Archive for Alfonso Cuaron

Towards a 3D Aesthetic

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 22, 2022 by dcairns


“The cinema of the future will be in colour and three dimensions, since life is in colour and three dimensions,” said Erich Von Stroheim, probably adding, “and everyone will wear authentic period underwear.” First, let me say that Von’s well-documented knicker fetish may have been in operation when he insisted on his extras wearing the right undies, but the right underclothes affect how the outer clothes appear, and so he wasn’t being crazy or perverse to insist on absolute authenticity. I imagine in 3D it would be even more important. Oh yes, 3D, that’s what I was supposed to be writing about.

In AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER, there’s an action sequence in which one of the youngsters is pursued by an alien shark-thing. What makes it particularly effective is the way our cyanated hero hides amid coral outcrops which the predatory fish tries to bash through. Whenever 3D is particularly effective, it gives us a clue as to what it might be FOR. Here, we have a situation in which at least three visual layers are dramatically activated — the hero’s, the shark-thing’s, and the intervening coral, for starters. The far distance is a passive element but does add immersion. Also, we’re literally immersed, underwater you know — so there’s the possibility for floating particles and smaller fish to decorate the frame and keep our eyeballs excited, And, as the hero swims backwards away from the threat, the camera moves with him and so new coral outcrops come heaving into view, surprising us.

Two things are happening — the concept of DEPTH is important to the action — the distance between blue boy and shark-thing is an actual matter of life and death — and the excitement is enhanced by a lot of foreground and midground activity.

It’s a shame that the talkie scenes in ATWOW are so choppy and random, because it seems to me that at least some of the same principles could be enlisted for dramatic dialogue sequences.

Hitchcock’s DIAL M FOR MURDER tries to keep its long expository scenes lively by enlisting the foreground — there are more shots from behind lamps here than in THE IPCRESS FILE, and with seemingly less reason. TIF was a spy film, so the camera behaved like a spy. DMFM is a filmed play, and so Hitch settles for reminding us of the 3D to get a “you are there” quality, suggesting but not actually recapturing the thrill of live performance. But in the standout scene, the murder attempt on Grace Kelly, again depth becomes almost a character — the would-be strangler lurks behind her, murderous sash in hands, but she’s holding the telephone to her ear and he has to wait until her hand’s out of the way.

I promise this isn’t just a list of cool 3D sequences. It IS that, but each of them is nudging us towards an appreciation of what the form can do. I’m also going to mention some flat scenes that seem like they might work really well with the added dimension.

The AVATAR film has a lot of forwards camera movement. This is pretty effective in a forest, but sideways movement — as I pointed out regarding FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN — can be better. (I tend to suspect the film’s visual pleasures derive more from Antonio Marghertiti than from credited helmer Paul Morrissey.) The thing about forward movement is that it already feels three dimensional, because of the way the perspective changes. An exponential zoom or trombone shot might look really neat though. In Welles’ CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT a sudden lateral tracking shot in a forest sets of a shimmer of captivating motion, because the foreground trees are passing the camera rapidly, the midground ones more slowly, and the far distant ones slower still. The different layers overtaking one another. It’s rapturous. I don’t want upscaling to 3D, but I do want filmmakers to borrow the right kinds of scenes for new 3D movies.

(Welles doesn’t NEED 3D, his films are so lively, dimensional, vigorous in all their pan-focus deep staging, but it’s fascinating to imagine what he might have come up with. The Michael Redgrave curiosity shop in ARKADIN would be momentous in depth.)

The Wim Wenders production CATHEDRALS OF CULTURE dealt with “the soul of buildings” — lots of tracking shots down hallways, none of them very effective — until we got a curved hallway, and then things got interesting. So it seems that straightahead single vanishing-point shots of the Kubrick variety are less effective than oblique, curving approaches. Ophuls would be the guy to look at for inspiration, or the Italians.

“The best inside-a-mouth shot I ever saw was in JAWS 3D,” said Martin Scorsese in Edinburgh, “A shark eating its victim, filmed from the inside, in 3D — a new low in taste!” And I believed him, until a friend told me it was the one effective spot in the film — a diver is swallowed whole and trapped in the shark — if he tries to swim out, he’ll be bitten in two. It puts you on the spot. And apparently Cameron’s seen that one, because he has a protag swim into a whale-thing’s mouth in ATWOW, there to mind-meld with its Day-Glo epiglottis.

My favourite shot in Joe Dante’s THE HOLE is when a kid lies on his back and throws a baseball in the air, catching it, re-throwing it. The camera is overhead, so the ball flies towards us, runs out of momentum, pauses, and drops away again. It provoked a gleeful reaction from the audience. It’s sort of decorative, I guess, but it’s not only permissible but desirable for a filmmaker to explore the visual possibilities of a situation. 3D seems to kick in on the second or third film, once the filmmakers’ have gotten used to it and have worn out the obvious ploys. Dante had shot a stereoscopic funfair ride prior to this one. Other filmmakers who have paid more than one visit to the third dimension are Cameron, Fleischer, Oboler, Arnold, Ridley Scott. Not sure Zemeckis ever improved. One issue is that the medium, if that’s what it is, hasn’t always been in the hands of the most expressive or adventurous filmmakers. William Castle! Lew Landers! Pete Walker! Harry Fucking Essex!

Throwing things at the audience has never really been the best way to get an effect. In CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, the best stuff tends to be slower — the slo-mo explosion at the start is exciting because you have time to appreciate the balletic motion of the rocks tumbling at you through space — it looks forward to the joy of GRAVITY, still the best 3D movie I’ve seen. All the same, I feel sorry for the creature.

(My enjoyment of moving vehicles in ATWOW doesn’t extend to the boat in CREATURE, probably because it’s standing still in front of a rear projection screen — the action feels like a couple of flat layers, something you might see in a toy theatre.)

Alfonso Cuaron’s space epic was the first film I ever saw in 3D that actually made me flinch, whenever bits of tiny space shrapnel zinged past. Interestingly, they got the effect by NOT firing them right at me. I was involuntarily blinking, and having more fun doing so than I ever did in a real life experience. But the movie’s true pleasure was in slower action — when Sandra Bullock, spacewalking, is in danger of losing a vital tool, Fiona actually reached up to grab the astro-spanner or whatever it was before it escaped. One again, space and distance were dramatically in play, and the 3D enhanced the fact.

A sequence that would work magnificently in three dimensions is the attack on the big car in Cuaron’s previous CHILDREN OF MEN. It’s already a (fake) long take, an aesthetic that suits the medium, not for the moving camera aspect so much as for the pleasure of looking at depth photography for long enough to appreciate its visual pleasures. And it’s a moving vehicle interior, something that works magnificently in ATWOW for the few seconds Cameron allows us in his helicopter gunships. It’s slightly mysterious already how Cuaron’s long take seems to enhance the terror of the occupants of the besieged car — maybe it has more to do with the fact that we don’t go outside, so we really feel trapped in the situation. The long take becomes an excuse for an excitingly restricted viewpoint. In 3D, we’d have all kinds of moving parts on different planes, mindblowing overstimulation for the eyeball combined with panicky confinement and a lot of urgency from the cast of actors we’re locked in with.

Scorsese may be the most visually imaginative director to use 3D, perhaps next to Godard (I’ve never had a chance to see ADIEU AU LANGAGE in 3D and get the headache JLG planned for me). I love HUGO — maybe it’s seriously imperfect as a film but it gets value for money from it’s visual depth. Lots of cinders and dust motes in the air — lovely. Two great close-ups, one where Sacha Baron Cohen looms ever closer to us, his nose an accusation, another where we move slowly in on Ben Kinglsey, his face becoming more and more dimensionally solid, hovering before us, enormous, like one of those Easter Island jobs but alive and responsive. You get to experience a very very familiar thing, the human face, in a new way — and seeing things afresh is a big part of what art is about.

It’s possible Scorsese was influenced by the opening of William Camron Menzies’ THE MAZE, in which a female narrator talks to camera while slowly advancing upon us. It gets increasingly freaky but also hilarious. It would be interesting to see more deliberately funny 3D — I wonder what could be done with visual gags. Keaton, Lester and Tati sometimes made comedy about the camera’s INABILITY to correctly judge distance: Buster would make mistakes like jumping on the wrong horse which only make sense from the camera’s position, not from his. I wonder what he might do with a genuine sense of depth?

Height may be the dimension filmmakers forget about. The early desert landscapes of Douglas Sirk’s TAZA, SON OF COCHISE are breathtaking, because they arrange the action in cascading planes / plains. The scene with the lineman up the pylon in Jack Arnold’s IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE are similarly thrilling — Arnold, not normally the most inventive filmmaker, was sensitive enough to keep learning, and he got to make more 3D movies in the 50s than just about anyone. Something about these high angles really works for me — a sense of vertigo, dramatic space, multiple active layers.

I’m still cross I never got to see PINA in 3D — I suppose I could have forgone my snobbery and seen one of those other 3D dancing films. It seems like a good medium for dance, though KISS ME KATE doesn’t prove anything either way. It’d be a great medium for scultpure also, but so far the closest thing to that is Herzog’s CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS, which gets most of its best effects out of the shallow curvature of cave walls, a lovely and counterintuitive exploitation of the medium’s possibilities. In a flat film, camera movement makes sculpture appreciable, but 3D would work very nicely with or in place of tracking shots. Somebody should have done Henry Moore.

The pornographers were not slow to seize upon the form, but without any distinguished results that I’m aware of. It seems possible that 3D could amplify what Billy Wilder called “flesh impact.” The kind of shot that would work would be Ursula Andress emerging from the sea in DR. NO. A variation on the sculptural principle. Just as good with men — Daniel Craig would do well. And the sculptural approach could enhance physiognomic interest, as we see in HUGO. A long examination of an interesting face — Brendan Gleeson would be a gift to the stereographer. Linda Hunt. A few young actors are also interesting, even if their features lack the distinguishing crenellations: Anya Taylor-Joy, Thomas Brodie-Sangster. Or Beany and Cecil?

What this seems to show is that the uses of 3D might be quite specific. I think James Cameron imagines, like Stroheim, that all movies should be 3D movies. But we don’t want to go to the trouble of putting the specs on for just anything (I see they finally invented clip-ons for glasses wearers like me — the medium finally catches up with its audience’s needs, just before it rolls over and dies). I’d say that if a film naturally has a few highlights that really benefit from a 3D approach, it might be worth going that route, and then modifying the script slightly to make sure there are more worthwhile opportunities.

Without getting too silly about it.

Science Fiction Double Feature

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , on September 1, 2013 by dcairns


Jonathan Glazer’s UNDER THE SKIN, somewhat loosely adapted from the Michel Faber novel, screened at the New Sheridan Opera House in Telluride today — an amazing building which immediately makes one feel like Lily Langtry upon entering.

I found the film quite impressive, but baffling, which I think is intentional. Stripping away all the explanatory content of the novel and representing some key action in a rather abstract way, the movie depends more on imagery and eerie music and sound design than on narrative, character development or dialogue. It was particularly nice to see it in the US where 90% of the dialogue, delivered in strong Glasgow patois, must have been entirely incomprehensible. The gloomy Glasgow street scenes did not make me feel homesick (West George Street, earlier seen in CLOUD ATLAS doubling for San Francisco, and in Bertrand Tavernier’s DEATHWATCH, must be Glasgow’s most science-fictional location now).

Scarlett Johansson plays an alien, sent to Earth to seduce men, who are then abducted and — what, exactly? Fans of the book will probably be dismayed that the clear, procedural horror of the story concept is rendered vague and abstract here — still very disturbing at times, but much harder to assign meaning to. Fans of S.J. may to busy ogling her exposed skin to notice — the movie is, in a sense, structured as a strip-tease, with an unpleasant final ta-daa that takes the movie’s title rather literally…

Johanssen is good — very intriguing — but the film doesn’t allow us to understand her motivations. Glazer talked about wanting to show the world through alien eyes, but because the plot is so obscure, it’s perhaps more a case of watching an alien through human eyes.


Alfonso Cuaron’s GRAVITY is likely to be less divisive — a sweaty-palm suspense movie which is also a spiritual odyssey and an audio-visual-tactile exploration of space travel, it delivers a conventional three-act structure and character arc with such conviction and panache as to make old-fashioned storytelling seem more daring than Glazer’s obfuscation. Screened at the new Werner Herzog Theater, it benefited from astonishing sound and picture quality which enhanced Cuaron’s long-take aesthetic — the movie produces constant gasps via pure film technique and artful deployment of bleeding edge FX technology, but uses this in support of the human element — starry yet convincing performances from Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. It’s particularly a relief to see Bullock in something that isn’t embarrassing, at last. I’d almost forgotten what a strong and engaging performer she is — she works wonders here, and though Clooney fans will surely love what he does, it’s her film.

The 3D is utilized with grace and audacity, in this film in which every single shot — and there are apparently only 37 — is a special effect. A sequence of space debris flashing into the camera had me repeatedly flinching — not jumping in COMIN’ AT YA! shock, but compulsively blinking as if to avoid space dust getting in my eyes. The rest of the time the 3D is mainly used to enhance the illusion of floating in zero G — we get teardrops and a Marvin the Martian doll and numerous other bits of detritus drifting between us and the cast. It’s beautiful, but also incredibly exciting — a series of terrifying suspense scenarios that escalate as the film goes on. Quite the most remarkable major studio release I’ve seen in a long time.

Paris Je T’Olerate

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 8, 2008 by dcairns

Paris, France 

PARIS JE T’AIME is a compendium film of shorts directed by various international film industry luminaries, on a theme made explicit by the title. If I describe it as a mixed bag, I won’t really be saying anything at all — these things are ALWAYS mixed.

For some reason they’re generally kind of nice though, even if the weak segments outnumber the good. You have the pleasure of knowing that however bad the current bit is, something if not better, at least DIFFERENT will be along soon.

Waiting for Godard

I sort-of enjoyed the typically pointless Coen bros episode with Steve Buscemi committing the fatal error of establishing eye contact in the Tuileries, the Alfonso Cuaron long-take exercise with an extravagantly shambling Nick Nolte, the Gus Van Sant meet-cute (is acceptable to simply recycle romcom cliches only with gay characters? Anyhow it was very nicely directed), the Nobuhiro Suwa yarn with Willem Dafoe as a phantom cowboy in the Place de la Victoires, the usual sort-of aimless but inexplicably compelling Olivier Assayas, and the Richard LaGravanese, which like many of the films was content to rely ENTIRELY on star power rather than actual ideas, but knew how to use its stars (and Fanny Ardant speaking English is a SENSATION! Bob Hoskins speaking French is…weird, but sweet, somehow).

The above segments passed the time, but seemed woefully unambitious if you stopped to think about it. If the filmmakers had had to write, shoot and edit them inside a week, I would have said they’d done a decent job within the restrictions. But I can’t really justify anybody spending any greater amount of time on such lightweight pieces.

I’ve enjoyed Vincenzo Natali’s features CUBE and CYPHER, but his piece was kind of embarrassing. I mean, he achieved a look that was distinct from all the other films (nobody else quite did this) but unfortunately it was a heavily CGI paintbox look, and after the establishing shots he somehow forgot to actually feature Paris.

Isabel Coixet actually achieves something impressive and moving in her section, which suddenly stands out from the preceding episodes as result. It also brings real imagination to its storytelling, as opposed to the mannerisms of Tom Tykwer. That guy’s getting to be like a bad Wim Wenders for the MTV generation.

Depardieu’s co-directed bit irked the hell out of me. It was nice seeing Ben Gazzara and Gena Rowlands again, but REALLY: filming two people sat at a restaurant table is one of the simpler tasks a director can have, as far as mise en scene goes, unless they choose to make it complicated. Depardieu and his stooge manage to cross the line for no reason almost immediately, and thereafter randomly alternate shot sizes, creating a meaningless jumble of shots that distract from the generally fine performances. What’s irritating is that somebody with no directorial sense whatever has been handed a chance to show off his lack of ability in front of a wide audience, when the job could have been given to a talented short filmmaker or an experienced pro.

Christopher Doyle put together some nice visuals for his episode but forgot to come up with a coherent idea.

I was fairly charmed by the Sylvain Chomet mime story, which I thought bode fairly well for his Tati project: Chomet can do live action, it seems. I was curious as to whether he’d seen my clown movie, though, since he lives just outside Edinburgh. Not that he’s stolen ANYTHING, mind you, but the idea of clowns/mimes as a persecuted minority is a tad close. If I had anything to do with inspiring him I’d be very happy.

Paris Qui Mort

Oliver Schmitz, like Coixet, got some emotional involvement into his story, and it was pretty cleverly constructed. I thought it spelled everything out too carefully at the end, instead of trusting the audience, though.

I loved the Alexander Payne, which makes me feel part of the great mass of humanity since everybody else does too. It manages a real JOURNEY, where the flat, horribly-accented narration of the frowsy middle-aged American tourist, in flat schoolgirl French, suddenly stops being a distanciation device and becomes tremendously affecting.

Several episodes were not really interesting enough to even mention.

But I’m still FURIOUS about episode 2, Gurinder Chadha’s Quais des Seine. Partly it’s because Chadha’s flying the flag for Britain here, so I would’ve liked to see something inspirational. Mainly it’s because her piece manages to encapsulate about half of what I hate about modern British film. Admittedly, she isn’t out to give the audience a hard time for no reason, or rub our noses in gritty realism as “a cheap holiday in other people’s misery” (to use Johnny Lydon’s phrase), but her piece is the very embodiment of the new Tradition of Quality, Social Realism Lite. Visually uninspired to migraine-inducing levels, banal, preachy, inane, actively uninterested in exploring nuance or complexity or ambiguity or shading, this “film” sets out to teach the ignorant masses that (a) boys shouldn’t shout abuse at girls because it isn’t endearing, and (b) Muslims are people too. That’s it. Both messages are prettily illustrated and then spelled out in dialogue form in case we missed it. And while I agree with both statements, neither strikes me as worth dramatising, for reasons that should be perfectly obvious.

Je Deteste

The overall effect is to suggest that British filmmakers are stuck somewhere in the era of Cecil Hepworth, presenting pat homilies and shunning the cinematic in favour of the photogenic. When you compare this piece to what’s being done in practically every other country in the world, it is SHAMEFUL. Chadha had the chance to connect to the great works of British cinema, or Indian cinema, or French cinema. What she’s achieved might just serve to pass the time between highlights on an episode of Eastenders.


BUT! Coming soon, I will have some good news about British cinema…