. J.M. Henderson and F. Ferreira (New York: Psychology Press, 2004), pp. 134-159. Levin and Simons’ continuity-error experiment is explained in D. T. Levin and D. J. Simons, “Failure to detect changes to attended objects in motion pictures,” Psychonomic Bulletin and Review4 (1997), pp. 501-506.
A note about our equipment and experimental procedure. We presented the film on a 21 inch CRT monitor at a distance of 90cm and a resolution of 720×328, 25fps. Eye movements were recorded using an Eyelink 1000 eyetracker and a chinrest to keep the viewer’s head still. This eye tracker consists of a bank of infrared LEDs used to illuminate the participant’s face and a high-speed infrared camera filming the face. The infrared light reflects of the face but not the pupil, creating a dark spot that the eyetracker follows. The eyetracker also detects the infrared reflecting off the outside of the eye (the cornea) which appears as a “glint”. By analysing how the glint and the centre of the pupil move as the viewer looks around the screen the eyetracker is able to calculate where the viewer is looking every millisecond.
As for the heatmaps, the greater the number of viewers, the more consistent the heatmaps. The present pilot study used gaze from only 11 viewers, which introduces a lot of noise into the visualisations. Compare the scattered nature of the gaze in the TWBB video to a similar scene visualised with the gaze of 48 viewers. We would probably see the same degree of coordination in the TWBB clip if we had used more viewers.
For a comprehensive discussion of attentional synchrony and its cause, see Mital, P.K., Smith, T. J., Hill, R. and Henderson, J. M., “Clustering of gaze during dynamic scene viewing is predicted by motion,” Cognitive Computation (in press). Social cues for attention, like shared looks, are discussed in Langton, S. R. H., Watt, R. J., & Bruce, V., “Do the eyes have it? Cues to the direction of social attention,” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 4, 2, pp. 50-59. For more on our inability to detect small discontinuities, see Smith, T. J. and Henderson, J. M., “Edit Blindness: The relationship between attention and global change blindness in dynamic scenes,” Journal of Eye Movement Research (2008) 2 (2), 6, pp. 1-17.
For further information on the Dynamic Images and Eye Movement project (DIEM) please visit http://thediemproject.wordpress.com/. This research was funded by the Leverhulme Trust (Grant Ref F/00-158/BZ) and the ESRC (RES 062-23-1092). To view more visualisations from the project visit this site. The DIEM project partners are myself, Prof. John M Henderson, Parag Mital, and Dr. Robin Hill. Gaze data and visualisation tools (CARPE: Computational and Algorithmic Representation and Processing of Eye-Movements) can also be downloaded from the website. When using or referring to any of the work from DIEM, please reference the Cognitive Computation paper cited above.
Wonderful work in this area has already been conducted by Dan Levin (Vanderbilt), Gery d’Ydewalle (Leuven), Stephan Schwan (KMRC, Tübingen), and the grandfather of the recent revival in empirical cognitive film theory, Julian Hochberg. I am indebted to their pioneering work and excited about taking this research area forward.
Finally, I would like to thank David and Kristin for inviting me to describe some of my work on their wonderful blog. I have been an avid follower of their work for years and David has been a great supporter of my research.
DB PS 26 February: The response to Tim’s blog has been astonishing and gratifying. Tens of thousands of visitors have read his essay here, and his videos have been viewed over 700,000 times on sites across the Web. I’m very happy that so many non-psychologists–scholars, critics, and filmmakers–have found something of value here. The extended discussion on Jim Emerson’s scanners site, in which I participated a little, is especially worth reading. For more comments and replies from Tim and his team, go to Tim’s Continuity Boy blogpage and the DIEM team’s Vimeo page. At Continuity Boy, Tim will post more videos based on his group’s experimental efforts.
DB PS 18 October: Tim has posted a new, equally interesting experiment on tracking non-visible (!) movement on his blogsite.