“Where’s your compassion?”
“Nowhere YOU can get at it!”
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?
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?