Sunday, December 26, 2010

A Few Quick Mini-Reviews

The Fighter

I was a little hesitant when I first heard about this one; I'm a big fan of David O. Russell, but this seemed like an obvious attempt to play nice for the studios and make a mainstream crowdpleaser to rehabilitate his image, following a box office flop and some very unflattering behind the scenes footage of his approach to directing actors. The Fighter was produced by Darren Aronofsky, and after the critical/commercial/awards success of his The Wrestler, I couldn't help but see this as a transparent attempt to repeat the formula. Is it? Maybe. Did Russell sand down some of his rough edges in the process? Sure. But as far as crowdpleasers go, this is a keeper. Russell may be playing nice, but one of the joys of The Fighter is how he still manages to build up a lot of manic energy in the performances and the story, which is sort of his trademark and I'm glad he didn't downplay it. The show-offy stuff goes to Melissa Leo, Amy Adams, and especially Christian Bale (the consummate overactor) in the supporting cast, but it's the good kind of show-off. Lead actor Mark Wahlberg, after his live-wire turn in Russell's I Heart Huckabees, gives one of his most restrained performances, going for an unshowy naturalism that helps ground the film.

Black Swan

Speaking of Aronofsky, he was never a filmmaker of subtlety or tact, but he never needed to be. Pi, Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain are all bold, blunt objects, but gloriously, excitingly so. Personally, I've never much valued taste or class in my films, so I was all set for an unhinged, overwrought ballet-themed melodrama from the modern king of cinematic audacity. Black Swan is good fun with a lot of good atmosphere, and I was happy to discover that it plays at least 30% like a horror movie, always a plus with me. Yet, possibly due to the level of hype this film generated, I was little disappointed by the final result. It's big, crazy, messy and fearlessly unsubtle (all good things), but I would have appreciated some degree of ambiguity or mystery. It's a story told from the POV of a character who is losing their mind, yet it never really plays with reality in any provocative ways: the audience is always basically aware of what is real and what isn't. When the end came, to my dismay I felt as though I understood everything about the film; it had no mysteries left for me to discover. It's a glistening, dazzling surface, but surface is all it is, and it was out of my head practically as soon as we left the theater.

I Love You Phillip Morris

Not really a prestige film, though as unlikely as it is, I honestly think Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor could garner some awards nominations if this film gets more attention. The directorial debut of the writers of Bad Santa, I Love You Phillip Morris is a reasonably entertaining true-crime con man story that suggests Catch Me If You Can rewritten as a dark, foul-mouthed comedy. It's treatment of homosexuality is a little juvenile in places (a few too many punchlines seem to consist of nothing more than two men being intimate, as if that's immediately funny), but what's admirable is how the love between Carrey and McGregor's characters is treated with sincerity, leading to a few unexpectedly heavy dramatic scenes between the two of them in the later stretches of the film. Not a strong recommendation, but worthwhile to those seeking a good comedy after a year that felt a little dry for the genre.

True Grit

I've never read the novel, but I have seen the John Wayne film, and was surprised at just how closely this remake sticks to it. And yet somehow still the Coens have come up with something special, a western that feels like both a throwback and a revision; it keeps the original film's flip humor and deliberate, bon mot-filled dialogue, while adding a harsh layer of tough violence (I have no idea how this film got a PG-13). The Coens' mix of playfulness and unsentimental brutality, told with their typical attention to detail and painstaking craft, is a potent combo. Their films in the past have often been challenging and purposefully unsatisfying; this is their most mainstream and conventional film (at least since their lackluster comedies of the early 00's), and yet it is a great, tremendously entertaining mainstream film that will likely have a spot on my list of the year's best.

Finally, just a quick shout-out to J.T. Petty's S&MAN (pronounced "sandman"), a documentary about perverse, violent underground horror movies that SPOILERS turns into something of a horror movie itself, when one of his documentary subjects starts dropping hints that maybe his films aren't exactly faked. Petty has made some good horror films himself, but this one really announces itself as something special. It's a mix of actual documentary footage with staged footage meant to look like a documentary; sort of a mix between tired horror fakumentary movies like Paranormal Activity and is it real or is it fake docs like this year's excellent Exit Through the Gift Shop. The staged footage wasn't quite convincing enough to trick me for long, but that's hardly the point. It's a thoughtful, occasionally tense film about the nature of cinematic violence, with questions about cinematic "realism" that kinda tie into some of the discussions we've had on this blog lately. A mix of genuinely interesting documentary and clever meta-commentary, it's not perfect, but I do think a must-see for fans of the genre.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Camera/Eye: "Realism" in Cinematography

A few weeks back, I was having a discussion with the frequently brilliant, witty posters on the forums over at about the overuse of blue filters, color desaturation and other cheap cinematographic and post-production tricks in modern American films. This prompted commenter Mr. Majestyk, something of a genre film guru, to express his feelings as "Just make the fucking movie look like my eyes see." After further discussion, he offered several caveats and clarifications to that sentiment, but the initial statement made me think. Do films ever actually look like the way we see? Realism in film, and whether it's desirable or achievable, is an interesting topic to me, and this seemed like an intriguing variation on that. Setting aside narrative realism (a worthy debate for a different day) and taking Majestyk's comment at face value, can and do movies ever look like real life as we normally see it?

When a movie is highly stylized, we tend to notice right away. Bold colors, exaggerated shadows, rapid editing and acrobatic camerawork all typically draw attention to themselves.

Something weird is happening in Alejandro Jodorowsky's Holy Mountain

Something blurry is happening in Paul Greengrass's Bourne Ultimatum

But what about films with subdued, subtle colors, lighting, editing and camera movement? Are these films an accurate representation of how we see the real world? I submit that they are not. Filmmaking is a complex process, so much so that even a visually unadorned movie represents a series of intricate choices involving lighting, color, focus, framing, and so on. Or, more simply put, the camera doesn't do a good job of approximating the human eye.


We could start by talking about films that literally try to approximate vision. I'm talking about delightful gimmick movies like Robert Montgomery's The Lady in the Lake, in which the camera assumes the POV of classic noir detective Phillip Marlowe for no real reason whatsoever. If you've never seen it, it's definitely worth your time just to see the gimmick attempted. Any 30 seconds of the film make it clear that the gimmick doesn't work. The result is strange and stilted, and doesn't allow for natural head movement, despite all sorts of fun moments, as when Marlowe smokes a cigarette and the smoke wafts in front of the camera.

Nope, not distracting at all

Let me ask this: What is it you always see, out of focus and differently in each eye, all the time even though you rarely think about it? Your nose. Technically, a film attempting an overly literal POV shot should include a blurry nose in the frame, but I don't believe I've ever seen this attempted. Yet. Now that I've typed it out, I'm hoping some young filmmaker takes inspiration and goes for the gold.

Although he doesn't quite go that far, Dario Argento has some fun taking the POV shot to silly, literal extremes in Opera, one of his best films. In it, the heroine is repeatedly subdued, tied up and forced to watch the mysterious killer murder her friends. The killer forces her to keep her eyes up by taping pins underneath them, so that if she shuts her eyes, the lids will be pierced. Argento not only has the balls to stage POV shots that include the pins in the foreground, but actually simulates her eyelids dangerously drooping towards the protrusions!

POV shot from Opera...
... and one with the drooping eyelids

The best attempt at this style I've ever seen might be Enter the Void (I've been name dropping it a lot here lately), which tries to approximate more natural head movements into the camerawork, and also includes blinking (amusingly so). It stages some impressive, and entertaining, long-take POV shots that effectively give the illusion that they last 30 minutes or more.
Note the tips of his fingers partially obscuring his view. Nifty and completely unnecessary

Yet, even at this level of cleverness and sophistication, with over 60 years to learn from the mistakes of The Lady in the Lake, nobody has figured out how to do one important thing: eye movement. Ever notice that when you look around, you don't just move your head, but your eyes, too. In fact, your eyes are almost constantly in motion, endlessly scanning your surroundings. Cameras just aren't able to imitate this, and if they were it would likely result in something very disorienting to the viewer. Camera movement, even a whip pan, is just too slow. Ironically, a simple cut to a new shot might be the most accurate way to represent eye movement... which, of course, would completely defeat the point of staging a POV shot in the first place.


Okay, so you're thinking "Big deal, Dan. So overly literal POV shots are phony looking? So what? That doesn't mean that other movies can't look real." Fair enough. So now I'd like to try to argue that even your most natural, unadorned looking movie is the result of some serious stylization. Let's talk about the problem of focus.

Deep focus photography (which uses a large depth of field) allows for a kind of god's eye view. Background, middle-ground, and foreground can all be in focus at once. Does this style, which affords the viewer a wide, open playing field of a frame to explore, lend itself towards realism? Let's look at a few classic deep focus compositions to admire how much they remind you of what you see every day:

Citizen Kane

Ashes and Diamonds

The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

Children of Men

Okay, you got me. I cherry picked stills from some very stylized, visually unrealistic movies. I still think I have a point, though: as much as the world around us feels like its in focus, you will never see in extreme deep focus in your life. What does visual focus even mean when we aren't talking about the human eye or cameras? Focus doesn't really exist from an "objective" view point. Going by the criteria of making a movie that "looks like my eyes see," deep focus is not at all similar to how we actually perceive the real world.

Acknowledging that degrees of focus would need to exist in order to make a film look a little more like how we see the world, we could look to cinematography that goes for a more shallow depth of field, in which one visual plane is in focus, at the expense of the rest of the image. It's not uncommon for this to be quite severe in films, even though we often don't think about it. Take these examples from two movies pitched as gritty, working-class dramas:

Hustle And Flow

The Fighter

Unless you are Mr. Magoo (or, you know, nearsighted), you've never actually seen anything look like that in real life. Especially the Hustle and Flow still, where the focus turns the background into an abstract painting. Still, even using a much less severe example, I think it's still apparent that this doesn't imitate the way our eyes focus. Here are two typical images from The Time to Live and the Time to Die, an early film by Hou Hsiao-Hsien:

I bring up Hou, a filmmaker I have recently been catching up with, because his early films are photographed in as unobtrusive and naturalistic a manner as any fiction film I can think of. The films themselves are often focused on the mundane details of everyday life, de-dramatized to a degree that's a little bracing to those of us accustomed to plot-heavy mainstream films. The visual style is designed to match, with its muted colors, lack of ornate sets or costumes, and subtly complex framing/blocking of the actors to capture their unselfconscious, apparently semi-improvised actions.

Yet even Hou's tasteful, quiet, telephoto framings show major signs of stylization. Look at the way they can flatten out the image (esp. in the 2nd Time still above. The still from Robert Altman's Nashville below also provides an example), so that objects on different visual planes appear stacked right on top of each other. The focus may be closer to what we see, but the effect of distance is greatly altered.

A sea of faces in Altman's Nashville

We could probably go on about the ways different lenses change the image, distorting and altering space and depth, etc. And by "we" I mean a smarter person than me who has a greater knowledge of photography. Just sticking with the focus, even the look of the focus itself isn't quite right:

Hou's Dust in the Wind

For one, most of us have two eyes, and things that come too close to our face tend to not only blur, but double as well, a visual effect only duplicated by bad 3D. Even discounting that, cinema allows us to do something that we can't do with our own eyes: explore the out-of-focus areas. Try that in real life, and your eyes uncontrollably go into focus.


It always struck me as an amusing irony that some filmmakers, when attempting to give their film a "gritty" or "realistic" look, opted to shoot in grainy black and white. I suppose because of its associations with low budget documentary filmmaking, it's become something of a code for a lack of artifice. Of course, we see the world in color, making black and white the more artificial option (my apologies to any color blind readers). And let's not even get into sepia tone or anything like that. Of course, I've heard other, more persuasive arguments for monochrome's realism, but let me state here that the very reason I love black and white is precisely because I find it less real than color.

Could you imagine Out of the Past in color? Ick

As for color photography, well... if it's not clear already, I'm not a person with a great knowledge of the technical nuts and bolts aspects of filmmaking, so I'm not able to go into depth here. That said, color photography is a complex chemical process, and different types of filmstock process the colors in different ways. Even a highly sensitive stock used to film dull, every day colors isn't going to perfectly duplicate every nuance of even those colors that our eyes can pick up on. (And of course, this applies to film and video quality in general, which even in its most highest definition still isn't as detailed as what we see in real life).

Hou's Dust in the Wind again, because I had another still left to use


Our visual perspective is incredibly limited, but have you ever tried to see those limits? Obviously our vision stops at some point, but there's not a perceivable end point; you can't find the exact "line" where it stops. Part of the beauty of film is that it exists in a clearly delineated frame. It's not like vision, it's better than vision. It gives us a specific, artful way of looking at things, and opportunity to see things from a new perspective that is, I must say, inherently full of artifice.

My final point being: awesome. As much as film is a record of "real" things that "really" happened in the physical world, it alters those things in the process. Every shot is a specific choice. Images pass through a interpretive lens and burn themselves onto film, creating something new and special. Film isn't just about reproducing the real world, but about reinterpreting and reinventing it.

Still disagree? Great. There are limitless counterarguments to what I've said, as well as plenty of things I could've said but didn't. Tell me I'm wrong, or tell me this: what do you think is a great example of visual realism in film, and why.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Elephant(s) in the Room (237)

I recently caught the late British director Alan Clarke's Elephant, a short film about the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland that was originally made for TV (and is a good sign of just how different overseas TV programming can be from American TV). I had originally heard of Elephant because Gus Van Sant admired it so much he modeled one of his own films after it, even going as far as to borrow its title (more on that film in a minute).

Clarke's Elephant is political, but if you watched it without knowing any of the context, you'd be forgiven for just thinking that it was existential, or even nihilistic. The film is stark, almost completely lacking in dialogue, and devoid of what you might consider "plot." It details a series of coldblooded assassinations, not unlike what you might see in a mafia movie, only with all the exposition, characterization, and false drama removed. The audience has no real idea who the killers or the victims are, or what specifically prompts the murders (although they are all supposedly modeled after actual murders). Each scene depicts a different attack, and nothing is done to explicitly link the scenes together with any sort of master narrative. From the audience's perspective, these deaths are horrifying and literally meaningless.

A typical scene starts with an unidentified character (sometimes the killer, sometimes a victim), and follows them as they walk around an innocuous public setting for a few minutes. Eventually a climax of sorts occurs as someone is shot, the killer flees nonchalantly, and the camera lingers over the corpses for a few moments. Cut to next scene.

Clarke films mainly in wide-angle tracking shots. Although there are usually several cuts in each scene including some close-ups, many shots are of extended length, and often assume a perspective that follows a character from behind. Implicit in these following shots is a sense of doom, of unavoidable fate. The shots create a kind of visual pathway in the frame, especially when indoors and in hallways, and that path is terrible and inescapable.

Gus Van Sant's Elephant isn't quite as unadorned as Clarke's film, in that it actually has some dialogue and characters and story, but it's every bit as bleak and still pretty damn spare when compared to most narrative filmmaking. The film is about a Columbine-like massacre at a high school, but drained of all the sensationalism other films (cough cough Uwe Boll's Heart of America) might have opted for. It's disturbing and sobering, and I mean that in a positive way, because I admire the way Van Sant refuses to find easy answers, or over-editorialize, like so many in the media did after Columbine. It takes an unblinking look at a tragedy and surmises, to quote Vonnegut, "there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre." It's a film about its own lack of insight into its story.

While Van Sant's lack of agenda (or his anti-agenda agenda) may be in contrast to Clarke's more pointed intentions, stylistically he borrows much from Clarke's film. Not the least of which are those wide-angle tracking shots that follow characters from behind. Van Sant's camera follows the students, victim and killer alike, down endless, winding hallways, evoking that same sense of impending terror. To the victims, it's just an ordinary, mundane day at school, but they are on an unavoidable collision course with death.

I'm certainly not the first person to point this out, but these shots of killers and victims marching down endless hallways strongly recall another film, which I think was likely an influence on both Van Sant and Clarke: Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. Tell me what you think.

Kubrick's vision of the Overlook Hotel is one of the great, iconic locations in horror movie history (hell, maybe in all branches of movie history), and his tracking shots are some of the most unforgettable moments of his film. What is it about these shots that is so effective? How is it that, when following a victim, they imply foreboding and helplessness, but when following a killer they imply an unstoppable force? There is something in their trajectory that makes everything feel unbearably inevitable.

Kubrick is the rare director who could make a horror film that is not only accepted as an art film, but has had an observable influence on the art house. (In addition to these examples, Gaspar Noe, an ardent Kubrick enthusiast, took these tracking shots to their furthest extremes during a lengthy segment of his Enter the Void. I loved that film, although maybe I'm being too generous in considering it part of the "art house.") What surprises me is that I can't think of examples of many horror films that stole, borrowed or were inspired by these tracking shots. Filmmakers have frequently ripped off, for example, the POV shots from John Carpenter's Halloween. Where are all the Kubrick knock-offs? Can anyone think of any examples I'm forgetting? This is a demonstrably awesome stylistic strategy, more young filmmakers need to get on it.

Final thought: I've read in the past that Kubrick was a fan of Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Do you think there is any chance that Kubrick was inspired by a certain famous shot from Hooper's film?