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.


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:

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.