Archive for the 'Film technique: Cinematography' Category
In The Sound of Fury (aka Try and Get Me!, 1951), Howard Tyler has drifted into crime under the guidance of a breezy sociopath. They commit a string of holdups, culminating in a kidnapping. Howard’s partner bashes in the skull of their young captive. Wandering drunk and despairing, Howard ends up in the apartment of Hazel, a lonely manicurist. As Howard lolls on the sofa, she turns away to switch off the radio.
The next move is up to us.
If we’re alert, we can spot, on the end table in the corner of the frame, a newspaper with a headline that may be announcing the police investigation.
At first Hazel takes no notice. Will she? She does. She lifts the paper and is appalled.
Hazel turns toward Howard. Now we can see the entire headline as she reads aloud: Police are intensifying the search. She hasn’t made the connection between her guest and the boy’s disappearance.
Panicked, Howard lunges at her and crumples the newspaper.
Will this display of shattered nerves tip Hazel off?
As in the bomb-under-the-table model of suspense, at the start we know more than both characters know. She’s unaware of the kidnapping, and he’s unaware that the cops have found the victim’s car. In addition, the arc of suspense around the headline is quite small, though it leads on to something larger: Will Howard give himself away to the unsuspecting Hazel?
I’m impressed by the economy of presentation. Hitchcock might well have treated this moment in point-of-view shots, and a fairly protracted series of them. Or imagine how several filmmakers today would have handled this scene. There’d be a slow a track-in to the headline, then a circling camera movement that first concentrates on the woman picking up the paper, then racks focus to Howard on the sofa in the background.
Instead, director Cy Endfield makes very small changes of framing and staging matter a lot. The camera simply swivels, the actress simply comes to the foreground and pivots. The entire action, crucial as it will prove in what follows, consumes only twenty-five seconds.
Some stretches of a movie tend to be simply, barely functional: connective tissue or filler. Shots show cars driving up to places where the real action will take place, or characters striding down a corridor before going into a doorway. Other images want to engage us more deeply, but they do it through immensity. They try to awe us with majestic swoops over the sea or into the sky. (Recent example: Interstellar.) But other films engage us through detailing. They train us to notice niceties.
The Sound of Fury moment creates its detailing through visual space. What about time? And what about auditory factors? Our old friend, the telephone call, can furnish some examples.
Clay Pigeon (1949).
Filmmakers must always decide how much of any action to show. Sometimes that allows the director, the cinematographer, and the editor to create fine-grained delays. These might not build up a lot of suspense but they can make us uneasy, and prepare us for a surprise later down the line.
As we mention in Film Art, and discuss in a related blog entry, a telephone scene forces the filmmakers to choose among clear-cut alternatives. Do we see both parties? Do we see only one and simply hear the other? (And is the voice of the one we don’t see futzed?) Do we see one and not hear the other at all? Most films don’t ask more than simple functionality, but even a B man-on-the-run feature like The Clay Pigeon (1949) shows what can be done with details of timing in setting up a phone call.
Jim Fletcher has war-related amnesia. He doesn’t know why he’s about to be court-martialed for treason. After escaping from the hospital, he learns that he is accused of betraying his best friend during their time in a Japanese POW camp. After convincing Martha Gregory, the friend’s widow, that he’s innocent, he searches for proof. The Clay Pigeon sticks mostly with Jim, but like most suspense films it slips in bits of unrestricted narration as well. Jim’s quest is tracked by mysterious men, and brief scenes give us glimpses of the forces pursuing him: agents of Naval Intelligence, and a gang of counterfeiters protecting the Japanese soldier who tortured Jim in the Philippines.
It’s the familiar structure of the double chase, dosed with minor mysteries. For example, when Jim gets a lead from a management firm, he leaves the office but the narration stays with the secretary who notifies her boss that Jim has been asking questions.
Cut to the executive’s office, where the camera reveals many stacks of wrapped bills on his meeting-room table. Something sinister is going on here, but what?
The decision to insert information addressed to us alone has more subtle consequences in two telephone scenes. Jim calls Ted Niles, another veteran of the POW camp. During these scenes, the filmmakers had the option of showing only Jim and never revealing Ted at the other end of the line. That tactic would have enhanced mystery, but it would have thrown suspicion on Ted. If he’s Jim’s friend and ally, why not show him?
So the filmmakers show Ted replying in his apartment. But later it will be revealed that Ted is working with the gang. The task is to introduce this important character in a way leaving open the possibility of his treachery. The solution the filmmakers hit upon is to show Ted just before he picks up the line. Here is the first instance, when Jim cold-calls him.
The camera shows Ted innocuously answering the phone and learning, to his surprise, that Jim has tracked him down.
At first Ted seems annoyed, but then he smiles and agrees to help.
The scene ends on Jim hanging up. If we wanted to plant more suspicion of Ted, we’d show him hanging up too and reacting to the call.
A later scene starts much the same way, with Ted coming in to answer a ringing phone and getting a message from Jim.
Both scenes show Ted answering the phone in a completely innocuous way. Yet the very fact of dwelling on his action of coming to the phone can be seen as planting uncertainty. In the second scene, for instance, where is he coming from? And in both scenes, Ted frowns at certain points. Perhaps he is pondering ways of helping Jim, but the expressions leave open the possibility that he is plotting against him. Ted’s duplicity is fully revealed only at the climax. (See image surmounting this section.)
In a mystery situation, a few seconds showing Ted alone gain a force they wouldn’t have in another genre. Some viewers will be surprised, some will say they knew it all along, but either way the detailing of a moment here and there has opened the possibility.
The Clay Pigeon telephone scenes show the speakers in alternation. The give-and-take of the conversation is presented by cutting back and forth. Another option is simply to show one speaker and let us hear the other without seeing him or her. As we’ve noticed, though, that would tend to make Ted a more mysterious figure.
Yet another possibility is the silent treatment: One speaker is shown talking, and we don’t hear the other at all. This option forces our attention wholly onto the reaction of the person we do see, and keeps us in the dark about the words and tone of voice of the person at the other end of the line. If the Clay Pigeon telephone calls presented Ted this way, that would be another tipoff.
Still, suppressing one half of the conversation can pay dividends when we already know the characters. At the climax of Humoresque (1947), detailing involves not a prop or a passing moment. Instead, a simple cut accentuates the shift from one sound space, that of violinist Paul Boray’s dressing room, to another, the luxurious living room of his lover Helen Wright. When he gets her call, he can’t understand why Helen isn’t at his big concert. But she is distraught because her own worries about keeping Paul’s love have been reinforced by Paul’s mother, who insists that she’s no good for him. And Helen is drinking again.
The scene’s tension is ratcheted up by first presenting only Paul’s angry questioning. We don’t hear Helen’s replies. When the dramatic momentum shifts to Helen’s desperate excuses for missing the concert, we concentrate on her meltdown more intently because now we don’t hear Paul’s replies. Her emotional response is magnified by the yearning climax of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture on the radio broadcast–another reason to suppress Paul’s voice.
The scene has been split between Paul’s end and Helen’s. By not seeing Helen’s reaction to his urgent questions, we wonder what is keeping her away. Like Paul, we’re unaware of her torment. But then we see and hear her, and our inability to know what he’s saying makes his pleas seem ineffectual. Whatever he’s saying doesn’t seem to matter. A simple speaker/listener cut raises the scene to a new pitch, which will build still further when we follow Helen out onto the terrace. One more detail, brutal: We don’t hear Paul’s voice, but we do hear the click when he hangs up.
One thing that links all these Little Things: What the filmmakers did not do. Cy Endfield did not indulge in camera arabesques or POV cutting. Richard Fleischer and his colleagues did not suggest Ted’s duplicity with music or a noirish shadow. Jean Negulesco and company didn’t yield to the temptation to crosscut furiously between a panicked Paul and an anguished Helen. These directors did something rare today. They presented the situation with stylistic simplicity. That way the big moments–the revelation of Ted’s treachery in the train, the frenzied mob in The Sound of Fury, the all-enveloping climax of Helen on the beach–become more vivid. Big things need little things to seem bigger.
Thanks to Jim Healy, who introduced me to The Sound of Fury and The Clay Pigeon.
For more on the bomb under the table, see the followup entry here.
Lest someone think I’m dumping on Nolan, let’s just note that he can, when he wants, summon up niceties. (By the way, thanks to readers for hustling to our Nolan vs. Nolan entry, but they should read the one on The Prestige and our Inception series here and here to get a fuller sense of our estimation of him. All of these are put into reader-friendly order in an insanely inexpensive ebook…..)
Several other blog entries consider detailing in performance: Henry Fonda’s hands, Bette Davis’s eyelids, and the facial expressions in The Social Network. I’m still mulling an entry on eyebrows, which are terribly underrated. For another Joan Crawford tour de force, there’s this.
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014).
Be shot-conscious! I urged in a blog entry some years ago. I illustrated the point with a tradition of staging and shooting that seemed simple and modest but was actually quite flashy, and even fashionable. Although many filmmakers resorted to it, either often or occasionally, critics hadn’t attended to it. Wes Anderson’s work yielded one of many examples of what I called (swiping from art historian Heinrich Wölfflin) a “planimetric” style.
Ideally, you should look at that entry before reading this one. (To encourage you, I link it again. Not for the last time.) Very briefly, this style involves a frontal presentation of the action. You frame people against a perpendicular background, as if they were in a police line-up. Usually you face them to camera, as in this shot from Godard’s Made in USA.
As we’ll see, sometimes you can frame the characters at right angles to the camera, or turned directly away from the camera. Here are examples from Napoleon Dynamite and from Angelopoulos’ The Traveling Players. (Is this the first time these two movies have been mentioned together?)
The key idea is that the people and the setting aren’t observed from an oblique angle; if the background is perpendicular, the people will stand or sit at 90 or 180 degrees to that.
You can arrange them in some depth too, but again, they are stacked in perpendicular fashion, making each area a pretty strict plane. Here’s an example from Pulp Fiction.
One point of my earlier entry is that this is a surprisingly old strategy; Keaton used it occasionally, and Godard was using it heavily fifty years ago. Here are two shots from Contempt (Le Mépris, 1963).
It has endured in some surprising places. It’s now a go-to option for one-off effects in mainstream cinema. Here are examples from Shutter Island and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013 version).
A few filmmakers make it the basis of an entire film, as I indicate in this entry on Oliveira’s Gebo and the Shadow. And since I wrote the original entry, I’ve drawn on other examples from time to time, particularly from directors who are pastiching Ozu to some degree or another.
Still, Anderson is today the most widely visible example of the style, partly because while others use it sporadically, he is single-minded about it. He has made people shot-conscious (at least when they watch his movies). So after seeing his newest film, I thought it would be fun to think about what distinguishes his approach.
Playing with planes
With the release of The Grand Budapest Hotel, several bloggers have pointed to recurring compositional features, most obviously bilateral symmetry. I’d just add that such symmetry is often used by practitioners of the planimetric approach, with results that sometimes exceed Anderson’s. Here are two shots from Angelopoulos’ Weeping Meadow.
When you think about it, it takes a brave filmmaker (e.g., Godard) to use this approach and not deploy symmetry.
Anderson has used the planimetric approach more extensively in recent years, and he modifies it some distinctive ways. I think particularly of his habit of crowding people together in layers rather than stretching them along a single line. He makes some images look like group portraits or over-posed highschool yearbook shots (The Royal Tenenbaums; Fantastic Mr. Fox).
By employing the planimetric strategy, Anderson gains a somewhat awkward formality, a sense that we are looking from a distance into an enclosed world that sometimes looks back at us. There are as well the sort of comic possibilities that Keaton recognized in Neighbors and The General. A rigid perpendicular angle can endow action with an absurd geometry.
These apparently simple framings often evoke a world of childhood. Just as Kitano Takeshi shows us gangsters behaving like little boys, Anderson’s dollhouse-room frames make adults seem to be toy people arranged just so–like items laid out in a Joseph Cornell box. It’s a style suitable for magical-realist premises like The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and in Moonrise Kingdom it finds its echo in children’s illustrated books.
All in all, then, I have to salute an American filmmaker who thinks about his images carefully and has incited sensitive viewers to notice them. I think we should go further, though. We can ask: How does Anderson, staying loyal to this tradition, vary the look of the shots? And how does he cut them together?
Consider the editing option first. Unless every scene is to consist of only one shot, the question comes up: How do you maintain the style while cutting? Either you make all your cuts axial, straight in or straight back.; or you create a sort of compass-point editing. This can involve cutting 180 degrees, to what’s “behind” the camera in the initial shot. So if characters are confronting one another, the camera is in effect sitting between them as each looks over or through the lens at the other (Ozu’s Late Autumn).
In effect, this option respects the classic 180-degree line, or axis of action, between the characters. It’s just that the camera sits right on that line. Parking the camera on the axis is a common tactic for subjective cutting, showing us first a person looking, more or less at the camera, then what she or he sees from their vantage point. Our example in Film Art: An Introduction comes from Rear Window.
Ozu used this 180-degree reversal often, but not absolutely; he had a more complicated way of conceiving space, and the 180-degree frontal cuts were only part of it. Kitano made a simpler variant central to his early films.
When I asked Kitano why he did it, he explained that it was exactly the way people saw each other in ordinary life. We face each other. He then added that he was such a naive director when he started that it was the only way he knew to set up scenes. We get kindred images in Terence Davies’ work; his frontality may owe something to the Hollywood musical.
Compass-point editing offers another possibility, that of cutting at 90-degree angles to the background plane or the figures’ position. Chantal Akerman does it throughout Jeanne Dielman 23 Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles (1975).
Anderson exercises all these cutting options inThe Grand Budapest Hotel. Here a planimetric profile 2-shot yields two frontal shots; we shift 90 degrees and then 180 degrees.
Now here’s a 90-degree shift for the reverse shot.
In the passage below, the first cut rotates 90 degrees, and the second cuts in right on the lens axis. In this tradition, an axial cut respects the perpendicular layout of the space.
In such cutting patterns, the compositions keep the action in the same upper zone of the frame from shot to shot. As a result, our eye doesn’t wander much. In long shots, Anderson sometimes follows the classic Hollywood practice of allowing some decentering, as long as the cuts balance one off-center composition against another. Here the changing angles obey the compass-point principle across three shots, and they crisply shift the emphasis from the right side of the frame to the center to the left.
Someone who wanted to deflate Anderson’s visual ambitions could say that his shots are monotonous. Having imposed a big constraint on himself, he’s now obliged to show us that this approach can be varied–in obvious or subtle ways.
One way is through lens length. Most planimetric filmmakers use long lenses, which flatten the space even more. The figures can look like clothes hanging on a line. But Anderson favors quite wide-angle lenses (often 40mm). These make horizontal lines bulge, as in early CinemaScope films (Rushmore, The Life Aquatic).
You can see similar distortions in the straight-on shots of the hotel desk in Grand Budapest, above.
Another way Anderson varies his images is by departing from straight-on angles. As long as the framing maintains a planimetric geometry, we can look down or up at the action. In this passage, again the camera makes 180-degree reverses. This contrasts with the more orthodox shot/reverse shot framings in a comparable scene in The Little Foxes.
In this spirit, Anderson can give us bird’s-eye views, as Matt Zoller Seitz points out in his sumptuous book-length interview with the director. It’s rare, but there are precedents, as in the work of the Coens. In one shot of The Hudsucker Proxy, a movie with an inordinate number of straight-down angles, the inflexible framing creates a joke.
Grand Budapest Hotel has room for some classically funny framings. If you want somebody to look lonely, common practice says, frame the figure off center in a long shot. Here Anderson seems to be having a joke on the convention. He presents it as a POV, although presumably if the Writer were looking at the mysterious man he would put the object of attention in the center of his field of vision.
I think that Anderson’s earliest films weren’t quite so strict in obeying the planimetric and compass-point strategies. Those options were often slipped in as alternatives to more orthodox framing and cutting. But as he’s become more rigorous about using them, he has found ways to put his stamp on some common techniques. Like Ozu incorporating devices of classical continuity into his unique stylistic system, Anderson can recruit certain conventions while staying faithful to his basic approach.
For instance, Anderson sneakily brings in the OTS–the over-the-shoulder framing standard in shot/ reverse-shot dialogue scenes. In one prison scene, Harvey Keitel’s Ludwig is granted an OTS that varies subtly from the more purely straight-on views.
Much the same thing happens with in the punching scene at the reading of the will, when frontal characters are assaulted by fists coming in as if in reverse angles.
Anderson has figured out another way to vary his compositions. I learned this before I saw the movie, thanks to some comments by the cinematographer Robert Yeoman (great name).
High or wide, and handsome
To get the criticky part of this entry out of the way: The Grand Budapest Hotel has all the charm, fussiness, and intricate whimsy typical of Anderson’s work. As often in his films, it cuts its preciosity with moments of offhand brutality (sliced-off fingers) and flashes of naughty sexuality (fellatio, the lesbian painting). With its ensemble cast, sometimes deployed in cameos, it suggests a PoMo remake of those sprawling, self-congratulatory spoofs of the 1960s like The Great Race, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. (The film’s title evokes those all-star films set in hotels, like Grand Hotel and Hotel Berlin.) It’s much better than those, partly because it engages in an oblique way with history, creating a comic-pathetic alternative account of Nazi imperialism. It imagines the collapse of Europe in operetta terms, filtered through Anderson’s pawky humor and distinctive style. I admired the film but don’t feel able to analyze it much after only one viewing. Fortunately for me if not you, its stylistic aspects fit today’s sermonette.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is set in several time periods, and they’re presented via The Blog’s old friend, the device of flashbacks within flashbacks. One character recalls the past or tells a story, and inside that line of action another character recalls or recounts a story, and so on. In Grand Budapest Hotel we move from the present, more or less, to events in the 1980s, then the 1960s, and eventually the 1930s, which constitute the central episodes.
Anderson has shot the frame stories in different aspect ratios. It’s 1.85 for the near present and the 1980s, when the Author recounts meeting the hotel owner. That meeting, set in the 1960s, is shown in 2.40, the anamorphic aspect ratio. The central story, taking place in the 1930s, is presented in classic 1.37, or 4:3 imagery. With typical Anderson butterfly-collector wit, each era gets a ratio that could have been used in a movie at the time. It’s remarkable that Anderson could persuade Fox Searchlight to let him do this.
Most commercial releases in the 1950s and afterward were filmed in some widescreen ratio. In the early days, a popular option was a sort of clothesline staging, centering a single character or balancing others around the central axis: two side by side, three across, four as a pair of pairs, and so on. These shots are from Demetrius and the Gladiators and How to Marry a Millionaire.
Thanks to the widening of the frame, there is less air above the characters and less ground below them. The empty spaces are typically on the sides, particularly in the anamorphic 2.40 ratio. The problem of filling that up was solved, at least for some directors, by moving the camera very close to the actors. Spielberg remarked that he began shooting more close-ups when he filmed in anamorphic.
If you’re inclined to the planimetric approach, it fits the wider format nicely. Anderson wasn’t worried by the extra acreage; he just used the set or empty areas to balance one side against the other. Shots of only one character could be centered, as if posed, and shots of groups could be arranged more or less symmetrically, as in this passage from Moonrise Kingdom. Central perspective helps drive your eye to the main items.
In Grand Budapest, Anderson’s signature framings fit snugly into the scenes shot in 1.85 and 2.40. (The latter has been his favored ratio over the years.) But what about the 1.37 scenes? This brings me to Mr. Yeoman’s remark.
Explaining why he and Anderson watched a lot of films from the 1930s, especially by Lubitsch, Yeoman notes:
We looked at those more to familiarize ourselves with the 1.37:1 aspect ratio, which Wes wanted to use for the 1930s sequences. This aspect ratio opens up some interesting compositional possibilities; we often gave people a lot more headroom than is customary. A two-shot tends to be a little wider than the same shot in anamorphic. It was a format I’d never used before on a movie, and it was a fun departure. You can get accustomed to 1.85 or 2.40 to the point that the shots become more predictable.
Put it another way: Anderson’s penchant for centering and symmetry inclines him toward widescreen compositions that could be simply cropped right and left to fit the 1.37 ratio. His single characters and huddled groups could remain much as before. But in more distant framings you might get a lot of extra space at top and bottom–areas that simply aren’t there in the wide ratios. In other words, Anderson’s multi-format strategy gave him a new problem in maintaining his signature style.
How did he solve it? Many Budapest Hotel shots do leave considerable headroom, as you see in most of the 1.37 examples above. But other shots show Anderson filling his 4:3 frame in varied and engaging ways.
As Ozu showed, for instance, the planimetric option can fill the frame’s upper area when the camera height is below eye level. During the conversation in the car, above, Anderson gets the head of M. Ivan (Bill Murray) in the top of the frame thanks to a low angle. Here are two more examples of filling the upper reaches of the format by use of a lowish camera position.
In the elevator shot, the headroom becomes comic, with M. Gustave and Madame D. seated on the right, the morose bellboy filling the vertical area on the left, and Zero in the middle. The empty space above the couple creates a lively imbalance emphasizing them in a way different from the very balanced framing that centers Henckel among his men.
The set can cooperate. In the first shot below, Zero’s and Agatha’s centered embrace leaves lots of headroom, but the slightly disheveled stack of pastry boxes in the upper background contributes to the sense that they’re engulfed. In the second shot below, part of its humor comes from the rigid geometry of the grid and the way M. Gustave and his colleagues fill in the matrix with their intent faces and busy hands.
In all, Anderson seems to me to find intringuing ways to create visual interest in the 4:3 format. But as with any severe style, you wonder about what’s been lost.
Most obviously, Anderson loses some of the intimacy that comes with more angular and less strict approaches to the classic ratio. We like to see people from 3/4 views too. We also like depth shots that plunge us into a dynamic, diagonal playing space. Here’s a shot from John Huston’s In This Our Life, as precious in its own way as Anderson’s imagery.
As Hogarth pointed out, with the serpentine line in painting and drawing, such shots can lead our eye on “a wanton kind of chase.”
Because directors of the 1920s-1940s accepted a wider range of compositional options than Anderson embraces, headroom simply wasn’t an important problem, as in the Huston shot. Even in simpler shots, classical uses of the 4:3 ratio permitted a flexible organization of figures.
Centered symmetry against a flat ground is a fairly easy compositional strategy, after all. It wasn’t used much in the mainstream tradition because it looks artificial; perhaps only with the rise of art cinema was this sort of self-conscious composition welcomed. In any case, sticking with symmetry sacrifices the more delicate spotting of figures and faces around the frame.
A lot of visual art tries for more supple and subtle twists, torsions, and counterbalancing. Apart from organizing your space along the horizontal and vertical axes, you can try to set figures in delicate array along diagonals. This is why some old-time cinematographers argued that the 4:3 ratio was the best suited to the human body: it can flatter it from any angle.
To get a sense of these possibilities, I’ve compiled a little collection of images from a film that doesn’t boast any outrageously pretty shots: Otto Preminger’s Angel Face (1953). It’s typical of the unassertive approach we find in Preminger’s work of the 1940s and 1950s. He avoids the flashy depth of the post-Kane directors and offers something less aggressive but no less fascinating. Composition and staging integrate expressions, posture, glances, and gestures to create a smooth flow of action. My samples also indicate how rare straight-on views of faces and bodies are in American studio cinema. The 3/4 angle rules.
As with the American films of Lang, Preminger’s work displays a style that’s tough to analyze because the technique isn’t obvious. There’s a marvelous variety in the ways that the 4:3 ratio can render a single figure or two figures, or three, shifting them not around the perfect center of the picture format but around curves and diagonal axes–that yield interest in their own right.
This last comparison isn’t a slam on Anderson. I think well of many of his films, particularly the most recent ones, and I appreciate anyone who takes on a challenge of narrowing his range of creative choices. Once you narrow that range, it turns out there’s a host of new possibilities that pop out. Call it the Ozu strategy: refine your means and you discover nuances nobody else notices.
Still, in art as in life, every choice is a trade-off. It’s worth remembering what one loses by pursuing a particular path. By sticking to his signature look in working with 4:3, Anderson gave himself a problem that didn’t exist for directors of an earlier time, the problem of maintaining a frontal style in a squarish format. I’m glad he faced it and solved it. But I’m also glad that classical filmmakers, quite intuitively, showed how much you could do with an alternative option.
Iain Stasukevich’s American Cinematographer article on the making of The Grand Budapest Hotel is well worth your attention beyond the technical matter I latched onto.
The Huston image came to hand because of the previous entry. Go there for more instances of the sort of framing and staging that Anderson and his planimetric colleagues don’t aim at.
I survey the planimetric style in On the History of Film Style and in Figures Traced in Light. A search of this blog’s archive will bring other instances to light. I analyze Ozu’s style in Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema, available as a pdf here. For more on CinemaScope, you can visit my online lecture.
P.S. 27 March (Hong Kong time): Jonah Horwitz writes with a useful point:
One thing I would add to your summary is that as early as Rushmore, most notably in The Darjeeling Limited, Anderson purposely inserts into his limited stylistic palette selected, isolated “foreign” devices like loose framings, handheld camera, and relatively aimless zooms (as opposed to his more common precise shock-zooms). In some cases, as in the drama-club staging of “Serpico” in Rushmore, these devices serve as citations, in that case to “realist” New Hollywood cinematography. But they also feel very much like the exceptions that prove the rule: they stand out from his usual stylistic register so much that they effectively reinforce the latter. I’m looking forward to seeing Grand Budapest to see if this continues, or if he emphasizes instead a further refinement of his typical gestures.
I agree with Jonah that importing foreign devices often throws into relief a filmmaker’s signature style–a matter of a film’s intrinsic norm getting reinforced by some marked deviation from it. I think of Ozu’s pans or tracking shots, which occur in all his black and white films, and which often just remind us how narrow the style is in the rest of the movie. And sometimes, as in The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice, those camera movements are hybrids or compromises with with his static style. Thanks to Jonah for corresponding.
P.P.S. 27 March: This entry has been revised to eliminate an error. Originally I had said that the play with aspect ratios in the film wouldn’t have been possible before digital projection. Bryce Utting wrote to point out that it was indeed possible on film, since Peter Greenaway’s Pillow Book used both 1.85 and anamorphic widescreen. I had even seen the film and forgotten that! Thanks to Bryce for the correction.
P.P.P.S. 30 March (Hong Kong time): Jim Healy, impresario of our Wisconsin Cinematheque, writes to point out several other films that mix aspect ratios:
The first hour of Redford’s The Horse Whisperer, the urban-set part, is in 1.85. When the characters make it to the open horse country, the image widens to ‘scope. . . . The 2002 Disney animated feature Brother Bear (which isn’t so bad) is 1.85 for about the first 20 minutes and when the principal Inuit character (voiced by Joaquin Phoenix) is transformed into a bear, the picture goes to Scope.
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014).
Manny Farber, undated photo. Courtesy of Patricia Patterson.
It has been suggested by some that Mr. Farber’s prose style is labyrinthine; they fidget as he picks up a complex sentence full of interlocking clauses and sends it rumbling down the alley. I do not share this view. With men who know rococo best, it’s Farber two to one. Lulled by his Wagnerian rhythms, I snooze in my armchair, confident that the mystique of the talking picture is in capable hands.
S. J. Perelman, 1946
This entry is part of a series on 1940s American critics. The first installments are here, here, here, and here. This is the second devoted to Manny Farber; the first considered his writings on visual art during the 1940s.
As I indicated earlier, Farber’s 1940s work breaks into two phases. First, from 1942 to 1946, he wrote for The New Republic, replacing Otis Ferguson. “Ferguson went off patriotically to war in the Merchant Marine and died. The next day I was asking for a job as movie critic. I was never very sentimental in that period. I was ambitious.” After a couple of years off, he did a stint at The Nation, during which he continued sporadically to review art but concentrated on film. In the second phase, from 1949 to 1954, he moved toward the positions he highlighted in Negative Space. This 1971 collection of essays consolidated his reputation and put in place the critical persona we still associate with him.
What’s fascinating is that the late 1940s-early 1950s pieces cast off many of the commitments he made during his first encounters with cinema. To become our Manny Farber, he had to become a somewhat different Manny Farber than the one who came to New York in late 1941.
The Ferguson legacy
In the previous entry, I suggested that Farber’s art reviews ran in parallel to that of a more famous critic, Clement Greenberg. Film criticism was dominated by another senior figure, James Agee.
The author of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) and a central player in New York literary culture, Agee commanded a following. Farber became friends with him and they socialized frequently. After Agee’s death, Farber would write rather brusquely about him, praising him but also calling him a thoroughgoing middlebrow, “a fall guy,” a master of “verbal stunting,” and a purveyor of “arrogant, omnipotent decisions.” During Agee’s life, Farber never seems to have mentioned him in print, although Agee occasionally mentioned the younger man and arranged for Farber to become his successor at The Nation.
In 1942, when both Farber and Agee started writing about films, both faced the same conventions of journalistic reviewing that are in effect today. The reviewer had to sketch the film’s plot (without revealing the ending); dwell on performances; convey something of the film’s look and feel, perhaps with reference to direction, camerawork, editing, and music; and render a summary judgment. For economy’s sake, the writer typically dealt with these matters through a rhetoric of faults and beauties and a selection of a few vivid moments that counted for good or ill.
The challenge to any writer with pride was to do all these things in subtle, engaging ways. The review had to seem less a checklist than a flowing discourse, a controlled literary essay that happened to take a new movie as its pretext. Agee found ways to refresh these conventions, largely by treating the movie’s overall qualities and its striking moments as harboring the sort of power that Romantic aesthetics attributed to poetry.
Today the ambitious critic will accomplish these tasks so as to project a public persona, a distinct critical identity. I suggested in this entry that it was during the 1940s that the groundwork for this tradition of celebrity film criticism was laid. Agee presented himself as an eloquent but anxious, introspective personality, a stance that also dominates Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Farber constructed a different persona: the straight-shooting, hard-hitting, cultivated roughneck.
That critical voice wasn’t entirely new, though. It had already been heard a bit in the work of Otis Ferguson, Farber’s predecessor at The New Republic. Agee and Farber tacitly accepted the invitation that Ferguson issued when he went off to war:
More people go to good and bad movies than read good and bad books, and surely the top layer of this vast audience is as discriminating of taste and exacting of standards as the top layer of the reading public. . . . There are plenty of young people growing up to whom the films are so natural that they do not have to play the snob about them.
Agee and Farber had both loved movies since their teen years, and now they had a chance to exercise their love unsnobbishly.
Ferguson left more behind than admonitions. Through the 1930s, he had set out the premises for a defense of the Hollywood movie. Perhaps a younger critic could test these premises within the changing situation of 1940s filmmaking. What progress had been made? Had current filmmakers forgotten the lessons of the traditions recently established by talking pictures?
We find both Agee and Farber accepting, for instance, Ferguson’s general antipathy to arty pictures, talky pictures, “theatrical” pictures. Ferguson had developed the idea, going back at least to Gilbert Seldes, that what made movies art was their dramatic and pictorial organization of motion. But not motion as sheer movement; rather, movement made significant, turned into action.
For Ferguson, a good film flowed. It harnessed image and sound to the clear, vivid presentation of the story. Echoing Hollywood’s own aesthetic, Ferguson insisted that the audience shouldn’t notice the artistry. “Its main problem always is story, story, story—or, How can we do it to them so they don’t know beforehand it’s being done?” Ferguson’s adverse comments on Citizen Kane summarized his conception of the Hollywood craft. The italics are his.
The most important thing in the technique of a motion picture–and here director and writer are in varying degrees interdependent–is its construction shot by shot, not for the effect or punch line of any one fragment, but for such devising and spacing as avoid monotony, hold the interest, and lead easily from one thing into another, the devices for illusion being always and necessarily hidden in the natural emergence of the illusion itself.
This straight, clean storytelling is endorsed by Agee, though he’s willing to grant a little room for flourishes. Farber is stricter, pushing Ferguson’s idea of invisible style to a new level. Farber notes:
If the events are arranged to progress as though there were no camera present, if the camera merely watches and records what those events look like, the movie is to my mind the true nature of a movie; that is it is non-theatrical. . . . . The actions and procedures of the event will be seen propelled solely by factors within the event itself, irrespective of the camera.
A good director, says Farber, is always “seeking the idea in the visual world of action and movement, which is the more suitable, and so more emotionally vital, manner for the movies.” Like Agee and Ferguson, Farber held that this quality had been achieved during the silent era; all three held up Griffith, Chaplin, and the rest of the silent-film canon as the sort of thing that sound cinema would have to match.
More importantly, the demand for invisible illusion and narrative continuity ran against the deepest commitments of the Greenbergian modernism that dominated Farber’s gallery-and-museum milieu. Greenberg and his followers declared that painters who accepted the challenge of history would explore anti-illusionistic devices like surface values and spatial contradictions. Storytelling was best left to middlebrows like Norman Rockwell, who had mastered all the tricks of Victorian narrative painting. Modern painting, Greenberg thundered, should not illustrate. But according to Ferguson and company, a movie was at its core an illustration–a story told in action, by means of cinematic technique, made smooth and deft and emotionally absorbing.
Ferguson’s imprint was especially deep on Farber. His later work paid homage to Ferguson frequently, and without his usual acidity. Farber’s classic 1952 piece, “The Gimp,” borrows ideas and phrases from Ferguson’s review of Citizen Kane ten years earlier. As late as 1977 he was referring to “what Ferguson wrote about the iron fence in Citizen Kane,” as if every reader would have known that rather obscure critique.
Manny and you (and me)
Juke Girl (1942).
I think what I set out to do with criticism in the Forties . . . was to set out the movie before the reader’s eye in as much completeness as I could, in that topography. I had to develop a picture which could pull the audience in and give them these sights without their realizing it, and which would divulge the landscape of the film as accurately as I could get it. That involved a lot of color work in the language and in the insights—color work in the sense of decorative quality.
Manny Farber, 1977
Owing so much to Ferguson, running alongside Agee, and facing the constraining conventions of movie reviewing, Farber had to distinguish himself. One tactic came naturally: his style. Ferguson had brought to serious film criticism the tang of Depression newshawk jauntiness. Every paragraph is a freewheeling adventure in slang, mixed metaphors, and yoyo syntax.
Having expended so much care to such effect, [the makers of The Philadelphia Story] might have considered also that it is only brooks in poems that go on forever without somebody’s beginning to yawn, scratch, and wonder seriously whether it is the suspense or just his underwear that is climbing. They might have cut out the boob move of the writer proposing at the wedding and right before his own fiancée . . . . They could, I suppose have extended the very funny business at the expense of Timelife and its prose-bearing oracular baby-talk—though I wonder whether even the keen edge that is present as it is cuts any of the dull butter that must be out there haw-hawing at the performance and trundling up with a ring in its nose to the same newsstand afterward. . . . But there is nothing served in figuring out how to do something after someone has very well proved that it’s done already because he did it.
This is tough to beat. Farber brought some of this élan to his art reviews; maybe he thought that Ferguson had established lithe vernacular as the New Republic house style. In any event, across the 1940s, Farber raises Ferguson’s demotic prose a couple of notches in intensity. For example, masculine values (physical work, comradeship) were central to Ferguson, and both Agee and Farber use “virility” as a term of high praise. But characteristically Farber ups the ante, calling Maya Deren’s films “lesbianish” and warning us against their “pansyish composing and lighting.” (Remember, he was still in his twenties.)
Farber’s inflation of critical rhetoric is most evident when he ransacks the resources of figurative language. Usually it’s recruited for ridicule, but it can add wiseacre humor to anything.
*Hyperbole: Juke Girl is “the most belligerent thing you’ve ever seen.” None But the Lonely Heart is “one of the biggest hodgepodges Hollywood ever constructed.” Val Lewton is “the least commercial film maker in Hollywood by about a hundred miles.” Murder My Sweet is “by all all odds the most incomprehensible movie in years.”
*Metaphor: The protagonist of Open City “reminds you of a wet string.” Bing Crosby “chews gum with jet-propelled jaws.” All-purpose, and a bit mysterious: “Soft-shoe” applied to film direction, usually Howard Hawks.
*Comic personification: Hitchcock “impregnates costume and décor with so much crackling luster, so much tension and latent evil, that the spectator expects a stair corner or tie clasp to start murdering everyone in sight.”
*Comic understatement: The hero of The Razor’s Edge is “deeply distressed by his war experiences.” The hero’s office in A Rage in Heaven is “rather stunted. . . . couldn’t house more than eight or nine trains.”
*Comic overstatement: Ann Blyth is “about eighty years too young for what she is doing.” The home in Since You Went Away contains “several hundred photographs” of the absent father. In We Were Strangers “the tunnel dug in a week by six proletarian heroes is the size of the Holland Tunnel.”
*Burlesque (Gertrude Stein dept.): “But most of all this picture was not very good and was made by MGM and that clinches the argument.”
*Paradox: The Postman Always Rings Twice “is almost too terrible to walk out of.”
Then there’s his gift for paraprosdokian, the sentence with a surprise ending. The most famous example is “Stalag 17 is a crude, cliché-ridden glimpse of a Nazi prison camp that I hated to see end.” Here’s another: “The attempt seems to be to give the sensation of reading the book rather than looking at a movie, and I think it succeeds to a certain extent, anyway sufficiently to paralyze the movie.”
One of Farber’s most robust rhetorical strategies involves personal pronouns. Agee’s paragraphs are studded with I’s as he reenacts the squirming push-and-pull of arriving at his judgments. Farber, who never enacts the hesitating agonies of appraisal, seldom resorts to I. He is a man for you. In The Big Sleep “you try to decide what motivates the people.” For Open City: “No one opens his mouth or takes a step without reminding you of dozens of other movies.” Farber’s review of North Star is a cascade of you’s, creating a reader who is simultaneously following his prose and watching a virtual movie.
The strategy is shrewd. When the critic’s impressions are transferred to the hypothetical viewer (you), you’re already halfway to agreeing with him. Moreover, the reader is flattered, especially when the critic attributes to you a knowledge of dozens of other movies. This just-pals mind-meld asserts authority while implying equality. Ferguson resorts to the device occasionally, and Pauline Kael lived off it. (I flinch every time I remember her claim that after seeing Roxanne “You want to go to the town; you want to go back to the movie.”)
Forms and feelings
Farber’s rhetorical maneuvers are often aimed at sharpening the sort of detail we find in his art criticism of the same time. In a short review, the critic must fasten on moments. These are typically faults or beauties, and perhaps they quietly signal how attentive the critic’s eye is. Both Agee and Farber followed Ferguson in looking for vitality, authenticity, and well-managed storytelling. Agee went further, seeking in the privileged moments a glimpse of transporting beauty. Farber, no Romantic, looked in cinema for the flares of expressive significance he prized in painting.
So in Casablanca he’s fascinated by Peter Lorre “wrinkling and unwrinkling his forehead faster than ever” or Humphrey Bogart, who “seems to be holding back a mouthful of blood.” The Glass Key lets us dwell on the way a character “fondles a bottle he is about to crack over a skull.” Farber mocks implausible neatness, as when five people enter a crowded movie house and conveniently get five seats together. By contrast, Youth Runs Wild plays out “the whole visual vocabulary of a group like [Lewton’s] high-school kids: their stance and gestures playing handball, smoking.” Fresh details are best when casually caught, not studiously inserted. Laboring over striking effects would hurt the sense of action moving along without special concessions to the camera.
Just as we get more concrete evidence in Farber’s art reviews than in Greenberg’s, we get more of it in his film reviews than in Agee’s. For Agee, Counter-Attack (1945) is something of a gimmick film. The movie confines itself mostly to a chiaroscuro-drenched cellar in which two Soviet partisans try to guard seven German soldiers while a battle rages above them. It isn’t really hard, Agee says, to keep a movie alive in a confined space. He praises and criticizes the film in generalities: some formulaic defects, some virtues.
Farber devotes a long column to Counter-Attack, and he too has some objections, typically phrased more pungently than Agee. (Agee: Paul Muni is “too often an over-generalized, stagy embodiment of Russia.” Farber: Muni’s acting “is in a heavy, emphatic style that could be studied in detail from any distance up to a mile.”) But in scrutinizing Counter-Attack, Farber soaks us in minutiae. We learn that the Nazis are seldom seen in close-up or from within their group; that movements away from the group are “given grandeur” by the lighting and a building tension about exactly how far Muni will let an enemy walk toward him; that Muni delivers his orders like a whipcrack; and that the film makes
. . . the magician’s performance of magic a hypnotic, dance-like affair with an insinuating pattern of sound supplied to identify the noise cigarettes make hitting the inside of a helmet as the magician throws them.
Farber also registers current trends in theme, form, and style. He is exceptionally sensitive to the portrayal of African Americans in movies and never misses a chance to observe how stereotypes, even those in earnest problem pictures, abridge their identities. His brother was a psychiatrist, so he can spray mordant humor on the vogue for psychoanalytic mysteries: the doctor goads the patient into “recalling his one trauma—straining like a man lifting the Woolworth building.”
He notices flashbacks (though he usually dislikes them), the emerging conventions of war pictures, and the roles ascribed to the hero. Farber salutes the clever opening of Sturges’ Palm Beach Story as an experiment, a “miniature movie” left hanging until the film’s final shot. One funny essay on the prospect of Hollywood Dada targets a host of clichés: tears welling up, entire meals finished after we’ve seen people eat only a few bites, cigarettes smoked down in a couple of puffs, immaculately handwritten notes executed in fast motion. What the critics of mass culture saw as stultifying mindlessness, Farber treats as a familiar joy in conventions that do neat work and seem silly only when you stop to think about them.
Farber fills out Ferguson’s dicta about flowing continuity with an emphasis on feeling. He worries that Sturges’ films aren’t “emotionally evocative,” and he praises the lovers’ kiss in The Clock as “one of the most awesome and emotionally accurate scenes in years.” Even a weak film like Rage in Heaven can be redeemed by the spasms of fear we notice in Robert Montgomery’s performance. The Dark Mirror gains its emotional truth in a remarkably visual way: the differences among the three main characters are underscored by each one’s distinctive manner of kissing. As with the paintings that Farber prizes, a movie excells when it presents feelings briskly, without leaden emphasis.
Negative space, 2D and 3D
“The dotted tension lines indicate the amount of negative space that exists between the positive volumes. This negative space should be understood as a concrete and essential part of the structure. Emptiness or lack of structural necessity are [sic] certainly not implied” (Earle Loran, Cézanne’s Composition, 1943).
Is this all? Isn’t Farber’s main contribution to the critical conversation his expertise as an artist and a critic of modern painting? The 1940s criticism has fewer references to painting than we’re used to in the later work. But he does, rather tentatively, start to consider movies pictorially. What’s striking about his angle of approach is that he treats cinema as different from painting.
Most generally, he claims that images are central to artistry in the medium. But although his painting reviews often emphasize the geometry of pictorial composition, in films he cares less about this than he does about the way the filmmaker captures the event with emotional force. In The Stranger, Welles creates excitement with moments that are “shot at an angle that gives you the hardest impact of the action.” Tay Garnett’s The Cross of Lorraine presents combat “with striking pictorial truth, complexity and force. He is always forcing the emotion of an action by getting the clearest, most direct views of it, by cutting his film so that the action continually strikes out at the audience.”
Most 1940s films, Farber maintains, aim at a bland sheen but not purposeful images. When a film is weak, “there is nothing in the people, costuming or acting that will intrigue your eye enough to keep it focused on the story.” Heaven Can Wait is content to set the camera ten to fifteen feet from its actors and center the people squarely and at eye-level. Lost Boundaries, despite a laudable message about black Americans, is pictorially “as spineless as vanilla pudding.”
The photographer’s head evidently comes off if he tries anything but the orthodox, group-portrait composition: central details a little above screen enter, neither close to nor far from the camera.
In Mildred Pierce, “people are arranged for each scene as though at a first rehearsal, all squared off facing the audience.” What would the young Farber have made of Wes Anderson?
For Farber, the most memorable images carry the story’s idea through both framing and staging: the political meeting in The 39 Steps, a scene in The Ox-Bow Incident with cowboys studying a painting over the bar. Mr. Lucky exploits “the position of a person in relation to his environment and the people occupying it with him.” Farber goes on at length about how the scenes in a War Relief office jammed with people and partitions combines “architecture, pantomime and movie devices. . . with almost acrobatic invention.”
The whole sequence “uses all the components of a fluid medium, and the effect is a real movie one, neither theatrical nor literary.”
This fluidity was crucial for Ferguson too, but Farber realizes that it runs athwart the modernist demands about the frame edge. “Having a voice, eyes and legs, [film] is more fluid than any other medium. Like the mind, it is physically unbounded and can paint.” It paints, he implies, not a Mondrian or a Malevich, in which the frame edges create their own dynamic, but something like what we find on an unrolling picture scroll. James Wong Howe’s shots in Air Force reveal a space “uncentered in the old sense taken from painting, so that it seems to spread out in all directions past the boundaries of the screen.” Anticipating Bazin’s conception of the porous frame, Farber finds the unboundedness of cinematic space central to its power.
Accordingly, cinematic space that is too exactly composed seems overbearing, designed to be appreciated. Many 1940s films display tight composition with deep perspectives. But perspective was under suspicion in Manhattan’s 1940s art world. According to Hans Hofmann and other theorists, composition by line (e.g., linear perspective) was less forceful than composition by planes and masses. With these resources, the painter can build up volume through negative space.
The term became a buzzword in the Manhattan artworld of the 1940s, having been emphasized in Hofmann’s lectures and given explicit definition in Earle Loran’s Cézanne’s Composition (1943). For Loran, positive space consists of the masses in the depicted scene. Negative space amounts to the relations in depth among the masses. (See the diagram above.) These spaces should be felt as forces, creating a three-dimensional dynamic, a “push-and-pull,” as Hofmann called it. Parallel to negative 3D space are negative shapes, which are the unfilled portions of the 2D composition.
Farber would use the term broadly and metaphorically in later years, but he explicitly invokes negative space in the narrow sense in 1953, significantly in relation to the enhanced depth of stereoscopic cinema. When 3D films frame the shot through a horse’s legs or wagon wheels, they create “a sort of hole” between the front plane and more distant ones, and the result is “a more exact impression of masses.”
I think Farber applies the idea of negative space earlier, in an important 1946 comment on The Searching Wind. As with Mr. Lucky, it’s not a film he especially likes, but it does provide something quite different from the “stiff, contrived shot” that rules Welles’ films. Although Farber doesn’t spell out the difference, I believe he’s objecting to Welles’ habit of filling every inch of the frame, including pasting a big head in the foreground.
We speak of images like these as deep, but instead of summoning up negative space through tensions between the masses, Welles gives us something closer to a collage. The low angle of the Wellesian shot makes the three-dimensional relations less concrete; different-sized figures and faces seem jigsawed into the frame. There’s less a sense of varying distance (3D negative space) than varying size (2D placement). Moreover, there’s less of negative shape as well, since every inch of the frame seems stuffed with points of interest.
Farber asks us to contrast William Dieterle’s The Searching Wind:
The spaces between people are made concrete and of varying distances so that the movie has not only the three-dimensional but the dispersed look of real life.
The more open compositions of The Searching Wind create a naturalistic array of figures and lay out the sort of axes of tension seen in Loran’s diagram above. The people have room to breathe, with well-articulated negative shapes of varying sizes spacing them out. They gain the volume proper to distinct compositional masses. “Garmes’ photography,” Farber adds, “makes the people seem bulky.”
He goes on to another important point. A Searching Wind shot also “gives you the feeling that you’re in the room where the action is taking place.” To the naturalism of spatial arrangement is added a sense of our presence. We look at the scene in a non-theatrical, plausibly offhand way. But Welles’s compositions makes sense only when seen from a single vantage point; the shot is designed around our eye.
Shift the camera a little to left or right in my Welles illustrations, and the composition collapses. Shift the Searching Wind camera, and the action would still cohere. This is an example, I think, of what Farber suggests when he claims that an event can be presented in such a way that we believe it would unfold with the same force if the camera had not captured it.
In sum, Farber accepted that it was legitimate for contemporary painting to insist on the picture plane, to refuse illustration and illusion, and to recognize the active role of the frame edges. But at this point in his career he saw cinema as bound up with storytelling. That demands an art that hides art.
Farber had a stronger pictorial sensibility than either Agee or Tyler. His gifted eye sized up cinema’s visual possibilities. But he didn’t see those possibilities as akin to modernist painting. Cinema was a new medium of pictorial artistry, with its own demands—demands for story, illusion, incisive action, indefinite boundaries, loosely composed figures—all those pictorial considerations that the Manhattan gallery scene found suspect. Cinema was at its best when it blended authenticity and feeling with vivid but subtle visual form. Hollywood cinema, a popular art, could flourish through expressive naturalism.
The movies go modern
A Place in the Sun (1951).
Farber left The New Republic when Henry Wallace, having been fired from Truman’s cabinet, became editor. After over two years away from film reviewing, Farber returned to writing in 1949. His work for The Nation demands intensive study and appreciation in its own right, but I want here just to indicate how it displays a sharp shift in Farber’s aesthetic and in his attitude toward what happened in the 1940s.
During the 1940s, as I’ve mentioned, many American filmmakers began to stage and shoot their scenes in various degrees of depth. If Kane did not start the trend, it provided a vivid demo. Very soon after its release many films—The Maltese Falcon, Kings Row, The Little Foxes, Ball of Fire, and others—displayed big foregrounds, steep diagonals, and several planes of action in more or less sharp focus. These techniques became salient features of black-and-white Hollywood dramas, and many color ones, into the 1960s.
What’s striking, however, is that few American critics of the time bore witness to this as it was happening. Welles’ technical innovations were well-covered in the press, so most reviews mentioned what Toland had done, but as far as I can tell the widespread adoption of the style went almost completely unnoticed in film reviews. Even Farber’s New Republic pieces refer to depth staging in the oblique ways I’ve just mentioned, and he doesn’t go into lens length, film stocks, lighting, and other matters that were fairly common in the technical journals of the day.
By the early 1950s, however, Farber had time to register what happened to the Hollywood style he had celebrated. Not only were movies becoming more middlebrow, with prestigious projects trying to bring back the audience. Not only were acting styles becoming more extroverted, even neurotic. Movies were also becoming more stylistically aggressive—more, in a way, like modern art.
1950: American film-makers have suddenly learned how to make movies work as plastically as Mondrian paintings, using bizarre means and gaucherie.
1950: Directors, by flattening the screen, discarding framing and centered action, and looming the importance of actors—have made the movie come out and hit the audience with almost personal savagery.
The bland, stolid style he deplored in the 40s kept the camera far back, but now filmmakers had gone to the other extreme.
1951: The new close-up style of camera work . . . is evidently aimed at fetishists who like to study pores.
1951: [My Son John works] powerfully in the new style of close-ups, disembodied faces, and immobilized groupings.
1953: [In Member of the Wedding] you are practically on top of the human figure when, trapped in the most intense motion and feeling, it is cut off from the surrounding things that make life seem ordinary and fairly secure.
Certainly several directors used extreme close-ups in the 1950s, but then so did several directors in the 1940s, particularly in B films. A look today at My Son John doesn’t back up the sense that it’s full of close-ups and disembodied faces. The occasional big faces in A Place in the Sun are a bit more blatant, but most of the film is shot in the normal range of distances, and one long-take scene employs a distant high-angle recalling Mizoguchi. In all, I think that Farber is after something more general concerning the stylistics of space.
It sounds odd to say that the deep-focus style of the early 1950s yields flat and shallow images. But the big foregrounds and background figures squeezed into a locked-in frame seemed to Farber a legacy of Welles’s “stiff” shots. Directors were abandoning the spacious, dispersed framings of The Searching Wind and other films that balanced figures and landscape in a harmonious flow, that created solid masses and expressive tensions in the negative space. And the frames are so crowded that there are scarcely any negative shapes to offset the areas covered by the figures.
In sum, the recent films brought home to him a stylistic change that had been gathering force under his nose earlier. In 1952, he offers some complementary historical accounts. From one angle, he suggests that there was a kind of lag in picking up the excesses of Citizen Kane. He claims that Welles’ film initially made little impact on veteran directors. Only now, with A Streetcar Named Desire, A Place in the Sun, People Will Talk, and other Gimp movies has “straight storytelling” lost out to an overbearing style, with shallow perspectives, “low intimate views,” rigid staging, and always faces in our faces—“huge, florid, eccentric, and somewhat sinister.”
From another angle, Farber senses that the decay wasn’t delayed but rather was setting in very early, at the start of the 1940s. There were filmmakers like Lewton who always respected the balance between his characters and the scenery, along with non-intellectuals (Walsh, Hawks) who at their best conveyed “the truth of American life and the excitement of American movement.” (Again Farber echoes Ferguson, who pledged Hollywood cinema to “the truth of life and the excitement of movement.”)
But, Farber insists, early 1940s Hollywood also played host to Times Square intellectuals fed on left-wing theatre and fiction. Their films pushed symbolism, political criticism, and fragmentary form. In this version, Welles isn’t the only culprit; there are Sturges (The Great McGinty), Kanin (A Man to Remember), and Huston’s Maltese Falcon. All displayed “very close, snarling presentation which put the actors practically in a nose-to-nose relationship with the movie spectator.” And now we had William Wyler’s Carrie, with its shallow space, “the actors arranged parallel-fashion and statically on the front pane of the scene.” Paradoxical as it may sound, American cinema had achieved the pictorial flatness Greenberg prized in painting.
Years later, in the introduction to Negative Space, Farber would add a few data points to this little history, looking backward to What Price Glory? (1927) and its “illustrational” style, “scaled in human terms for the space of the screen.” The Big Sleep (1946) is more compact and parsimonious in its coordinates, but it’s still worlds away from Touch of Evil’s “disorienting, illogical, allegorical” space—“prismatic and a quagmire at the same time.”
In the 1950s, on the whole, American movies had become worse than ever. There were, of course, the exceptions that he became identified with. A mild advocate for B films during the 1940s, Farber now found them preferable to bloated prestige pictures. White Tower (1950), Union Station (1951), and Kansas City Confidential (1952) maintained “present tense-realism through low-budgeted, off-the-cuff, on-location technique.” Later he would look back at the masters of the studio action picture and discuss them in the painterly terms—e.g., cubistic lapels and hat brims—that would dominate his writing in later years.
Manny and the Man
We Were Strangers (John Huston, 1948).
Farber’s 1950s denunciation of much 1940s cinema made for contradictions that he didn’t confront. In 1943 he had praised Kane highly, finding it a challenge to the “visual sterility” of most Hollywood films: it made each scene “a vigorous new visual experience.” No trace there of the Times Square leftist influence. The Story of GI Joe carried its point with “real cinematic strength” in 1945, but in 1957 Farber considers it flat, sentimental, and merely a MoMA classic. In 1943 he greeted Hitchcock as “producing movies of high quality,” but eight years later the director became the master of “cheap, glossy, mechanically perfect shocks” whose “only really punchy Hollywood job was ‘Lifeboat.’”
Sometimes the shift is startling. Upon release in 1946, The Best Years of Our Lives earned about the most consistent praise Farber lavished on any film of the decade. It was “far and away the least sentimental, most human of current films . . . an extreme sensitive and poignant study of life like your own.” A decade later, however, it became “a horse-drawn truckload of liberal schmaltz,” one of those “solemn goiters” that get by because “they bear the label of ART in every inch of their reelage.” Critics can of course change their minds, but it’s a disconcerting when praise and criticism are pressed with equally vehement confidence, and the critic castigates his fellows for not looking “straight backward” to reappraise the films he too elevated.
Looking straight backward at Farber’s comments on John Huston, we find him declaring that “The Maltese Falcon is a good story which director John Huston told brilliantly on the screen” (1942). San Pietro has “breathtaking reality, fullness of detail and sharp effect from shot to shot” (1945). Yet by the time he returned to reviewing he found Huston wanting.
Agee, as I indicated in the previous entry in this series, found in Huston a rare level of excellence. His review of Treasure (1948) is purely in the Ferguson spirit:
There is not a shot-for-shot’s-sake in the picture, or one too prepared-looking, or dwelt on too long. The camera is always where it ought to be, never imposes on or exploits or over-dramatizes its subject, never for an instant shoves beauty or special meaning at you. . . . His style is practically invisible as well as practically universal in its possible good uses; it is the most virile movie style I know of; and it is the purest style in contemporary movies, here or abroad.
At this point Agee was hoping to get into moviemaking, with either Chaplin or Huston, and more than one observer has speculated that Agee’s genuine admiration for Monsieur Verdoux and Sierra Madre was reinforced by personal ambition.
It seems likely that Agee’s praise for Sierra Madre triggered Farber’s demolition job on Huston. Farber was between jobs when The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) was released, but soon after he was hired on to The Nation, he seized upon We Were Strangers (1949) as an occasion to dismantle the director’s whole career. He redoubled his assault when The Asphalt Jungle (1950) was released.
Taken together, the two pieces set out to refute Agee point for point. Huston’s characters are oversimplified, the stories are moralizing, and his vision of life comes down to the futile quest for money. Far from having an invisible style, Huston has an aggressive one. “The texture of a Panama hat is emphasized to the point where you feel Huston is trying to stamp its price tag on your retina.”
More broadly, Farber revisits a leitmotif of his early work, the idea that the best Hollywood cinema rested upon the “unbroken action sequence” that presents a balance of figures and environment. The classic filmmaker viewed life “from a comfortable vantage point, one that is so unobtrusive that the audience is seldom conscious of the fact that a camera had anything to do with it.” By contrast, Huston is confining and static, relying on pyramidal compositions and “close three-figured shots.” Often his staging leaves his actors little room to move. I offer these examples from We Were Strangers and The Asphalt Jungle.
Here’s another passage Farber doesn’t cite, but he might have. One shot from Key Largo (1948) presents actors sliding into slots to create a “stiff” composition reminiscent of Welles.
The critics (Agee included, presumably) consider Huston “Hollywood’s fair-haired boy,” but he is merely “a vitaminized photographer.”
Putting aside Farber’s objections to Huston’s recurring themes, what Farber dislikes in Huston’s visuals is already there latently in some of the pre-Sierra Madre films, such as In This Our Life (1942) and Across the Pacific (1942).
At times, The Maltese Falcon is as bold a depth-oriented film as Citizen Kane, and it dares some strange asymmetries that Welles doesn’t.
Huston may like pyramidal layouts, but in the second shot above, it’s fairly audacious to make the recumbent Falcon and Joel Cairo form such a low-lying base. In shots like these, Huston can provide subtler push-and-pull dynamics than Farber allows.
Huston does have a fondness for aggressive compositions, but I see that as a more general tendency of the deep-focus aesthetic, from Anthony Mann’s in-your-face foregrounds (Raw Deal, 1948) to pictures with no tony ambitions like Jungle Patrol (1948). The latter’s framing, like the Key Largo shot above, leaves its actors no room to move.
Even a problematic film like We Were Strangers can create tense compositions in a shootout that takes place in nearly total darkness, adding some percussive abstract shots of sparks and bullet spatters.
Moreover, Huston had plenty of competition for outré images. Many memorable ones were given us by John Alton, cinematographer for The Crooked Way (1949), or William Cameron Menzies, production designer (Kings Row, 1941).
Oddly, Farber had praised Rudolph Maté’s shooting in The Pride of the Yankees (1942). “With Maté, an expressive shot is never one that whams you over the head.” But this comment ignores Menzies’ eccentric shot designs (discussed in more detail here and here). If any images seem either airlessly clenched or preciously arty, it would be shots like these.
It may be that some Hollywood filmmakers pushed mannerist visuals further during Farber’s 1947-1949 leave, so that when he returned to reviewing he was more aware of these devices. Nonetheless, I think that Farber considered Huston’s crowded frames more unusual than they were.
Agee’s 1950 Life profile of Huston came out after both of Farber’s pieces. Rebutted in advance, Agee appears to have conceded some of his adversarial friend’s points. Although he reiterates his praise (Huston’s framing is “simple and spontaneous”), he does admit that the recent films show him to have become “more of a ‘camera’ man,” with the result that the camera sometimes imposes on the story, the lighting becomes nearly arty, and “the screen at times becomes rigid, over-stylized.”
Farber didn’t let up, poking at Huston again and again for years. Almost capriciously, he turned generous, calling The Asphalt Jungle “visually interesting and emotionally complex,” and he found much to praise in The Red Badge of Courage (1951), which has its share of wide-angle depth (below left). Another hiatus from writing seems to have kept him from reviewing Beat the Devil (1954), whose low-slung and intense close-up staging (below right) might have brought forth some entertaining invective.
In any case, Huston’s films had already provoked Farber to expose the depredations of the new Hollywood. His 1949 and 1950 pieces on one offending director started his revaluation of the 1940s and put him on the scent of White Elephant Art.
For all his brawling energy, Farber didn’t achieve the renown of Agee at the period. An artist yet to break out on the gallery scene, Farber worked as a carpenter and picked up other casual writing jobs. But he did distinguish his critical voice enough to become a minority taste in the 1940s and 1950s. Later he would be recognized by a public ready for his pungent provocations. That recognition was helped by his eagerness to write about contemporary European and avant-garde cinema for art mavens (in Artforum) and cinephiles (Film Culture, Film Comment).
What can we learn about 1940s film aesthetics from all this? The split decision on Huston opens up a problem in the Ferguson legacy. If two sensitive critics with so much in common can’t agree when a director is doing smooth, straight work and when he is showboating, how can we understand the distinctive features of American filmic storytelling? Was Hollywood cinema of the 1940s an era of expressive naturalism, integrating details with unassuming fluency, or was it an era of over-fancy filigree?
Both, I think. In every era Hollywood swings between plain style (whose norms shift somewhat) and self-congratulatory virtuosity (ditto). With Agee and Farber we have, for the first time, critics carefully charting the arc swinging between forms of realism and forms of artifice. Just as important, Farber’s exacting eye and bebop prose complemented Agee’s moody lyricism in registering the power of Hollywood’s exuberant creative ferment—a ferment that remained invisible to the Partisan Review critics of “mass culture.”
On the other hand, who says we have to respect the Ferguson legacy anyhow? Maybe we should give up authenticity and naturalism and “continuity” and fluidity and all the rest? Parker Tyler gives that option a try.
Thanks once again to Kent Jones and Jim Naremore for exceptionally generous email correspondence. Kent has been indispensable in helping me think about Farber’s achievement. In addition, Kent’s just-published essay “Critical Condition” bears directly on matters discussed in this blog series.
Deep thanks as well to Patricia Patterson for permission to reproduce photographs of Farber in the course of this series.
Again I must express gratitude to Robert Polito’s Library of America collection Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber. It’s particularly precious for including all of Farber’s earliest work, as well as identifying what Time reviews he probably wrote. (Following Farber’s wishes, those reviews aren’t included in the anthology.) Thanks to this compendium, along with the detailed timeline, Polito’s wide-ranging introduction, and the massive index, we can take Farber’s measure as never before. If only a digital edition were available for us scholar-squirrels to search!
Farber’s death in 2008 triggered a new wave of affectionate appreciation that has not subsided. David Hudson tracked the responses on Green Cine Daily. Especially important is “The Adventure of Perception,” two interviews with Kent Jones conducted by Eric Hynes on the occasion of a 2008 homage to Farber. Noel King’s interview with Robert Walsh of 2001 furnishes valuable information; see for fuller thoughts Walsh’s introduction to the 1998 reedition of Negative Space. Richard Corliss wrote, as is his wont, a sparkling appraisal for Time.
I’ve benefited as well from Donald Phelps’ early and prescient appreciation, “Critic Going Everywhere,” in Covering Ground: Essays for Now (Croton, 1969), 115-121. Phelps’ little magazine, For Now, published a Farber collection in issue no. 9 (1968); several of his art reviews are included. Also invaluable is Greg Taylor’s lively Artists in the Audience: Cults, Camp, and American Film Criticism (Princeton University Press, 1999). Farber’s unattributed borrowing from Ferguson’s Kane essay is discussed by Colin Burnett here. Most recently, we have James Naremore’s compact, discerning essay on Farber in An Invention without a Future: Essays on Cinema (University of California Press, 2014), 264-274.
On negative space, see Earle Loran, Cézanne’s Composition (University of California Press, orig. 1943). The 1950 edition of Loran’s book thanks Hans Hofmann’s lectures and writings for helping him formulate his ideas. Hofmann’s ideas, which seem to owe a good deal to Kandinsky’s Point and Line to Plane (orig. 1926), are condensed in Search for the Real (1948). It’s likely that Farber, a fervent admirer of Cézanne in his youth, knew Loran’s book, and Hofmann’s teachings were circulating throughout the Manhattan art world of Farber’s day.
Incidentally, it seems that over the years the term “negative space” has become equated with what Loran calls negative shape–a two-dimensional graphic phenomenon, as in the Gestalt figure/ground flipping we see here. For Loran, negative space creates plastic, three-dimensional relations, and Hofmann agrees: “Space discloses itself to us through volumes. ‘Objects’ are positive space. Negative space results from the relation of objects. Negative space is as concrete to the artist as is objective-positive space, and possesses an equal three dimensional effectiveness” (Search for the Real, 66-67). Farber’s introduction to Negative Space would expand the term to indicate “the command of experience which an artist can set resonating through a film, a sense of terrain.” Still, even this metaphorical broadening suggests not empty areas but rather relationships.
There are affinities between Ferguson’s aesthetic, which I’ve sketched here, and Monroe Stahr’s advice to a screenwriter here. The history of deep-focus cinematography, with some emphasis on the 1940s, is considered in Chapter 27 of The Classical Hollywood Cinema, as well as in my On the History of Film Style and Figures Traced in Light: On Cinematic Staging. See also Patrick Keating, Hollywood Lighting from the Silent Era to Film Noir.
My epigraph comes from S. J. Perelman’s satire on Farber and location-based movies, “Hell in the Gabardines,” Keep It Crisp (Random House, 1946), 3-14.
P.S. 24 March 2014: Through simple forgetfulness, I neglected to mention Jonathan Rosenbaum’s acute memoir-appreciation of Farber in Placing Movies, now reprinted with revisions on his website. Jonathan traces important contrasts among Farber, Sarris, and Kael, while interweaving recollections of his encounters with Farber. In his online introduction, he points to other useful items, including his review of Farber on Film and an online version of Donald Phelps’ For Now collection.
P.P.S. 24 March 2014: Adrian Martin has written to tell me that his online journal Rouge published a Farber dossier in 2009, which included the Donald Phelps essay I mention above, as well as memoirs and appreciations by Jonathan Rosenbaum, Bill Krohn, Patrick Amos, Jean-Pierre Gorin, and Adrian himself, as well as a Farber piece on late-night radio. I regret not knowing about this dossier when I composed this entry, but it certainly merits the attention of every Farber-phile.
The Maltese Falcon (1941).
From The Film Criticism of Otis Ferguson, p. 15.
The genre of the movie review doesn’t encourage writers to exercise their curiosity. Writing to deadline, a reviewer must issue a snappy, not to say snap, judgment after one viewing. (Maybe even on DVD or a private Vimeo site.) This doesn’t mean that all reviewers lack curiosity, but the demand for quick and brief appraisal leaves them little opportunity to ask questions they can’t answer. At the same time, probably many reviewers do lack an interest in probing a film more deeply; that’s why they liked becoming reviewers in the first place. I once met a film blogger who said a good review should be no more than 100 words long.
Being researchers primarily, Kristin and I have the luxury of approaching films differently. For one thing, we write long, because the web gives us the freedom to do so. For another, we practice a criticism of enthusiasm, as the Cahiers crew used to call it. We write about what we like or admire or find intriguing. We turn back to old films and try to give a boost to recent films, often little-known, that we think deserve attention. We skip over the films we think bad (as well as many good ones we just don’t have space to consider). We want to steer people to movies, old or new, we’ve found stimulating.
Often what provokes us is a film that lays down a challenge. Often we ask what we can learn about cinema from this or that film. What does the film suggest about the potential of the medium, the resources of a tradition, some intriguing formal or stylistic strategies, or just the creative choices open to filmmakers in certain times or places? What can you do today with a Crazy Lady thriller? How does a film like Gravity balance the coherence of a classical narrative with the sensuous novelty of an experimental film? What does a recent release reveal about the conventions of cop movies or rom-coms or martial-arts films–and the ways those conventions can be revised or challenged? How does a director devise new staging strategies, or revive old ones?
In short, we often try, on the basis of the movies we see, to build up a storehouse of ideas about cinema’s artistic possibilities. On many occasions, our blog entries are film analyses, not reviews. Often we try to know the film as intimately as possible–something that surprisingly few critics aim to do. We try to develop our curiosity by suspending the reviewer’s demand for a swift verdict and admitting that even drab and mundane movies may have something to teach us.
It’s refreshing, then, to turn from today’s film reviewing to that of the 1940s. It’s partly academic duty: I’m writing a book on Hollywood storytelling of the period, so one purpose is to discover rareish films that haven’t made it to the canon. Another purpose is to see if my hunches about 1940s film culture are borne out. (More about those hunches in an upcoming entry.) Yet another purpose is just to revisit the people I read in my youth—notably James Agee and Parker Tyler, but also Manny Farber and, most belatedly, Otis Ferguson.
The Ferguson touch
Of these critics Ferguson remains the least known today. That’s a pity, because he was an exceptional writer. His flowing prose, at once slangy and fastidious, could twist syntax into funny and eloquent shapes. Here he is on Stokowski conducting Fantasia.
As a background and continuum for this there is the noise and motion of an orchestra assembling and tuning up, than which there is nothing more fascinating, nothing more exciting with promise in the world. But over and above this, on some kind of promontory and silhouetted in awful color is Dr. Leopold in a claw-hammer coat, leading with expression that only falls short of balancing a seal on its nose an orchestra which made that part of the sound-track yesterday in shirtsleeves and is at the moment out for a cigarette. I rarely bray aloud in the theatre, as this is rude and also may get you into an argument with men who have muscles in their arms, but when Dr. L yearned out over the strings to the left of him in a passage for horns (which are in the center when they’re there at all) and the bedazzlement of color yearned sympathetically from baby-blue to baby-something-else, I released a short one.
Mind you, Ferguson adores Disney and Fantasia in particular. Very soon after the passage quoted, he says this of the film:
Dull as it is toward the end, ridiculous as it is in the bend of the knee before Art, and taking one thing with another, it is one of the strange and beautiful things that have happened in the world.
Ferguson wrote mostly for The New Republic, concentrating on jazz, literature, and the theatre before settling in as the weekly film reviewer in 1934, at age twenty-seven. He soon became an editor there. He continued with the magazine until early 1942. In a remarkable convergence, Farber replaced him as film reviewer for NR, and Agee started writing for The Nation later the same year.
Writing for The New Republic didn’t give Ferguson a bias toward films of leftish social comment. He welcomed liberal films but insisted they be vibrant and engaging as films, and even reactionary messages didn’t automatically make a movie bad. “I can see at the start that this film, Lives of a Bengal Lancer, is going to cause me a lot of grief, first because from a social point of view it is execrable, second, because it is a dashing sweat-and-leather sort of thing and I like it.” Why like it? It is less about British imperialism and more about showing how men pull together, portraying “the rough satisfaction of combining finely with all the others to make the thing work, to go off smoothly.” A few years later he found the film “just as politically incorrect and marvelous as ever.” He asked that his fellow leftists “stop demanding a ten-reel feature on the Rise of Western Imperialism and look around to see what can be done with pictures.”
Maybe you, like me, hear some of Agee’s lilt and Farber’s barrelhouse slang in Ferguson’s sentences. Whatever the extent of his influence on them, he belongs to the same vein of journalistic demotic that made the 1940s the first, perhaps the only, great age of American movie criticism. In Ferguson’s case, that’s partly because like his peers he remained open to being surprised by the “strange and beautiful” movies he met. He was also curious as to how they achieved the qualities he most respected.
This motion and this air of life
A good critic, I think, traffics in ideas and information as well as opinion. More than most critics today, but like Agee and Farber, Ferguson had some definite ideas about what best suited the film medium.
Ferguson liked his movies straightforward and clean-edged. He admired some foreign imports, but sheer artiness on the Soviet-European silent model, he noticed, had become a cliché. He used his review of Three Songs of Lenin as an occasion to deplore “pure cinema.” Instead of discussing Vertov’s film, he fills his column with a hypothetical city symphony, telling of desolate streets waking to a fusillade of rapid editing. “You cut in the big dynamo wheels, all the wheels, all the powerhouses, wheels and wheels. Rah, montage.” Ferguson’s sentences, each phrase an imagistic burst, rise to a fast-cut climax.
A kid coming out of the door of the mean house, with pennies for a loaf of whole-wheat, and running past the feet and in front of the wheels, and tripping on the broken cement, falling, smack. Close-up of the head showing a splash of blood spreading on the mean stones, and flash to the apartment house, up, up, to a window, in through the window to the cream being poured into the coffee, being drunk in bed, in silk pyjamas, spilling, a splash of coffee spreading on the silk pyjamas.
Any good? I’m afraid not. But it is pure cinema.
Ferguson realized that by the early 1930s the montage style was already an anachronism, as conventional as a gavotte. What, then, was a more adequate alternative?
For one thing, an unpretentious plot that maintains a clear “line” (one of his favorite words). That line should drive forward rapidly but without fuss or jitter. Ferguson started reviewing soon after Hollywood filmmakers were mastering a dramaturgy appropriate to the new demands of talkies. Any novel or play, he realized, could now be molded into a fresh, sprightly shape.
If there is any one thing that the movie people seem to have learned in the last few years, it is the art of taking some material—any material, it may be sound, it may be junky—and working it up until the final result is smooth, fast-moving, effortless…Whoever started the thing in the first place, Hollywood has it now, and Hollywood speaks a different language.
This glide-path storytelling depends on a certain naturalism of behavior and appearance. As a medium, film can render the behavior of typical, fully realized human beings. In an important essay of 1940, “Life Goes to the Movies,” Ferguson noted that the actors seen on the screen continued to bear the traces of the lives they had led before coming to Hollywood. Glamorous they might be, but men like Pat O’Brien and James Cagney “were in so many instances a part of common life just yesterday that they haven’t had time to forget it, dress it up, and bury it.” A film by Lang or Ford or Milestone imbeds within a dynamic plot many work routines, character exchanges, and “life in action and at mess and horsing around.”
When [the miners of Black Fury] were working, or chewing the fat, or drinking their pitiful nickels away in the bar they were no strangers to you…[They were] so cleverly worked into a story-pattern of cause and result, environment and hopes, that they were neither symbols nor foreigners but people you knew and hoped the best of. You knew their work and their dinner table, their mean streets and threadbare pleasures; and everything about it was simple and just-so, through the medium of the most complex and expensive art on earth.
The word Ferguson finds for this quality: honest.
Along with his concern for unassuming naturalism in characterization and behavior, Ferguson likes his details. Come to think of it, reviewers always like details—things they can single out as either well-judged or overbearingly symbolic. (Mentioning them also shows that the reviewer is sharp-eyed.) Details come in two varieties: those that nuance the main line of the drama, and those that aren’t integrated dramatically. Stray bits can be an object of the reviewer’s scorn, but Ferguson, like Agee and Farber (and Bazin), particularly prizes moments that show life leaking in around the edges of the script.
One appeal of classic Hollywood cinema is that while the action thrusts forward energetically, there can be time for irrelevant bits that suggest a world beyond the mechanics of plot. In Foreign Correspondent, Hitchcock can decorate his intrigue with side details:
He loads his set with them without loading down his action; and because everything and everybody aren’t direct accessories to the plot, so many mechanical aids, you get the effect of life, which also has its dogs and casual passers-by who are real without having anything to do with any plot you know about.
The smooth, naturalistic storytelling Ferguson values is incarnated in another quality, one as important for him as for the pioneering tastemaker Gilbert Seldes (The Seven Lively Arts): Movies should move. Static talking scenes are of less value than drama translated into action. This doesn’t mean that every scene must be a fight or a chase, only that the scene should project a flow of physical activity in which skilful performers realize the story concretely. Melodrama, gangster films, comedy light or slapstick—all find their ultimate expression in charged motion, big or small. The stateroom scene in A Night at the Opera sits at one extreme, but at the other is a moment (“a minor thing, too”) in The Little Foxes:
Herbert Marshall has come out to lean his weak fury against the bannister. Bette Davis has come home from the battle-line, entering from the door across the space below, preoccupied and busy with gloves and stuff, to take five steps, six, seven (we know he is there, we are waiting) and another step and, stop. The dramatic part of the scene lifts up like a full chord in the orchestra, and we think, it is this woman who has looked up with her hard nervous eyes to find this object of hate.
Ferguson had another reason for singling out The Little Foxes. He had watched it being filmed, and he had information to impart.
Knowing how everything is done
Ferguson’s criteria for good cinema deserve to be analyzed in more depth. (Colin Burnett does that job skilfully here.) And I would happily quote his prose for a long time. But my topic today is critical curiosity, and Ferguson shows himself curious about something that chimes with my interests, and maybe yours too.
Agee famously declared that he didn’t want to know how movies were made, fearing that it would make him too forgiving. “My realization of the complexity of making any film would be so much clarified that I would be much warier than most critics can be in assigning credit or blame.” By contrast, Ferguson seems to have thought that grasping the complexity of moviemaking could only enhance your appreciation of the artistry—while, admittedly, making you more merciful. While his contemporaries were sensitive to film style and form to an unprecedented degree, he really wanted to know, with exactitude, how movies were made.
This impulse fits his critical credo. In writing about jazz, he assigned the critic two tasks: “(1) to spread knowledge and appreciation of his subject among those who don’t know but might learn about it; (2) to encourage those who are doing the work and tell them how it is ‘coming over,’ with as little bias and as much understanding as possible.”
He goes on:
And that is quite a task, requiring a constant and humble passion to know everything of what is being done and how everything is being done; and just as steady a passion for learning how to explain this so that it will somehow mean something to the performer and his audience alike. The best people I have discovered to learn about music from are actual musicians, who would not be found dead in the kind of talk used to describe their work.
What did Ferguson mean by knowing “everything of what is being done and how everything is being done”? The passage admits a lot of interpretations, but it surely includes the sort of insider skills he delighted in explaining in his jazz essays and reviews. Likewise, he asks the film critic to acquire, as fully and subtly as possible, not just wide viewing, sensitive scrutiny, and book learning–but also craft knowledge.
From April to June of 1941—what a year to pick—Ferguson was in Los Angeles. Editorial infighting “banished” him there, Malcolm Cowley tells us, but Ferguson was more upbeat:“The paper is sending me to Hollywood to see if there is one.” He filed reviews, interviews with the likes of Fritz Lang and Garson Kanin (a Ferguson favorite), and longish essays on the mores of the colony. He learned the iron grip of distribution, the venality and corruption behind the scenes, and the weary compromises, the cry we still hear today: “I made that one so I could make them give me this one.”
But he kept his spirits up. He loved LA’s drive-ins, low rents, open-air produce markets, and, ironically for us, its absence of smog. (“The air is pure and that’s all there is to it.”) Ignore the professional naysayers: “It is as possible to live in Hollywood quietly, sanely, and pleasantly occupied with whatever it is you do, as it is in New York, which is the best city I know.” He defended his temporary home in a gentle demolition of Edmund Wilson’s sneering diatribe against writers unfortunate enough to live in California and to write for the movies.
Ferguson valued work in any realm, and he realized that movie people toiled very hard, six days a week from nine till six and beyond. To keep your head above water, he wrote, “you work like hell.” The result of all that hustle could be quite good, thanks to everyone involved. (“The best piece of ‘direction’ in the picture might have been suggested by a grip.”) Still, as so many before and after him, he saw that the ambitious director could steer a project toward excellence. His encomium to the Little Foxes staircase scene continues as an homage to William Wyler:
But it is actually the man who devised this much, to put her in the center of the screen, to warn us in advance, to give us that sense of an even count up to the point of collision, and then, seven, eight, collision. And that man is the director; it is in a picture like this that you can see him at work.
Ferguson’s chance to see the director at work was recorded in “The Camera Way Is the Hard Way,” an article he wrote for The National Board of Review magazine. He visited the Little Foxes set while Wyler and company were filming a very simple scene, and he marvels at how complicated and tiring the process was.
Four cameras in one
Zan and Addie are arriving in a carriage to have breakfast, and Zan’s Aunt Birdie greets them from an upstairs window. Zan calls up to her and asks if she could skip the difficult middle part of a piece she’ll be playing tonight. Birdie refuses to let Zan off and starts down to help the girl rehearse.
That’s it. According to Ferguson, the morning on the set has been spent trying out some angles and dialogue lines, and the afternoon will undertake to shoot everything in the scene. The scene is chiefly expository and lasts less than a minute in the final film, but it will take many hours to shoot.
For his article, Ferguson supplied the (rather rough) diagram seen at the top of today’s entry. He also supplied the dialogue as best he recalled it, along with the characters’ names. (Apparently Addie was called Queenie in the script.) He notes that the shots were taken out of continuity: the shots of the carriage occur early in the final sequence, but they filmed later that day, so he labels them as setup III. Although the passage has no moving shots, two high-angle setups were taken from a camera crane.
As I trace Ferguson’s steps, I’ll add some comments of my own.
Ferguson’s shot breakdown doesn’t include the two shots that start the scene: Zan and Addie’s arrival, seen from inside the estate’s gate, and an initial low-angle view of Birdie greeting them with “Good morning, darlin’.”
The first isn’t notated in Ferguson’s diagram, and the second corresponds to his Ground Camera IV setup. The scene’s third shot returns to the first setup, showing Zan swinging open the driveway gate and calling up to Birdie.
|Zan: Good morning, Aunt Birdie. Is your headache all better?|
Ferguson has this line spoken during a different camera setup, but the finished film includes it here.
Birdie: Oh yes, it’s all gone.
Addie: Good morning, Miss Birdie.
Birdie: Good morning, Addie.
This is Ferguson’s Ground Camera III setup. It’s not angled quite as he diagrammed it; but of course he wasn’t looking through the lens. Moreover, he doesn’t mention that it has been shot with a wide-angle lens, creating a vivid foreground plane framing a distant one–a strategy typical of The Little Foxes.
Zan: I’m going to stop a minute, Addie. You drive the horse in.
Addie: Your mama will be waitin’ to have breakfast with you, baby, and she ain’t nobody keep waitin’.
Zan: All right, Addie.
Wyler completes his composition by bringing Zan into the vacant space (presumably her position 2). Now two planes of action become three. Some years later André Bazin analyze this deep-space and deep-focus imagery with some precision, but Ferguson puts it his own way. “We see Queenie start to preach the law and are not conscious that as her law keeps laying down we have fallen back to see the whole group.”
|Addie: Hnh! (Drives horse out of frame.)|
The momentary foreground blockage “wipes away” the depth composition and covers the cut to a new angle; no need for exact matching of Zan’s position in the next shot.
|Zan: Aunt Birdie, guess where we drove this morning.|
This is Ferguson’s setup labeled Boom Shot I. ”The first thing is established: the audience must know where it is, who is talking to whom.” Today we’d add that this establishing shot relies on the classic shot/reverse-shot schema that uses OTS (over-the-shoulder) framings.
Birdie: To Lyonnet!
Zan (off): Uh-huh.
Birdie: Oh, darling, was it beautiful? But of course it was. It was.…
This is the complementary reverse angle to the previous setup, taken from Ground Camera IV. Ferguson: “As we see Zan looking up, we instinctively raise our eyes to see that it is Birdie in the window.”
|Birdie (off): …always beautiful this time of year.|
As we heard Zan offscreen in Birdie’s shot, now the cut overlaps Birdie’s line so we see Zan’s reaction (Boom setup II). Ferguson was sensitive to this reaction-driven editing. “One of the first things in making a word effective is in showing its effect on someone–so after the cutting room has got through, we see Birdie as Zan is speaking to her, Zan as she hears Birdie.” The reverse-angle on Birdie gave her to us as a single (and not, say, with Zan’s shoulder in the foreground, the mate to the high-angle shot before). Similarly, the answering shot presents a high angle on Zan, putting us “between” them. This is a standard option for shot/ reverse-shot cutting when one character is higher than the other.
|Zan (taking a step forward): Aunt Birdie, I’ve learned the Schubert.…|
Zan takes up position 3 in Ferguson’s diagram. Her step forward takes advantage of the pause after Birdie’s line.
|Zan: …for tonight. (Birdie is a bit distracted for an instant.)|
For a brief moment, Wyler’s shot catches Birdie no longer listening to Zan, as if she were wishing she could see Lyonnet again. Later we’ll learn that Birdie’s husband keeps her home because of her alcoholism.
|Zan: …I…(Birdie looks back to Zan.)|
Again, Wyler’s cutting emphasis reactions, so that new lines of dialogue don’t line up with cuts on the image track. Eisenstein called this “wickerwork” patterning.
Zan: …can play the whole thing.—Except the middle. Oh, couldn’t we skip the middle? Maybe Mr. Marshall wouldn’t know.
Birdie: No, we couldn’t! I’ll come right down and play it right through for you. You wait now! (Birdie ducks out of window.)
As often happens, a return to the establishing setup signals the end of the scene. Wyler could have returned to the tight low-angle reverse on Birdie, showing her ducking back into her window, but this framing keeps Zan and her fretfulness in play, while we’re still able to grasp Birdie’s abrupt withdrawal from the shot.
The classical way is the hard way
Watching this scene filmed over many hours, Ferguson was struck by two ideas that would become central to discussions of classical Hollywood style decades later.
First, he noticed the intense labor that goes into the presentation. Contrary to today’s multiple-camera practices, the crew used only one camera, so there was the need to shift the beast among four setups, each one of which had to be lit. Then the actors had to repeat their lines over and over, sometimes when they were on camera, but just as often when they weren’t.
Each different take was run over several times, with waits for adjustments, with actors getting weary enough of the hundredth “Good morning, Aunt Birdie,” to stumble a little as they went on from there.… Each different shift of anything at all, let alone the whole camera, involved a hundred adjustments down the line, with all those batteries of great and small lights on their shaky, grotesque stands dragging their tangle of cables behind, with the microphone equipment and its tangles, screens and flats and scrims and broads and dobos [gobos?] enough to start a new language, with carpenters tacking on a board to cover and painters putting on a touch to bring up an outline.
Always an admirer of honest, painstaking work, Ferguson notes that his diagram seems complicated and that if you follow it out shot by shot, as we have, “you will not want to be a movie director again.”
Ferguson makes a second crucial point. We don’t notice either the style or all the work that went into it. Indeed, the very point of that work is to make the images flow smoothly, as if naturally belonging together. (Of course we would look up at Birdie, as Zan does, and then look down on Zan from Birdie’s vantage point.) Hollywood’s old adage, “Never let style distract from story” (still heard today) is clearly echoed in this passage:
This business of repetition, changes, repetition, changes: you don’t see it in the picture, but they were not just playing leapfrog. In fact, the very reason you don’t see it is its own justification: you are not conscious of camera or effects, for the little bit flickers past in the final version and you are conscious only that a story is starting as you follow. Only!
For the last fifty years or so, people have started their analysis of the classical continuity system with the recognition that the simple and apparently invisible effects are actually sustained by intense work and finely judged choices. By visiting the set, Ferguson saw how even a simple expository scene required enormous effort and patience on the part of dozens of artisans and artists. Combining skill and will, the craft of cinema has its own demands. As if constructing a Hollywood Tao, Ferguson realized that the Camera Way is a hard road, but it pays off in the assured, effervescent flow of action, movement, and emotion that he prized.
We’ve nuanced these ideas considerably since Ferguson’s day, but he deserves credit for bringing them into sharp focus just as American studio cinema was embarking on a new era. And his critical policy of enthusiasm owes something to his recognition that even a bad narrative film is damned hard to make. Thanks to his curiosity about how everything is done, he helped readers appreciate cinema as an art owing a good part of its power to craft.
Ferguson trafficked in ideas and information as well as opinion. He was enthusiastic and eager to learn more and impart what he learned to his readers. To me, that makes him a great critic.
Ferguson was born in 1907 and was raised on a Massachusetts farm. He left high school to join the navy, where he served overseas. He came home, finished high school, and went to Clark University on a scholarship. His writing talent eventually landed him jobs at the New Republic. After Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the Merchant Marine. He was killed in the Mediterranean in 1943 when a radio-guided bomb struck his ship.
This entry is part of a series. The series continues here.
Two collections of Ferguson’s work have been published. The Film Criticism of Otis Ferguson, ed. Robert Wilson (Temple University Press, 1971) has been my main source for the material I’ve covered here. Also of importance is In the Spirit of Jazz: The Otis Ferguson Reader (Da Capo, 1997), which includes essays on music, theatre, and film, as well as memoirs and unpublished pieces. Particularly interesting are his pieces on his seafaring days, filled with the sort of expertise that comes out, unshowoffishly, in his remarkable reviews of films like Captains Courageous. Malcolm Cowley supplies a lively and informative memoir of Ferguson in the foreword to In the Spirit of Jazz.
Nearly all sources on Ferguson reprint the same photograph. I haven’t found a better alternative, so here you are.