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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.
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.
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.
For the next six weeks, because of various commitments, I’ll not be able to give as much time to these posts as I’ve previously been able to (oppressive academic concerns aside). Instead of essays, I’ll provide only a few clips of things that seem interesting.
I begin with this video, which is beautiful.
I’ve been meaning to write about Werner Herzog for a few months. After a period of oppressive academic commitments, I was lucky enough to get away on Wednesday night to hear the director speak in Cadogan Hall in London. The event, entitled Filming the Abyss, was run by Intelligence² and put Herzog in conversation with Paul Holdengräber (the director of LIVE from the New York Public Library). As well as wide-ranging discussion, we were provided with short clips from his then unreleased new film Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), as well as a picture that he is in the process of editing, which involves a series of interviews with members of the Texas 7. Cave of Forgotten Dreams opened on Friday and I saw the film on Sunday afternoon.
It’s perhaps the first film I’ve seen which uses 3d technology in a sophisticated way, justifying its appearance as a crucial element of the storytelling, rather than a hollow gimmick. The documentary tells us about the Chauvet caves in the south of France and the rock paintings contained therein (the oldest yet discovered). The horses, lions and other animals depicted all rely on the dimensions and contours of the rock for their elegance and a 3d presentation more fully recreates the total effect of the experience. In Herzog’s own words, the decision to shoot in 3d attempts to ‘capture the intentions of the painters’. As a technical exercise alone, it’s very impressive. The crew, limited to four men, was allowed only six four-hour shooting days; they used a 3d camera built especially for the project, which had to be assembled in the cave itself; they had to stay on a two foot wide walkway for the duration of their time.
And, after all this hard work, it is the caves and the paintings and the artists that are the stars. Most of the interviews and most of the narration is quite quickly forgotten (though there are a few crazy characters and a few striking phrases). The stalactites and stalagmites stunningly shimmer as Herzog (who’s operating the battery-powered handheld light) shines the beam onto the sculptures. Footprints, both animal and human, rest frozen, well preserved in the floor. A far-off wall (far away from the walkway) is spotted with red handprints. Charcoal-black horses seem to gallop across the rock, looming towards the viewer, while never losing their figures or becoming a series of lines. One of the most stunning creations is the form of a large male lion in profile, achieved simply with a single unbroken line.
These details hint at stories which are now impossible to uncover fully. A scientist points out two footprints that rest together. They were made by a wolf and a small child. We’re left to wonder how this formation came about: as Herzog muses, the animal may have been stalking its prey, though it could instead have been prowling beside the kid in friendship. It could also be the case that two moments separated by thousands of years have been juxtaposed together in calcite crystals. The red handprints, we are told, are all from one man: we can tell because he has a crooked little finger. Not only does this signature allow us to follow his path through the cave, as his handprint appears in other areas, but it also invites us to wonder what went on outside the cave that resulted in a broken bone.
If Herzog has a tell-tale little finger – a filmic signature – it may be an explicit suggestion that he knows when not to show us something. In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, his hand is somewhat forced by the limits of the walkway. There is a certain rock formation upon which is drawn the lower half of a woman fused with the upper half of an animal. But unfortunately the floor is too delicate and he must stay quite far back, showing us only one side of the three-dimensional structure. He attempts, with the aid of a camera on a stick, to reveal the other half, though this technique is only partly successful: some of the work remains hidden. In The White Diamond (2004), he soars above the forest canopies of Guyana but when the camera reaches the cave behind the overwhelming Kaieteur Falls, a space where the white-tipped swifts nest and local spirits rest, he refuses to show us the resulting footage (captured using similarly ingenious means, if my memory’s correct). When faced with the gruesome, he decides it’s better to turn away: in Grizzly Man (2005), he doesn’t play the audio recording of Timothy Treadwell getting eaten (and actually recommends destroying the tape entirely). In Cadogan Hall, he suggested that he knows what not to show, when it comes to his presentation of the Texas 7 on death row. He believes some of the details of the crimes are too revolting to bear repeating.
On a (slightly) lighter note, Herzog left the audience in London some homework. We were to watch a short by Ramin Bahrani called Plastic Bag (2009). Herzog provides the voice for the bag as it makes an epic journey to reach the Pacific Vortex. It’s elegant and entertaining and I think I’ll end with that.
I enjoy boxing. GORILLA productions frequently makes some excellent compilations celebrating particular boxers or particular bouts. The latest one I’ve seen is below (though I think you’ll have to click on the video to watch it on Youtube):
To use V.F. Perkins’s methodology for criticism, which suggests that you start with your intuition rather than with theory, I’d like to highlight a moment in the clip that captivates me, even though I’m not sure I can yet explain entirely why. At present, it’s enough to describe it briefly. At around 1.29, an overweight man – a promotor – with white hair tidily swept in a centre parting joyously swings his right arm. He comes soon after the voice over begins its emotive plea ‘to get up now’. He beams with delight as a boxer hits the canvas and the non-diegetic drums continue to crash. He fills the frame and moves surprisingly quickly within it. Perhaps he could have thrown a good hook in his youth, though we’re by no means sure. The gesture quickly passes and the moment is subsumed by the ruckus of the main event, the boxing itself. But this man sticks in my mind and his place in the video feels more enigmatic the more it’s considered.
Winter’s Bone (2010) is only the second feature from Debra Granik. To produce a film of this quality early in her career is impressive, though not unique. (Jacques Audiard comes to mind, if you only want a contemporary example.) At the surface, the film feels, for the most part, relentlessly real: without flinching Granik presents the brutal life of an impoverished family based in the Ozarks. The more I think about the picture, though, the more this notion of unflinching realism feels challenged. In arguably its weakest moment, Winter’s Bone brushes with almost-allegory: the army recruitment officer stands more like the physical representation of the audience’s concerns and Ree’s (Jennifer Lawrence) uncertainty than a genuine character, guiding her away from the false escape of the army and back to her problems at home. More often than not, though, the realism is undercut in a satisfying way.
The jostling of different story-telling modes is perhaps no more apparent than in the emotional climax of the film, the moment gracing the promotional poster above. Ree has been taken, blindfolded, to the location of her father’s body. This scene is the end of her quest. Her search for her father has, so far, been reminiscent of one of Pynchon’s sprawling novels in which a serpentine route through various settings only manages to circle around the desired end; we’re wondering, up to this point, if Ree’s father, like “V.” in V. (1963), is impossible to find. Uncertainty, surrounding V. right to the end of the novel, is brought revoltingly to a close in the picture when Ree must grab and hold her father’s dead hands. Rooted in sensuous experience, it’s an overwhelmingly real moment for Ree: she cannot escape the new found physical proximity of her long-absent father. The emotion of this sensation – felt by both Ree and the audience – almost falls into comic farce when Merab (Dale Dickey) has to chainsaw the hands from the corpse. Is it unflinchingly real or simply laughable that the moment is played out not once, which may have sufficed, but twice?
What I mean is, while there are obviously two hands that need to be separated separately, Granik could have taken a filmic liberty and merged the two resulting noises into one, shifting the focus from the action itself onto Ree’s reaction. It should be noted that we barely see the hands at all; the bodily separation is almost entirely felt through what we hear. As it is though, we’re given two separate (predominantly off screen but audible) moments of brutality that force us to concentrate on the dead man’s hands. Ree drops one of them and, again, while this action feels, on one level, staggeringly realistic, Merab’s reaction to the slip puts a comic pressure on the heightened emotion of the scene: it could all quite easily collapse into ridiculousness.
But, for some reason, it doesn’t. Instead, it achieves a balance that works and it feels reductive to praise the realism of Winter’s Bone without acknowledging the other narrative modes (for example parody and allegory) and literary models (a search, mythological echoes) that compete in the picture.
This is a piece in celebration of Shane Meadows’s This Is England ’86. It finished earlier tonight in terrific style.
It’s interesting to consider how film directors take to working in television, an obviously different context for a familiar medium. Here, for example, themes that run throughout Meadows’s work, as well as characters first introduced in his film This is England (2006), must both be developed as he picks up the narrative three years on and also reconfigured – restructured – for a way of telling that breaks the story into four discreet one hour sections, themselves, when first aired, subdivided into four. It seems that Meadows and Jack Thorne (the writers) answered this formal demand by making each of the episodes connect, using the same characters and continuing the larger narrative, while also remaining self-contained in their emotional structure. Episodes three and four are arguably the most satisfying television because, while they bring the grand narrative to a conclusion, they have a clearer internal structure than episodes one and two, each moving from tongue-in-cheek comedy to a powerful emotional climax. I felt something building in the first two episodes – the larger narrative of ’86 – but they both felt a little wooly. They each played like a quarter of a film, rather than a television episode. That my father could watch and engage with episode three in isolation, having missed not only the previous two but the film as well, perhaps indicates what I mean. (This is no knock on Tom Harper, who directed episodes one and two.)
Despite certain reservations about the structure of the first two episodes, my favourite song from the series comes at the end of the second. It’s Ludovico Einaudi’s beautiful Berlin Song. The pianist’s haunting compositions provide another, more emotionally driven, means of connecting the series together. Used extensively throughout, his songs often occur at the most engaging and challenging moments. For example, at the end of episode three, Meadows uses Einaudi’s Solo as the non-diegetic accompaniment to the violent raping of Trev (Danielle Watson) by Mick (Johnny Harris). This montage is really something. (The term’s used here in two senses: the more general description of a selection of shots accompanied by music and the stricter definition of the combined effect achieved through the juxtaposition of these shots.)
Four scenes are involved. There is the rape, using a staggeringly still camera, reminiscent of Kubrick’s portrayal of violence in A Clockwork Orange (1971). There are moments of joyous friendship, as Milky (Andrew Shim) mounts Gadget (Andrew Ellis) to celebrate an England goal. The football is also celebrated in the pub, in the toilet of which Lol (Vicky McClure) drunkenly ponders. Finally, there is the shock of Combo (Stephen Graham) falling through Shaun’s (Thomas Turgoose) window. The combined effect of the images is complex: for example, the action of thrusting is played out in a minor key by Mick but counterpointed in a major by the elated Milky; Lol’s isolated sadness is matched only a room away by the happiness of her sister Kelly (Chanel Cresswell), surrounded by the rest of the group; a close up of Trev’s hand gripping the sofa makes the wide shot in which she is confined to the left third of the frame, buried in said sofa, feel all the more empty. Einaudi’s piece is combined with two strands of diegetic sound: the football commentary, including the memorable line ‘you can only stand and stare at English joy’, and Mick incessantly grunting ‘Fuck you’. It’s a powerful and poetic end.
Poetic is right: this montage is highly crafted, at once tragic, sickening and, it must be admitted, in some senses beautiful. Einaudi’s composition, an important part of the effect, is in the minor key but no less beautiful for being sad. In the final episode, Meadows moves even further towards carefully wrought visual poetry, throwing his gritty subject matter into a new and challenging light. At a larger level, he swirls narratives of different scales together: while the individual stories of Lol, Shaun, Milky and all the others are at the centre of ’86, Meadows demonstrates how connected they all are; he also hints at lives once remembered, as characters central to the plot of the film only nudge their way into the series; the 1986 World Cup – watched by a nation following a national team – gently frames these individuals but only ever obscurely stands for the broader social feelings of the time; in turn, to a certain extent, still raw international tensions are revealed and played out in miniature by England and Argentina on the football pitch. We are brought once again to the individual level, when we remember that Shaun’s dad died in the Falklands War.
Artful in structure at a number of levels, this series is nonetheless emotionally powerful. The performances are super and the dialogue feels wonderfully natural in its funny moments and devastatingly sparse in the tragic. When, I wonder, will we see something like this on television again?