Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been moving the site to a new address.

It’s now available here: www.atowninblackandwhite.com


I recently discovered the website Making the Movie. One of the first things I saw on it was this great little video:


As has been pointed out, it uses the technique pioneered by Keith Loutit in his Small Worlds project. I believe Loutit was the first to achieve this effect, a combination of tilt-shift lenses and time-lapse shooting. It must be exceptionally thrilling to see something so familiar in a way that literally no one else has seen before. It reinforces the power cinema – or the moving pictures – has to be magical. Méliès was drawn in the late nineteenth century to this potential: the chance to astound and to excite and to see differently. He made three heads where there is normally one and Loutit makes real life seem really quite small.

In their little ways, The Village and Small Worlds are also useful reminders that, at its best, cinematography uses technical mastery for creative ends.

I watched Kathryn Bigalow’s The Hurt Locker (2008) and Tim Hetherington’s and Sebastian Junger’s Restrepo (2010) in quick succession last week. Placed so close, each film provides a useful counterpoint to the other. Both handle similar themes: THL is set in Iraq, while Hetherington and Junger follow a US Army platoon in Afghanistan. Restrepo’s tag line is startling to consider: ‘One Platoon, One Valley, One Year’ makes us pause and consider the achievement and bravery of the directors (along with – but separate from – that of the servicemen). A friend in the US Navy pointed me towards the picture and it was with sadness that I heard he had attended Hetherington’s funeral. The photographer died in Libya earlier this year.

In a sense, the camerawork in Restrepo is dictated by the action: often jolty and cramped whenever stable, Hetherington and Junger have to move and film however they could. In contrast, THL – shot on location in Jordan – has the luxury of artistic choice. We can hold up Kubrick’s Fear and Desire (1953) as an example of shooting war steadily: I’m thinking specifically of the scene where the camera glides above a solider who has gone over the top and is struggling to progress.

THL’s presentation is close – but not identical to – that in Restrepo. Both cameras are restless. Restrepo’s picture is constantly adjusted because of necessity (shook by a nearby explosion – jolted through fear of bullets). The movement is understandably forced. THL relies also on adjustments to the zoom (as well as the camera position) to achieve a similarly anxious tone. By jolting forwards and back, it adjusts the focal length and, as a result, the relationships between the various visual planes. The background is nudged slightly closer to the foreground, before being flung slightly back.

It is the size of these adjustments and how they are handled that creates the atmosphere. THL ‘s camera movement is not the assertive and emphatic lurch forward that characterises Hitchcock’s use of a zoom lens. But neither is it the smoothly orchestrated movement of an Ophulsian tracking shot. In other words, the camera neither guides the viewer to important figures or objects nor follows the principal characters around their environment. Instead, it is not so certain. As if suffering from terror induced ADHD, THL’s camera cannot decide where to position itself.

Dieter Dengler’s story is awe-inspiring. Though we’re prone to exaggerate, the phrase is absolutely bang on in this case. The narrative evokes a mix of wonder and horror: amazement at his strength, terror at what humanity – and fate – can do. It’s one of the most subtly affecting films I’ve ever seen: there were no tears at the end but it may have changed how I see the world.

As for Herzog’s craft, there are two decisions which I think are particularly interesting. The first is his method of presentation: flying to Vietnam, he gets Dieter to recreate moments from his ordeal. In the jungle, it produces a gesture that is haunting because it cannot help but reveal a certain vulnerability. As the elderly man runs with hands tied and guards in front and behind, we see him, after a few metres, stop and glance back over his right shoulder at the camera. Usually armed with a staggeringly upbeat and forgiving mood, it seems that fear and uneasiness fill his head at that moment. Perhaps he worries that it’s all a dream and that he’s woken up back in the jungle.

The second is the reference to Dieter’s fiancée. She is a domestic detail that is only hinted at – mentioned once and never picked up again. Dieter talks about her briefly and Herzog does not question him. Rather than made clear, her absence is marked simply by the silence that surrounds her in the rest of the picture and we’re left to wonder what happened to her. A bit like the sub-plot involving the social worker in Read My Lips (2001), the mention of the fiancée poses more questions than it answers.

See this film.

When he moans ‘Handkerchief – confessions – handkerchief’, Othello is not at his most eloquent. Fanned by Iago’s suggestions, anger and jealousy put pressure on the expected principles of arrangement in Othello’s speech. The line falls in Act IV scene i just after the Moor moves from verse to prose and, by dropping metre, Othello rejects one method of linguistic organisation. The dashes quoted above reveal that syntax is also quickly disregarded – heightened emotions reduce sentiment to bare essentials. We’re presented with the first stages of a decay that is not fully realised: though Othello’s speech is in tatters, he faints before his words complete the transformation from highly organised poetry to the noise of grunts or groans or, in other words, of non-words.

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Che Cosa Sono Le Nuvole? (1967) presents Othello as a human puppet show and uses the new design to finish the linguistic movement that the plays starts. At the opening of Act IV scene i, Othello echoes Iago’s phrases: ‘Will you think so?’ becomes ‘Think so, Iago?’; We move from ‘To kiss in private’ to ‘An unauthorised kiss’, from ‘naked with her friend in bed’ to simply ‘naked in bed’. These verbal similarities reveal how engrained Iago’s suggestions of sexual foul play have become. Che Cosa chooses to recast this moment of psychological manipulation, presenting it not as a series of verbal overlaps but instead as the point at which words (briefly) give way to noises. Iago’s delayed response to Desdemona’s request for Cassio to be reinstated is ‘Huuuum’. Othello, like the audience, wonders ‘Why do you say huuuum?’ Iago’s replies with an amused and mock-questioning scrunch of the face and the noise ‘Eeeeer.’ Again, Othello can only ask ‘And why do you say eeeeeer?’ The subtle engagement with and development of the source text allows, in this instance, much to be said with few words.

My favourite shot in Asif Kapadia’s Senna (2010) comes near the end of the film. It’s during the funeral, after the untimely death of the titular Formula One racing driver. For me, it’s the culmination of an emotional effect achieved by the decision to use only archive footage throughout the picture.

A collage of borrowed images overlaid with voices from the time, the moment is lent a sense of uninterrupted immediacy: rather than presenting a story now past, using shots of modern interviews to create a temporal gap between event and supporting commentary, the picture unfolds like live action. Rather than observing cooly – assessing a filmic summary of the events – we’re shocked by the crash and brought to tears during the funeral.

In a medium shot, we see a blonde woman similarly moved by the emotion of the ceremony. Frame right, she holds Senna’s yellow and black helmet in outstretched arms, rigid with shock. She gazes into the visor – pulled down and impenetrably black – and her arms draw a diagonal line, visually accenting her desire to have her attention reciprocated. But, of course, the helmet cannot provide the human element and comes, instead, to stand as a figure of absence. What’s really moving is its contiguity with the dead driver: it’s so close to being the real thing. It’s not only that Senna wore it often: it’s also that the object had cultural currency as an emblem, pointing towards the globally recongisable driver. Synecdoche slides to a grim and literal metonymy with the death, though, as the helmet stands, in the blonde woman’s hands, as a substitute for the man, as the only thing left. A decapitation that’s gone wrong, with a head that’s not quite a head separated from a cherished body, there’s an almost grotesque quality to the tightness of her grip which is also undeniably saddening.

A friend recommended Audiard’s Read My Lips (2001) to me almost a year ago. For a while, I struggled to get hold of a copy and, having seen A Prophet (2009), I watched The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005) and A Self-Made Hero (1996) instead. Now though, finally, I’ve seen the picture. It seems to mark the beginning of a move in Audiard’s canon towards an idiosyncratic shooting style, a development perhaps continued in his later films by the use of cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine for both The Beat That My Heart Skipped and A Prophet.

At the same time, visual echoes key the film into earlier cinematic traditions, as Hollywood is both invoked and reacted against. In its first few scenes, Read My Lips presents a lonely protagonist and establishes a situation familiar to a romantic comedy. The opening series of close ups, showing Carla (Emmanuelle Devos) fitting her hearing aids and washing her mouth with water, root us to the secretary’s sensory perception. Yet in the tedious everyday surroundings of her workplace, we see her socially separated and sensorily sealed-off – despite her aids, unable to interact. Tight framing, often claustrophobically filled with coworkers that ignore her, reinforces that she is alone.

There’s a gesture in this opening section which is reminiscent of an earlier work from  Hollywood – Howard Hawk’s Bringing Up Baby (1938). As Carla returns to her desk after completing a task, she sits on some spilt coffee which has been (accidentally?) left on her seat. When called again into her boss’s office, panicked, as well as upset, she tries to cover the stain on her skirt. Devos moves her hand and herself in such a way that the gesture and the particulars of the framing bring to mind Katharine Hepburn’s ripped dress in Bringing Up Baby.

Read My Lips both invokes the earlier Golden Age comedy – chiefly through similarities of gesture – and distances itself from it. The different means used by Devos and Hepburn to resolve their parallel problems construct two distinct social contexts. While Hepburn must fill an absence (a large hole in a ripped dress) with Carey Grant, Devos seeks to hide an unexpected and unwanted addition (a coffee stain) simply with her own body. While Hepburn and Grant are left to stroll hilariously through the convivial setting of a bar and restaurant, Devos must walk unnaturally through her place of work, avoiding the harsh gazes of her coworkers.

So Bringing Up Baby‘s social situation is hinted at before quickly being recast in a minor key. As Grant’s parallel in Read My Lips is not an archaeologist but a criminal, the divergence between Audiard’s picture and a comic Hollywood hinterland only gets greater as the film progresses. In fact, by casting Vincent Cassel (who plays a skinhead hoodlum in Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (1995)) as Paul, Audiard gives Read My Lips an iconically French cinematic face. Furthermore, the entrance of Paul in the picture begins to usher in a shift in genre, as the criminal world of La Haine starts to pervade the (albeit already slightly more tragically presented) situation of domestic loneliness.

Carla stands as a bridge between the two worlds, as the film blends the generic expectations of a thriller with a relationship drama. So, having dressed herself for a night out in the club in which Paul works, Carla becomes enmeshed not in a lighthearted fling but trapped in the threat of rape. The situation (which Paul rescues her from) reinforces the violence of his criminal past and its inescapable contiguity with the present situation. Earlier, when Paul tries to jump Carla, attempting to repay a flat and an advance on his wages with sex, it’s clear that he also struggles to adapt from one mode to the next. For him, sex – like keys or cash – is something simply to use and to exchange.

Despite what is, in some senses, an excellently neat resolution of the criminal and emotional elements through Carla’s deafness, Audiard’s script (written with Tonino Benacquista) refuses to settle entirely. The picture’s haunted by a sub-plot involving Paul’s parole officer Masson (Olivier Perrier). Only given a few fleeting moments, this story is revealed almost in a series of set pieces: in one scene, for example, Masson sits drunk with opera loudly leaking from his headphones; later, he covers his head with a bag and screams; finally, as Carla and Paul drive away, we’re given a glimpse of him being arrested by the police. Carla reveals, reading his lips, that he says he loved her, though whether he killed her is left uncertain.

At its best, Polanski’s Frantic (1988) runs like clockwork. The film presents a single narrative, free from sub-plots, which develops quickly and is, for the most part, controlled. (After the first two-thirds of the picture, it all starts to unravel into silliness, as an apparently drug-motivated kidnapping becomes about an unexplained and underdeveloped threat of nuclear war.)

As I suggest about Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999), causation is presented as seamless: though Dr. Richard Walker (Harrison Ford) is overwhelmed by the situation – unable to understand how one event leads to another – the viewer witnesses a story that unfolds so naturally that it only becomes clear retrospectively quite how far the picture achieves a Pynchonesque strangeness, ascending the rooftops of Paris and locating the end of the world in a miniature Statue of Liberty.

The ticktock of the story’s well-crafted progress is paralleled in the camera’s movement. The picture often preempts the orchestration of the actors or the props, nuzzling into or drawing away from what is at first blank space, creating a frame that is more ready to present the objects within it in rich and ambivalent ways. Just like Walker around Paris, the viewer is led around the scenes, as the camera moves before the props or the actors (rather than the other way round). The result is a slick mode of visual storytelling. It is a shame that the script cannot maintain such class, eventually running out of control.

If Tom Hardy can be as convincing as a brawler as he was psychotic in Bronson (2008), then Gavin O’Connor’s upcoming picture Warrior (2011) could be as successful as The Fighter (2010) was last year. Whether Hardy can be as good as Christian Bale though, who played Dicky Eklund in the latter film, remains to be seen.

I recently found this trailer for Black Pond (2011), a picture written, directed and produced by Will Sharpe and Tom Kingsley, two young debut filmmakers. To be more accurate, I was pointed in the film’s direction by a friend who knows one of the pair. He was lucky enough to see the picture at its premiere in London and I certainly hope to see it in cinemas soon.