Sunday, September 4, 2011

Side by side by 'Scope

Here it is September, and I'm still catching up with the last few Academy nominees for last year; specifically Mike Leigh's Another Year (2010), which was nominated for screenplay, which is ironic given Mr. Leigh's modus. Reportedly, he works with a group of actors around some characters and themes he is interested in. After a few months of improvisation, he goes away and writes a complete script based on that work. So in a way, Mr. Leigh partakes of a committee-type writing procedure, even within an Art tradition.

A few disjointed observations. The critical consensus was that this film was about class. Perhaps that is a British perspective, because I don't see a disparity in income as synonymous with membership in a different class. One can be part of the managerial-professional class without being particularly well-heeled. Class is substantially, if not primarily, a matter of self-identification. And the major characters in this film are all middle-class in outlook, even if some of them are skint. There are no laborers and no aristocrats to be found.

The film is not so much about the unequal distribution of money so much as it is about the unequal distribution of happiness and how people choose to deal with it. Some writers have found the central couple played by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen to be smug and self-satisfied, whereas I think they are simply comfortable with themselves, a trait many people are not familiar with, and therefore find strange.

But to my mind, the film is structurally flawed at its heart, perhaps due to the quality of those afore-mentioned improvisations. It seems as though the film was meant to be an ensemble piece, not perhaps full-on Altmanesque, but a widely distributed set of storylines revolving around a theme, rather than the usual toolbox of suspense and melodrama. But Leslie Manville's Mary (seen in the clip) above and her desperation to belong and to be loved hijacks the film, sucking the energy out of every other corner of the film. This includes the sequence that should have been the highlight, wherein Broadbent goes to help his older brother bury the brother's wife, a procedure interrupted by a bitter, estranged son. But the incident feels isolated and without resonance, and Broadbent's brother becomes significant to the film only because of his brief awkward scene with Manville. Even Broadbent struggles to remain at the center of what was supposed to be his own vehicle.

I love Cinemascope ratio, described variously as 2.35, 2.39 and 2.40. Doesn't matter much. It seems to me to be made to show two or even three people sitting side by side. Academy ratio is for isolated stars, or perhaps two stars in tight embrace. But 'Scope lets you see the space between people (or the lack thereof) and seems to me to be far more useful in storytelling. Throughout this film, Mary wants to be close to people who don't want to be close to her, and vice versa and 'Scope is the perfect vehicle for this trope.

One odd thing about Leigh's technique -- given that it is actor-based, one would expect long, uninterrupted takes. But I was not aware of long takes or gaps between cuts. Everything proceeds along relatively conventional lines. And thankfully Leigh does not indulge in the usual practice of American character-based filmmakers -- the long static shot of a character doing nothing. I never know what to do during those. They seem embarrassing. Leigh keeps his comedy of embarrassment on screen, among the characters, rather than between the characters and the audience. It's all part of being British, I suppose.

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