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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Musing Pictures: Defiance

Before I begin discussing "Defiance", I would like to thank for syndicating this article, and to welcome all of the new readers who have arrived here via that site. is now publicizing my musings on Jewish or Israeli films, beginning with this one.

"Defiance" (2008, directed by Edward Zwick) is a mainstream, A-list Holocaust movie. It is the latest (or not even the latest any more) in a string of large-scale Hollywood films to tackle the subject of Germany's genocide. Any film that approaches this subject must do so carefully -- the Holocaust is a minefield of sensitivities, misinformation and anger. One of the central questions asked about Hollywood's various interpretations has to do with re-creation, and it is one aspect of this question that I would like to discuss here.

Aside from the obvious perverse aspect of "re-creating" the Holocaust, any re-enactment is necessarily less powerful, less monumental than the event itself. At the same time, a creative re-telling can often find a broader audience, and may bear meaning to more people than outright documentary. "Schindler's List" was, in many ways, a challenge to what had been considered the most monumental Holocaust film of its day: "Shoah" (1985). This documentary by Claude Lanzmann is nothing but interviews and contemporary, contemplative footage of the places where the recounted events unfolded. Jewish survivors, their non-Jewish counterparts, and other witnesses of the Holocaust tell their stories. The picture painted by "Shoah" is very broad, very personal, and very genuine. There is no archival footage in the film, no re-enactment, no attempt at creative short-hand to speed the story along. There is no doubt that this is one of the most compelling, important films on the Holocaust, but it has a fatal flaw: "Shoah" has a running time of roughly nine and a half hours! A few film buffs might have caught it at a film festival or two, but for the most part, the only people with the patience and commitment to sit through the entire film are people who are already very familiar with the Holocaust and its narratives. "Schindler's List", on the other hand, was seen by millions upon millions of people all over the world.
Re-enactment and dramatic re-creation can make the Holocaust accessible to the general public. Since "Schindler's List", large-scale films from Hollywood and elsewhere have been rising to the task. Of course, there are dangers behind using fiction to teach historical fact. First, especially with the Holocaust, narrative films always understate the situation. As vast and sweeping as films such as "Schindler's List", "Life is Beautiful" or "The Pianist" are, they still tell only a tiny fraction of the historical story. Each narrative includes characters and events that are meant to represent the broader catastrophe, but they can never fully capture its scope. Since many film viewers are not attuned to the representational tools employed by filmmakers, and since many films do not call attention to their own artifice, viewers often fuse what they see in films with what they've learned as facts. When those of us who did not experience the Holocaust think of the Holocaust, do we imagine things as they were, or do we imagine fictional images that we've seen on TV? The problem becomes more significant when it comes to the atrocities themselves. The Nazis were notorious propagandists, and as such, they maintained very careful control of the films and photographs taken in or around the central apparatus of their Final Solution. There is almost no footage at all from within a death camp or concentration camp during the war. So, when we think of the atrocities committed by the Nazis, what images come to mind? Are they images from historical footage, or are they re-creations? I would argue that the harshest images that come to mind are not authentic, but re-creations we've seen in films or on television.
Filmmakers who tackle the Holocaust must grapple with the challenge of presenting a compelling re-creation while reminding their viewers that what they are seeing is, in fact, not nearly as awful as the Holocaust itself. In effect, filmmakers must remind their audience that they are seeing a movie. This goes against the grain of the Hollywood aesthetic, which emphasizes hiding the movie-ness of a movie (you're not supposed to realize you're watching a movie when you're watching it -- you are meant to be completely absorbed in its narrative). Spielberg achieved this in "Schindler's List" in several ways, most notably with the well-known "girl in the red coat". Although the film is shot in black-and-white, the scene in which the Warsaw Ghetto is liquidated includes one splash of color - the red of a little, lost girl's coat stands out among the shades of gray. The scene is deeply moving, but also obviously artificial. As we watch the movie, we are reminded that we are watching a movie. Once we realize that, we can begin to understand the girl, the scene, and in fact the entire film as references to a broader historical tragedy.
"Defiance" approaches this challenge in a slightly different way. It begins with grainy, black-and-white footage of the Nazi invasion of Belarussia. We hear the gunshots, the screams, the sounds of chaos as the film unspools. I was very nervous when this scene began. The audio that underlies the archival images is not authentic to those images, but recorded nearly seventy years later by voice actors and sound effects artists half a world away from where the events took place. I know this, but would a typical viewer know it? Was the film trying to pass fiction off as fact (when the fact itself is strong enough without requiring falsification) After a short while, one shot, in particular, begins to change. It begins as a grainy black-and-white shot, apparently archival, but the scratches slowly fade away, and the image slowly gains its color. What appeared archival was, in fact, re-creation. We are shown this as a reminder of the artifice of what we are seeing, (a visual reminder, where the aural reminder might have been missed by most viewers) but also as a reminder of its connection to historical fact. In its first few minutes, "Defiance" defines itself in the context of the history it re-creates.
This somewhat self-reflexive moment is something to look for in any Holocaust film, especially in the context of education. Does the film offer reminders of its artifice, of the fact that what it presents is not the same as what it represents?
I am curious about how this will apply to Quentin Tarantino's "Inglorious Basterds", which comes out this month. That film's premise is so over-the-top that it might not need to incorporate this sort of visual disclaimer. I'm sure to have a lot to say about it when I do catch it in theaters a few weeks from now, and I'm sure I'll write about it here. See you then!


Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Musing Pictures: Public Enemies

I would like to begin by noting that what I have seen of director Michael Mann's work, I have generally enjoyed. "Public Enemies" is no exception.

That said, what I'd like to focus on here is, arguably, a weak point of the film.

For the past several years, Michael Mann has been working at the forefront of the digital field, shooting features such as "Collateral" and "Miami Vice" in new, digital formats. In "Collateral", the digital medium served the film very well, lending it an additional and appropriate urban grit. "Public Enemies", which was also shot digitally, is a bit of a tougher call.

Before I go in to the pros and cons of the use of digital in this particular movie, I'd like to take a step back, to try to explain what this whole film vs. digital debate is all about.

First, a description of what it is you see when you see a projected film or a projected digital video.

Film is really just a thin layer of chemicals that at one point reacted to light, and that have since been 'locked' in such a way that they retain the very color to which they reacted. Each frame of a film is a photographic exposure, like a slide. When light is focused through that frame, the colors of the chemicals 'paint' the light, so that when it hits a white surface somewhere beyond the other side, an image appears. When twenty four of these images flash up on that white screen every second, they appear to blend with one another, and slight variations from one projected photograph to the next appear like movement.

Now, there are two critical elements to this discussion: Film grain and color depth.

I'll start with color depth, since it is fairly basic. Film has a very broad range of colors and shades that it is capable of replicating. As light changes, the chemical reactions in the film change to match it. Roughly, for any two shades of light, film can react to and recreate the shade in-between. Digital images, as their name implies, rely on digital interpretation of light. Different shades of light generate different numerical signals. Unlike film, video has no in-betweens. There may be millions of colors available to digital video, but since it relies on these absolute calculations, it misses the infinite varieties between those millions of colors (the color must be A or B or C, etc., so if the actual color is in-between, it gets forced one way or the other). As a result, digital images flatten out in low-light or low-contrast situations, where the slight differences in color and light are critical.

Film grain is a little harder to define, though I could probably point it out in a movie theater. When you're watching a film, look closely at the images. You may notice that there is a certain almost invisible 'speckling' on the screen. This is film grain, which is really the random arrangement of chemical molecules in a frame. Some film stocks are very 'grainy' (especially smaller film stocks -- 16mm or 8mm film, like old newsreels (often 16mm) or the Zapruder footage of the Kennedy assassination (8mm)), whereas other film stocks tend to be much finer (most of what we see in theaters today is very fine-grain 35mm film). The most important thing to note about film grain is that it is randomly distributed. If there is a thicker grain in one particular corner of the screen in one frame, it probably won't be there in the next. At 24 frames per second, especially if the grain is very fine, you're not very likely to see it at all. As a result, the colors on the screen blend together more smoothly, and take on a much more dimensional appearance.

Now, digital video functions in a very different way. We've discussed how it records light and color in increments, with none of the nuanced in-between steps that film can pick up. Another difference is the way that digital images are organized. Whereas film has randomly-distributed 'grain', digital images are projected in a neat grid. Row after row of pixels form the organizational structure of a digital image. With each successive frame, all of the pixels change color and intensity, creating the next photographic image. Here's the key, though: the pixels do not change location! This means that unlike film, where the grain's placement is random and constantly shifting, pixels stay stationary, and therefore, they are visible! Look closely at your computer monitor right now (which, chances are, is currently set to a resolution equal or greater than 'high definition' television). See the grid? Even if you were playing a movie, get right up close and you'd see the grid. The same goes for movie theaters. Get close to the screen when it's a digital image, and you'll see the individual boxes of color that make up the image, neatly arranged. Presumably, if there are enough pixels, they become too small for us to really notice. This is why high definition images have more pixels than standard definition images, and why the digital projections in movie theaters have even more pixels than the high def stuff we see at home. But no matter how small the pixels are, the grid itself is still there, and it's still a part of the image that we're seeing. It's like looking out a window through a screen. You rarely think about it, but if you were to move the screen out of the way, the image that you would see would be very different.

Will these issues always be present? I doubt it. There's a lot of innovation happening in the world of moving images. But does this mean that digital images are not as "good" as film images? Well, sort of. Depends on what you need. It's hard to justify shooting film for a TV show (although they do it for certain large-scale productions such as "Lost"). Video is faster, cheaper, more easily tweaked, and in the end, no one is going to watch their favorite sitcom on a big screen with a projector whirring behind them. We watch TV on TV, so why not shoot digitally?

For some movies, the digital option makes a lot of sense. Sometimes, it's an economic consideration. On the independent side of things, it's much cheaper to shoot video than to shoot film, so if you're going to make a movie without lots of money, video is the way to go. On a larger scale, the difference in cost is less substantial. Hollywood-level technologies are extremely expensive, and the personnel required to manage the data aren't cheap to hire, either. That said, digital works for some films (such as Michael Mann's "Collateral", mentioned above), where their content or subject matter or setting interact well with the 'look' of digital.

That brings me, at long last, to "Public Enemies". I saw it knowing it was shot digitally, and I found that I could strongly sense the difference. Some scenes looked 'cheap', with the colors or textures of a daytime soap opera, or of a 1990s action TV show, and others looked a little like they were shot on a camcorder, the darker areas collapsing in to 'noise' (the mess of dark purple floating spots that appear when the camera doesn't know how to differentiate between one kind of darkness and another -- the pesky 'in-betweens'). When I got home, I read this interesting article in Millimeter in which Michael Mann discusses the choice of shooting digitally, and the process of testing the digital process, and comparing it to traditional film. The kind of careful thought and consideration that went in to the choice to shoot digitally has made me wonder if perhaps I might have been thrown off by my own expectations. Mann chose to shoot the film in a way that would specifically undercut the romanticism of 1933 (whereas I expected it would be a highly romanticized story). He wanted it frank, straightforward, almost candid, so he chose a format that is still predominantly used for documentaries and the news.

Unfortunately, I think the way the film was shot may have undermined a little of what Mann was trying to do. There are some outstanding camera moves, fascinating bits of slow motion, very dramatic angles... all of which serve to romanticize the narrative. Also, the depression era was a time that seems to have romanticized itself. I'm not sure that it's possible to look at the high-stakes players of the era without romanticization creeping in. These inconsistencies between the choice of format and the other decisions surrounding the look of the film make the whole effect rather shaky. I wonder what might have happened if Mann had kept all of the beautiful production design (the cars, clothes, buildings, all the little details), but shot the movie with the kind of camera that local news stations use -- and if he had shot it as if he were just a guy in the room with a camera. It would have been totally different, but I think the unglamorized effect he was looking for might have come through more effectively.


Monday, August 03, 2009

Musing Pictures: The Philadelphia Story

For all that can be said about this wonderful, classic comedy, the thing that struck me the most was its pacing.

It is said of good comedy that it relies on a mysterious thing called "comic timing" in order to work most effectively. This comic timing seems to have a lot to do with the careful buildup, maintenance of and eventual reversal of expectations. Somehow, we enjoy the resulting surprise, and in the best cases, we appreciate the process by means of which we are led along to that surprise.

And so, before I saw "The Philadelphia Story", I expected a speedy sort of rhythm, a comedic cadence, something that I could identify as "comic timing". I think that much of my expectation rested on the film's editing. In most recent comedies, comedic timing is manufactured in post production. The amount of time we spend between a joke and its punch-line is dictated by an editor's choice of when to cut from one shot to the next. As a result, comedies have developed a certain quickness, especially around those scenes and moments where the greatest humor is intended. "The Philadelphia Story", by contrast, was surprisingly patient in its cutting. Some wildly witty conversations even seemed to transpire without so much as a single cut. The humor inherent in the film, then, is not so reliant on the editor's wit, but on the comic senses of its actors. The editor can't fix bad comic timing when the entire scene is contained in one shot.

This kind of comedy is rarely seen in contemporary movies. Filmmakers, understandably, hedge their bets by covering scenes from multiple angles, and by shooting with the expectation that comic timing come together in the editing room. Actors, too, seem to be deferring to the editor. There's less risk of a joke falling flat if it can be tweaked to perfection before the film hits the screen.

But there are many bad comedies! With all of this control over comic timing and delivery, it's astounding how hard it is to make a comedy work! I think that a part of the issue has to do with the palpable sense of risk. The best jokes are the ones that are riskiest to tell, because they can fall flat so easily. We've all had the experience of trying and failing to re-tell a joke that cracked us up when we first heard it. With constant editing and tweaking of comic timing, the danger of a flat joke is minimized, and as such, the humor that results is quite a bit less surprising. We know it'll be something funny, which already makes it less funny than it could have been. When the risk is still present, still palpable, there's always the chance that the most un-funny, profoundly level-headed thing will be said next, and when that's the case, the unexpectedness of the punch-line adds to its powerful effect.

The longer takes and sparser cutting of "The Philadelphia Story" inject the comedy with that very sense of danger, of unexpectedness that many comedies miss. Not every joke is funny, but since we're not primed for the funny jokes, and since we learn to expect some of the humor to fail a little, the successful jokes hit us all the harder.