Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Reticent Camera

One of the pleasures to be found in Sofia Coppola's return to form, Somewhere (2010), might be called the resonances of the reticent camera. In bold contrast to the film-school boys, whose cameras track and swoop and fly all around the place, including through many places that don't exist, Coppola's camera seems to be not just nailed, but lag-bolted into the floor.

The great classical filmmakers, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder, all favored a camera mounted on a tripod and set at roughly eye-level. Wilder openly disdained shots "through the fireplace." Hawks specifically sought to make the audience forget that the camera existed. And Ford always knew there was exactly one place to put the camera, creating an often painterly or theatrical composition. The New Wave and its American followers took the camera off the tripod and, to begin with, began running around with it, trying to catch the action as it walked, jogged and sometimes streaked past. People complained about the jittery, sometimes nauseating effect of handheld camera work, so we got the Steadicam and the Skycam and the Louma crane and more and more cheaper and faster ways to move cameras smoothly and effectively, often in the service of telling the story. There is no serious argument that the Steadicam shots in The West Wing convey the dynamism and perpetual workload of leadership of a major world power. It's not a frill -- it's part of the ethos.

The other side of the coin is that these toys are fun to play with. I've been on the set and I know. And I also know how setting them and lighting for them is an incredible time eater, often to produce effects that do not enhance story, setting or any other elements of the film that the audience cares about. So I welcome Sofia Coppola's static camera. Which is not there just for indolence, but to suggest an objectivity, a literal distance from the characters that is instructive, clear, ironic and sometimes downright funny. When you have a static frame, people and things can move in and out of it, instead of being the subject of the camera's relentless pursuit. Instead the camera lays back and says, in effect, "I'll wait for her. She's going to come back." And then she comes back, satisfying the expectation that's been set up and the audience and the camera are co-conspirators, knowing a little bit more about this person than she knows about herself.

So the opening of Somewhere gives us a sports car literally going nowhere, moving in and out of frame because it simply doesn't matter. Why follow the path of a car that has no destination, that will end where it starts? Why not just wait at the starting point and let it come back to you? We have not met the driver, who we will discover is the protagonist, but we already know he is literally aimless.

There is much criticism (mostly by young viewers) that nothing happens in Somewhere. This will be the case if you are the kind of person who has difficulty "reading" other people, their thoughts, moods and feelings, especially by looking at their faces. If you need "stuff" to happen, dramatic revelations, snappy dialogue, Somewhere is going to disappoint you. But if you are sensitive to the movements of the heart, you will recognize the signs of deepening levels of love and trust between father and daughter, especially since the daughter is played by Elle Fanning, who rates as MVP for young actresses in 2010-11.

Rabbit Hole (2010) also employs a somewhat reticent camera, not so much because it is waiting patiently, as in Somewhere, but because the foreground is packed with emotional action. Rabbit Hole demonstrates that the true provenance for the digital RED camera may be the actor-based film which rests on the interplay among faces, an interplay best captured within a single take. With the RED cameras, an operator can be put on each actor, and even another on a master shot. There is no "stock", so the cost of continuing to roll is marginal. Some directors don't even slate between takes, they just ask the actors to do it again without a pause. The result can be a single performance shared among several cameras, with the actors each reacting to exactly the performance you are seeing (as contrasted with having to react to an actor or even a tech sitting off-camera feeding the lines), and perfect, seamless cuts among them.

Digital cameras still do not have the range of high and low light that fine 35mm cameras have, but they are coming close. And they do not have to yield the grainy look they did ten years ago. Look at this warmly lit scene as husband Aaron Eckhart tries to soften the mood between himself and wife Nicole Kidman, both in mourning for a child lost in a random accident eight months earlier:

Note that, as casual and intimate as the scene is, the cameras are still on sticks, the relative sizes and juxtapositions of the characters perfectly conventional. No dollies, no odd angles, no jittery handheld work here, because the director has put the load on the actors and their words.

To this end, Nicole Kidman appears to be a perfect film actor, better to me than a Meryl Streep, who is always putting on a persona, which I can see her taking off at the end of the day. That is not to say that Kidman is a personality actor like Cary Grant, but a character actor without the eyepatch and the limp, like an Ingrid Bergman, who just shows up on screen as the character and nothing else. She is beautiful, but her beauty doesn't feel like a presentation, but simply a trait, like a cowlick or a birthmark (which perhaps it is). Interestingly, as one looks at this clip, Kidman's expressiveness is not centered around the small movements of the eye as is typical on film, but in body posture, tilt of the head, eyebrows, perhaps some widening of the eyelid, all tools of the stage actor.

Here is another example of digital's ability to capture the interplay of two (or more) simultaneous performances. The actors overlap and react easily and naturally. It also represents the film's wit as mother and daughter share the lighter side of losing a child:

The setups are conventional and locked down, leaving ample foreground space for the acting. Stage director John Cameron Mitchell cannily uses the old trick of keeping the actors' hands busy to deflect their attention and the audience's.

This scene does bring out a point I want to share with you. If you have heard of this film or the play, but haven't seen it, you probably think, like I did, that you are going to be pull down into a spiral of grief and conflict. I promise you this -- it won't. And if you go with it all the way to the end--and I can't imagine why you wouldn't--you will feel lightened, relieved, uplifted, especially if you are going through any kind of trial. I don't know a film that does the "life will go on and even get better" think better than this, and the reason points up an interesting contrast between stage and film.

(Incidentally, this film is a model of stage-to-screen adaptation, especially one done by the playwright. Offstage scenes are brought on stage, long static scenes are broken up into chunks, different characters move the scenes from different places, visual analogs for verbal ideas are often engaged, and a couple of brand new ideas introduced, most memorably the scene in which the husband botches the sale of the house by sharing too much. The economy and precision of what should have be been talky and indulgent is admirable.)

Both versions end with the same speech by the husband, but for a small cut which seemed redundant. (This frequently happens in the transition between stage and film -- it's possible to cut back the words both because a facial expression can substitute for the words and because we are sitting closer to the actors and we hear what they say better, which means they don't have to nail the point home the way they may need to on stage.) The husband makes a prediction of what they will do, the little gathering they will have for family and friends. The point of the speech is the ordinariness of the events he is forecasting. But on film, we can see it, we can see the warmth of the smiles and embraces, the children playing, the calico tablecloth, the food prepared and the food consumed. The beauty of plain ordinary life is there for us to see and we weep in recognition of how good those simple joys are if we will just think about what it might be like to become numb to them, as these parents did.

And the scene ends just as it did on stage, with the couple facing out and holding hands ready for the future, but now, on film, we see the yard and the tablecloth and the remains of the party. On stage, we projected our hope on them. On film, hope is made manifest.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Two flavors of popcorn

X Men: First Class and Super 8 both aspire to little more than a couple of hours of summer's entertainment, directed primarily at young people interested in comic books, science fiction, horror, monsters, action and other young people. But the two films approach this task with instructively divergent toolkits.

First Class runs 132 minutes, which is the length of a typical James Bond film. That doesn't seem accidental. Like Bond films, there is a super-villain, a glamorous villainess (portrayed by January Jones, who has evidently decided to give up even trying to act), numerous locations usually built in a sleek and sterile style that looked modernistic back in the 1960s (there is a Pentagon set which is a straight lift from Dr. Strangelove), random transitions to far-flung locations and an overall sterility and lack of suspense as to whether the hero will survive. This is partly the inherent handicap of a prequel -- all the important characters must needs survive, and newly-minted characters have about a 50% chance of being Red Shirts. Even worse, the X powers tend toward the really weird and difficult to visualize on film (though not in comics). Poor James McEvoy as Xavier keeps having to put two fingers to his temples and squint like a turbo-charged Kreskin, and Michael Fassbender as Magneto has been compelled, in order to demonstrate he is practicing his magnetic powers, to make bizarre and comical hand and finger gestures which would embarrass a casino lounge magician.

The sterility of the visual vocabulary extends to the entire low-stakes story, emphasized by the pounding, emphatic and pointlessly bombastic music sore by Henry Jackman, who seems determined at this early point in his career that he can write music just as terrible as that written by the likes of James Horner, Alan Silvestri and other musical sausage-grinders.

Still, it's a pleasant time-passer, and you have to like any film that begins with a sleek silver-haired Nazi Kevin Bacon speaking what sounds like impeccable German and shooting the hero's mother in front of him. Christolph Walz would be proud. Sadly, the film never tops that sequence.

Super 8 is no less engineered and calculated, but the template it uses had more authenticity when it was created in the 1980s. As everyone down to your uncle who talks too loud at holiday dinners as noted, Super 8 is Spielberg once removed, with a group of plucky kids from 1979 stumbling into a big adult adventure and fumbling through some coming-of-age moments. Also, there's absent and distracted parents and a location away from the coastal media centers that dominate American storytelling.

It's grittier, less obviously designed (although just as carefully--getting all those late 70s toys must have been quite a job), more based on human foibles and relationships -- parents, friends, budding romance, the desire for adventure. It is, as movie executives like to say, more "relateable." It's the Spielberg spin on Rockwell America, flawed, but allowing love and perseverance to triumph at last.

A closer examination shows that the film has an almost equal debt to the hapless M. Night Shyamalan in its use of phony suspense, red herrings and narrative cul-de-sacs, an overuse of the Val Lewton "bus" (a cheap shock created by a needlessly blunt cut or loud sound cue), a disappointing denouement and more importantly, the central gimmick of the story having no real bearing on the story's meaning.

How many movie monsters have NOT been disappointments when finally seen? The Monster played by Boris Karloff, the Alien in the films of that title and...can't think what else. (I don't even think much of King Kong, who looks like any child's toy gorilla.) And giving a CGI monster a close-up is a sure-fire fail. But more importantly, the title and the first half-hour of the film set up the gimmick that the kids' super 8mm filmmaking will have an important bearing on the film, and as the second act begins we see that the camera will catch some important information which will be revealed at the right time.

Except that it doesn't. It doesn't reveal much, and what it does is found out by a lot of other characters in some other way. So at no time is the super 8 film indispensable -- not to the characters in the film and not to the audience watching the film. It literally has no bearing on the way the story develops. It's as if the filmmakers had never seen a Hitchcock film. If you've got a McGuffin, even if it's not important to the audience, it's important to the people in the movie. In Super 8, the super 8 doesn't even matter.

There's one thing for sure. Elle Fanning is a full-on, flat-out movie star. Even more than Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver, this actress barely out of her own childhood has the potential to be one of the most powerful and charismatic film stars of an emerging generation. She does whatever she is asked to do in this film supremely well (and give the film credit for never trying to make her look stupid or silly). But what makes her a star is that she is fascinating doing nothing. Just looking off at the horizon until the director calls "cut." She is much more of a phenomenon than the Big Scary Thing the Air Force is trying to hide.

Friday, June 3, 2011

How girls do gross-out comedy

There is nothing much to say cinematically about Bridesmaids (2011), but it may mark an interesting moment in social-cultural history. Obviously, The Hangover is the template, and the looming and immovable date of a wedding provides a strong narrative "clock" that dozens of production executives, producers and screenwriters find irresistible. But whereas the male "get me to the church on time" movie focuses on the zany shenanigans of the men in question, the female version--as one would expect--focuses on the dynamics of the relationship among the women in the wedding party. Bridesmaids is no exception, and the principal plot constitutes a competition between an old friend (Kristen Wiig) and a new (rich) friend (Rose Byrne) for the affection and attention of the bride (Maya Rudolph).

Wiig and her co-writer Annie Mumalo smartly raise the stakes by having Wiig's life (and sanity) circle the drain throughout the movie. In the sequence in question, maid-of-honor Wiig has arranged for a lunch at a questionable looking Brazilian barbeque restaurant prior to a group fitting at a swanky boutique. Although the food is apparently delicious, extraordinary repercussions follow during the fitting as shown in the clip above. What follows is every variety of gastric distress experienced in some very expensive clothing.

From interviews with director Paul Feig and Ms. Mumalo I glean that this sequence was not the original one written for this place in the story. Ms. Wiig had her character getting lost in a long romantic fantasy, which, as described, seems difficult to picture on screen. Producer Judd Apatow insisted that Wiig's character needed to make a large mistake at this point and proposed the food poisoning scenario, although Mesdames Mumalo & Wiig, accepting the idea, wrote the actual sequence.

I'm pretty immune to poop-and-vomit humor, which delights two-year-olds of all ages. And Bridesmaids has the courage of its conviction. It doesn't turn its head (although I turned mine) at the sight of bodily fluids washing over its characters. The film certainly wanted to cash in on the transgressive nature of putting women in the kind of low comedy sequence previously reserved for the boys (not men). We're in the land of Comedy of Discomfort which via programs like The Office has become a dominant subgenre today.

For all the nausea and hysteria and some very funny ad-libs, especially those by Melissa McCarthy, the real power of the sequence comes from the humiliation and embarrassment of these now-well-established characters, rather than the pre-adolescent wonder at the strange things our bodies emit that one finds in the man-boy movies. The centerpiece is the truly perversely lovely image of Maya Rudolph in a gloriously white wedding gown, heading across a city street in search of a functioning bathroom, moving into a crouch as her lower intestine begins (we presume from her face) to betray her, gradually shifting into a Groucho crouch under that voluminous gown, until it is all too late, Nature has triumphed over civilization, and Rudolph collapses near the curb, the disaster having happened -- happily unseen, with Defeat writ large on her crumpled and disappointed face. The juxtaposition of the beautiful fantasy of the princess bride in her unstained whiteness concealing the truth of what exactly our bodies do with food is the kind of Bergsonian incongruity that makes for comedy that is bigger than gross-out jokes and gags, comedy that is real and human and universal and grand for all its pettiness.