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Archive for the 'Film technique: Staging' Category

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL: Wes Anderson takes the 4:3 challenge

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014).

DB here:

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 Tannenbaums; 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?

 

Cutting around

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

Rushmore (1998).

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.


Without any conspiring between us, Matt Zoller Seitz, top expert on Wes Anderson, has just urged critics to write more about film form–to be, among other things, shot-conscious.

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 biggest example to my memory, though, is Douglas Trumbull’s Brainstorm (1983). In both 70mm and 35mm prints, every time the characters are experiencing virtual reality wearing Louise Fletcher and Christopher Walken’s gizmo, the image widens to scope. AndI think, Trumbull shot all of the widescreen stuff in 65mm, which made everything seem “more real” if you saw a 70mm print.
Wow! Thanks to Jim for these new examples, none of which I’ve seen. I keep learning stuff.
P.P.P.P.S. 15 April (Wisconsin time): Speaking of learning stuff, now that I’m home I revisited The Grand Budapest Hotel. Turns out the 1.85 sections are weirder than I’d noticed.
Without going into detail, I’d say that outermost frame story (the young woman reporter visiting the cemetery) and the 1980s frame story (the Author addressing the camera) involve two different sizes of 1.85: one filling the screen, and the other smaller within that area. To complicate things, I believe that the rounding-off at the film’s end presents yet a third size, still in the 1.85 proportion.
Why? I have no idea, but it’s something to watch for. And of course 1.85 most closely approximates the proportions of an opened trim-size book….

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014).

Manny Farber 2: Space Man

 

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

DB here:

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

Counter-Attack (1945)

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).

GRAVITY, Part 1: Two characters adrift in an experimental film

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.

                                                                                                     Sandra Bullock

Kristin here:

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.

VIFF 2013 finale: The Bold and the Beautiful, sometimes together

Gebo and the Shadow (2012).

DB here:

I’m a little late catching up with our viewings at the Vancouver International Film Festival this year (it ended on the 11th), but I did want to signal some of the best things we didn’t squeeze into earlier entries. Kristin and I also want to pay tribute to one of the biggest moving forces behind the event.

 

Safe but not sorry

Like Father, Like Son (2013).

Among other goals, film festivals aim to provide a safe space for nonconformist filmmaking. Programmers need to find the next new thing—art cinema is as driven by novelty as Hollywood is—and they encourage films that push boundaries. What isn’t so often recognized is that sometimes festivals show filmmakers who were once quite artistically daring backing off a bit from their more radical impulses. Part of this is probably age and maturity; part of it reflects the fact that apart from daring novelties, festivals also showcase works that might cross over to wider audiences. And of course festivals will present recent works by the most distinguished filmmakers, almost regardless of the programmers’ hunches about their quality. Some sectors of the audience want to see the latest Hou or Kiarostami or Assayas.

Koreeda Hirokazu was thirty-three when Mabarosi (1995) won a prize at Venice. It’s an austerely beautiful work, presenting a disquieting family drama in very long, static takes. Once the action shifts to a seacoast village, distant shots render slowly-changing illumination playing over landscapes, while the tension between husband and wife is built out of small gestures. For example, we learn that the forlorn wife is waiting in the bus stop only when a little bit of her comes to light.

    

Lest this seem just fancy playing around, Koreeda occasionally used his long takes to build suspense. Yumiko’s new husband has been drinking. While he’s out of the room, she opens a drawer to retrieve the bike bell she keeps in memory of her first husband, killed in a traffic accident. The second husband returns unexpectedly, and drunkenly collapses on the table beside her. But when she lifts her hands out of her lap, she inadvertently lets the bell tinkle a little.

     

The sound rouses him and he asks what she’s holding. She raises her head at last and they begin a quarrel about each one’s motives in marrying the other.

Eventually he will shift woozily to the other side of the table and notice what has been sitting quietly in the frame all along: the still-open drawer on the far right.

In later films, from After Life (1998) to I Wish (2011), Koreeda’s visual design became less reliant on just-noticeable changes within a placid shot. The images have become less demanding, and more extroverted narrative lines carry stronger sentiment. The films remain admirable in their ingenious plotting and mixture of humor and pathos—which is to say, they are committed to that “cinema of quality” that makes movies exportable.

That commitment is firmly in place in Like Father, Like Son. Koreeda, now fifty-one, dares almost nothing stylistically or narratively. Yet every scene leaves a discernible tang of emotion, and his light touch assures that things never lapse into histrionics. If Nobody Knows (2004) and I Wish (2011) are his “children films,” this is, like Still Walking (2008), a movie about being a parent.

The plot has a fairy-tale premise: Babies switched at birth. Our viewpoint is aligned with the well-to-do parents and particularly the ambitious executive Ryota. When he finds that six-year-old Keita isn’t his birth son, he insists on swapping the boy into the household of the happy-go-lucky working-class Saiki family. In exchange, Ryota and his wife take in the boy that Saikis have raised as their own.

As the film proceeds, our view widens to create a welter of comparisons—two ways of being six years old, tough discipline versus easygoing parenting, what rich people take for granted and what poor people can’t, a solicitous mother versus one who can’t spare time for coddling. Koreeda is faultless in measuring the reactions of all involved. Ryota’s wife slips into quiet depression. Saiki is an affable father with a childish streak, but he also looks forward to suing the hospital. Saiki’s wife, a no-nonsense woman with two other kids to care for, is a mixture of toughness and maternal affection. As in a Renoir film, everyone has his reasons, and the drama depends on a process of adjustment stretching across many months. Climaxes become muted, though no less powerful for that.

A smile and a tear: the Shochiku studio formula, enunciated by Kido Shiro back in the 1920s, remains in force here. Simple motifs, such as images stored on a camera’s photo card, hark back to all those affectionate picture-taking scenes in Ozu’s classics. The whole is shot with a conventional polish—coverage through long lenses, straightforward scene dissection—that’s far from the strict, slightly chilly look of Maborosi.

It’s impossible to dislike this warm, meticulously carpentered film. Koreeda has proven himself a master of humanistic filmmaking, and I admire what he’s done (as these entries indicate). Those of us who’ve been following his career for nearly twenty years, however, may feel a little disappointed that he hasn’t tried to stretch his horizons a bit more.

Like Father, Like Son was rewarded with the Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes festival. Steven Spielberg, jury president, has acquired remake rights for DreamWorks.

 

Action, blunt or besotted

A Touch of Sin (2013).

Jia Zhang-ke’s A Touch of Sin offers a comparable adjustment to broader tastes. It’s far less forbidding than his early features Platform (2000), Unknown Pleasures (2002), and The World (2004). Somewhat like Koreeda, Jia’s earliest fiction films embraced a long-take aesthetic that tended to keep the characters’ situations framed in a broad context. (His documentaries, like the remarkable 2001 In Public, were somewhat different.) Jia proceeded to breach the boundary between documentary and fiction in Still Life (2007), Useless (2007), and 24 City (2008). With A Touch of Sin, Jia takes on a twisting, violent network narrative that is as shocking as Koreeda’s duplex story is ingratiating.

We start with a villager who fumes at the corruption in his town and carries out a vendetta against its rulers. Another story centers on a receptionist who is taken for a prostitute and abused by massage-parlor customers. A third protagonist is an uneducated young man floating among factory jobs who turns his frustration inward. Threading through these is a drifter who shoots muggers from his motorcycle and later takes up purse-snatching.

The sense of inequity and exploitation that ripples through Still Life and 24 City now explodes into rage. Rich men (one played by Jia) puff cigars while strutting through a brothel, businessmen casually exploit their mistresses and buy off politicians, and injustices are settled with fists, knives, pistols and shotguns. “I was motivated by anger,” Jia says. “These are people who feel they have no other option but violence.”

Like Koreeda, Jia has had recourse to some of the casual long-lens coverage we find in many contemporary movies, but certain shots gather weight through his signature long takes–especially shots holding on brooding characters. In all, we get a dread-filled panorama, with bursts of violence staged and filmed with an impact that reminds you how sanitized contemporary action scenes are.

For more, see Manohla Dargis’ rich Times review of the film.

After the painstaking (and pain-giving) dynamics of Drug War (our entry is here), one of Johnnie To Kei-fung’s best recent films, it’s wholly typical that he does something outrageous. His work with Wai Ka-fai at their Milkyway company has always alternated unforgiving crime films of rarefied tenor with sweet and wacko romantic comedies that assure solid returns.  But seldom have they combined the two tendencies into something as screechingly peculiar as The Blind Detective.

Initially the investigator, inexplicably named Johnston, seems to be a brother to Bun, the mad detective of To and Wai’s 2007 film. He insists on having the crime reenacted so as to intuit the perp’s identity. But since Johnston is blind, somebody else must tumble down stairs, get whacked on the head, and generally suffer severe pain in the name of the law. Ready to sacrifice herself to Johnston’s mission is officer Ho, a spry and game young woman with a crush on him.

Johnston and Ho are trying to find what happened to a schoolgirl who went missing ten years before. But this account makes the movie seem more linear than it is. Johnston makes his living from reward money, and he’s also dedicated to finding a dancing teacher he fell in love with when he had sight. So the search for Minnie is constantly deflected. Yet the digressions end up, mostly through Johnston’s inexplicable flashes of imagination, carrying them back to their main quest.

This episodic plot, or rather two plots, stretched to 130 minutes (making this the longest Milkyway release, I believe), yields something like a Hong Kong comedy of the 1980s, where slapstick, gore, and non-sequitur scenes are stitched together by the flimsiest of pretexts. The tone careens from farce (not often very funny to Westerners) to grim salaciousness. Johnston’s intuitive leaps are represented by blue-tinted fantasies that show him gliding through a scene at the moment of the murder, or assembling a gaggle of victims to declaim their stories. Characters are ever on the verge of exploding in anger or aggression, and between the big scenes Ho and Johnston dance tangos and gnaw their way through steaks, fish, and other delicacies.

Once more, the congenitally fabulous Andy Lau Tak-wah is accompanied by Sammi Cheng as his love interest, and the two ham it up as gleefully as in Love on a Diet (2001). (They were more subdued in my favorite of the cycle, Needing You…, 1999.) This is, in short, a real Hong Kong popular movie. It brought in US $2.0 million in the territory, and $33 million on the Mainland, about the same as Monsters University. If it keeps Milkyway in business, how can I object?

For a discerning take on The Blind Detective, see Kozo’s review at LoveHKFilm.

 

JLG in your lap

Kristin and I were keenly looking forward to 3 x 3D, the portmanteau film collecting stereoscopic shorts by Peter Greenaway,  Edgar Pêra, and Jean-Luc Godard. Kristin found the Greenaway episode–sort of his version of Russian Ark, taking the camera through the labyrinth of a ducal palace and showing off elaborate digital effects–fairly appealing. But for us the Godard was the main attraction, and he didn’t disappoint.

At one level, The Three Disasters reverts to his characteristic collage of found footage, film stills, scrawled overwriting, and insistent voice-over. (Is it my imagination or does the the 83-year-old filmmaker’s croak sound increasingly like that of Alpha 60?) The montage is sometimes over-explicit, as when Charlie Chaplin is juxtaposed with Hitler. There’s a funny passage of portraits of one-eyed directors (Lang, Ford, Ray), as if to reassert the primacy of classical monocular cinema. At other points, things get obscure, as when Eisenstein’s plea for Jewish causes during World War II is followed by shots from The Lady from Shanghai. But this is the Godard of Histoire(s) du cinema, piling up impressions that beg for acolytes to identify the images and find associations among them.

Frankly, this side of Godard doesn’t grab me as much as his pseudo-, quasi-, more-or-less-narrative features. But in 3D his dispersive poetic musings take on a new vitality. He doesn’t retrofit old movie clips and still photos for 3D. Instead he superimposes them, making one cloudy plane drift over another. He can also, more forcefully, present his signature numerals and intertitles in a new way–by having them pound out of the screen and hang rigidly in front of the image.

There are also some 3D shots made specifically for the film, most consisting of handheld shots that shift around a park, a medical complex, and, of course, a media studio. The very title of Godard’s film, punning on 3D as a technical disaster, as well as a throw of the dice (dés), suggests his ambivalence toward the technology. “The digital,” his voice declares, “will be a dictatorship,” but perhaps it will never abolish chance.

As usual, Godard has fun with simple equipment. He frankly shows us his camera rig, two Canon DSLRs lashed together side by side, one upside down. By shooting them in a mirror and shifting focus, he manages to make each lens pop and recede disconcertingly, as if Escher had gone 3D. This shot alone should inspire DIY filmmakers everywhere. So too should the one-slate credits. Whereas Greenaway’s segment lists scores of names in its credit roll, Godard’s lists only four, alphabetically. I can’t wait for the feature, Farewell to Language. (Trailer here.)

Brian Clark has an informative review of The Three Disasters at twitchfilm.

 

Looking at the fourth wall

In nineteenth-century Portugal, the elderly Gebo ekes out a living as a company accountant. His wife Doroteia and his daughter-in-law Sofia wait with him for the return of João, a rebellious ne’er-do-well. Gebo feeds Doroteia’s illusions about their son, who has likely become an outlaw. When João returns after eight years away, he throws the family into turmoil and becomes fixated on the cash that his father safeguards for the firm.

After World War II, André Bazin noticed that many filmmakers were starting to take a creative approach to adapting plays. Olivier’s Henry IV, Welles’ Macbeth and Othello, Dreyer’s Day of Wrath, Cocteau’s Les Parents terribles, Melville’s Les Enfants terribles, Hitchcock’s Rope, and Wyler’s Little Foxes and Detective Story, are far from the “photographed theatre” that some critics feared would dominate talking pictures. For decades Manoel de Oliveira has explored avenues of theatrical adaptation that have led us to some daring destinations. Gebo and the Shadow, drawn from a 1923 play by the Portuguese Raúl Brandão, is a powerful recent example, and possibly the best film I saw at VIFF this year.

After the credits show João loitering on the docks, the film confines the action almost wholly to the parlor of Gebo’s family home. Early on we see the street outside through a window, but most of the film concentrates on the characters gathered around the room’s central table. On stage, we can imagine the table at the center and the major characters assembling around it but leaving one side clear, facing the audience–in effect, accepting the convention of the invisible fourth wall that gives us access to the space.

As the still above suggests, it seems initially that Oliveira is playing up this convention, putting us into the stage space and setting the fourth wall behind us. Very soon, though, we’re inserted between the players, so that we see the other side of this lantern-lit playing space.

     

For the most part, the first stretch of conversations and soliloquys among Gebo, Doroteia, and Sofia are played out in this planimetric, clothesline layout. So is the late-night arrival of the vagrant João, coming to sit opposite his father and laughing wildly. This shot corresponds to the end of the play’s first act.

On the next day, when Gebo and his family receive some friends, the table is sliced in half.

     

The effect is to redouble the sense of proscenium space, presenting two planimetric arrays that always keep one “behind” us.

Like other chamber-plays-on-film (Dreyer’s Master of the House, Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder), Gebo varies its spatial premises slightly to incorporate other possibilities. In the stretch corresponding to the second act of the play, the angle on the table changes twice, once to present the split table-scene above, and later, to the climactic moment when João joins Sofia and contemplates breaking open the strongbox.

Sometimes we’re shown the window and other walls, usually presented when characters leave one shot and enter another. The constructive editing helps us tie together zones of the room that aren’t ever given in an all-encompassing master shot. And the camera never moves, not even to reframe characters’ gestures.

In previous films, Oliveira has played with the ambiguities of who’s looking where. (See, for instance, Eccentricities of a Blonde-Hair Girl and The Strange Case of Angelica.) After a mysterious prologue involving João, a ravishing image presents Sofia watching at the window, then moving aside to reveal Doroteia behind her (and behind us).

As often happens, the start of a film sets up an internal norm; it teaches us how to watch it. This movie starts with a lesson in optical geometry. Sofia watches the street, goes out to scan for Gebo’s arrival, then watches Doroteia from outside the window before coming back in and resuming her position at the window. As the shot develops, we can see Doroteia lighting a lamp and reflected in the window against the distant doorway.

When Sofia walks out of the shot, Oliveira’s camera lingers on the window, in which we can still see Doroteia turning her head to watch Sofia’s coming to her. This is the shot, imperfectly reproduced, that’s at the top of today’s entry. The image isn’t far from the gently insistent changes of Koreeda’s Maborosi. This film about a shadow starts with an image of a spectre.

Constructive editing often relies on a glance offscreen, so here he can play with minute differences of eye direction. Occasionally the actors look directly out at us. But when the table is halved, as above, the eyelines get very oblique, with opposite characters looking in the same direction.

In the third act, the frontal and planimetric grouping around the table returns. Gebo has searched fruitlessly for João and has returned to take the consequences of his son’s theft.

Oliveira’s adaptation omits the play’s fourth act, when the family is reunited three years later. His version leaves the family suspended in a freeze-frame, haunted by the ghostly son who has betrayed their trust. This dramatic climax is also a visual one, with sunlight for the first time spilling into the chilly, lamplit parlor and its inhabitants startled, as if they shared João’s guilt.

Perhaps more than the other films in this entry, Jebo and the Shadow shows why we need film festivals. Oliveira’s purified experiment demands a lot from the audience, but it repays our efforts. It’s at once an engrossing story and an exciting exercise in what cinema can still do. Note as well that I have managed to get through a discussion of Oliveira’s film without mentioning his age.

For more on the film, see Francisco Ferreira’s very helpful essay in Cinema Scope.


Finally, Alan Franey has announced his departure from the job of Director of the Vancouver International Film Festival. He’s going out on a high note. This year’s edition was a solid success, and its spread to venues around town seems to have brought a wider audience. For twenty-six years Alan has led the process of making the festival one of the best in North America. He has helped give it a unique identity as home to Canadian cinema, documentaries on the arts and the environment, and outstanding current Asian cinema.

For Kristin and me, he has been a wonderful friend and good-humored company. Alan’s deep commitment to great cinema has shown in his recruitment of colleagues, his skilful defusing of potential crises (most recently the shift to digital projection), and his genial, almost Zen, good nature. Fortunately for the festival, he will remain as a programmer. He deserves our lasting thanks.

 


Good news for US audiences on some of these titles: Sundance Selects will distribute Like Father, Like Son, while Kino Lorber has wisely acquired rights for A Touch of Sin. Gebo and the Shadow is available on an English-subtitled DVD from Fnac and Amazon.fr. It’s a very dark movie, and in order to make the frames readable here, I’ve had to brighten them a bit. These images don’t do justice to what I saw in the VIFF screening, or even to what the fairly decent DVD looks like.

For more on planimetric staging of the sort we find in Gebo and Maborosi,  see entries here and here and here. It’s a common resource of modern cinema, and directors utilize it in a variety of ways.

Les trois désastres (2013).

David Bordwell
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