. . . Elements of Film Style

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If You're Going to San Francisco, Be Sure to Spear Foam Rubber in Your Ear: What matinee to see on a holiday weekend in this summer of inadequate sequels? I opted for IMAX, presenting Everest in a very tiny theater on a very large screen (though if it's really "eight stories tall," they must have mighty short stories in Japan).

I knew we were going to a commercial "documentary," and I'd braced myself for terrible music and terrible scripting. What was most interesting about the experience was the thorough inadequacy of my braces. The IMAX screen really is big. The IMAX projection really is detailed. The IMAX viewing experience really has that scary "I'm right there!" feeling. Which just means that the really really terrible music and scripting are impossible to ignore. It's like having a guy with a boombox and a cell phone sticking right beside you while you hike through Yellowstone.

Having paid for technology that reaches a new limit of realism, how dumb do you have to be to ignore the appeal of realistic treatment? How dumb do you have to be to treat your projects as if they were a Discovery Channel special on a airplane's video screen? How dumb do you have to be to ignore experienced cinéma verité directors (or Michael Snow, for that matter) who'd probably be willing to work for almost nothing just to get their hands on the equipment? Dumb enough to leave showtimes off your ten-minute-long phone message and hide them behind a graphics-only Web page.

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Elements of Film Style: Any mission that involves blowing something up will succeed.

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Elements of Film Style: Film noir

"Film noir" (French for "blaxploitation"; ignoring Robert Osborne's example, the French pronounce the final "r") refers to 1940s and 1950s movies that, like the mudskipper and former Netscape executives, adapted to environmental pressures in a most peculiar way.

Postulates: a) Many cheap movies had to be made. b) According to the Production Code, any action too emotionally complex for Margaret O'Brien to handle before breakfast had to be punished.

  1. If Cheap, then No Spectacle.
  2. If Many, then Low Interference from Executives.
  3. If Low Interference from Executives, then Interesting.
  4. If Interesting and No Spectacle, then Emotionally-Complex Action.
  5. If Emotionally-Complex Action, then Punishment.
  6. Therefore Punishment is Inevitable.
  7. If Inevitable, then Fate.
  8. If Punishment and Interesting, then Sadism.
  9. Therefore, Sadistic Fate, or Film Noir. Q.E.D.
Happily, Sadistic Fate also happened to be of special interest to artsy filmmakers who found themselves trapped in Hollywood.

A few years before it was named, film noir died at the hands of TV, which, aside from the rare throwback like "Green Acres," was blocked from the Sadistic Fate route by sponsor qualms and the demands of series-plotting.

In contrast, the contemporary genre sometimes called "film noir" derives from the need to show recognizably female breasts while avoiding recognizably human characters.

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I've heard intelligence defined as the ability to extract simple patterns from existing tangles, which would make The Blair Witch Project the smartest new movie I've seen in ages. The Haxans took the moving hand-held POV shot that's been a standard horror technique since the 1970s and efficiently made it their only technique (and pretty much their plotline). They took ancient* quasi-sadistic directorial techniques and efficiently trimmed them to the basics: leave the cameras running and the actors in the dark while the rest of the crew hides in the woods and makes scary noises. Even their marketing was efficiently focused.

But formal experimentation doesn't always make a sturdy career foundation, and I look forward to the next Haxan movie with more trepidation than the next movie from the more conservative but definitely in-a-groove Anderson-Wilson team.

* "Method" my gouty foot. Springing unpleasantness on screen actors has been standard practice since the 1910s, at least. ( Although big-studio casts tended to get less warning and more days of discomfort.)

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Alice Waters's daughter -- what was her name? The one with the wart on her?: More than any other director, Howard Hawks recognized that the art of the talking moving picture doesn't depend on still-photography's visuals or on theater's words, but on the inherent musical structure of moving talking pictures: the patterns of pacing and tone, of rhythm....

At least, that's what I always say. I always just say it, 'cause talk is cheap and research is expensive.

So let's all be grateful to Lea Jacobs, who went ahead and did the research. Since Hawks's films are voice-driven, she realized that she could use words-per-second as a fairly decent measurement of tempo. And by focusing on His Girl Friday, she obtained a perfect compare-and-contrast stooge in Lewis Milestone's original film version of The Front Page. With semi-solid numbers and a control case to back her up, Jacobs is able to go to town without making a pompous ass of herself, bringing in such non-verbal rhythmical elements as gestural density and character movement, and making occasional references to other Hawks masterpieces (e.g., To Have and Have Not's big lust dialog saunters at 1.6 wps; the immediately following scene breaks the mood at 3.8 wps).

As expected, His Girl Friday is faster than its predecessor: in a sample sequence of twelve scenes, Hawks conducts nine of them at 4-or-more wps, Milestone only two of them. But of more interest is Jacobs's structural analysis: Hawks not only uses more fast tempos, he modulates between tempos more organically, over greater length, and to greater dramatic point. Molly Malone's suicide attempt is devastating in Hawks's film, stagey in The Front Page, but, as Jacobs points out, it's more clearly motivated by the latter's script. Hawks motivates it structurally instead, by steadily ratcheting tempo and dynamics up to "intolerable" levels; he then punches the shock home by only allowing the briefest of pauses before bringing those levels back again (an old Beethoven trick...) and plunging us into the out-of-control world of the movie's final stretch.

(If you're a computer professional, you can probably afford Northern Light's fee for viewing the article. If you're in a university, you might already have access to the periodical Style for Fall, 1998 -- I know it sounds like some kind of Vogue rip-off, but it's not. Otherwise, if you know Lea Jacobs, maybe she'll let you see her copy.)

Update, Feb. 2015: Now there's a book!

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Bosley Crowther, thou shouldst be living at this hour: Never trust a guy who says that High Noon is a masterpiece.

Actually, it's kind of nice to know that even the current generation is capable of producing a movie pundit who's script-happy and film-blind. And it makes sense that he'd find a home at Salon, which, with help from Gene-Shalit-on-'ludes Charles Taylor and mirror-lensed Camille Paglia, is starting to make the New York Times look like Cahiers du cinéma.

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Back-to-School Thesis Fodder: Juliet Clark informs us that a superbly self-aware description of film noir style was supplied by John McGuire in what's commonly cited as the first example of the genre, The Stranger on the Third Floor:

"What a gloomy dump! Why can't they put in a bigger lamp?"

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Lumière & Company had a nice notion: take a beautiful little 1895 movie camera, holding about a minute's worth of film, lend it to some directors, and then show the collected results. The problems were who the camera was lent to and how the results were shown. The minute-movies are of a trite piece, and they're widely separated by making-of-the-minute-movie documentaries (often showing a laughably out-of-proportion crew) and by footage of tedious answers to pompous questions. Even the credits sequence is a downer: there are only three women among the forty directors, and one of 'em is Liv Ullmann.

Which gives a clue as to how the nice notion turned nasty. There aren't many female directors in the big studio systems, but there are plenty in the experimental film world. As with the IMAX experience, all the Lumière production managed to prove is that standard studio directors don't know what to do without a standard studio, missing the positive side: no matter what their other problems might be, experimental filmmakers know how to experiment. (It's no suprise that the most praised of the forty minute-movies was by David Lynch, who began as an experimental animator.)

Which naturally turns our thoughts to Zoe Beloff, one of our favorite experimental filmmakers, for whom the Lumière project's constraints would've been tailor-made.

As evidenced by Beloff's digital-video work: the best I've seen, and I think that's because she doesn't just understand the pre-cinema nature of Web and CD-ROM media (although that understanding is rare enough) -- she loves it. True, those teensy low-res frame-skipping black-and-white windows on black backgrounds are no more than you'd get from a flip-card peep-show -- but she loves flip-card peep-shows. True, QuickTime VR is less Gibsonian-virtual-reality than it is a contemporary version of those cheesy nineteenth-century panoramas -- but she loves panoramas.

Beloff has always been influenced by pre-cinema movies, but her latest online project comes right out and gives us a hands-on museum of Thaumatropes, Phantasmagorias, Auto-Magic Picture Guns, and Nic Talkies. Some of the rickety old toys didn't quite work for me -- but that's to be expected of rickety old toys -- and some of the sideshow spiel seemed a mite overblown -- but that's to be expected of traveling spectacles. And Marcel Duchamp as maker of the world's largest magic lantern slide works for me just fine....

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Elements of Film Style:
"Critics are inclined to belittle them and call them cheap. But they don't seem to sense the idea that life is made up largely of melodrama. The most grotesque situations rise every day in life.... And yet when these true to life situations are transferred to the screen, they are sometimes laughed down because they are 'melodrama.'

"If this is true then all life is a joke and while some humorists hold to this idea, I am not one those who believe it so."

-- Frank Borzage as quoted by Peter Milne in Motion Picture Directing, 1922
Little Man, What Now?

Those of us who have attended fiction workshops may recognize this as the flip side of the common warning against overly dramatic plot points whose only defense is "But that's how it really happened!" Some such warning is needed, as those of us who have read manuscripts in fiction workshops can testify, but when overapplied leads to the numbly unmoving body of cliché called "literature" by its practitioners and "MFA crap" by everyone else.

And then we end up relying on the unguiltily mendacious genre of the memoir to get our melodrama fix.

Not a pretty sight. Not compared to a Borzage movie, anyway.

Our memories and self-images are formed of stories. And so it's inevitable that we're particularly drawn to the most obviously story-like (i.e., melodramatic) incidents that crop up in our "real life," and that we strive to make the incidents that seem important to us more story-like.

But when we put ourselves to the job of story-telling rather than the job of real life, we're operating in a different context. In real life, it's excitingly unusual for story-like forms to appear. In story-telling, it's expected; you don't get extra credit for producing a story that does nothing but sound like a story -- that's the bare minimum that you promised when entering the fray.

Borzage (along with most of the other narrative artists I love) shows by example that melodrama is not a guarantee of success, to be clung to; nor a guarantee of failure, to be shunned. Melodrama is an added responsibility, to be taken on and dealt with, to be rewarded and punished. Melodrama executed with courage, wit, observation, and beauty will always carry more weight than work that avoids "grotesque situations."

And it'll also always run the risk of being laughed down.

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More thoughts on nepotism

Back when it seemed essential that a movie director know how to make movies, directors came from the ranks of those skilled in some aspect of movie-making: storyboarders, cartoonists, set designers, screenwriters, cinematographers, cowboys, actor-centered theater directors, even costumers....

Nowadays the major challenges of Hollywood filmmaking don't have anything to do with the end product as a self-contained artifact. Instead they're:

  1. Holding the deal together while the movie gets made, and

  2. Generating lots of publicity afterward
As a result, existing connections and existing publicity value are much more important to a prospective director than any existing filmmaking skills.

Thus the unprecedented number of famous actors who are working successfully as movie directors. And since they're not out to prove anything cinematically, virtually all of their films have an easy-going middle-of-the-road Hollywood "quality" quality. Big stars push the contemporary movie-making process around so much anyway that officially recognizing their cat-in-charge position might even calm them down a bit.

The movies made by famous directors' children, on the other hand.... The kids can hold the deal together with their relatives' weight behind them, but most of 'em are spoiled art school brats rather than day laborers. They truly believe that they have something unique to say, just like all the other spoiled art school brats, and by taking too much control (with too little talent), they screech right across that middle-of-the-road into oncoming traffic.

That's where Sofia Coppola didn't make a mistake. True, she's a spoiled art school brat, but she's also a thoroughgoing sleepyhead, and, after flirtations with somnolent acting and somnolent fashion, she's found the perfect place for a somnolent rich kid: in charge of a Hollywood production. She may well turn into the next Robert Redford.

Silent director Maurice Tourneur may look more important in the history books than his son, Jacques Tourneur. But it's Tourneur fils who makes it into the Raytheon with super movies au maximum like Cat People and Out of the Past.

He never made it into art school, though. After working for years for his father as script clerk, actor, assistant director, and editor, he struggled on through years of shorts and series episodes, and doesn't seem to have been put in charge of a full-out (if low-budget) feature until he was 38.

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Condensed Time Since movies began, they've been swapping techniques with dreams. I think that's because they share a structural problem: how to maintain different rates for elapsed time and for narrative time -- expressing years in an hour, an hour in minutes -- in a medium where the narrative is directly experienced rather than related.

Rather than come to grips with this problem, the filmmakers of contemporary Hollywood tend to simply give up, appending more and more running time to avoid the question of condensation, and saddling clumsy voice-over narration onto the broken back of the "direct experience":

Hi-ho, Sliver! and away!
In another way, all narrative art, including written narrative, condenses time: creator time vanishes into the much shorter audience time. A novel may take a month or fifteen years to write, but almost always takes less time to read.

And with movies the time compression is even more extreme, especially if we start talking about people-hours....

Now, although there's always the possibility that I'm falling into the food-in-a-tube fallacy, it seems to me that this compression -- story as time-compactor machine -- is key to the pleasure taken in the curiously strong arts of narrative. As evidence, when there's little or no such compression -- as with the semi-automatic writing of Gertrude Stein or Lionel Fanthorpe, or the semi-automatic early moviemaking of Andy Warhol -- the results, fine though they are, seem more lyric than narrative.

We must think further on this, if we can do so without falling asleep....

Although a narrative work's creation takes more time than any single incident of its consumption, a certain type of audience (mine) may revisit it so often that audience-time eventually sums up bigger than creator-time. I know for certain that I've accumulated more days reading The Glass Key than Dashiell Hammett took to write it.

My type of audience includes most of the critics in the world, and we aren't shy about flattering ourselves (e.g., Barthes's "Those who fail to re-read are obliged to read the same story everywhere," undoubtedly referring to Joseph Campbell). But there's something distinctly unelevated about surrounding ourselves with these papered and videoed units of time, like so many Everlasting Gobstoppers, and I don't believe we escape the market through our repetitions any more than a kid with The Lion King T-shirts, action figures, picture books, and computer games fights the power by insisting on watching the original work again.

Instead our re-reading and re-viewing gives us the chance to treat time itself as a commodity -- something to collect, to hoard, to revel in -- becoming misers of time, diving and wallowing in our libraries for all the world like Scrooge McDuck....

Scrooge McDuck

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Juliet Clark continues her multifacetidisciplinary study of movies and/or life with "The Real Glory: A Photographic Testament to the Irresistible Glamor of a Career in the Film Industry," a behind-the-scrim look at how the cultural sausage factory inspires its pigs.

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A Call to Arms

J: They offered me "a documentary about the Dogma movement in filmmaking," but I passed.

R: "The Dogma movement"... sheesh. It's amazing that trick still works: all you have to do is call yourself a movement, and boom!, free publicity forever.

J: Especially if all of your movies sexually degrade women.

R: Hey, that must be where the Weblogs are going wrong!

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(Continuing with what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called "that gentle degradation requisite in order to produce the effect of a whole"....)

Legs The 100 Super Movies au maximum: The Married Woman

One of the nice things about works of art, and vacations and drugs, is that they give us delimited events to point to and say, "This -- this was the turning point. This was where my life changed," as opposed to the usual waking up to find yourself in a strange bedroom thousands of miles away with a resculpted nose and no left leg and the phone off the hook and the cops hammering on the door.

For example, I used to be pretty normal about movies. I liked them and so forth. I'd say things like "Wanna see a movie?" and then later on say things like "That was pretty good."

Then, twenty-three years ago, I went to the Temple University Cinematheque (which I guess is closed down now) and saw Jean-Luc Godard's movie from thirteen years earlier, The Married Woman. And by the time it was over, I had turned into me.

An essential aspect of turning into someone is that other people don't simultaneously turn into the same person. Even while I sat there head ringing and sparkle-eyed, comments like "Did you get that?" and "Weird!" began to worm their way through my protective daze. On my shamble out, I stopped to thank the wizened Anglophile who ran the place. "I hate Godard myself," he said, "but someone has to show him."

Yeah. Nowadays I'm just embarrassed when I see those 1960s Godard movies, but I wouldn't blame the old guy for that any more than I would blame my mom for how embarrassing it is to think about toilet training. The only one I enjoy all the way through is his comedy noir, Bande à part, which reminds me of the Coen Bros., who, like Godard, seem to have been raised in some sort of white plastic box from which they take random stabs at what real life might be like -- there's a very thin crust of experience sagging under the weight of all these violent gesticulations, a bouncing on the plywood mood that seems to work best with dimwit comedy. Of Godard's work from the 1970s, I like the TV interviews with "real people" where he sounds like Charles Kuralt from Mars; from the 1980s and 1990s, his crazy old coot self-typecasting in Prénom Carmen. The only serious Godard moments that still work are the ones where he finds himself back in that white plastic box trying to figure out why everyone looks at him funny: for example, staring into a coffee cup while taking a break from trying to show off those supposed Two or Three Things I Know About Her that, nowadays, it seems obvious to me that he never knew at all.

How to Strip Not that anyone called him on it. There's no safer way for an uncool nerd to show off than by bragging about his up close and personal knowledge of women (or, safer yet, "Woman"). All those nouvelle vague guys leaned on that tactic big time; Godard, being Godard, just did so most explicitly. (As French censors realized, the title's "The" is an important part of The Married Woman's ambition.)

And, to Godard's credit as a forever uncool nerd, he was the only one of the nouvelle vague guys to try to engage equally explicitly with feminism. Unfortunately, he's also forever unable to approach female characters without interposing the clearest (and most brain-dead) demonstration of "inside knowledge": nude photography.

At the time, of course, I was more than willing to fall for such demonstrations; as an eighteen-year-old sex-crazed uncool nerd, they seemed like a darn fine idea.

And at the time, all such considerations seemed completely unrelated to what was most important about the experience, which, the next day, I inadequately described as the realization that "movies can do anything."

At the present time, my inadequate description would be that "movies can combine the discursive and the narrative."

I don't feel as comfortable with either account as I feel with explaining why they differ: It's natural for the individual who's gone through an ecstatic revelation to assume that there must be some relevance to the individual's life.

What's changed in my life is what seems relevant.

Twenty-three years ago, I probably thought of myself as someone who "could do anything," so that's how I was predisposed to understand the experience. Right now, I think of myself as someone who has to drag the discursive into every experience, so I think that the movie just happened to strike a natural-born critic.

You see, even though I promised a couple paragraphs back that I wouldn't bring blame into it, I couldn't just leave the question alone; I felt like I had to try to figure out what happened. For us natural-born critics, it's not enough to say, "My taste changed," or "Can you believe we used to like that stuff?" When we like something, it's a public statement, like pledging our troth.

Not that marriages really do last till the death-do-us part. What marriage means is that, having made a public statement of allegiance, you have to make some correspondingly public statement of divorce.

And then you get to make jokes about your ex for the rest of your life.

. . .

A letter excerpt that I don't mind you guys seeing, about audiences mocking older movies

It's not like the struggle of quivering sensitivity against heartless philistines can be called new -- in 19th century fiction, for example, I remember accounts of the (slow but eventually successful) boosting of "primitive" Renaissance painting over "high" Renaissance painting -- but there does seem something extreme about the case of movies. Or maybe it's just that we love movies special?

There's the usual problem with any "popular genre" that postdates the creation of a "high mainstream," where the "popular" work is somehow supposed to speak immediately and directly to us, cooperating with all our current preconceptions like a perfect little gentleman's gentleman, or be dismissed as a laughable (or worse, dull) failure. We're familiar with that from science fiction, comics, and thrillers, and there are plenty of people who treat all of film the same way.

And there's the way that any photograph or film, no matter how staged, eventually becomes "documentary." For those who are more used to thinking art-historically, I guess the same is true of other forms. But it seems so clear with movies that these are images of real people (or at least made by real people) from a different time, and so there seems something even more heartbreaking about the refusal to enter into the world uniquely documented by that movie -- as if lifetimes were being thrown away instead of just a few weeks or months of work.

Not that any of this suffering seems called for when I don't like the movie myself.

You know the scene of Anna Karina watching The Passion of Joan of Arc in Vivre Sa Vie? I remember it with a long shot of all the people around her laughing, like a reverse of that Charles Addams cartoon. I guess that's more likely to happen to Godard's own films, though.

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Shortcut Journey into Night

Photoshop's "Auto Levels" color correction can undo traditional Hollywood day-for-night with a single click. Make your own "Making of..." feature!

"Something wrong with your eyes?"
"Yes.They're sensitive to questions."

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Elements of Film Style

There have been few-to-one advances in movie grammar since 1960. The one I'm sure of is the use of pop music.

A pop song, when it works, exists in the eternal now, atemporal and antinarrative: in a word, lyric.

At first, pop songs were inserted grudgingly into films, for purely commercial reasons, out of place -- all elbows and knees -- as a substitute for a through-composed score (too independent) or a substitute for a musical number (too self-contained).

But a couple decades of tinkering revealed the usefulness of a tool of atemporality (although it can still get muffed by duffers like Paul Thomas Anderson). By undermining the sense of plot advancement even during actions that advance the plot, it helped extract all trace of feck and gorm from The Graduate hero's journey, and stretched the torture of Reservoir Dogs to excruciating lengths with no change of cranking speed.

The device has proven most valuable in transitions, however, where it's replaced the hoary but never-perfectly-integrated montage sequence. A pop song on the soundtrack can produce an exact filmic equivalent to Flaubert's use of the imperfect tense, indicating that the actions we're watching were more-or-less typical and occurred over some undetermined period of time, without the gross artificiality of flying calendar leaves, twirling newspapers, and looped footage.

It's impossible, for example, to imagine the elegiac peculiarities of Wes Anderson without the technique. I look forward to his dialog-free adaptation of L'Éducation sentimentale.

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Elements of Film Style

I hope this scene makes it through rewrite (via Amygdala):

TAXI DRIVER: Sorry, CATHERINE ZETA-JONES, but we are in a traffic jam that has dramatically sprung up in order to create dramatic tension. suddenly climbs on top of the roof of the taxi. (yelling) Only set in such a labored farce could passivity seem so compelling.
The other cars, hearing what has to say, suddenly all pull over and let the taxi through.

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It's a message movie, and the message is the kind that makes you request an unlisted number.


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.