Archive for the 'Film technique: Editing' Category
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 few reviewers and even many 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 Nation 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 men 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.
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.
There was no way to rely on anything we knew before this film. No character was like Stone, no film set was ever like these sets, not one member of this crew had ever done this before. We all were doing something that had never been done before.
Back in mid-September, on the verge of leaving Madison to attend the Vancouver International Film Festival, I mentioned that I had watched one of the trailers for Gravity and thought it looked like “the most exciting new piece of filmmaking this year.” I added that the trailer “called ‘Drifting’ reminded me of Michael Snow’s brilliant Central Region, but with narrative, with the earth and stars spinning past a close-up of Sandra Bullock as the marooned, panicky astronaut protagonist.”
At that point, I wondered whether the film as a whole could keep up that experimental feeling, with vertiginously wheeling actors combined with an untethered camera swooping around them. Or would the narrative gradually lead us into a more conventional style later in the film? It turns out that, to a remarkable extent, the highly unconventional treatment of unanchored space, where up, down, and sideways characters and background change with a breathless rapidity, extends through much of Gravity‘s length. For brief intervals Ryan enters space capsules and sits, right-side up, and the action calms down briefly. Yet these lead to further scenes in space with the same swooping camera. In short, the film turned out to be as remarkable a formal and stylistic achievement as I had hoped.
SPOILER ALERT. This is not a review but an analysis of the film. Gravity does depend crucially upon suspense and surprise, and I would suggest not reading further without having seen the film.
An experimental blockbuster
I am not the only one who was struck by Gravity‘s resemblance to an experimental film. After the film’s opening weekend in the USA, Variety‘s Scott Foundas published an article on the subject: “Why ‘Gravity’ Could Be the World’s Biggest Avant-Garde Movie.” He references the influence of Jordan Belson’s work on 2001: A Space Odyssey and speculates that the final shot of The Shining echoes the ending of Michael Snow’s Wavelength. More specifically he links Gravity to Central Region, shot in 1971 at in a Canadian mountain range; Foundas describes the robotic arm used to shoot the film and how it was controlled by instructions on magnetic tape. (I’ll have an illustration of the robotic arm in Part 2.) To Foundas, the avant-garde aspects of Gravity outweigh its narrative: “‘Gravity’ has more of a plot than ‘La Region Centrale,’ but only barely, and surely no one is telling their friends to see Cuaron’s film because of its great story. Rather, it’s the very absence of a dense narrative line that gives ‘Gravity’ its majesty.”
I think that to say Gravity has “only barely” more narrative than Snow’s purely abstract film is a considerable exaggeration. The film’s story is certainly simpler and more unconventional than other mainstream Hollywood films, but as we shall see, it contains goals, motifs, character traits, careful setups of upcoming action, and other traits of classical narratives.
In an October 11 blog entry, J. Hoberman also stresses the film’s modernism:
Depth and volume are illusory. Mass has no weight. In this 3-D spectacle, best seen on the outsized IMAX screen, Cuarón promotes sensory disorientation–or better, reorientation. [...] Gravity is something quite rare–a truly popular big-budget Hollywood movie with a rich aesthetic pay-off. Genuinely experimental, blatantly predicated on the formal possibilities of film, Gravity is a movie in a tradition that includes D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance, Abel Gance’s Napoleon, Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, as well as its most obvious precursor, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. Call it blockbuster modernism.
(Actually I’d say Gravity is better than some of these, notably Napoléon and 2001.)
Hoberman sees more of a balance between style and narrative than does Foundas. In fact, he considers that the film contains “a distracting surplus of backstory.” Presumably he would prefer to do without the references to the death of Stone’s daughter and her subsequent aimless car rides after work, listening to the radio. The space voyage does become an overly obvious extension of that drifting and listening, coming close to turning the film into a maternal melodrama. Presumably the filmmakers felt that simply sending Stone on a mission and having her struggle to return to earth was not enough. In interviews, the co-scriptwriters, Alfonso and his son Jonás Cuarón, emphasized that their basic idea was to create a character arc of her “rebirth” after despair. To some, this arc, with its religious overtones, will seem a bit, as Hoberman says, distracting and even contrived. To others it may be inspiring. At least it is not allowed to come forward very often.
Hoberman stresses the balance of plot and radical style. The film, “premised on the absence of up or down, is naturally abstract although it also has a streamlined and suspenseful narrative that, save for one or two ellipses, might almost be happening in real time.” In Variety, Justin Chang’s review highlights the same balance: “at once a nervy experiment in blockbuster minimalism and a film of robust movie-movie thrills, restoring a sense of wonder, terror and possibility to the bigscreen that should inspire awe among critics and audiences worldwide.”
David and I have often claimed that Hollywood cinema has a certain tolerance for novelty, innovation, and even experiment, but that such departures from convention are usually accompanied by a strong classical story to motivate the strangeness for popular audiences. (This assumption is central to our e-book on Christopher Nolan.) Gravity has such a story, though Cuarón is remarkably successful at minimizing its prominence. The film’s construction privileges excitement, suspense, rapid action, and the universally remarked-upon sense of immersion alongside the character in a situation of disorienting weightlessness and constant change.
That construction derives partly from techniques unique to this project. The weightless dance of characters and camera almost entirely does away with such widely applied spatial premises as the axis of action, eyeline directions, and the establishing of stable spatial relationships. And, as Cuarón pointed out in an interview for Wired, “After all, you learn how to draw based on two main elements: horizons and weight.” Those two factors are virtually gone as well.
The weightlessness and the long takes in the film have been given much attention in the press. Reports refer less often to the “Light Box, one of the film’s most extraordinary innovations. It is a giant inside-out LED monitor that allows the film’s own previs special effects to light the faces and bodies of the actors inside the box, making it possible for those shots to be integrated seamless into the effects shots. Basically, apart from the scenes inside space vehicles, traditional three-point lighting is jettisoned along with spatial relations.
Other technical aspects of the film are innovative. A bold new camera mount, the Isis, was devised to allow the camera to twist and whirl around the actors. The silence of space was respected by the filmmaker, leading them to substitute a eerie musical score to replace sound effects and convey emotions. The blocking and acting, of course, had to be vastly different from methods used in conventional films where the actors have the luxury of walking on a ground plane.
In short, it is hard to think of another mass-audience film in recent years that has so thoroughly departed from the current technological and stylistic conventions of mainstream filmmaking. Jurassic Park and The Lord of the Rings, to be sure; perhaps Avatar. Publications devoted to the techniques of cinema have recognized this. The Cinefex issue dealing with Gravity is not yet out, but on the journal’s blog, Don Shay’s remark is quoted: “Every once in a while, a film comes along that is a game-changer. This is one of those films.” Debra Kaufman, writing about the film’s 3D for Creative Cow, agrees: “Anyone who’s seen Gravity 3D will agree that the 3D was a game changer.” And unlike those earlier game-changers, Gravity has a strong experimental component to it that audiences gladly accept, since it is so well motivated by the story and situation.
In the next blog entry, I’ll survey the innovative aspects of Gravity‘s style and technique. Today, though, I’ll concentrate on the plot–in some ways conventional and in some ways quite strange–that holds it all together.
Who needs psychological depth in a crisis?
Arguably Cuarón had constructed nearly the most sparse narrative that can sustain the experimental style and motivate that style enough to hold the attention of a popular audience. Three characters, then two, then one, all with minimal backstories and simple goals.
Most Hollywood films have two parallel plotlines, usually one involving a romance. Here there is only one, and it primarily concerns an immediate situation, a cycle of deadly threats alternating with stages of Ryan’s progress toward safety. On balance, the focus is more on the suspense and terror of the situation than on the characters. Although there is a little mild flirtation between Stone and Kowalski, it’s more to generate humor and defuse the tension than to suggest any real possibility of mutual attraction.
One indication of the film’s minimal characterization is that fact that we never learn the nature of Stone’s experiment. That would be a logical initial goal for her character. Why has she set herself this particular task, which obviously involved not only scientific expertise in a complex field but also elaborate training to become an astronaut? Where does she work? What might her test achieve? Some reviews have referred to her as a medical expert. As far as I can tell, this is based on one line when she and Kowalski are working together to activate the communications device that is her focus of attention in the opening scene. During the calm before the debris collision, she remarks, “I’m used to a basement lab in a hospital where trays fall to the floor.” She also says that “It’s designed for hospital use.” That’s it. Normally a Hollywood film would redundantly give us information about her job. Here we don’t even get a sketch of it. And why is a medical experiment attached to the Hubble Space Telescope?
Incidentally, the Hubble is detached from the shuttle just before the debris cluster reaches it. We never learn whether it, too, is destroyed in the disaster. Might it have survived, with Stone’s experiment, perhaps activated during her brief delay before obeying the mission-abort command? Might she return to earth to find her experiment a success, with her initial goal miraculously achieved despite the tragic events in space. So little is the narrative concerned with the experiment as a significant goal that such questions are unlikely to occur to a spectator. They came to me only after three viewings.
Stone’s casual reference to working in a hospital lab typifies the limited sort of backstory we’ll get for the most part. Aside from Stone’s recollections of her daughter’s death and her aimless evenings of driving as her form of mourning, the moments of backstory are mere hints. In the opening we learn that Matt’s wife left him when he was in space on a mission. Might he be so obsessed with the beauties of space travel because he, too, is seeking to escape loneliness? We can’t know, since he treats the mention humorously, as if he has managed to shrug off his wife’s betrayal. Of the third character present on the spacewalk, Shariff, we learn that he has a wife and son, something revealed by a photo only after his death. This knowledge serves less to characterize him than to contrast this cheerful fellow with the wifeless Kowalski and childless, unattached Stone.
Stone’s mention of her home in Lake Zurich, Illinois and of her daughter’s death is the last piece of backstory that we get, and it comes slightly under half an hour into the film, during the calm interlude when she and Kowalski are slowly traveling toward the International Space Station (ISS). After this, I believe the only scrap of information from her past that we get is that Stone’s daughter had worried about a lost red shoe.
This lack of information about the characters is probably what led Foundas to say that the film has “barely” more of a plot than Central Region. In the same piece, he speculates, did the executives at Warner Bros. “wonder if they’d just gambled away $100 million on the most expensive avant-garde art movie ever made?”
Kevin Jagernauth reports on indiewire that the studio pushed for a more conventionally constructed film. Cuarón told him about some of the feedback he got from WB:
But at first, the studio suggested that [the Mission Control] team in Houston should get more face time. “…there area lot of ideas. People start suggesting other stuff. ‘You need to cut to House and see how the rescue mission goes.’”
And that’s not all. Part of the emotional journey of “Gravity” rests on Stone’s backstory, which includes a daughter she lost, but this is all effectively communicated without breaking the single location concept. However, Cuarón was advised to perhaps include some flashbacks in the film and even more. “A whole thing with … a romantic relationship with the Mission Control Commander, who is in love with her. All that kind of stuff. What else? To finish with a whole rescue helicopter, that would come and rescue her. Stuff like that,” he explained of some of the ideas that were floated his way.
There’s that conventional second romantic plotline, which in the wake of the film’s success seems such a ludicrous suggestion. The studio’s attitude demonstrates how very much Cuarón was able to get away with and how much of a struggle it must have been. Audience and critical enthusiasm suggests that he and his team managed to include just enough classical storytelling to make spectators identify with the characters even while knowing very little about them.
Why would a film need to establish psychological depth for characters when most of what they’re going to be doing is struggling frantically for their lives, cast adrift in space and bombarded by hurtling space debris? They must summon what skills and psychological strength they have and get on with it. Thoughtful conversations and subtle complexities are irrelevant for the most part. We need to care about these people to be engaged by the film, but that is part of the point of having Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as the leads, playing to the likeable personal qualities that we already associate with these stars.
Challenges and goals
There’s no question that the characters do have goals, but these are largely based on circumstances thrust upon them rather than on character traits. Before disaster strikes, the characters have short-term goals: Stone to solve the glitch with her equipment (and to avoid allowing nausea to cut short her attempt) and Kowalski to enjoy his final space walk and ideally break the record for duration of space walks. Both goals are cut short by the news of approaching debris and the mission-abort order. As we’ve seen, whether Stone achieves her original goal concerning her experiment is never revealed, nor are we encouraged to wonder even briefly as to whether the Hubble might carry it away from the destruction of the shuttle. Kowalski achieves his goal of breaking the record, in a sense, as he comments ironically while detached and drifting in space and awaiting his death. His space walk will last forever, but records are hardly intended to include corpses.
Once Stone spins off into space, alone, her goal is to re-establish contact with Mission Control and Kowalski. His is to rescue her. Once he finds her and tethers them together, their mutual goal is to get to the shuttle, with Kowalski adding the goal of retrieving Shariff’s body. Very quickly these goals are shattered, since the shuttle has been extensively damaged and its other crew members killed. A new short-term goal arises: reaching the relatively nearby ISS.
Kowalski fails to achieve this goal, since the fuel in his jetpack and his inability to grab anything on the ISS’s exterior send him floating off into space. Stone’s goal is now to get inside before she passes out from lack of oxygen. Once inside, her goal is to detach the remaining semi-functional Suyuz landing vehicle and use it to get as far as the Chinese space station, in turn using its landing pod to return to earth.
Discovering that the deployed parachute has become tangled in the ISS, she takes another space walk to detach it from the Soyuz. Another short-term goal that is soon accomplished. As she starts to remove the bolts anchoring the parachute, she states the short-term and long-term goals: “OK, we detach this, and we go home.”
Her purpose, however, seems to be thwarted when the fuel tank of the Soyuz vehicle proves to be empty. Here Stone loses hope, drifting into despair. She decides to turn off the oxygen supply and allow herself to die. Suddenly Kowalski appears and enters the pod, giving her a pep talk and telling her to use the soft-landing function of the Soyuz rather than its take-off capabilities. He disappears, and Stone, reinvigorated and determined, follows the instructions for landing the craft.
In traditional classical films, shifting goals often mark the turning point between large-scale sections of the plot, generally referred to as acts. Despite its unconventional aspects, Gravity’s plot does stick fairly closely to the well-balanced four-part structure that I have claimed is typical of Hollywood narrative conventions. Not counting titles or credits, the story runs approximately 83 minutes. Thus on average the acts would run about twenty-one minutes each.
At about 22 minutes in, Stone and Kowalski achieve their goal by reaching the shuttle, only to discover that it has been destroyed. At 23 minutes, Kowalski declares them the last survivors of the mission. I take this to be the first turning point, ending the setup and beginning the complicating action. Essential premises are reversed as the pair realize that they are stranded in space and they shift their goal, striving next to reach the ISS. Stone’s failed attempt to contact Kowalski by radio once she enters the ISS–she initially hopes to rescue him–and declaration of herself as the mission’s sole survivor happens at roughly 43 minutes. The third act, the development, begins, with Stone meeting numerous obstacles that threaten her new goal of getting back to earth in the Chinese landing vehicle. The last turning point, launching the climax, comes when Stone awakens from her dream about Kowalski and turns the oxygen flow back on, signaling her return to hope and determination to reach earth. That happens at about 66 minutes in, leaving seventeen minutes for her landing, including the brief epilogue of her floating, swimming ashore, and shakily standing up.
Motifs and causal motivation
As I mentioned, strongly innovative films in the Hollywood tradition need the support of classical conventions to keep the narrative clear and appealing. Two of Gravity‘s most traditional techniques are its motifs and its motivations. Motifs can quickly make the characters more vivid, even if they are not particularly rounded or complex. Motivations often involve planting an object or event in advance. In this film, several motifs trace the relationship between Stone and Kowalski.
In the opening, the motif of Kowalski’s wanting to break the space-walking record is introduced early on, stressing that this is his last mission and hinting that he loves his time in space. Similarly, his anecdotes, introduced with the “I’ve got a bad feeling about this mission” running gag, create irony but also suggest how Kowalski inspires Stone. Before setting out on her re-entry flight in the Chinese landing pod, she repeats this line with the same good humor that Kowalski had displayed. Another parallel is set up between the two when Stone detaches the clasp tethering her to the wildly spinning support in the opening scene, and later Kowalski does the same to separate himself from Stone when they are precariously suspended from the ISS (below). She comes back; he doesn’t.
In the early scene where the pair work to activate Stone’s equipment, he refers to her “beautiful blue eyes,” though she points out that hers are brown. Later, when Kowalski has set himself adrift in space, their radio conversation mentions his “beautiful blue eyes,” which are also brown. Though we see nothing of their earlier relationship, such motifs lend it depth, because we sense that the two have already developed a customary way of bantering with each other.
Similarly, in the opening scene, Kowalski tells an anecdote about how, during a previous mission, he had imagined his wife looking up into space and thinking about him, when in fact she had run off with another man. Later, as Kowalski moves toward the ISS dragging Stone tethered behind him, he asks her if anyone is looking up and thinking about her. This elicits her most intimate revelation, that she had had a daughter who died in a freak accident. There is also no Mr. Stone waiting at home for her. Thus although the two characters have different personalities, both are escaping loneliness by a retreat to the beauty and peace of space.
Finally, there is the last shot, with Stone seen from behind against the sky, covered by light clouds. It reverses the opening, when we were in the opposite position, looking down at the earth from space, with the clouds of a huge hurricane prominently visible. There Stone drifted in space, held in place by a large mechanical arm; here she struggles to regain her sense of balance after prolonged weightlessness and succeeds in walking a few steps, thanks to gravity.
Like motifs, careful motivation of action helps us navigate through the plot. Given the rapidity with which new information is thrown at us as the narrative progresses, the screenwriters are careful to set up major premises in advance so that we will quickly understand them when they arrive. In the opening scene, as Kowalski swoops cheerfully around the shuttle, Houston asks about the supply of fuel in his jetpack. He reports that it’s 30% down. Not a lot, but enough that we are prepared for the moment after the disaster when he says he’s running “on the fumes.”
During the opening, the messages from Mission Control thoroughly forewarn us of the rapidly approaching hail of space debris. After it passes, Kowalski has Stone set her watch for 90 minutes, since that is when they can expect the same debris to return–as it does at regular intervals to destroy the ISS and the Chinese station. Stone reminds us of this danger when she exits the Soyuz vehicle to detach its parachute, muttering, “Clear skies with a chance of satellite debris.” The presence of the deployed parachute also sets up the moment when the chutes of the Chinese pod deploy as it nears its splashdown in the final sequence.
As Stone struggles to get aboard the ISS, Kowalski converses with her via radio. They mention her training with landing vehicles. Her only experience has been with simulators, and in every case she crashed them. Still, as Kowalski points out, she knows something about them–a point which proves vital in the dream scene discussed above, where Stone’s mind summons up a memory about how launching and landing space vehicles are not all that different.
Apart from creating a brief scene of suspense, the fire in the ISS introduces the fire extinguisher and demonstrates how, in a situation of weightlessness, the extinguisher propels Stone through space. This prepares us for the crucial scene in which she uses it as Kowalski had used the jetpack, allowing her to reach the Chinese station despite being untethered in space.
Character motivation, fortuitous events, and religion
Throughout the film the cause-effect chain remains fairly straightforward, with one major exception that I’ll get to shortly. But because the characters are reacting to rapidly changing circumstances almost entirely beyond their control, the outcomes are often fortuitous rather than the result of character traits. This is not to say the film uses numerous coincidences. It is not coincidence that Stone manages time and again at the last possible moment to grab a pipe or handle on the outside of a space vehicle. She’s aiming to do that, so she manages it not by coincidence but by luck.
Some of the most crucial events in the film are partly a matter of character motivation, but the outcomes of Stone’s and Kowalski’s actions are fortuitous. Stone apologizes to Kowalski for not having immediately obeyed his order to stop trying to repair her equipment and head for the space shuttle. She presumably continued with the rebooting because she is a dedicated researcher, reluctant to abandon her important work even when in physical danger. Yet as it turns out, reaching the space shuttle interior would have been fatal. When Kowalski and Stone do reach the shuttle, they find it split open, its crew dead–just as the pair would be had they retreated inside immediately. Stone’s delay actually saved the pair, though neither character could know this at the time.
Less obviously, Kowalski accidentally dooms himself. We see him in the opening minutes, cheerfully circling the shuttle and Hubble, playing music, telling anecdotes, and apparently hoping to stay outside the shuttle long enough to set a record. Presumably he has already accomplished his task in the space walk, or perhaps as the most experienced member of the team, he is watching over the other two. He is also, however, wasting fuel–fuel that he doesn’t realize he may need. Later, when forced to travel through space to rescue Stone and then to make it from the shuttle to the ISS, his tank becomes empty just before they reach it. His inability to maneuver without endangering Stone leads to him detaching his tether and stranding himself in space forever.
There are other fortuitous events. Stone is lucky that her Chinese pod lands in a body of water but close enough to shore that she can survive the impact and get onto land easily. It is probably by chance that in entering the Soyuz craft, the weightless fire extinguisher blocks the door and that she pulls it into the craft rather than pushing it out. Later the extinguisher enables her to propel herself to the Chinese station. There are also obstacles fortuitously created, as when Stone discovers that the Soyuz vehicle has no fuel–presumably because its supply tank has been ruptured by flying debris.
There may be one major exception to this dependence on accidental causes and effects: the religious motif. This is a strange motif, since it doesn’t become significant to the plot until fairly late. Early in the complicating action, as Kowalski and Stone journey toward the ISS and he asks her about her life on earth, he’s playing a country song, “Angels Are Hard to Find.” It’s playing when Stone mentions her daughter’s death; Kowalski soon turns it off to pay more serious attention to her story. At the time, the song doesn’t seem relevant. About seventy-two minutes in, the religious motif returns and becomes more prominent. Stone discovers that the Soyuz fuel tank is empty. The vehicle drifts as sunset settles on the earth below. We see vast snow fields and fjords below, and frost forms on the window. (The cut to the frosty window is one of the film’s few apparent ellipses.) There is a brief shot of a Russian icon inside the Soyuz (Christ as a child carried by John the Baptist, I think).
Immediately after this, Stone makes contact with someone on earth. She tries to communicate her mayday call. Gradually she loses hope and begins woofing in echo of dogs she hears on the radio. She says she’s going to die. During this scene she talks of how there is no one on earth who will mourn or pray for her soul. She asks the man to “Say a prayer for me.” She adds, “I’ve never prayed in my life. Nobody ever taught me how. Nobody ever taught me how.” A baby is heard on the radio, and the man apparently sings a lullaby to it. Stone sadly comments, “I used to sing to my baby. I hope I see her soon.” At that point she dials down the oxygen inflow and says, “Sing me to sleep, and I’ll sleep.”
As she falls asleep, a knock on the door is heard off, and Kowalski enters the Soyuz. He drinks some of the hidden vodka, chats, and tells her to use the soft-landing device. Although he sympathizes with her desire to surrender to the eternal peace of space, he encourages her to save herself rather than giving up: “Ryan, it’s time to go home.” After his disappearance, Stone once again strives to save herself.
Once she has reached the Chinese landing pod, she struggles to cope with its instrument control-panel. As the countdown clock starts running, there is a tilt up to a little Budda figure, roughly in the spot where the icon had been on the Soyuz. As Stone works, she talks to Kowalski, asking him to find her daughter: “Tell her that she is my angel.”
Finally, back on earth, in the final shot Stone struggles to rise, muttering “Thank you,” before walking away from the camera, which tilts up to a low angle of her against the sky.
Though this motif appears late in the film, the narrative stresses it. Something is going on here, but what?
Most obviously, Stone seems to become somewhat religious, despite never having prayed before. Perhaps this is simply an emotional change that allows her to reconcile somewhat to her daughter’s death, to feel hope and enthusiasm for carrying on with her attempts to reach earth, and to accept her survival as a gift to her from some sort of deity.
Given that the startling visit of Kowalski, whom we assume to be dead, to the Soyuz and also his providing Stone with the one bit of information she needs in order to carry on, we might assume that this scene presents a sort of miracle. Kowalski’s visit makes him a quasi-angelic figure bringing divine intervention to Stone, perhaps, or simply a vision inspired by a divine power.
Yet his return is cued as a dream, with Stone falling into a sleep that she assumes will end in death. We all have had some sort of experience with a dream providing inspiration or the solution to a nagging problem. As Kowalski points out, Stone should know that taking off and landing are essentially the same thing; it was part of her training. The dream does not give her the knowledge but rather reminds her of it. Indeed, after she wakes up, she still has to struggle to remember what she learned about soft landings and also consults the manual.
Everything in the dream reflects things we already know about the two characters. Kowalski mentioned knowing where the vodka is kept. Earlier he had reminded her of things she knows about landing from her training with simulators. His words to her about the sorrow of losing her daughter and the temptation to surrender to the eternal peace of space recall her own line from the beginning when he asked her what she likes about space: “The silence. I could get used to it.” (Cuarón, in an interview with Anne Thompson, refers to Kowalski’s return as “a projection of herself in a dream.”)
Seemingly Stone gains some sort of religious belief or spiritual consolation. While working on the Chinese pod’s controls, she talks animatedly to the absent Kowalski, whom she apparently envisions meeting her daughter in an unspecified afterlife. The “Thank you” at the end I take to be the conclusion of this monologue in the pod, thanking Kowalski. In a truly classical film, a character mentioning never having learned to pray would surely say a prayer later in the film. Stone never does. I interpret the religious motif as signaling a transformation of her attitudes rather than implying some sort of divine intervention to rescue her. Either way, some viewers might take this motif to be heavy-handed or saccharine, but its ambiguities could prevent others from having such reactions.
It all worked
The combination of narrative techniques that I have just analyzed obviously appealed to many of the the people who have seen the film.
On November 1, Box Office Mojo summed up the film’s career since its October 4 release:
Through four weeks in theaters, Gravity earned $206.1 million, which accounted for just under a third of total domestic box office earnings in October. It’s already the highest-grossing movie ever to be released during the Fall (September or October) and will earn at least another $50 million before the end of its run.
Gravity‘s remarkable success can be attributed in part to Warner Bros.’s great marketing campaign, which helped the movie set an October opening weekend record ($55.8 million). From there, the movie had an unprecedented second weekend hold thanks to world-of-mouth that asserted the movie needed to be seen on the biggest screen possible (and preferably in 3D). Speaking of 3D–Gravity‘s box office has been pumped up by the fact that most people (around 80 percent) are choosing to pay an extra few bucks to see the movie in that premium-priced format.
According to Variety, “Imax contributed 21% of the opening-weekend domestic cume for the film.”
(Even I, no fan of 3D, have seen it in that format at two of my three viewings so far and would do so again.)
Abroad, the film has also done well. As of November 6, its foreign box-office gross is about $207 million, with the film still to open in several major markets, and its domestic take has risen to almost $220 million, expected to top out at $260 million.
[Nov. 10: Box Office Mojo is now estimating that Gravity will ultimately gross about $660 million worldwide. It opened this weekend in the United Kingdom, where 89% of its ticket sales were for 3D screenings.]
This is also one of those rare films people see in theaters repeatedly within a short period. By the end of its opening weekend, three percent of audience members said they had already seen it more than once. On October 21, the film’s official FaceBook page asked fans, “How many times have you seen the film in theaters?” One, two, or three times were common, but even by that date, two and a half weeks into its run, there were a few who had seen it four or five times. Many single and repeat viewers mentioned plans to see it again. Quite a few also specified which formats they saw it in at the different screenings. Dan Fellman, head of Warner Bros.’s domestic distribution, remarked, “This is a phenomenon where people are asking friends and family not only if they’ve seen the film, but where.”
Some moviegoers (and critics) have found the film boring. But those who love it really love it.
Our next entry will deal with the film’s style and how it was achieved.
Coincidences can play many roles in a film’s plot, as we discuss in this entry. You could take Gravity’s ambivalent gestures toward Stone’s spiritual redemption as another example of Hollywood’s strategic ambiguity about controversial themes.
Jason Mittell has written an essay, “Gravity and the Power of Narrative Limits,” which nicely complements my analysis. He concentrates on the film’s relation to traditional genres, discussing how it departs from familiar conventions of science-fiction and survival narratives.
P. S. 9 November: After I linked to this entry on my Facebook page, Meraj Dhir commented that the song Shariff sings as he does his little weightless dance is from a famous number in Raj Kapoor’s 1955 musical Shree 420. Not exactly relevant to my analysis, but fun to know, so thanks, Meraj! You can see the number here.
NOTE: On November 8, after watching the film a fourth time, I revised this post, correcting a few errors and quoting some brief passages of dialogue that I was able to record on this go-through. I have not noted the changes with the usual strike-through lines, since it seemed too complicated and distracting to do so in this case.
Even while tempting us with many, many films, the Vancouver International Film Festival runs an event that could all too easily lure us away from viewing and into the world of film-industry gurus: the Film and Television Forum. Its website describes it as “four days of professional development for senior and emerging professionals, from financing to production, to marketing and distribution, to storytelling and engagement.”
In an ideal world, we would attend all of the sessions, but they run concurrently with as many as eight films showing elsewhere. Two talks were particularly appealing, though, given our interest in the practice of making films within the mainstream American industry. I slipped away to hear master-classes by Terry Rossio (screenwriter for all of the Pirates of the Caribbean films) and Walter Murch (editor of Particle Fever, shown at the festival, and sound designer on many films, including Apocalypse Now).
Rossio’s modest title was “Revisions,” though his discussion ranged far beyond advice on how to rewrite a script. He immediately won over the audience, clearly many of them professional or aspiring screenwriters, by passing around a flash-drive and inviting anyone with a script-in-progress on their laptop to put some pages on it. He would end the session by making some impromptu revisions of those pages.
I’m not secretly working on a screenplay or even aspiring to write one, but if I were, I think I would have gleaned some valuable tips from Rossio’s talk.
Most panels and seminars tend to be too general, he said. They “focus on the business side, tell personal anecdotes,” and so on. He feels that it is probably impossible to teach screenwriting: “No, the better question is, can writing be learned?” Yes, but people must teach themselves.
Writing and revising
To Rossio, one crucial thing to learn is that finishing a story is not the end. One should have both doubt and faith: doubt that a story or scene is good enough, and faith that it can be better.
Revision, according to Rossi, is “talent reapplied.” One may have a limited amount of talent for writing, but it can be stretched by reapplying it over and over during the revision process.
Rossio is a big advocate of succinctly creating a strong visual sense in each scene. Even on Rossio’s desktop he comes up with a distinctive icon for each folder (see top): a Rubik’s cube for “Screenwriting,” a little gramophone for “Music,” and so on.
For Rossio, each scene should consist of:
- Opening image
- Key moment (character revelations, reversals, etc.)
- Throw (i.e., the setup for the next scene)
Apart from visual imagery, writing should be situation-based: “Every scene you write must be an obvious situation.” A screenplay is a string of situations, which creates a compelling interest in the scene. His example was two people discussing an important deal in a car on the way to a meeting. The dialogue might become boring because of the static setting, but the writer could make them experience car trouble and have their discussion outside the car while worrying whether they will make it to the meeting: “The easiest way to create interest is through some sort of dilemma.”
One important technique of revision is what Rossio calls “performance dialogue.” Writers tend to compose speeches in full, grammatical sentences, but that doesn’t sound natural in spoken dialogue. Rossio takes these complete sentences and starts to eliminate words: “Less words allows for performance the actor will be performing in between the syllables.” He adds, “If you give an actor a very long line, they can’t manipulate that into an emotion. But a shorter line allows them to express the subtext or nuance of what’s going on.”
This advice led to a question from the audience about how a writer can convey to the director and actors what he or she intended the nuances of a scene to be. Rossio suggested three possibilities:
- Become a director. The director is the one who puts things on the screen. The writer makes suggestions about what to put on the screen.
- Negotiate having the power to be on set during shooting.
- Annotate the screenplay.
The third point caused quite a bit of interest and is an unusual approach that Rossio himself has recently adopted. He writes a normal script, fairly compact and easy to read. But he includes endnote numbers that refer to a separate document, a list of annotations. These might be something like an indication that a certain moment in the film is a reference to the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark or suggestions about special camera angles. Rossio has not used this tactic often enough to gauge whether directors in general would appreciate it, but he did have a good response to the first annotated script he provided.
Rossio dislikes all the screenwriting software on the market, but he showed off a system that he devised himself. The screen below shows the list of scenes for his current project, Masters of the Universe. Each scene is identified by a single word, such as “Vengeance” or “Snake.” The ones that are finished are highlighted in color. (I don’t believe Rossio mentioned the difference between the purple and the yellow highlighting.) The scenes can be switched in order with their labels automatically re-numbered.
One advantage of this system is that the author opens only one scene rather than the whole script. Dealing with something that may be about four pages long is less overwhelming. Rossio also finds that his system facilitates sharing drafts of scenes with a collaborator.
Tips for pitching
In keeping with his emphasis on the visual aspects of a screenplay, Rossio recommends that writers make up a brief pre-viz that captures the essence of the script’s premise. Increasingly, software is becoming available that would allow technically adept writers to create demo clips on their own. For writers unable to do this, Rossio suggests that in a highly competitive market, they should get an effects house to do the job for them. These days even some directors are using this approach in trying to get a job.
Rossio was asked a question about pitching to get a job revising an existing script. He had four suggestions.
First, read the script that is to be revised. Surprisingly, not all writers do that. If it’s based on a literary property, read that, too. A lot of writers just wing such pitch meetings.
Second, take along a presentation board. It can be used for breaking down the script or drawing images.
Third, write a recap of the script as it exists and be ready to discuss specific possible changes.
Fourth, go to the trouble of having two or three specific images ready to show. If the VIPs like the images, they can get access to them only by hiring the writer.
I think if I were a scriptwriter, aspiring or otherwise, I would consider that Rossio packed a lot of useful information into his 75-minute presentation. He also chose two of the script excerpts submitted by audience members and gave their authors some quick and helpful suggestions for revisions.
As far as I could tell, Murch’s talk had no title, but the concept he threw out early on was “fungibility,” one meaning of which is being capable of changing easily. The example he gave was a caterpillar changing into a butterfly. Murch was referring to the digital revolution in film editing. This was not so much a how-to talk as an attempt to demonstrate the dramatic changes that have come about as a result of rapidly changing technologies.
Murch showed a photo of himself struggling with 35mm film strips in editing Apocalypse Now in the 1970s (above). Now, of course, there would be no such physical sorting and splicing. He then pointed out the sheer weight of film, which has been entirely eliminated:
As the graphic shows, a single 1000-foot reel of 35mm film weighs 11 pounds. The strips of Apocalypse Now in the photo above were part of workprint material totaling 7 tons. If Murch’s latest film, Particle Fever, had been edited on 35mm, he would have had to deal with far more, 16 tons of film. It simply would have been impossible to edit such a quantity of footage. (Would a hard-drive with a complete feature film on it weight measurably more than a blank one? he wondered.)
For Particle Fever, Murch used Final Cut Pro 7–an statement that led to scattered applause from the audience. Like Murch, users of that program are loyal to it, but as he pointed out, a 32-bit program simply can’t keep up with modern demands for memory. While editing, he kept running into situations where there was no memory left, and he had to use elaborate and time-consuming methods to free up storage space. (The film ended up with 18 terabytes of material stored.) On his current project, Tomorrowland, he is using a 64-bit Avid program and has had no problem running out of memory.
(Tomorrowland is being made here in Vancouver, which is presumably why we had the privilege of Murch’s participation in the forum.)
Murch showed a timeline graphic for Particle Fever, with multiple image track, dialogue tracks, effects tracks, musical tracks, and so on. Each small horizontal line represents a separate track:
Even while working on this level of complex technology, however, Murch sticks to simple methods for some of his planning. He creates a “scene board” using cards coded with colors, sizes, and shapes . The little green triangles create a chronology, giving the years covered by each set of scenes:
As with Rossio’s system of storing his scenes in a way that allows him to change their order, Murch can move the cards around if the structure of the film changes. Murch put it this way: “I would suggest reversion to kindergarten.”
He also showed some photos of his workspaces for various projects. One was intriguing for indicating how important perspective is for editing. One workroom contained a 50-inch monitor for playing back scenes as he edits them. (See bottom.) Note the little white figures of a man and a woman at the bottom corners of the screen. Murch wanted to keep scale in mind, and the figures represent normal-sized people at the proportionate size they would appear if the monitor were a forty-foot theatrical screen.
This photo inspired someone during the question session to ask whether the increasing tendency for people to watch movies on very small digital screens has influenced Murch’s editing decisions. He replied that it has to some extent, though from the beginning of his career at the end of the 1960s he has had to keep the smaller television screen in mind. Yet he does not edit primarily for the tiny images on mobile devices: “If you cut for the big screen, it will work for the small screen. If you cut for the small screen, it won’t work as well for the big screen.” The Master speaks. So far, the theatrical experience remains the basis for moviemaking.
The Guardian has a video interview with Walter Murch discussing Particle Fever.
A monitor in Walter Murch’s workspace, with two white human figures at the lower corners to indicate scale.
A Touch of Zen (King Hu, 1970).
….really is a jump cut.
I had spent a day studying King Hu’s The Valiant Ones at an archive. That night over dinner, my friend asked me what was taking me so long. I answered, “I’m trying to figure out his secrets.” Her brow furrowed, but then she said, “I suppose that’s all right as long as you never tell anyone.”
Reader, I told. Eventually.
The puzzle for me was how King Hu gets the remarkable kinetic effects in his fight scenes. He starts with the conventions of the Chinese wuxia (“martial chivalry”) film. Fighting with or without weapons, the warriors have extraordinary powers of speed and strength. They can sometimes defy gravity with “weightless leaps” that carry them great distances.
Today, digital special effects permit quite dazzling images showing flying warriors in extended long shots, as in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero. But Hong Kong directors of the 1960s and 1970s had much more meager special effects available.
The alternative was to present these feats through constructive editing. A character leaps in shot A, flies through the air in shot B, and lands in shot C. All much easier to film than a single, faked long shot. From the 1980s on, strong but thin wires would keep the fighters in the air for long shots. Many fine films were made using wirework, but for the most part King Hu couldn’t use it. About his only technological support was a variety of trampolines that could be cunningly hidden in a set.
King Hu’s solution to the problem of flying swordfighters involves a unique approach to film technique. In an article called “Richness through Imperfection: King Hu and the Glimpse,” I argued that he found a way to make his fighters’ prodigious moves register in a percussive but almost subliminal way. It’s not just that if you blink, you miss the action. (Though if you do, you will.) His goal isn’t just to use brief shots (some only three or four frames long) to arrest our attention. More important, King Hu evokes the quasi-supernatural power of his fighters by suggesting that they move too quickly and unpredictably for the camera to catch.
He accomplishes this by reshaping the constructive-editing scheme of launch/leap/landing. He trims each shot to a minimum, provides several intermediate flying shots (each also very short), and makes our eye work by shifting the center of interest from shot to shot. He provides eccentric angles, unexpected cuts, and startlingly empty frames. Characters run, spring up, and soar, but in a flurry of frames, or on the screen edge, or dodging in and out of sight–blocked by bits of the set, or just by a framing that doesn’t adjust quickly enough to their impulsive movements.
A good example is the moment in Dragon Gate Inn (1967) when the eunuch Tsao attacks the group defending the family of General Yu on the roadway. A low angle shows him launching his jump.
So far, so conventional. But instead of giving us a clear image of Tsao in flight mode, Hu gives us this:
Tsao slides down the left frame edge, vanishes for an instant, then bounces up, already somersaulting, on his way to strike his adversary Hsiao. The framing fails to keep up with him, implying that he’s just too elusive, while his wayward entries into the frame provide percussive accents.
King Hu liked to play with the leap phase of the ABC pattern, as here and in my knockout passage for the day, shown at the top of the entry. In the penultimate confrontation of A Touch of Zen, Commander Hsu attacks the serene Abbot Hui Yan. Hsu leaps a huge distance and comes down directly in front of the monk. But King Hu renders this miraculous feat in two nearly identical framings: one showing the launch, the other the landing. Seen from over the monk’s shoulder, Hsu has been endowed with blinding speed through a sheerly cinematic effect–a bold jump cut.
Please note: This isn’t a clumsy patch job in the particular print. The cut is in the negative, and it’s been in every print I’ve ever seen of Touch of Zen.
“Jump cut” is a term that’s used in different ways. Sometimes it refers to various kinds of mismatches that yield a jolting discontinuity. I’m using the term here to denote an effect that results from excising some frames from a continuous shot. The classic examples have always been the cuts in Godard’s Breathless. The Touch of Zen example is a little less pure because you can see that Shot 2 doesn’t strictly continue Shot 1′s camera setup. King Hu has moved the abbot’s head and shoulder a little further away from us. But the compositions are graphically very close, and the impression on screen is of a single camera take with some frames lopped out.
When we ask, Where did Hsu go from shot to shot?, the answer is: In the cut. Without the advantage of special effects, King Hu has given us a propulsive impression of speed and ferocity.
His secret? Merely a uniquely cinematic imagination.
Some of our techie readers might be curious about the images here, photographed from a 35mm print. Perhaps they’ve noticed that Hu’s cutting has left its physical trace on the film strip.
In classic filmmaking practice, cuts were made with splices–physical joins between one piece of film and another. In film-based formats, splices were made with glue or transparent tape. (Today, of course, they’re largely made digitally and called “edits.”) Most filmmakers hid their splices, but there’s a robust tradition in avant-garde cinema of integrating splices into the image; you can see it, for example, in the work of Stan Brakhage and Paolo Gioli.
Splices are visible as horizontal flashes across the bottom of the screen. In 35mm filmmaking, the final printing phase usually masks those out. But, as Erik Gunneson reminds me, that’s harder when you’re shooting anamorphic scope. There the image is recorded full-frame on the film strip, so traces of the splice may remain visible, especially in older films.
When we look at the physical strip here,we can see that Hu’s negative cutter has simply spliced one shot to another with cement. The illustrations up top show the last frame of Shot A and the first frame of Shot B. You can see the neat splice, a horizontal line running along the bottom of the first frame and the top of the second. The same trace of a splice is visible in the cut involving Yang’s leap.
The odd thing to modern eyes is that there’s a bit of overlap, a thin slice that seems out of whack with both shots. In Shot A, the bottom edge of this thin strip cuts off the abbot’s head weirdly. Let me show you the first frame of the second shot again. Reading from top to bottom, you see a bit of the bottom of Shot A’s last frame, then the true frame line, then the weird little band. The bulk of the image is the frame that starts Shot B.
What’s that thin slice between the frame line and the yellow splice line? It’s the top bit of the next frame of the first shot as taken in camera. It shows the trees and the abbot’s head and ears as they appear at the top of Shot A’s composition. Instead of cutting exactly on the frame line of Shot A, the editor has overlapped a tad of the following frame in order to attach the two shots with cement. During a screening, the extra bit may be minimized or eliminated because the projector plate doesn’t show us the entirety of the image on the strip, but it is there.
Splices can be hidden through A/B rolling, which I believe is more common in 16mm than in 35mm production. I don’t believe that Chinese films of Hu’s day made use of this process, but I’d appreciate more information.
The essay on King Hu is in my Poetics of Cinema (Routledge, 2008), 413-430. For more on King Hu and his innovations, see Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment, available elsewhere on this site. Kristin and I discuss jump cuts and graphic matches in Chapter 6 of Film Art: An Introduction. See also the “Film Technique: Editing” category on the right of this page.
I put up this post now because I’ll be giving a talk on Chinese martial arts cinema next Monday, 10 June at the Toronto International Film Festival Bell Lightbox, at 6:30. It’s a part of TIFF’s splendid summer-long celebration of Chinese cinema. On the day before, 9 June, there will be a free screening of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Dust in the Wind (1987) at 10:00 AM. After the show, there’ll be a panel featuring Bart Testa, Hou expert Jim Udden (who posted a blog entry with us on Hou’s new project), and me.
This entry is also to congratulate Peter Rist, tireless guardian of the Shaolin Temple, on his birthday.
A Touch of Zen.