Thursday, July 7, 2011


Water for Elephants (2011) and The Way Back (2010) are not only about earlier historical eras, they seem to have been made at some earlier time and sent through a wormhole to our time. What is it about these films, other than the obvious physical trappings that make them seem like cinematic throwbacks?

Theorist David Bordwell has posited that the entire manner of storytelling on film has entirely altered in the last 30 years or so, in a syndrome he calls "intensified continuity." We have seen so many stories, have absorbed so many images that we can and do take in visual narrative in a more rapid and complex way than previous generations. But classical continuity still has its attractions, and not only can we still enjoy old films, we can enjoy new films made in the old way. What is that way?

1. Straightforward chronology - Something happens, and then something else happens because of that, and that leads to the next thing and so on and so on. This stems from a deep cultural bias toward the concept of cause and effect in life, that choices have consequences, that life moves toward purposes and ends. Post-modernism looks at life as random, irrational, even accidental. Garp's plane crashes into a house the very moment he is considering buying it. No foreshadowing, no "planting" of that plane -- just - wham! - plane! - hole in house! Nothing like that ever happens in a Spencer Tracy movie.

Yes, classic films have flashbacks, even flashbacks within flashbacks. But they are always announced and punctuated with rippling dissolves or some other device. The actual chronology is never disturbed and never unclear. We have no such certainty in the cinema today.

Water for Elephants starts at A, goes to B, then on to C. There are a few moments when so information between scenes is omitted briefly, but that is so it can be revealed strategically a few moments later. We're never in doubt that is 1931 and that a cause will be followed by an effect.

The Way Back is even simpler, because once the preliminaries (which take too long) are out of the way, we are in a road movie, going from Point A to Point B. (Russia to India in 1945, to be specific.) The film is picaresque, so the events do not necessarily have the strong causal links of a three-act story, but there is no question that chronology is proceeding in a straight line.

2. Long shots and long takes - Both films eschew the modern "cutty" style of editing which is intended to immerse the viewer in the "sense" of the event, but actually just distances and alienates the audience because the information cannot be decoded or placed into a narrative frame. Both films use fairly conventional styles, prefer to frame two or three characters together at a minimum (to emphasize their relationships), and a relative minimum of camera movement, used only to set scenes, follow characters or show the relationship between things, as opposed to the camera movement which is used to show that the producer let you have a Louma crane and a Steadicam operator.

3. Theatrical acting - Christoph Waltz and Ed Harris, the respective "leaders" of each film operate in a text-based style, using voice and full body gesture to execute their ideas. Christoph Waltz is explicitly theatrical, with a grand and rolling style of voice and hyperbolic physical expression. But if Marlon Brando developed his technique in the theater (and he did), then Ed Harris's performance, in classical American realistic style, pared down in the manner of Gary Cooper and Clint Eastwood to a burnished simplicity, is theatrical. It is, at the very least, simple in an epic way which indicates great forethought and craft, a world away from Mumblecore.

4. Relaxed and minimal use of effects - Digital effects come in two broad categories today -- those which are showpieces in and of themselves, as in the Transformers series, in which the principal actors are machines which have themselves been created by machines; and films which are only possible because of "seamless" effects, such as historical backgrounds, vast panoramas and location and automobile shots which are made practicable and efficient by use of the digital domain. Both of the films under discussion fall under the latter category. Water for Elephants creates a fairly convincing 1931 world, and is able to offer some long shots of that vanished universe that would be otherwise impossible. I'm not positive when and where effects were used in The Way Back, but I suspect they were used to simplify and burnish the image, which for a good deal of the running time consists of a burned-out landscape. In any case, whatever was done is fairly invisible to the average audience, which is the Classical approach to using any new expressive tool.

Plus Water for Elephants has wonderful scenes of people walking around and sitting on moving train cars. Don't you love people walking around on top of moving trains? Isn't that just the essence of a certain type of Classical-era movie? Maybe it's not elemental, but it's sure evocative.

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