Hazy Days of Summer

To the extent that most film criticism discusses the lens at all, you’re more likely to find discussions of Orson Welles and Gregg Toland’s use of the wide angle lens combined with deep focus in CITIZEN KANE, than any discussion of the properties of the long lens. This is partly because fairly long lenses were fairly standard for close-ups before KANE came along and changed the rules, and partly because Toland and Welles successfully publicised their work, so that the ideas behind it were out there, accessible to critics.

The ideas behind the long-lens closeup were far less discussed, because the approach had been commonplace for a long time. It’s easy to see why: the long lens both flattens and flatters the subject, avoiding any of the fish-eye distortion of the wide angle, which tends to warp and uglify the face, making mountains out of moles (notable exception: AMELIE. Camera tests established that Audrey Tatou’s face could look quirkily attractive through a wide lens, provided the camera was slightly above eye-level, so that her big forehead got the emphasis).

Also, unless you have massive amounts of light so you can stop down (as in the infinite, sun-blasted spaces of Leone’s westerns), the long lens tends to result in a shallow depth of field, useful for separating the subject from the background. Since the movie screen is flat, anything that produces an illusion of depth can be handy (deep focus has a contradictory quality of flatness, since everything is equally sharp).

But beauty is hard to talk about, and the idea that deep focus results in the illusion of depth is ingrained.

These shots of Julie Christie, taken by cinematographer Nicholas Roeg for Richard Lester’s bleakly romantic chronicle of a near-miss love affair in 1967 San Francisco, PETULIA, show another possibility of the long lens. Lester is fond (going at least as far back as THE KNACK, his 4th film) of using out-of-focus foreground material as well as background, situating the face, partially eclipsed, within layers of gleaming blur. It contributes to the kaleidoscopic quality of his work (often remarked upon, seldom analysed in detail) and strikes me as a purely photographic conceit, like the starburst filter, rather than a realistic one. You CAN get a shot like the above with the human eye, by sticking something between you and what you’re looking at, and then mentally “cropping” the image so as to enlarge one detail of your view, but would you? The effect achieved here has little of nothing to do with realism, which is probably why it wasn’t much used before the ’60s and all that mucking about with zoom lenses (Sternberg may be an exception, since he loved filming through layers of smoke and streamers and veils and branches and rain and whatever else he could think of).

In the same way that golden age Hollywood films didn’t like to show people talking in extreme longshot but with closeup sound (an approach which probably came in thanks to the radio mic, although dubbing could have produced the same result earlier), and felt that car scenes needed to be shot from INSIDE the windscreen, hence all those process shots whenever anybody went for a drive, a subconscious sense of naturalism probably stopped directors and cinematographers from exploiting the long lens in just this way (so it makes sense that Sternberg wouldn’t be put off).

Thanks to Chris Schneider, who suggested I write something about PETULIA. I wasn’t sure where to start (it’s a very rich film), but zooming through it in search of frame-grabs inspired these musings).

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20 Responses to “Hazy Days of Summer”

  1. Just point the camera at Julie Christie any which way and you’re sure to get something smashing.
    As for Petulia what makes the film so haunting is the way Lester varies the tone. It starts off looking as though it’s going to be very visaully busy. But there’s a great still sadness inside of Christie and Scott and the active movement comes from Richard Chamberlain — a seeing “dreamboat” who we quickly learn is actually a figure of monstrous threat. Very few movies go where Petulia so effortlesly and unsettlingly went.

    Plus its got a teriffic score by Jane Birkin’s first husband.

  2. John Barry’s work on The Knack and Petulia is magnificent. Unfortunately he then took the job on Robin and Marian after Ray Stark rejected Lalo Schiffrin’s authentic medieval score. Lester was unhappy at the attempts to turn The Death of Robin Hood, a bitter elegy, into Robin and Marian, a sweeping romance, and he never worked with Barry again.

    Richard Chamberlain says Lester told him his character was like a coke bottle, “Beautifully designed, but empty. You’ll be perfect.”

  3. I’m not that technical but keep planning one of these days to try and find out more about these aspects – it could only enhance an appreciation of a film to find out the technical process behind creating an emotional effect.

    I think it is interesting to see how these conventions (such as putting the camera inside the car, or not mixing long shots and close up sound) arose – was it just through unspoken ‘common sense’ approaches that made one approach the ‘obvious’ way of tackling the scene; or various filmic rules that most filmmakers learn and follow (or break – the idea of needing to know the grammar and rules of filmmaking before you can consciously break them)?; or is it just a case of conventions being built up over time with reference to other films and what worked and what did not?

    I suppose it is an amalgam of all three, with a dash of improvisation depending on what would work best in particular circumstances?

    I guess the classical Hollywood system with various approaches towards lighting (the Studio styles) was also an influence, both on the way they created their films but also the films that may be made elsewhere either in the same style or in reaction against it?

    Anyway this is a long, rambling post but suffice to say: Julie Christie – what a stunner (at any age!)

  4. It’s worth reading David Bordwell’s stuff on the evolution of film style, he’s really good on it. We seem to have periods of experimentation and then periods of solidification. I love the 20s and early 30s for all the mad experiments, and also the 60s. But you also get amazing work in the 40s when the stylistic palette was pretty fixed — within those formal limitations, a huge variety of effects was possible.

    But it seems “what works” varies according to what age you live in. The idea of running closeup voices over an extreme longshot would not have seemed acceptable in 1948, but it was widely accepted in 1968.

  5. So it could come down to not what you do but how appropriately you use it in the context of your film!

    On that train of thought would a filmmaker having a love of films be a help in their work (giving them ideas of the tradition they come from, what is going on around them at the same time, and of techniques and innovations that they could use in their own films), or a hindrance in distracting them from making their own films?

    Or again would it just depend on the filmmaker?(!)

    Do you think we are due for another madly experimental phase any time soon?

  6. I’d love another period of mad invention. There are a good range of stylistic options acceptable today, but I’d like to see more black and white, more long takes, more complex blocking, and a few dialogue-free films every year — and that’s in the mainstream.

    I think being aware of a range of cinema traditions is helpful to my filmmaking. On the other hand, Orson Welles liked to see as few films as possible. But he was a genius. There’s no doubt in my mind that ordinary hacks benefit from studying film history. Because otherwise they’ll just do what’s fashionable, which is boring. And if you actually want to be blindingly original, it helps to know what’s already been done.

  7. Well Phillipe Garrel now works only in black and white. Alain Resnaios, meanwhile, has totally abandoned the image fragmentation that made him famous.

    Finally seeing Rivette’s complete Out 1 has led me to a rethinking of a host of things, chief among them the fact Hawks “simple” medium long-shot style is far from it.

  8. You meant that Tautou was attractive with a short lens, not a long one, right? I mean, I haven’t seen Amelie, but that sounds like your drift.

  9. Whoops — you’re quite right. Edited it to make sense (although now this conversation might look odd.)

  10. Thank you, David.

    You know that Barry also wrote the score for “Boom!”, don’t you? The excerpt you’ve got in your “Xanadu” entry seemed immediately recognizable.

    I’m also fond of Barry’s score for Penn’s *maudit* “The Chase.”

  11. Sadly, JB has evolved from an experimenting, wild and imaginative composer into a rather predictable one. When he was mooted to score Enigma, the associate producer (a friend of mine) argued forcibly against it, because “It’ll take a huge chunk of money out of the budget, and you already know exactly what it’ll sound like before a note of it’s written.” Sad but true. But the 60s stuff is extraordinary, such a huge range and such wild and crazy solutions to different films, and it all works! From Goldfinger to The Ipcress File is a greater distance than some might think.

  12. Can I put in a good word for Barry’s soundtrack to Beat Girl? One of his first, I think, and he goes all out to impress. It’s a soundtrack album that I love to return to – livens up the office, anyway!

  13. Oh, Beat Girl is superb! You can find a clip from it here, I think (Ollie Reed dancing).
    The Edmond Greville rediscovery is long overdue — what a wild and varied career he had.

  14. Beat Girl is amazing, absolutely. I only saw it for the first time last month, too, after owning the soundtrack for at least ten years. I always wondered what some of the track names related to when listening to the record: “The Strip” was obvious enough, but “The City 2000AD”, “The Immediate Pleasure” or “Slaughter in Soho” weren’t quite so obvious, and sparked the imagination! I was pleased that the film wasn’t a disappointment in any way.

    Barry followed up his work on Beat Girl by recording an album with Annie Ross, by the way, and that’s pretty good too.

    Buying soundtracks before I’ve seen the film is a bad habit of mine, though sometimes it works out well for me. I came across Santa Sangre by doing just that!

  15. Cool. Must get that Annie Ross album!

    I cited David Farrar’s utopian vision on Shadowplay last year. “Neurosis is caused by people!”

  16. Oh, I think I could easily sort you out with that album. You have Beat Girl already?

  17. Yes, I’ve got the movie. Even put bits up on YouTube. I’ll do you a DVD-R if you’d like to swap for the CD!

  18. Not the movie, but the soundtrack to Beat Girl! It’s “cooler than a lager-beer”, as Adam Faith might say!

    Send me an email and we’ll sort something out.

  19. I’ve seen “Petulia” three times: STILL don’t know what’s it about! The worst film to ever be set in San Francisco (“Bullitt”-what you know? Also released in 1968, was the greatest to me) and it’s next to “Easy Rider” as the late-60’s movie that pissed me off abd made me wonder, ‘Forget the plot: what is the Message?’

  20. I could never follow what’s going on in Bullitt. And what’s the message?

    Petulia has not one message but many, at least as many as there are characters. Partly it’s about discontentment, though, and how that can explode into violence. Everybody in it has been let down by the promises of the American Dream.

    I don’t think much of Easy Rider except for the songs and the Jack Nicholson bit and the ending. I think that one IS a bit garbled, and I’d say it’s trying to be in vogue, whereas for me Petulia is about capturing a zeitgeist.

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