Sunday, August 17, 2014

Dialogue in film is so 2009

Is Under The Skin looking into the rear-view mirror of film history and aesthetics?

You've probably learned at some point that once The Jazz Singer debuted in the autumn of 1926, with Al Jolson not only singing, but ad-libbing dialogue, every studio rushed to get into the talking picture game and that the silent film died almost immediately.  That is almost completely untrue.  (If you are interested in the much more complex true story of this relatively rapid technological changeover, a precursor of a process we live through a couple of times per year nowadays, I highly recommend Talkies:  America's Transition to Sound by Donald Crafton, part of the University of California film history series, possibly the best series there is.)

A few weeks before The Jazz Singer opened, Warner Bros. opened another film for which they had high hopes, which represented a format they believed would be more enduring and popular than the novelty of synchronized speech and song.  The film was Don Juan starring John Barrymore, and it had a synchronized sound track, but only of score music and selected sound effects.  The dialogue was still delivered in title cards.  (Jazz Singer has title cards for most of its length, BTW.)  Here is a sample.  The Spanish subtitles on the title cards are not original, but I wanted to use this excerpt because of the swordfighting sequence.

From the filmmaker's point of view, this format offers the best aspects of silent and sound film.  It preserves the universality of film, since characters are not only not tied to any language, as title cards are replaced in each territory with those in the local language, but not burdened with a voice which does not match either the character nor the actor's appearance.  Undercranking and other silent film devices are still possible.  Yet the filmmakers can ensure that the audience is given the proper emotional cues with either a specifically-composed or a hand-selected underscore, rather than being dependent on the whims (and often limited skills) of the local musicians in each theater.  And key sound effects can be included as may be advisable to inform the audience, and reducing the need for close-ups on noise-making objects, often needed in silent film to call attention to unheard sounds (as if the audience had to be reminded that things CAN actually make sounds, even in the strange dream world of silent film).

This, the moguls of 1926-7 believed, was the technological future of movies, mixed with a program of short subjects with synchronized sound featuring singers, dancers and novelty acts; plus occasional synch sound features to show off singing stars of Broadway and popular music.  But a film was to have a truly dramatic story, it needed to be shot silent with music and effects added in post-production.

History went another way, and by 1928, it was important for films to be All-Talking, All-Singing, All-Dancing, All-Run-Around-And-Bop-You-On-The-Head-With-Our-Synch-Sound.  But perhaps, at least aesthetically, those moguls of the late 1920s were right about the technology.  We've put up with too much jabber over the last almost 90 years of film, and it's time to put things back.

Scarlett Johansson might have felt that way herself, having to yak non-stop in three Woody Allen movies, and (after Under The Skin was produced) being heard but not seen in the super-creepy Her (2013).  Under The Skin (2013) is Ms. Johansson's boldest and most significant project choice since her breakout role, Lost In Translation, and the first since that earlier film to employ her somewhat unreal aura, after so many projects which attempted to root her in everyday reality.

As you can read in a thousand other places, Johansson plays a visitor from another planet who wears the body of a young woman provided by its handler.  The alien uses that woman's allure to draw in young men who are consumed or transformed in some way that looks like this.

What is more interesting, and what makes the film worth seeing, is the alien point-of-view of our world the film presents so successfully, employing some documentary techniques to place the glamorous Ms. Johansson in the least glamorous environment in the world, the city of Glasgow, a working-class city, the largest in Scotland.

In fact, although I lived in Glasgow for a year, the accents were so thick that I had to switch the titles on for the scenes Johansson improvised with non-actor Glaswegians, shot by hidden cameras.  Nonetheless, those scenes are the ones I found the most valuable, though their aesthetics might cause Abbas Kiorastami to weep in recognition.  (That's a small joke.)  Her reticence, the use of the fewest words possible and the blankness, the "silence" of her facial expression is what makes this part of Under The Skin so effective.  This clip also features the main theme of the brilliant score by first-time film composer Mica Levi.

Tellingly, director and co-writer Jonathan Glazer has revealed that the original version of the script contained lengthy preliminary explanations of the aliens, their plans, their methods, all of which were deleted and replaced with a few stunning and mysterious images which, on re-examination, are visually packed with hints and clues about the story.

Curiously, strange and disorienting as they may be, the sci-fi special effects come off as more conventional than the "van" footage; nonetheless, Under The Skin would be almost meaningless if it had unpacked its heart with words like a very drab.  Its very opacity makes it not unclear (except to the willfully obtuse) but clears the deck to let the pictures convey the meaning instead of the text.

As I wrote earlier in this blog, silent pictures may be coming back.  No, not silent pictures -- the music and sound are too important to the title effect.  Pictures with sounds, instead of the years of illustrated radio which is so easy and comforting for film financiers but so limiting for film artists.

Paradoxically, this may have been enabled by the shift to digital imaging.  The new cameras handle low light extremely well, encouraging filmmakers to move cameras into environments that require less artificial preparation.  Moreover, long takes are easier (no worry about how much film remains int he magazine) and breakdowns within a take are less of a problem, since editors can digitally stitch together two different takes into a single seamless entity.  Whereas long takes are looked at as being theatrical in the work of Welles, Wyler and Renoir, these new long takes constitute a new definition of cinematic, as cameras weave together multiple events and multiple environments into a unified physical and emotional environment.  First digital tools and non-linear editing sped editing up, encouraging the rapid cutting that vapid and lazy journalists called "MTV editing"; now digital filmmaking has not only resuscitated the long take, but made it the norm, liberating actors and cinematographers into more complex and revelatory work.

We just might be entering a silver age for pictures that move.

Friday, August 15, 2014

PRISONERS took no prisoners, and paid the price

Back in September 2013, a challenging drama called Prisoners.  It was fairly well-reviewed and had reasonable commercial success, but by the time of the award season it had been swamped by such inferior material as American Hustle.  The only Academy nomination it received (and thoroughly deserved) was for Roger Deakins's cinematography, and although Aaron Guzikowski's sceenplay, written on spec, won a number of several script competitions, including The Black List and The Blue Cat, it got very little attention when prizes were dispensed for actual films.

What happened?

Before going any further, I need to say that you should see this film.  It is too visually and morally complex to adequately describe or summarize in a blog post like this, and it will repay your time.  Put it in your queue or get it from your library or borrow it from a friend, clear out an evening and watch this, preferably not alone.  And if you haven't seen director Denis Villeneuve's previous film, Incendies, go back and see that as well.  My guess is that like me, you will try and see all of Mr. Villeneuve's films in future.

Back to my question.  First, Prisoners is a godawful title.  Yes, it makes sense in a philosophical metaphorical way AFTER you've seen the film and had some time to think about it.  But most people don't want to see a movie about prisoners, unless they're American GIs breaking out of WWII prisoner camps.  Moreover, it is a confusing description in a literal level.  I am not going to exhibit hubris sufficient to propose alternate titles, but I know this one is absolutely terrible and had to have contributed to the general audience indifference.

Second, the film was marketed as a thriller.  In fact, it begins by employing thriller tropes, but by 45 minutes in, it is clear we are in deeper waters than the typical Liam Neeson movie.  (Admittedly there is a thriller-style twist ending, and the only hint I will give you is to pay close attention to the casting.)

Overall, Prisoners feels more like a neo-noir than a thriller, especially in its look, as in this clip.

More significantly, Prisoners shares the noir ethos that no one is in sole possession of the moral high ground, nor is any villain made of pure villainy; stylized as it is, noir recognizes that life is more mixed than melodrama would have it.

There are certainly allegorical or at least metaphorical aspects of the story, in that Jackman's character, a good guy who captures a boy-man suspected of kidnapping his daughter and brutally tortures him, is reminiscent of the United States succumbing to fear and cowardice and engaging in torture to combat terrorism.  But the allegory doesn't hold for long, because the film has more subtle and complex moral fish to fry.  (And that is a terrible use of idiom there.)

Next, as far as awards and nominations go, Prisoners does not end on a triumphal note (though the ending is not as ambiguous as a lot of obtuse people want to think), and the good guys and bad guys are all muddled up morally.  Moreover, the stellar cast is truly used as an ensemble, which makes handing out award nominations much harder.  (The National Board of Review actually nominated the cast AS an ensemble.)  If there is someone to be singled out, it has to be Jake Gyllenhall, with the best work of his I have seen yet.  Here's a little bit.

Prisoners is not a film that calls for a sequel, but I would like to see Gyllenhall play this character again.

If you're still on the fence about the rewards of seeing this film, I urge you in the strongest terms to click this link and look at this superb and detailed analysis, written by cinematographer Matthew Scott, of the look of the film and the depth of its craft.  As an example, here is the still I put at the top of this post, as de-constructed by Mr. Scott.