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Thursday, December 29, 2011

Musing Pictures: The Thing (1982

I'm still watching "The Thing" (though I'm welcoming the distraction of writing about it at the same time -- I find horror films fascinating, but I hate feeling scared or anxious when I watch them!)

So, out of curiosity, I'm pondering the history of movie monster autopsies. In John Carpenter's film, they're pretty gruesome, but (so far), they don't seem to involve any major scares.

Perhaps I'm reminded of the autopsy on the alien creature in "Independence Day" (1994) which doesn't go so well, as I recall.

There's also, of course, the famous postmortem on a shark in "Jaws" (1975). Not the right shark, but still pretty gross.

Thinking back a bit earlier (to a film that is undoubtedly part of the ancestry of "The Thing"), "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (1956) includes the slicing open not of an alien creature, but of the "pod" in which it gestates.

All of these scenes, in addition to the obvious "ick" factor, serve to underline the alien's "otherness", as if the strange exterior weren't enough to freak us out. In some cases, they serve to help us identify important weaknesses in the aliens, for when we finally do get a chance to beat 'em.

Are there other such scenes? I can't think of any directly, but there might be a few in films like "Men in Black", "Starship Troopers", etc. Know of any others, leave a comment!





-AzS

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Musing Pictures: The Adventures of Tintin

There's a moment in "Tintin" that reminds me of a moment in Hitchcock's "Rear Window". (Perhaps I should warn of spoilers here, for both films, but this would be uninteresting if you haven't seen them, so see them first.)

First, in "Rear Window", the lead character solves a mystery by comparing slides (still images, photographs, frames) with what he can currently see from his window. He sees differences, changes that would not have been apparent if not for the sequence of stills. The character is a photographer, and he is metaphorically discovering the narrative power of the motion picture.

A lot has been written about this meta-cinematic expression in Hitchcock's film. Spielberg has an uncannily similar structure in "Tintin", where the hero, having finally found three mysterious parchments, discovers that when they are overlaid, one over the other, if held to the light, they reveal the coordinates of a long-hidden treasure. This is not representative of cinema in the classical sense, but "Tintin" is not a "film" in the classical sense, either.

Digitally constructed images (which make up the entirety of "Tintin", which is, effectively, a digitally animated movie) are almost always constructed in "layers". This is partially a throwback to techniques of cell animation, in which a background was painted on one transparent sheet, a character to be animated on another sheet, and any foreground on yet another sheet. The sheets would be stacked, and a photo would be taken. Then, to animate the character, the middle sheet (with the drawing of the character) would be replaced by the next drawing in the sequence. In this way, animators did not have to re-draw complex and detailed backgrounds for every frame of the film.

Digital animators do much the same thing, often with entire teams dedicated to each "layer" or component of a digital image. There are teams to build the digital "sets", teams to create and manipulate the digital "characters" (in the case of "Tintin", these teams included actors, whose performances were digitally captured to become another "layer" in the digital picture). Finally (and this is especially critical in 3D films, it seems), the stuff that floats by in the air is filled in -- dust, dirt, sand, seeds, or what have you. By layering these elements, a filmmaker forms the world, and by shining light through it (via the projector), it becomes the image that conveys meaning in today's cinema.

For Spielberg, the use of performance capture in a digitally animated film would have represented a tremendous shift from his typical tools. This is filmmaking without a camera. The entire approach to constructing such a film must is entirely different. The moment where Tintin overlays the parchments and discovers their secret is in the original story, but perhaps this is what drew Spielberg to this particular Tintin narrative? It's a metaphor for the very process Spielberg had to employ to make the film.

-AzS

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Musing Pictures: Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

Although there has been much talk of the aesthetic shifts necessitated by the new rise of 3D, I haven't heard too many people discuss another recent techno-aesthetic shift to the same extent, though it seems just as prevalent as 3D these days.

"Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" is in theaters this week, but not all theaters. It's playing only on extra-large IMAX screens. (I must disclose here that I do own a very small handful of IMAX stock. It'll never make me rich, but if I sell it, I'd be able to afford a TV for my living room)

An IMAX movie is not simply a blown-up, larger-than-usual projection of a regular movie (and if it is, you've been robbed, and you should get your money back). Typically, films projected in IMAX are shot (at least in part) on IMAX cameras and film stock, a larger film stock that can pack much more detail in to a scene (which means that the projected image, despite its size, is very sharp and vivid). The IMAX screen's aspect ratio is different (1.43:1, as opposed to most movies we see, which are anywhere from 1.78:1 to 2.35:1) (see: http://blog.bigmoviezone.com/?p=493 for details). Of course, IMAX is quick to point out that the sound system in the theater is also quite robust.

These are not trivial differences, not from the audience's perspective, nor from the filmmaker's.

The most dramatic difference to a filmmaker between shooting IMAX and shooting for a regular movie screen must be the change in aspect ratio. 1.43:1 is a narrower, more box-like image than the 16x9 "widescreen" TVs that we're all so familiar with these days, and much narrower than most Hollywood cinema formats. This has a huge effect on how scenes are framed and blocked -- where are the characters or objects positioned in relation to the frame of the image. Very wide aspect ratios are celebrated for the way even a close-up can include a distant horizon -- a close-up can sometimes take up only half the screen, after all (pick almost any point in "The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly" for examples). Square-ish images, like those seen on old TVs or even older movies (what was once called "Academy Ratio") tend to favor shots that include the entire figure -- where we can observe several people standing in conversation without feeling like we're very far away. Although the wider images seem more "cinematic" to us these days, there are plenty of fantastic movies from the first half of film's history that were shot in "Academy Ratio".

The IMAX aspect ratio, combined with the larger, finer film stock, are meant to provide viewers with an immersive visual experience. I'd be interested to speak with filmmakers who use the format about how it changes their approach to shooting their scenes. I also wonder how they approach the challenge of shooting a film for both IMAX and non-IMAX screens, where the aspect ratios are so different. The non-IMAX screens mush show cropped versions, where tops and bottoms of IMAX images are simply chopped off to re-frame scenes. This would take medium-shots and turn them in to close-ups, and it would take close-ups and turn them in to extreme-close-ups, changing the visual vocabulary of a scene, and perhaps affecting its impact dramatically.

The last scene of the film felt anemic and lacking in emotional resonance to me. It involved our central characters sitting around a table and saying the sorts of things that allow the narrative to resolve. I wonder how the scene plays out on non-IMAX screens, where it has been cropped to a wider aspect ratio. The close-ups are closer, which amplifies our characters' expressions and emotions. Does the scene falter because it's not an IMAX-appropriate scene? Because it isn't shot in an IMAX-appropriate way? Regardless, the visual "language" used on the screen felt wrong, somehow, disconnected from the content, which allowed the tone to slip and become trite and unconvincing.

That said, the film did maximize the IMAX format on a couple of occasions that really worked well. Both examples involved explosions, and utilized the extremely powerful sound systems that IMAX employs.

In one particular moment, famous now from the film's previews, the Kremlin explodes. The sequence is very, very short, and it begins with a deep, palpable vibration, a shock-wave, followed by the visuals of the building blowing up. Shock waves are neat, and they can provide for interesting visuals, but in this case, the shock wave is used not so much as a visual cue, but as an audio cue, and through that, as a physical, tangible, tactile cue. The rumble of the shock wave is so deep, it makes the entire theater shake. Timed with the shock-wave on the screen, the effect is mesmerizing, and true to the IMAX claims, totally immersive. The shock wave that we see on screen actually shakes the seat we're sitting in. It's not that it's a loud sound -- I didn't feel the need to plug my ears at all -- it's just deep and very, very powerful. There were a few other explosions in the film that achieved the same result using the same rumbling, physical sound. They helped to make tangible what the IMAX format is really capable of.

It's important to realize that IMAX is not simply a bigger screen with better speakers. It's a different exhibition format, and it demands, I think, a different cinematic approach. Filmmakers who make their films as usual, but slap them on IMAX screens to make a few extra bucks off the ticket premiums are cheating us. "Ghost Protocol" had its moments, and certainly seemed as though much of it was shot with the IMAX experience in mind, but there were some parts that didn't seem to fit. It's definitely worth seeing on an IMAX screen, but it doesn't feel like it's entirely an IMAX-worthy movie.

-AzS

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Musing Pictures: Tower Heist

I recall 9th grade Jazz Band, the day we were so excited to get the sheet music to Lalo Schifrin's classic "Mission: Impossible" theme. Where a classical score might instruct the musician to play slowly or quickly, gently or harshly, Schifrin's score had a different instruction: "Driving".

We quickly learned the perils of 5/4 time. As listeners, it pulled us along. As players, it caught us off-guard. In both cases, we were used to the cyclical feeling of most popular music, wherein it comes in bursts of three or four (or six or eight) beats. Music in 5/4 is sneaky. You get to the fourth beat and expect a new phrase or musical moment to begin or repeat, but it doesn't. There's an extra beat that throws us off the musical trail, and only then does the next phrase or expression begin. Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" is another well known piece in 5/4 time. Five beats to the measure instead of four.

On screen, I find the effect mesmerizing. The music is at once aggressive, forcing its way past the expected starts and stops, and at the same time, elusive, hard to pin down. In "Tower Heist", the theme by Christophe Beck comes at us in 7/4 time, an even more complex extension of the 5/4 effect. In both cases, the music seems to infuse its visual element with momentum and determination. 5/4 doesn't stop at 4, but goes on to a 5th beat. 7/8 doesn't settle at 8 beats, but jumps to a new down-beat after just 7. This propulsive effect of 5/4 and 7/8 music makes it (to my mind) particularly effective in soundtracks and scores. And since the music is hard to "pin down", it becomes easier, to an extent, to allow the music to dissolve in to the scene, even if it's loud, blaring and brass-heavy (like that of "Tower Heist").

I don't know of many films with themes or scores that rely on 5/4, 7/8 or other unusual time signatures. If you know of more, please mention them in a comment here!

-AzS

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Musing Pictures: Moneyball

"Moneyball" is a movie about a statistics revolution in Baseball that reflects a similar seismic shift that has been occurring (albeit a little less suddenly) in the film industry itself.

The idea that statistics plays a role in baseball isn't new, but the idea that statistics have the power to define a winning season was shocking (as per the film) when it was first implemented a decade ago.

The prevailing idea was that certain types of players -- players who could individually strike gold in the ballpark -- were the catalysts for victory on a team. Teams with more money paid more for big names with flashy statistics, and somehow, that was thought to be the ticket to success for the franchise.

In Hollywood, that has been a dominant trend as well, starting with the studios' "star system" back in the silent era, a system that relied on the "star power" of an individual to draw audiences to see a factory product. Star Power eventually destroyed the old studio system, replacing it with the structure we see today, where stars negotiate individual contracts based on their public allure. Today, studios don't create stars. Stars (and their agents, managers, publicists, attorneys, etc.) create themselves.

Like Baseball, Hollywood has attempted to define success by individual numbers. Big stars are ranked by their "Q Score", a number that reflects an actor's previous box office success, and the market's trending relationship with that actor's work. On a broader scale, the Internet Movie Database's "Star Meter" has become a rough measure by means of which some actors and directors are measured.

Behind all this number crunching, though, there's an underlying anxiety: With playors, like movie stars, demanding bigger and bigger paychecks -- paychecks that the biggest franchises or studios are still willing to pay -- how is anyone else to compete?

That is the dilemma faced by the Oakland As in "Moneyball", and it's something I've wondered about quite a bit as an indie filmmaker.

The question becomes not what makes a good movie, but what makes a "winning" movie -- a movie that can recoup its investment, that can make a profit, that can compete with its larger, more thoroughly financed cousins.

"Moneyball", as a film, reflects this anxiety. It's a wordy, intellectual excursion through a very narrow, dry world of spreadsheets and statistics. It's the sort of film that an indie filmmaker might approach: few locations, no major special effects or stunts or action sequences, easy stuff. Of course, this film has clout behind it, too, so it doesn't look or feel like an indie film. Big stars populate the lead roles, after all (and they do a good job of it, too). So, is this an indie film, betting on story rather than flash to make its sales? Or is this a "Hollywood" film, banking on the Q-Scores of its stars to draw its audience? Is it the little baseball team with the roster of solid-hitting nobodies, or is it the flush-with-money franchise with the superstar athletes and promotional deals? Or is it both?

I see "Moneyball" as an interesting attempt to bridge the scaled-back sensibilities of indie filmmaking (keep it simple, keep it real, tell a dazzling story without dazzling effects, etc.) with the tried-and-true (and expensive) methods of the Hollywood system. Will it work? As far as I can tell, Hollywood is still going to churn out flashy, big-budget, big-effects, big-star blockbusters. But what about smaller films? Will they still try to mimic the big guns out there, or will the stories get smaller, simpler, more streamlined? A lot depends on how "Moneyball" plays these next few weeks and months. We'll see how their experiment works.

-AzS

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Musing Pictures: Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

This Rupert Wyatt-directed reboot of the franchise made famous by Charleton Heston in the 1968 film (and several of its sequels) is a sophisticated, serious approach to what has become an iconic example of mid-20th-century camp.

I liked the movie, mostly for the fact that it took itself seriously, telling the story smartly, with a few nods to its predecessors (Caesar, the ape, builds a 3D model of the Statue of Liberty, and later, one of his captors watches Heston's version on TV), but without their unavoidable hokeyness.

Many of the sci-fi/fantasy films and TV shows from the '50s and '60s seem campy to modern viewers. It's interesting to ponder how much reactions may have changed over the years. To be sure, a monster pic like "Them!" (1954) was probably always campy, and was probably meant to be so. But what of "Apes"? Or the original "Star Trek" series? These are examples of material that seems campy, but which has been "re-booted" (an industry term these days) as much more noble material.

Was it possible to make a monster film in the '50s or '60s without making it campy? The technologies, effects and techniques of the time certainly didn't lend themselves to much seriousness. The apes opposite Heston were clearly people in monkey-suits (and Heston, well, he was Heston.) A decade later, George Lucas showed the world how to take those costumes seriously, by treating them as matter-of-fact, with the frankness of a contemporary documentary (see the "Cantina" scene in "Star Wars" (1977) for a wonderful example -- all of the creatures look like people in suits, but Lucas makes no effort to hide this, honoring our intention to suspend our disbelief, and letting the story lead us). But really, where was the serious sci-fi before then? (A side-note, of course, to mention Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968), which remains a cinematic hapax legomenon)

This new "Apes", at once a re-boot for the series, and a re-make of "Conquest of the Planet of the Apes" (1972), exemplifies how far the degenerate genre has come in the past forty odd years. And as the genre matures, so do its stories, becoming more nuanced, more character-driven.

Of course, this doesn't mean that new adaptations of old, campy films always turn out well: See Peter Jackson's "King Kong" (2005) or Tim Burton's 2001 version for examples that failed to make contemporary sense of their source material.

-AzS



Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Musing Pictures: Transformers: Dark of the Moon

In the weeks and months leading up to the release of Michael Bay's latest metal-mashing blockbuster, much attention was given to the film's use of 3D. It was seen by many as a test of the new technology's ability to draw people to the box office. for the first few days of the film's release, it was shown exclusively in 3D, as if establishing a new format standard for the American Blockbuster.

From an aesthetic standpoint, the buildup was equally dramatic. Michael Bay and James Cameron appeared together at various events, cheering the format's aesthetic potential. Cameron, of course, gave 3D a serious commercial boost with his unbelievably successful "Avatar". He also worked closely with Bay on "Dark of the Moon", coaching him in the use of 3D technology.

It's the aesthetic side of 3D that interests me here, mostly because it doesn't really exist yet. 3D has been used as a fun gimmick for half a century, offering people a new way to look at what are otherwise perfectly two-dimensional movie images. Unfortunately, the aesthetic potential of 3D has barely been explored.

All the major technological innovations that brought change to movies have followed a rough pattern: 1: Experimentation, 2: Partial Incorporation, 3: Full Incorporation, 4: Aesthetic synthesis

An easy example to illustrate the pattern: Sound

Since the earliest days of motion pictures, filmmakers experimented with sound. There were all sorts of challenges to overcome, particularly the challenge of synchronization of sound to picture. Here's an example of what is believed to be the first (or, at least, oldest surviving) experiment by William Dickson.

By the mid-'20s, a profoundly successful Hollywood was ready to give sound a try. "The Jazz Singer" is basically a silent film with interludes of singing and a few scattered bits of dialog. The partial incorporation of sound proved wildly successful. Within three years, just about every movie theater in the United States was wired for sound, and most movies were "Talkies".

This initial incorporation of sound was hardly elegant. The first "All Talking" picture, a Warner Brothers film called "Lights of New York", is said to be a clumsy, lurching, artless film. Actors who hadn't had to speak a word were now expected to deliver lines. Noisy cameras that had been free to move about a scene were confined (at least, initially), to soundproof booths, so as not to disturb the sensitive microphones. Directors who had been used to shouting orders at their actors had to keep silent when the cameras rolled. The artistry that had been attained by silent films had to be put aside for the new gimmick, sound, to take hold.

It took a bit of time for the aesthetic synthesis of sound in motion pictures. Luckily, since radio had been around for a while, some techniques for using sound in narrative had already been developed. Filmmakers (including Charlie Chaplin!) began to utilize sound for more than just expressing the actors' voices. Sound effects (Fritz Lang's "M" is a great example of early, effective use of sound effects in narrative), musical underscores (such as the first true "soundtrack", the score to "King Kong"), and various recording techniques entered the picture in the 1930s. The key here was that filmmakers took responsibility for sound. It wasn't just a tool for capturing and conveying auditory performance, but a tool to create mood, to emphasize a setting, to inspire emotion, etc. Sound could be a part of the expressive fabric that makes film an art.

This is when sound terminology really took hold, and when connections between effect and meaning began to develop.

It's that last step that I'm looking for in 3D. so far, I've only seen hints of it. James Cameron's "Avatar" had one moment that stood out to me. The two lead characters, Jake and Neytiri, share a moment under a bio-luminescent tree. Little luminous pods float down from the tree and fill the air around them. Aside from being a beautiful scene, the three-dimensional effect contributes powerfully to a sense of being-in-the-space. It's not that we're looking at an object with a palpable sense of seeing something in the foreground or background. Somehow, the foreground and background become a dimensional texture through which we see the scene, and which envelops us as part of the scene.

In 2D terms, an establishing shot helps us situate the narrative, and a point-of-view shot helps us situate ourselves within the narrative. In 3D terms, the scene in "Avatar" situates the narrative around us. As far as I know, there is no term for this yet, no word or phrase to describe what's happening, but there will be one, as filmmakers, critics and academics try to understand the emerging aesthetic.

That's what I was looking for when I saw "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" in 3D. Are there any shots, sequences or scenes that illustrate some meaningful effect that 3D can achieve, but that 2D can not? To be honest, I can't pick any out. There were certainly some fun moments when I noticed the 3D, such as when the camera moves across foreground objects, following objects or characters in the middle-distance, but those moments were actually kind of distracting. Rather than making me feel like I was in the scene, they emphasized the effect, and my separation from it.

There's an irony here that is hard to overcome: The types of shots that most effectively demonstrate the "effect" of 3D are also the types of shots that are most detrimental to the power of 3D.

If we look at a character in a scene, and there is an object between us and that character, we become emotionally more distant from that character. Where there is nothing between us and the character, we ally ourselves emotionally with that character much more easily. Imagine any scene involving a job-seeker and an interviewer. The interviewer, who we aren't meant to like or relate to, sits across a desk. Often, the interviewer is shot in such a way that objects on the desk occupy the space between us. The job-seeker, on the other hand, is often shot with very few objects in the foreground. We are invited to participate in the job-seeker's anxiety.

Unfortunately, with 3D, the most "obvious" shot, or the shot that "makes the most of" the effect, is that in which the foreground moves before our subject. Often, it's the camera moving across a foreground object, keeping focus on its subject despite the interruption. The visual effect is superb: it really, truly does look like there is depth to the scene! But the emotional effect is terrible: rather than enveloping us in the space, the shot pushes us out, makes us outside observers in to the space.

If 3D, ultimately, is meant to bring us a step closer to "being in the movie", the kinds of shots that "celebrate" 3D need to be carefully modulated so as not to push us out in the process.

-AzS


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Musing Pictures: Lebanon (2009)

For a few years, I have been taking note of films set in very few or limited locations. In particular, as I was gearing up to shoot "A Modest Suggestion", the study of limited-location films became aesthetic research ("AMS" takes place almost entirely in one room). Although I finished that film, I'm still learning what makes these kinds of movies work (when they work) or flop (when they fail).

"Lebanon", an intense and intimate war film, is a superb example of the limited-location narrative. It's powerful, exciting, and builds up its story with wave after wave of tension and release, all in the claustrophobic confines of a tank. "Lebanon" also confirms a pattern I've begun to notice in limited-location films: The best of them subtly remove us from the confinement of their primary setting, often without leaving the space itself.

In "Lebanon", much of the narrative takes place outside the tank -- encounters with other soldiers, enemy fighters, civilians, and the chaos of war. We don't see any of that from outside the tank, though. Instead, our perspective is that of the tank's gunner, as he looks through his scope. Without leaving the tank, we are brought in to the world just outside of its walls. In that way, the claustrophobic atmosphere in the tank remains with us, but we are given opportunities to experience the context as well.

Aside from providing us with this visual/spatial contextualization of the story, the shots through the scope serve an additional, perhaps less "artful" but no less important purpose: They keep the story from getting "boring". Although I believe that it is possible to contain an entire film within one space without coming up for air (see Hitchcock's "Rope"), it is still important to maintain a rhythm of sensory variation. An analogy: Repeat a word enough times, and it loses its meaning and becomes mere sound. In film, a location can lose its effect in much the same way. By taking us outside of the tank, "Lebanon" gives our spatial sense a moment to shake off the dust and reset itself, so that when we return to the tank, we are affected by it anew.

In his book "Making Movies", filmmaker Sidney Lumet discusses this when he writes about his one-room classic, "Twelve Angry Men". In that film, Lumet begins with high angle shots, and gradually brings the camera down, lower and lower, until we can see the ceiling in the film's third act. The effect is claustrophobic, but the variation in the way that we see and relate to the location is engaging. The room doesn't look the same, so we continue to feel its presence and its effect.

I would argue that Lumet does something else that keeps the narrative alive: He takes us entirely out of the location without taking us anywhere. Here, it's a more subtle transportation than our glimpses through the tank's scope -- we never actually leave the jury room. Instead, as the jurors discuss their case, they attempt to re-enact the murder as they understand it. They push furniture around, and imagine the door, hallway and staircase where the murder took place. In doing so, they invite us to imagine that space as well. Although we don't actually see the door, we're imagining it just as the jurors imagine it, and that in itself transports us outside of the jury room and in to a seedy apartment building.

Other limited-location films and even isolated scenes that take place in confined spaces tend to do this. In particular, I'm thinking of the scene in "Jaws" where Chief Brody, Hooper and Quint sit in Quint's boat, exchanging stories. Quint tells of his experiences on the USS Indianapolis, detailing its sinking, and the perils of its crew in the shark-infested ocean. The performance is arresting, and the story horrific. Spielberg, through the character of Quint, transports us to a world filled with sharks, hidden danger and terrible death. But we don't see a frame of it. The entire time, we're in the bottom of Quint's boat, listening to him speak.

"Lebanon" uses this technique as well. In a quiet moment, the tank's gunner tells a strange story of his adolescence. We are transported with him to the scene of the tale, but we never leave the tank.

I can't think of a limited-location film where all of the action is immediate, where no stories are told and no memories are brought up to transport us elsewhere. If such a film exists, and if it's any good, I'd like to see it.

-AzS

For a convenient list of Israeli films, visit  http://eranshorr.com/israeli-movie-list/

Monday, March 28, 2011

Musing Pictures: Cronos




An early film by the fascinating explorer of paranormal cinema, Guillermo del Toro, "Cronos" is a classic story, reimagined in a contemporary setting. Much as I enjoy del Toro's work, and much as I enjoyed the film, I did not expect to be floored by any of it... but I was.

There is one scene, about halfway through the film, in which the lead character, Jesus Gris, grapples with his inner demon in a public restroom. The scene is tense, unnerving, and as it unfolded, I began to notice that there had not been a cut in quite a while.

I've looked very carefully at some of Hollywood's famous long takes. There are several in Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil" (1957), with this particularly famous long-take opening. Hitchcock's "Rope" (1948) is an experiment of long takes. Of course, there's also the 92 minute long single-take film, "Russian Ark" (2002), which is a fascinating example of the technique, although there the take does not blend seamlessly in to the film... it IS the film.

I'm fascinated by the dramatic, tension-building possibilities of long-takes. They seem to be especially dramatic in small, tight spaces (as in "Rope", "Touch of Evil" (not the opening, but a later scene in a small apartment), and "Cronos").

Although cinematic cutting is used a lot these days to create tension in narrative, these long takes seem to suggest a very different meaning to the cut: a cut, it seems, actually relieves tension, rather than building it. By giving us a new angle, the cut propels us forward, whereas the long take forces us to observe at the camera's pace. It is relentless, deliberate, and in cases where it's used to good effect, the long take makes us hold our breath in anticipation.

Of course, it's not enough to simply put a camera down and let it roll. All of these great long takes rely heavily on the camera's movement within a scene to express the mood and flavor of the narrative. It's constantly moving between close-ups, wide shots, high angle, low angle, etc.

When I saw del Toro's long take in "Cronos", I almost missed it. It was only near the end of the shot that I began to wonder, "wait... when was the last cut?" I paused the film, rolled it back, and watched the scene again. In a way, that's the sign of a long-take that really works. Sure, we love the virtuosic openings of "Touch of Evil" and Altman's "The Player" (1992), but they stand out, they call attention to themselves. They're lots of fun, but they can only work at the beginning of a film, where they can't interrupt our immersion in the story because we haven't immersed yet. Mid-film long-takes need to be invisible in order to work in the context of Hollywood's "invisible apparatus" aesthetic.

Another shocker about this particular 'long-take' -- the entire thing runs under two minutes. By many standards, this isn't quite so long. Considering some scenes in some films have shots that run as short as 1/3 of a second, nearly two minutes is nothing to sneeze at. In addition, that this individual shot can convey on its own the tense development of an entire scene is remarkable in its own right.

In a way, the take in "Cronos" is a reminder that the contents of a shot can be precious. It's not just the cut that gives a shot its meaning, but performance, composition, movement, and all those details that come together within an individual shot can impress and move a viewer as well.

-AzS

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Musing Pictures: Inception

Although it picked up several well-deserved awards at the Oscars this year, "Inception" has generally been overlooked by the Hollywood awards season. Here's an article that addresses this issue very well: http://blogs.indiewire.com/theplaylist/archives/is_hollywood_afraid_of_inception_original_ideas/#

That said, I'd like to take a moment to explain why "Inception" is a work of art worthy of much higher praise than it has been receiving.

I approach movies as art forms that entertain, or, conversely, as entertainment that is artful. This is the case with music, literature and theater as well. It's the reason I'm pursuing a Hollywood-style career, rather than a career in the "art film" world. Sure, there are plenty of Hollywood films that do not express any of cinema's artful side, but when it comes to the best stuff Hollywood can provide, the rare burst of imaginative collective genius that emerges from one or another of the big studios, it is always, invariably, both magnificent art and thrilling entertainment.

I'd rather not spend time defining art or entertainment here -- "What is Art?" is a question that has been awkwardly mulled by philosophers and theorists for thousands of years. We all seem to have a sense of it, but few honest thinkers have developed a clear definition. Entertainment is perhaps even more obscure, often relegated to a lower class of expression, and less commonly discussed in high academia. As such, few have ventured to come up with an effective, applicable definition of what it means for a piece or work to exemplify entertainment. But again, like art, there seems to be a general thread of unspoken understanding, certainly within cultures, perhaps between them, of what entertainment is.

I'd like to keep it basic: If people find a film entertaining, it has succeeded as entertainment. Art is a little trickier, but for film to be artful, it seems to fall in to at least one of two categories:

-Reflects the Viewer
-Reflects Itself

When a film reflects the viewer, or society, or humanity, it is in some way exposing or defining an aspect of who we are. Some films do this by simply telling a human story (Kramer vs. Kramer, When Harry Met Sally, etc.) They may have a clear message to convey, or they may be simply observations, but either way, the reflection is apparent. Even "Star Wars" is a profound reflection of our Western tradition, projected through a sci-fi lens. Sometimes the reflection is more metaphoric or symbolic (especially where animals, objects or fictional creatures play major roles) Since almost all films tell stories about people, they all seem to have this element of reflection to some degree. That said, some stories are shallow, either inaccurately reflecting us, or reflecting so shallowly that we barely recognize our silhouette. Not every attempt at art becomes a masterpiece.

Some films, in addition to reflecting their audience, express ideas and insights about themselves, or about film in general. These "meta-cinematic" expressions are usually buried beneath the narrative surface -- these films are rarely about movies. Classic examples come from Hitchcock, whose "Rear Window" can be read as a metaphor for the narrative triumph of cinema over the still image (the mystery is solved only when Jimmy Stewart's character compares a photograph of a flower bed to the flower bed's current appearance -- one photo isn't enough, but a sequence of images can tell a story). Hitchcock's "Vertigo" also carries a meta-cinematic theme, exploring the relationship between the viewer (symbolized again by a Jimmy Stewart character) and the unreachable Viewed (Kim Novak's character). More recent films have explored meta-cinematic themes, as well. Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" poses a heavy critique of cinema's power in a scene where Nazi officials and dignitaries sit in a movie theater, enjoying a propaganda film. We see the screen in the movie like they see it, and in the process, we, too, sit in a theater, allowing ourselves to be moved by what we see on a screen.

I'm fascinated by films that express these meta-cinematic qualities. A professor of mine once suggested that every work of art has within it the keys to its own self-analysis, but some make their self-analysis more accessible, defining their self-reflexive message more clearly than others.

"Inception" falls in to this category of self-reflexive, meta-cinematic films. It tells the story of a group of specialists who create and manipulate dreams. This group of dream-makers typically provides dreams in order to extract information from the dreamers -- that is to say, the dreamer can remain passive while this team roots around in his mind.

They must make these dreams believable, providing the bare outlines, and allowing the dreamer to fill in the details. The more the dreamer is allowed to fill in the details, the less likely the dreamer will notice he's dreaming.

As a metaphor for cinema, this is very clear. The dream-makers are filmmakers, pulling together the elements that make a movie -- they provide locations, characters, and individual shots. But they know that ultimately, it's the movie-watcher, like the dreamer, who must piece those elements together to form a contiguous story.

To understand this, imagine any movie conversation between two people. The structure for this typical conversation is so ubiquitous that we've learned not to notice it at all. First, we see both characters. They're facing each other, and we can see much of the space around them. Then, we cut in to a close-up of one character. Then, a close-up of the other. Then, back to the first, etc.

When we see only one character on the screen, where's the other character? What about the rest of the room? Without actively thinking about it, we complete the space around the character in close-up. Without seeing it, we sense the entire space, and the other character that inhabits it. We fill in the details.

So, movies and the engineered dreams in "Inception" are metaphorically linked. At this point, the narrative pushes us to another level. The big challenge for the dream-making team in the film is to create a dream in which an idea is implanted, rather than extracted. The goal is to inspire action in the dreamer, to get the dreamer to do certain things once he wakes up. This is much more difficult than extraction of ideas because the dreamer needs to believe the implanted idea is originally his own.

Great movies have the power to move us beyond their running-time. Great filmmakers inspire us to think, to act, to change the way we interact with the world. But to do so, they must strike a careful balance, or their film will come across as "preachy" or "a lecture". If we recognize that we are being called upon to act, we turn against the message, push back.

By creating this strong parallel between dreams and films, "Inception" becomes a movie about our experience of watching movies, and as such, it becomes a film about filmmakers, who are the dream-makers of our world.

So, now that we know we can be so influenced by cinema, what are we to do about it? Can we trust the dream-makers? Should we be more skeptical? What about Christopher Nolan, who wrote and directed "Inception"? Who is he to me that I should let him in to my mind?

The dream/cinema parallel runs very deep in "Inception", and a full analysis of it would take many more words than what I've roughly outlined here. It is one of the most thorough, most self-aware examples of self-reflexivity in a motion picture that I've seen in a very long time.

It is also a very entertaining film, as evinced by its extraordinary box office success, and by the fact that so many people returned to see it more than once (myself included).

When I left the theater after seeing it for the first time, I felt quite strongly that "Inception" exemplifies Hollywood's magnificent potential. It is a work of art, deeply layered with meaning, that entertains in the tradition of the greatest Hollywood adventures. It is the sort of film that only Hollywood could produce -- its scale and scope are huge, production values high, and texture extremely clean and polished. It is at once a factory product and an individually envisioned work, mass-entertainment and inward-looking art.

Can any other film this past year make such a claim? How about the past five years? Ten? I'm not so sure. That is why "Inception" stands out, to me, as being worthy of much more attention than it has already received.

-AzS