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It’s a commonplace of film theory that the gaze of a camera is more invasive than it is cooly objective. D.W. Griffith was aware of this tension. If A Drunkard’s Reformation (1909) represents his early faith in the power of cinema to produce moral improvement, presenting the titular drunkard’s reformation during a theatrical performance, by the production of his later picture True Heart Susie (1919), Griffith has tempered his enthusiasm for his medium and nuanced his understanding of the camera, an object that is morally ambiguous in its voyeurism.
We see, in Susie‘s closing scene, that Susie (Lillian Gash) finally kisses William (Robert Harron), her long-pursued childhood crush. She receives a peck in an intimate close two shot. The pair pull apart and we see amazement and pleasure on her face. Griffith, perhaps feeling that he is unjustly invading this private moment, pulls his camera back, reframing to a more discreet wide two shot. Finally, he cuts to an inter-title, entirely removing the pair from our (and the camera’s) gaze.
By forcing Susie and William’s absence upon us, Griffith acknowledges the transgressive nature of cinema. We are allowed to see the characters’ most intimate and private moments; this luxury becomes obvious when the embracing pair are removed from the silver screen, when we are not allowed to look.
In Patrick Keiller’s London (1994), many of the images are similarly – in fact, on occasion, more immediately – voyeuristic (in the etymological sense of to see without being seen). We watch a girl and a boy playing in the street with a crushed can, builders doing very little and the Queen Mother unveiling a statue to a crowd. The picture is a mosaic of shots captured on an almost always static camera with an unnamed narrator providing a commentary. The design is reminiscent of Chris Marker’s La jetée (1962), which consists almost entirely of still black-and-white photographs. It also brings to mind the tradition of cinema vérité. Keiller is unique, though, because he doesn’t seem to mind if his camera is detected. While it often isn’t, it certainly is from time to time. Passers-by glance down the barrel before walking on.
In fact, though, people don’t often figure in this picture. The majority of the shots are of London – its architecture, its literary curiosities and its banality – and the protagonists (the Narrator and Robinson) are both unseen. In this mode, the writer/director establishes another relationship between the camera and the subject matter that is interwoven with the more expected voyeuristic mode of filming. Every now and then we feel like the camera has arrived too late. When he speaks of meetings, we become aware that his cinema is one of absence. Like Griffith’s final inter-title, the Narrator provides a commentary on an event that is not to be seen. In a shopping mall, as the camera moves up an escalator, he mentions a friendly man with whom Robinson spent a few hours (though later, when he tried to call, he only reached a public telephone box). It’s jarring to realise that this event is long since passed and that all we are left with is second- (or third-) hand report.
The film is more engaging because of this shadowiness, a quality shared between the Narrator, Robinson and many of the events detailed. Keiller sets up a trail to be followed, pynchonesque in its slipperiness and aptly suited to the Narrator’s theme of social degradation. The best has past or is, at least, not now.
At its opening, Intolerance seems unsure of what it’s supposed to be. An early inter-title introduces ‘our play’, linking the picture to a dramatic tradition, rather than a specifically filmic one, and the first shot is of a book entitled ‘INTOLERANCE’ being opened. The text inside is not a dramatic script but instead dense prose. Both these motifs (the borrowing of drama’s critical lexis and the bookending of a film with a book being opened and closed) are common in early pictures. Their presence suggests that cinematic art is, for Griffith at least, in part a textual one. Even his key image, the Eternal Mother rocking the cradle, which punctuates his picture and unites his four separate narratives, is drawn from poetry: a poem from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855) begins ‘Out of the cradle endlessly rocking’.
The qualifying phrase ‘for Griffith at least’ distinguishes D. W. from many of his contemporaries. He shoots differently from them: his camera is (on the whole) an objective one. By 1916, shooting and editing methods devoted to apparently invisible continuity and emotional subjectivity were already solidifying into convention. They appear in Danish films as early as 1912 and are built upon by American directors in the years that follow. Griffith, though, rarely uses either a point of view shot or a shot/reverse-shot structure (though he must have been aware of them). He is not concerned about the seams of his work showing.
Notice, for example, the discontinuity in the introduction of The Mountain Girl. Griffith begins with an inter-title (‘The Mountain Girl down from the mountains of Suisana’). There is then an iris wipe-in from the top left corner of the frame to a wide shot of an open area. The Girl is seated and occupies a space near the bottom right corner of the frame. There is then a cut to a close shot of The Girl, in the same position, with a slight angle change. There is finally a cut to a close up of The Girl, whose head is at an obviously different angle to the previous setups, in which she looks directly into the camera. Griffith achieves a distance between his audience and his picture with these techniques: his work strives for the spectacular (in its etymological sense of a public show that is to be observed) rather than attempting to draw the viewer into the narrative, engulfing her with emotion.
Any comments on the development of early filmmaking conventions must be tempered with an acknowledgement that many prints are no longer extant: Griffith was very likely not alone in his refusal to make trendy editing or shooting decisions. Equally, D. W. and whoever else worked as he did should not be condemned as primitive craftsmen, lagging behind cinematic developments. He makes a choice to ignore certain patterns; he is not ignorant of them. In Intolerance, the jaggedness of his cutting – the mismatches, the jumps and the changes of angle – achieves a tension within scenes which disregards apparent continuity. This aesthetic could perhaps stem from a belief that the whole is more important than the individual parts: that the subject of the piece is more important that the details that create it.
This editing style, if not perhaps the underlying aesthetic driving it, brings to mind the work of Godard, to pick only one of many later directors who turn away from Hollywood’s conventions of invisible editing. In his drive for a spectacle, Griffith is not afraid to move his camera every so often: there is what appears to be a crane shot that surveys much of Babylon at the beginning of Act II; within a splendid royal court of sixteenth century France, the camera pans right to show the viewer every corner of the room.
We notice too that, in an early scene involving The Little Dear One, Griffith intercuts a shot of The Dear One blowing a kiss to her departing father and a short of her returning to her house with a shot of two little chickens nuzzling with one another. Here is the whole above part aesthetic again and an example of montage (in the technical sense). The meaning is generated through the contiguity of the three shots, their juxtaposition next to each other. Association is championed rather than continuity and it is this sort of assemblage that was picked up by Russian experimental filmmakers after 1917.
Griffith did not invent montage. He did not pioneer the moving camera. He was not an intentionally revolutionary craftsman throughout his career. He would have us believe, though, that he was the most important director of his time (if not of all time). When he broke with Biograph, he announced his split on 3rd December 1913 with an advertisement in the New York Dramatic Mirror. It read:
D. W. GRIFFITH
Producer of all great Biograph successes,
Revolutionizing Motion picture drama
and founding the modern technique
of the art.
Notice that he looks both forward and back. He begins with the past, with ‘all great Biograph successes’. He does not yet feel confident to draw a distinction between moving pictures and ‘drama’: his wording suggests that the works we see on the screen are of the same aesthetic group as those we see on the stage. Yet he also believes that ‘Motion picture[s]’ may eventually be separated from other art forms: he looks to the future and to the development of ‘the modern technique’. Where he and works like Intolerance sit in the history of this process – the removal of film out from under the proscenium arch – is more complex to locate than his advert suggests.
A friend of mine recently showed me Alexandra Monro + Sheila Menon’s short film No Way Through (2009). One of five winning scripts entered into Ctrl.Alt.Shift’s short film competition, the picture tries to ‘highlight […] mobility restrictions imposed in the West Bank, that are limiting its habitants’ access to health care, thus violating a fundamental human right.’ On the whole, it’s an effective film. You can watch it here: http://www.ctrlaltshift.co.uk/video/nowaythrough.
The picture is quickly rooted in London. We recognise the squashed together suburban housing of the opening and notice the almost obscured ‘LONDON’ on the front of Rob’s (Tim Plester) folded-over roadmap. Almost as quickly, we feel this is not the city we know; as Rob approaches a roadblock, rather than a hospital, greeted by armed guards, rather than paramedics, we begin to wonder where we are. Monro and Menon convincingly establish a sort of dystopian Never Never Land. Their London invites comparison with Gilliam’s unidentified city in Brazil (1985) or Jeunet and Caro’s post-apocalyptic France in Delicatessen (1991): all three films present, with varying emphasis, worlds that are both governed by seemingly strange political situations and at the mercy of authoritarian military control.
But Brazil has its steam-machines and Delicatessen has its cannibalism: these films make more telling comments than No Way Through because of their surface absurdity. There is, perhaps, in both the feature films, a moment of insight, when the distorted world of the picture snaps in line with ours. I’m avoiding phrases like ‘political comment’ because I’m not sure that Brazil or Delicatessen attempt to make any; it’s also reductive to root all the joys and questions that come from watching these films into a single ‘pop’ of realisation. Nonetheless, we’re sure that No Way Through has a political point to make. The directors outline it explicitly in their accompanying text.
The one weakness of the short is that Monro and Menon try to bring their dystopia too close to reality too quickly. The epiphanic ‘pop’ becomes instead an instance of dramatic irony. The pieces of graffiti really rubbed: ‘FREE PALESTINE’ written on corrugated iron, for example.
With this political signpost obviously positioned, we’re invited simply to join the dots. If references to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are removed, though, notice how much freer we are to revel in the nightmare. The situation would seem so absurd that we would take solace only by thinking that it doesn’t really happen. (How, after all, is a crying child comforted after seeing a particularly scary film? ‘It’s only a film,’ The accompanying adult says. ‘It never really happened.’) Equally, a niggling notion that something like the situation presented on screen happens somewhere in the world is not the same: the loss of specificity is enough to maintain the illusion for a time.
Instead, then, of waiting for the text at the end of the film to explain the link already made between ‘PALESTINE’ and the picture we’re watching, the revelation would be more shocking and longer-lasting if this link were cut. We are told that ‘Around Jerusalem the average ambulance journey time for a Palestinian is now almost 2 hours, compared to 10 minutes in 2001.’ It’s fair to wonder how much more brutal the realisation would be if we weren’t already expecting this grim punch line.
Despite this one arguable point of structure, there are moments of wonderful craft in the picture. My favourite shot in the short is a beautiful image of Amy (Amy Loughton), bloodstained, looking through the car window. The camera is positioned above her and outside the vehicle so we’re presented at once with the girl and the city through the filter of the window.
It’s horrible to realise that Amy will die before she reaches hospital (and we have such a suspicion quite early on). We wonder what she’s thinking and we wonder whether the world reflected in the window is the one in which she wants to live. Just like a similar shot in Midnight Cowboy, Monro and Menon manage to blend Amy’s subjective experience and the objective reality in one shot, finding room for her implicit hopes alongside the grim actuality of her situation.
Very quickly into Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), Bruce Robinson’s Withnail & I (1987) came to mind. Both films seem to hinge on their leading pair’s drug-induced fancies, producing narratives driven by associations rather than obvious causation. The excitement is initiated by some sort of journey (a trip to Las Vegas or a weekend in the country) but the aims become quickly clouded (if they were ever clear at all).
Both pictures are also rooted in a specific time period. Withnail rests at the end of ‘the greatest decade of mankind’; Fear and Loathing, based on the novel by Hunter S. Thompson, presents ‘the brutish realities of this foul year of Our Lord, 1971’. This specificity is more important that it may seem at first: yes, plenty of films demonstrate a temporal unity but, in vague terms, as I was watching Fear and Loathing, I began to feel that the film’s setting influences its aesthetic beyond simply providing a period backdrop for a potentially universal story. Instead, the broader feelings generated by the social climate of California in the early 1970s affect the way the narrative is told. It’s less about a story that is specific to the seventies than about Gilliam’s attempt, in the late 1990s, to tell it using an aesthetic design that is apt for the subject matter.
An important scene for defining this aesthetic comes about halfway though the picture. Over stock footage of San Francisco from 1965, Duke (Johnny Depp) tells us that: ‘There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.’ He tries to describe the belief in ‘that inevitable sense of victory over the forces of old and evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail.’ (My emphasis) Film noir lingers here but only in a transformed state. In a short attempt to define a notoriously slippery term, noir is used here to refer to American films from (say) the 1940s and 1950s that present the sleazy side of life: sleazy in the sense that they move away from an everything-is-OK postcard aesthetic and attempt to show an anti-America (which is, it should be noted in passing, no more real, no less stylized, than the other extreme). Often populated by individuals that feel separated from society for some reason, the films present an alternative and more challenging moral system that competes with simple right and wrong. These complexities are reflected in cinematographic choices that involve low-key and high-contrast lighting setups shot on black-and-white film. Within such a varying genre, it’s useful to lean on specific examples of film noir to illustrate points of comparison with Gilliam’s picture.
So, in Fear and Loathing, the pair are, in a sense, victims of their circumstances, as is Bigelow (Eadmond O’Brien) in Rudolph Maté’s D.O.A. (1950), but we notice that they don’t feel much dread: instead, any urgency is swapped for a trippy ride on universal energy. The Las Vegas that Gilliam presents places no emphasis on guns or firepower and the corruption that comes with them (‘We didn’t need that’): instead we witness the psychedelic degradation of a pair of minds that are emblematic of the society in which they play. I limited the use of film noir to American films above because I think there is a larger and specifically American story here: the alternative moral system generated during the Depression is replaced in Fear and Loathing by no morals at all.
But the diffracted half-similarities of plot are only preamble to what is, for me, the strongest link between film noir and Fear and Loathing: the lighting. I believe the cinematographic choices of Gilliam’s picture reveal a desire to load the lighting with significance, an importance reminiscent of that given to the set-ups in, say, Joseph H. Lewis’s The Big Combo (1955). In both films the lighting is stylized and noticeably low-key and high-contrast. But the startling black-and-white chiaroscuro that suits the violence and danger of The Big Combo becomes instead the psychedelic rainfall of always-changing always-blinking Las Vegas advertisements.
The emphasis shifts from tone to colour but black and darkness still linger behind it all. Furthermore, as the sights, sounds and opportunities of Las Vegas infect Duke and Dr Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro), we see the disintegration of personal boundaries played out visually: there is, for example, a beautiful and loaded scene where the bright lights of the city are refracted in the the pair’s car window. What we see is an underworld in which universal vibrations are temporarily on show in glorious saccharine technicolor. As I (Paul McGann) wonders in Withnail: ‘The purveyor of rare herbs and prescribed chemicals is back. Will we never be set free?’
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.
I recently watched John Hughes’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986). It was partly an attempt to put off school work for a few hours but also to watch an often-mentioned-at-least-in-passing film by the director of The Breakfast Club (1985).
Its editing, especially in the opening scene, brought to mind a more recent film: Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (2010). It’s perhaps fair to say that both pictures are aimed predominantly at teenage viewers. Objectivity is lent to Scott Pilgrim by the fast paced cuts, comic book framing and game system life bars; Bueller has a similarly fast pace and cheeky comments directed at the camera. Both share on-screen lists, which, in Scott Pilgrim, name characters and, in Bueller, explain the perfect means of getting off school.
But in a film that is undeniably objective in the main, there is an ambiguous set-up in the opening scene that caught my eye because it seems so subjective. Matthew Broderick’s performance as Ferris is, from the very start, over the top and tongue-in-cheek. Simply, we understand that he is not unwell. As the scene progresses, there is a shot reverse shot sequence involving Ferris and his parents. When his sister (Jennifer Grey) enters, she glares at Ferris, complaining about the situation. After a close shot of Ferris tucked under his covers, we see what must be a point of view shot from the bed at Jeanie. As she stands there, she begins to go out of focus until she is a real blur.
What happens here? We are presented apparently with what Ferris sees. We feel by this point that he is actually in perfect health and it’s fair to believe, then, that his sight has no reason to shift in and out of focus. The set-up is surely not what Ferris sees but what his parents (not Jeanie, who suspects he’s well) think he is seeing. It halts the narrative’s linear temporal development for a moment and presents a few seconds of a could-be or could-have-been.
Anyway, just a thought. After this set-up, the film’s relentlessly entertaining.
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?
I recently saw this inventive advertisement for The Last Exorcism, directed by Daniel Stamm and released at the end of August this year. It’s an innovative use of a relatively new form of social networking and, as you can see, is particularly frightening to those who expect nothing but reality when they log in. It fits nicely with a mockumentary that plays with the division between what is fiction and what is fact. Just as the cynical preacher Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) tries to expose demonic possession as a hoax, only to discover that it’s an all too frightful reality, so too do the unsuspecting users of Chatroulette find that what terrified them so much because it poses as the everyday is, in fact, nothing more than an advert.
It sounds odd to consider the sound involved in a silent film. Cinemas, though, did not simply begin making music after the production of The Jazz Singer (1927): they were noisy places and films were noisy things from the beginning. It is likely, for example, that a piano accompanied the first significant presentation of moving pictures before an audience (generally considered to be Auguste and Louis Lumière’s screening in Paris in 1895). There is an inevitable gap between image and sound in this sort of production because the notes are added after and do not originate from the same source as the picture. In a sense, the music that accompanies these films can be considered diegetic (a term which comes from the Greek ‘to narrate’) because it is used to guide the viewer’s response. Indeed, we are aware of a similar effect caused by any film score but the use of what I term mimetic elements of the soundtrack, for example sound effects or dialogue, is not possible for these pictures. Such noises are mimetic (from the Greek ‘to copy’) because they only recreate the recorded reality in film. Is it fair to say, then, that we expect to feel the seam between the film and sound in so-called silent films, to feel a gap between what is occurring on-screen and the music that accompanies it?
An odd thing happened, when I was watching Dr. Mabuse (1922), which was counterpointed later, when I saw Resnais’s Last Year in Marienbad (1961): for a moment in Mabuse the diegetic notes of a piano become (inadvertently) mimetic, while in Marienbad expected aural mimesis is (purposefully) frustrated. There is a scene in Mabuse in which a pianist is playing. It is, if I remember correctly, in a gambling hall. The score lends a feeling of lightness and jollity to the action. When Lang cuts, however, to a medium close shot of the pianist, seated and playing, the notes mimic perfectly his hand movements: for a time, in a sense, we hear what the characters do. The implications of this slip are unnerving: for a few seconds the viewer is left to decide the tone of the piece for herself, as the music reveals it is not itself an interpretative keynote, suggesting how to view the scene, but instead only another level of the presentation of a gambling hall. I had to rewind the DVD to make sure I’d not made a mistake.
In Marienbad, in contrast, there is a score of organ music that is oppressive in its relentlessness. In one particular scene, again a medium close shot of a band playing, the instruments are oddly silent. The droning organ continues regardless and makes the image of the playing band members, apparently unaware of their own silence, all the more disturbing. I remember, for some reason, sensing my stomach drop, when I first encountered this shot, and a feeling of isolation began to grow. I suppose it is an odd experience when one’s own senses fail to line up, when what we see is not what we hear.
In Rope (1948), Hitchcock demonstrates that he’s an experimental, as well as a successful, filmmaker. Shot in a series of reel-long takes almost invisibly joined together, the picture confirms that there’s more than one way to tell a story with film.
Patrick Hamilton’s play Rope’s End (1929 American title) is the source for this picture, and Rope itself does feel theatrical: the one-set setting is made more explicit by Hitchcock’s method of filming. The experiment, which the director believes “didn’t work out”, is an attempt to create an, on the whole, unedited appearance. The camera is not static: it follows characters around the flat and moves in for close ups when desired. While he occassionally uses unmasked cuts, Hitchcock joins most of his reels together by tracking into objects (for example, the back of a man’s jacket), which he then allows to fill the frame.
Despite aiming at an appearance of organic continuity, with the camera seemingly following the impromptu actions of the characters, Rope was a highly orchestrated affair. The actors were choreographed, taking movement cues from other characters’ lines; the crew had to move props and roll the walls of the set (which were on wheels) silently out of the path of the large Technicolor camera. The camera’s movements were also carefully planned to achieve thrilling shots: for example, the opening close up of David (Dick Hogan) being strangled is later counterpointed by a similar close up of the same rope holding together a bundle of books.
In the film’s balance between the level of in camera editing and apparent lack of post production, Rope‘s experimental nature is reminiscent of early filmmaking techniques. While pictures such as Augustine and Louis Lumière’s Baby’s Breakfast and The Card Players (both 1895) seem to be cases of starting the camera and letting it run on until the 50 ft reel ran out, both exhibit a level of narrative shape which is achieved through in camera editing, through decisions, for example, about when to begin filming, whether to film only part of an event and when to stop.
Such craft is evident in their 1895 picture Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory. Here’s a video of the film from youtube:
The single wide shot is positioned to allow a full view of the factory gates and to catch workers leaving both camera left and camera right. There is a clear start, when the gates open, and an apparently clear finish, when the last worker leaves. A young man and a dog run back into frame in the last few seconds, against the general movement of people. I wonder if this shock is a purposeful comic touch or an accident achieved by leaving the camera running a shade too long?
Hitchcock’s later film is far more complex both in terms of narrative shape and its in camera editing. Nonetheless it is telling that, in the classical Hollywood age which, generally speaking, championed a fairly secure set of editing rules, perfecting the invisible cut, Hithcock experimented by turning (consciously or not) back towards the more formative early years of cinema, in which directors had to explore different ways of telling stories, creating rules and trends as they progressed.