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.


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