Going Dutch

“Where’s your compassion?”

“Nowhere YOU can get at it!”

doubt

The questioner is Philip Seymour Hoffman (a Jack Kirby drawing of a baby) and the answer comes from Meryl Streep (Mrs Doubtfire) in DOUBT, the Oscar-nommed drama from John Patrick Shanley. Way back around 1992 I saw half of Shanley’s JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO on TV and thought it did a very good job of capturing some of the eccentricity of classic Hollywood comedy (Luggage salesman: “May you live a thousand years.”) and it was disappointing that Shanley didn’t continue as a director thereafter.

Now he’s back with a very Oscar-worthy (read: worthy) filmed play which does make good use of his comedic skills, while progressively trundling into darker territory. It’s perfectly good, and exactly the kind of thing the Academy likes, and so do a lot of other people. While it’s been opened out from the stage version, it’s still theatrical/televisual at heart, with characters continually pausing at the door to deliver a parting shot, like Columbo. Top cinematographer Roger Deakins shoots it, but the only real gesture towards “cinema” is the frequent recourse to that old cod-expressionist standby, the Dutch tilt.

I think, in the case of DOUBT, the technique is too obtrusive, too obvious (“The world has slipped off its axis!”) and unsupported by sufficient stylistic ebullience elsewhere in the filmmaking, apart from some nicely coloured walls, so it sticks out as a lone grab at aesthetic awareness. And this is one of the problems of the technique. How and when can you use it?

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MR ARKADIN throws a wobbly.

My friend Comrade K, a sort of Saint Michael figure positioned at the gates of art, deciding which techniques should be allowed through, takes a hard line on the Dutch tilt, allowing its value in the sole case of Orson Welles. I think THE THIRD MAN gets a partial pass by association, and probably he’d allow Raoul Ruiz, since R.R. uses technical language the way a balloon artist uses latex, and who could criticise funny balloon animals? I agree that Welles’ canted angles are beautiful and striking, and his stylistic brio is so fulsome all round that they don’t even stand out as being extreme or eccentric, surrounded as they are by so much creative perversity.

But if anything I find Reed’s THIRD MAN tilts perhaps even more interesting. One distinguishing feature is that they are mostly but not all POV shots, and that they tend to come in clusters. Once one D.T. has been used, a second starts to feel very desirable, preferably going the other way to balance it. So while the first example may have a certain sore-thumb quality, the second will be easier to take, and so on. Also, in the exotic Viennese ambiance of this particular film, askew views seem almost natural, a part of the cityscape. I feel as I watch the film that Vienna must actually look like that, and so it does, if you lean your head onto one shoulder.

I confess to mixed feelings about Ophuls’ use of the D.T.s. While a certain world-out-of-balance vibe is sometimes conjured by Ophulsian slants, sometimes the effect feels more decorative, and since Ophuls pushes the decorative to an extreme, sometimes this feels like perhaps a step too far. I’m not overly bothered, mind you, it’s just an item in his stylistic arsenal that I admire a bit less than the others.

Brian DePalma’s sloping compositions in CASUALTIES OF WAR feel more like the ones in DOUBT. When Michael J. Fox reports a case of rape and murder to his superior officer, and is told not to rock the boat, DePalma capsizes the whole film with a TITANIC-type list to starboard. The meaning is crashingly obvious, but so is the whole film, a sincere yet borderline cartoonish morality play where subtlety has no place and so a moment like this is not only acceptable, but barely distinguishable from the stylistic swagger elsewhere. Good luck to him.

Who else does good Dutch?

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22 Responses to “Going Dutch”

  1. Dunno if it counts as there’s barely a static shot in the entire thing, but Chris Doyle’s camerawork in Chungking Express changed the way a lot of people thought about camera angles forever. If I recall correctly, he took the Dutch angle to such an extreme that certain shots ended up upside down… Agreed re The Third Man – but that film is so sui generis in so many ways…

  2. Ken Russell had a tendency to turn the camera upside down — this only happened when he was operating himself, as the professionals just wouldn’t do it. First in Billion Dollar Brain, then in Tommy. But Doyle kind of shoots the whole of CE like that. It takes the problem away, since almost every shot is shifting off the horizontal all the time, so there’s little danger of any one in particular seeming obtrusive.

    There was some Scottish realist feature that tried to do a bit of that (I think they had Ken Loach’s cameraman) but they didn’t have the nerve to do it all the time, so again, as in Doubt, it just seemed gestural.

    Reed tilts in The Fallen Idol a bit and Odd Man Out, I think, but he doesn’t quite hit critical mass with those.

  3. That’s exactly it, I think – The Third Man was the perfect expression of that style, in the perfect setting. Any attempt to return to it or refer to it in Reed’s other work seems pointless.

  4. He rather went off the approach himself — “I don’t think it’s a terribly good idea,” which maybe made it puzzling that it worked so well that one time. But everything in that film just clicks, and that’s so rare.

  5. Sloping compositions are all over the dmaned place in Danny Boyle’s <i.Slumdog grand Theft Auto</i. which at this point (5:08 AM L.A. time) appears destined to with Oscar for “Best Imitation of a Richard Attenborough Prestige Picture on Crack.”

  6. Back when it won a U.S. release in 1962, Mr Arkadin made an enormous impression on me. Yes it wasn’t Welles’ best, and had less to do with its final assembly than he didn on Lady From Shanghai. Yet it sported a perfectly thrilling cinematic energy coupled with a series of brilliant cameos (Akim Tamiroff, Patricia median and above all Katina Paxinou) The film’s most character istic visual rope found Robert Ardne (underrated by literaly everyone who has ever had anythign to say about the film) running into the cneter background of a composition (invariably toward a door or stairwell) while the camera very, very rapidly tracks back. Bertolucci made a straight-out blatant steal of this and used it to considerable effect throughout The Conformist

  7. Glad you’re not the onlyn one to appreciate the baroque nuttiness of Joe vs. The Volcano. I’m scarcely one to resist a film whose climax features Nathan Lane as a South Seas High Priest. Doubt is not without humor but of a very different kind.

    I didn’t see then play but I understand the kids never appeared in it. This is a MAJOR stage-to-screen difference. Instead of a moral abstraction they’re a constant concrete presence. Altogether this is old-fashioned go-for-broke melodrama with Streep and Hoffman facing off with the sort of grand whorey intensity not seen since Bette Davus emptied a revolver into Claude Rains in Deception.

    Streep has become such fun lately. At the reception afterwards I told her Sister’s secret was she killed her late husband and got away with it — right? To which she chuckled “You think I’m going to tell YOU?” Love her to teeny little bits. And so do moviegoers these days, since she’s gotten the “prestige” stink off of her and refashioned herself as a Total Entertainer (the turning point was in Zemeckis’ only tolerable film Death Becomes Her, after she swallows the Eternal Life potion and Isabella Rossellini says “And now a warning,” to which Meryl replies “An NOW a warning??!!!!”)

    The main problem with Doubt is Shanley gives the church such kid-glove treatment. I could tell you stories that would make your hair stand on end, starting (but not finishing) with the pair of priests I discovered running a gay bed and breakfast in Palm Springs while serving the local parish. They had been sent there from Boston where both had gotten into trouble for screwing little boys. This was a number of years back. One of them was finally given up to the authorities. He was tried, convicted and murdered in prison. I don’t know what became of the other one. As for their Bishop protector, Bernard Law, he was recalled to Rome by Ratzi — who as I trust you know was Hitlerjungend in his youth and now is comfortably ensconsed with a prize Vatican boytoy.

    What Shanley presents in Doubt isn’t a drama about a pedo priest but simply an ordinary everyday gay one (there are a few straight priests, but they’re as rare as hen’s teeth) The kid he’s accused of molesting is gay, the priest knows it (and takes pity on him) and most important the kid’s mother knows it ( the brilliant Viola Davis in a turn that took the wind right out of a packed house at the Academy theater.) The only relaistic note is the speed with which the church hierarchy transfers Hoffman to another parish.

  8. It occurred to me as I watched was that the thing about the history of the Catholic Chrucgh was very much NOT that they had McCarthyite witchhunting nuns looking for pedos under the beds, but that they were actively closing their eyes to very real abuse. This does get touched on at the end when Hoffman is promoted elsewhere and everyone’s supposed to be happy with that, but the overall slant of the story is quite counter to what generally seems to have been going on. It’s like those uplifting tales of Holocaust survival: emotional and inspirational, but far from typical of what went on (since most people like Szpilman in The Pianist wound up dead).

    Hoffman’s a slightly more ambiguous figure than you suggest — IF he has a sexual relationship with Donald Miller, it’s clearly consensual (but still quite questionable as the kid is 12) but the blonde kid who seems to be afraid of him is another matter. That looks like a hint of abuse, but we can’t be sure. I did find the emphasis on ambiguity and that titular word a little wearing, somehow.

    What I took from it is that Hoffman was innocent as far as anybody actually KNEW, and should have been safe from victimisation until any actual complaint was made or evidence found. My other thought is that Streep’s certainty of Hoffman’s guilt was much like her religious faith: instinctive, irrational, based on nothing concrete. In fact it seems that she’s less sure there’s a God than she is that Hoffman is gay.

  9. Berolucci has admitted that his free-floating camera can be traced back to Welles, even as far as Kane: a camera which might react to a character’s movement, not by following it, but by flying off in some apparently random direction.

  10. In the late 80s, Ken Russell called Streep a “bloodless zomboid” but she has somehow evolved into the kind of actor I think he’d enjoy. With her lip-pursing nerviness, at times she seems to be channelling Murray Melvin in The Devils.

  11. The other thing that’s going on in Doubt — that Shanley handles exceptionally well — is that in the church women have zero authority. By going after Hoffman’s priest Streep’s Big Sister is taking on a system with no interest in paying her any mind. She has to create a rather elaborate ruse to get Hoffman into her office and once he’s there he sits right down in HER chair. It’s a great moment, as it demonstrates quite vividly who’s REALLY boss. Sister’s main weapon is giving Father “the Guilts” as best she can. Amy Adams very sweet young nun is an exceptionally interesting tool in this. Unlike Streep and Hoffman she has no “agenda” or “dark side” at all. She’s just pure goodness. When she reports to Sister about Donald’s upset after coming back from Father’s office she’s not “telling” on the priest at all. She’s thinking solely of the kid and his well-being. Sister, however, springs right into action. This was the opportunity she’d been waiting for.

    Actual, real-life pedo priests are quite brutal in their ways and means. They don’t have a trace of Hoffman’s sympathetic concern and are ruthless about threatening not only their victims but their victim’s families. For years the church was exceptionally skilled at “shaming” the families to prevent them from going to the cops.

    Thankfully that’s over now. But a lot of people have suffered and are still suffering.

    Very much doubt there’ll be a play or movie about that anytime soon.

  12. The Magdalene Sisters, which I didn’t much like but is undeniably impactful, took a pretty hard look at institutionalised abuse in the church, but dealt exclusively with female victims. The controversy it aroused helped it to do reasonably well commercially, for a small Scottish film.

    Amy Adams was very good. At first she seemed over-mannereed, but something about her positioning between the two heavyweights, who can create massive eruptions onscreen with highly accented “underplaying”, meant that soon she seemed just perfect.

  13. I have yet to see the “Doubt” movie, but I *did* see a decent-ish production of the play at the San Diego Repertory Theater, a production that’s fresh in my memory.

    One of their less inspired ideas was to insert a paper into the program, asking the audience member “Who do you think was guilty” — i.e. Big Sister or The Priest. I filled in the answer “E.M. Forster,” since my thought was that What Happened In The Rectory was pretty much like What Happened In The Cave of Malabar. In other words, what we were dealing with — in a fairly elementary fashion — was Uncertainty.

    I love David E’s comments about the church women (*very* evident in the play) and Streep’s laying aside the stink of “prestige.” Ditto David C’s likening Streep to Murray Melvin. Frankly, I never really warmed up to Streep until “Postcards” and “Death Becomes Her.”

    *

    As for The Priest at the end … the way that they handled it in the play is that Big Sister claims to have spoken to church women at his previous parish, which causes Priest to leave in a whirlwind. Only this was Liar’s Poker on the part of Big Sister; she *didn’t* speak to ‘em, but The Priest’s reaction — and/or that of his male superiors — makes it feel likely that stuff has occurred elsewhere.

  14. I was going to mention The Magdalene Sisters. Got a good bit of play, but easy to idmiss as “Oh but that happened a long time ago” as opposed to the ongoing assaults, threats, and pay-offs. Put them all together and the Catholic Church is the world’s most powerful pedophile cult.

  15. The liar’s poker is very much there in the film and does *largely* dispel the doubt, rather spoiling the Malabar Caves thing. I’d have preferred MORE uncertainty, I think. Dealing with student filmmakers as I do, I sometimes get tired of “ambiguity” (they tend to love it when they’re writing the film, but less so when they watch other peoples’), but it seemed a bit of a cop-out to call the film Doubt, raise the idea of uncertainty, and then kind of almost sort of wrap things up.

  16. Had the film really been about what goes on with Catholic priests the ideal director would be David Cornenberg.

  17. Ashes and Diamonds has a number of great examples of dutch angles.

  18. Ah yeah, I’m shamefully unfamiliar with Wajda. Have been getting into Zulawski, and his admiration for Wajda is immense, which has made me particularly curious to see A&D.

  19. The first director I know of to use dutch tilts systematically in a scene, i.e., a tilt to the left countered by a tilt to the right countered by another tilt to the left and so on, was James Whale in the creation-of-the-bride sequence of BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN.

  20. Very interesting. It’s an amazing sequence, but I hadn’t thought of that as a first. It’d be fascinating to see if anyone can name an earlier example. I have a feeling there might be something in Eisenstein… he often created strong diagonals in his compositions and cut them together in a left-right-left-right manner, but I’m not sure about actual Dutch tilts…

  21. I was also thinking there might be a precedent in Eisenstein. And the same year that Whale did BRIDE, Busby Berkeley was using dutch tilts in a similar dramatic fashion in the “Lullaby of Broadway” sequence of GOLDDIGGERS OF 1935. The latter definitely borrows from Eisenstein’s Potemkin steps.

  22. More research is required!

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