Not a Director

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It was kind of sad that TRANSCENDENCE didn’t find an audience, excited almost no interest, it seemed. An unconventional, ideas-based sci-fi film should be of interest, and you’d think the Christopher Nolan connectuon would be enough to ensure it opened. But no.

So it seems unfair to pick on it, especially since I couldn’t actually bring myself to sit through it all. Writing about a film you haven#t watched is extremely bad form. I can’t offer a review of its merits as a film, but it did strike me that one early scene indicated fairly clearly that Wally Pfister, an able cinematographer, was uncomfortable in the director’s chair, like a man in very slidey silk pantaloons.

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Cillian Murphy asks to see Johnny Depp’s supercomputer. So they go to see it. Morgan Freeman and Rebecca Hall come along too. In an establishing shot, with the camera creeping slowly forward down an aisle of humming technology, we see the characters enter.

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And then… nothing. Murphy advances, hits his mark, and stops. The others do the same, arranging into a laundry line composition which can then be cut up into a couple of two shots. The most interesting aspectis that Murphy’s body faces away from the other characters but he turns his face towards them. This is only because the computer interface is in front of him, but we never get a very clear sense of this.

What’s strikingly wrong is that Murphy has come to see something, yet he seems remarkably incurious. He doesn’t look around, he just stops, almost as if there were a chalk mark on the floor, and talks, failing to find a seat or a wall to lean against, or else to walk around and see what’s what. It feels stiff and unnatural. (This is the first film ever in which Rebecca Hall has struggled to bring a lively sense of natural behaviour to a character.)

We also get a couple different sized shots of a computer terminal which Murphy talks to. One shot includes a bit of foreground shoulder, which helps us figure out where it is, but if this is part of a whole wall that Murphy is looking at it might be nice to see more of what he sees.

Others, including David Bordwell, have given precise analyses of the Nolan style, which has only a few strategies for filming talk — the characters stand or sit still and we cut around them, or we track around them, or we track in on one of them as he says something ominous/bad-ass. Those might, on the face of it, seem like the key ways a camera can look at a subject, but if you actually allow the characters to go where they might choose to go if they were real people, a whole wealth of opportunities open up, visually. Or, you could say, a whole wealth of problems, which is how the fearful or inexperienced director might see it. Maybe if Pfister had more experience with other really able directors, he would be freer and more versatile. It’s notable that whenever his shots don’t feature actors, he’s much more inventive.

I wouldn’t give up on him ye, even though I gave up on this film. But I did say on Facebook, “Many films fail the Bechtel test. This is the first to fail the Turing test.”

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8 Responses to “Not a Director”

  1. Murphy is an utterly fascinating actor. His facial features are downright pretty yet in overall body language he’s very much “a lad.”
    He’s Beyond Brilliant in Breakfast On Pluto. And he’s a great interview.

  2. Seems a bit flippant, but I was surprised Wally Pfister kept choosing compositions that emphasised how short all his actors were. I always assumed Rebecca Hall was tall, but she’s shorter than Cillian Murphy, and Murphy is like a child next to some of the other actors. Oddly reminded me of Ivan Reitman’s “Dave” where, after years of being a man mountain for James Cameron, a clumsily shot cameo revealed Arnold Schwarzenegger to be smaller than Kevin Kline.

  3. Among stiff and hilarious competition, this was hands down the worst trailer of the year for me. No, I haven’t seen it either, but I’ll stick my neck out and say the story looks like a bunch of ideas rejected from Superman 3 – I love that Johnny Depp’s avatar looks ill.
    There is a great gag in Captain America 2 where -SPOILERS – Cap punches Toby Jones’ eighties nazi supercomputer in the monitor-face, and the face just pops up on another monitor because that’s not how you kill a computer. I genuinely think you would love Captain America 2, David C. Jenny Agutter and Robert Redford have a kung fu fight in it.

  4. Oh goodie! The Agutter cameo from The Avengers pays off — in spades!

    It’s on my rental list.

    The trailer makes Transcendence look much more dynamic and interesting than it is.

    I like Cillian Murphy. His Scarecrow is the best bit of acting in any of the Nolan Batmans, a proper scary villain. It was always nice when he cameo’d in the sequels. He’s wasted in “normal” roles — a weird, disconcerting failed everyman in 28 Days Later with his wispy beard. He deserves a really peculiar leading man role again, building on his ace work in Pluto.

    Fiona: “I fancy him, but only in drag.”

  5. Nearly 20 years ago the hubby and I were presenting a play during the Edinburgh festival (at the Traverse Theatre), and by one of those happy chances of programming our show was followed, every evening, by the Enda Walsh play Disco Pigs, starring Murphy and Eileen Walsh (no relation to Enda). One night, prompted by rave reviews, we stayed after our performance had finished in order to watch Walsh’s play… Murphy scorched that stage like a thunderbolt, and as my husband remarked, “I feel if I quit the theatre tomorrow, the future would be in brilliant hands as long as there are boys like Murphy around.” And my god, his performance energy was radiantly sexual. And he seemed utterly unconscious of the fact. And off stage, in the theatre bar before and after the show, he was completely adorable and clearly bemused – bewildered, even – by the attention his performance was receiving from press and public.

  6. “Fiona: “I fancy him, but only in drag.” ”

    Then you should seek out Peacock from 2010 in which he stars with Susan Sarandon, Ellen Page and Keith Carradine (if you haven’t already).

  7. Nice cast! We shall do so.

    I’m sorry I missed his Traverse show back then.

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