Archive for Gravity

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.

Old Queen Who?

Posted in FILM, literature, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 10, 2022 by dcairns

“I mourn the safe and motherly middle-class queen, who held the nation warm under the folds of her big, hideous Scotch-plaid shawl and whose duration had been so extraordinarily convenient and beneficent. I felt her death much more than I should have expected; she was a sustaining symbol — the wild waters are upon us now.”

Henry James on the death of Queen Victoria, quoted in Erik Larson’s Thunderstruck, which I am currently enjoying. And I’m sure it seems like that to a lot of people now. I like the “big, hideous shawl” line too.

I read Larson’s The Devil in the White City when it first came out — I think I may have actually bought it in an airport en route to New York for the first time? Seems apt — Larson writes airport histories, you might say. But I mean that as a compliment, somehow. Anyway I read that and enjoyed it and then forgot to keep an eye on the author, with the happy result that I now have about seven of his books to read. I’ve hoovered up The Splendid and the Vile (the Blitz) and managed to draw upon it when writing abut THE GREAT DICTATOR; I’ve also enjoyed Dead Wake (the Lusitania) and Isaac’s Storm (the Galveston hurricane disaster of 1900). There’s usually a small film connection to keep me happy: one of the witnesses to the destruction of Galveston was a small boy named King Vidor.

I recall being bewildered that Leonardo DiCaprio was buying the rights to Devil in the White City — the book doesn’t contain a lot of what you’d call dramatic scenes, though it’s a very dramatic, exciting read. I feel like LDC got bamboozled into buying an unfilmable book, though now, finally, the thing seems to be moving towards production as a miniseries. That work tells in parallel the stories of the murderer HH Holmes and the creation of the Chicago World Fair of 1894. My current read, Thunderstruck, has a similar structure, following Marconi’s development of wireless, and Dr. Crippen’s less salutary life, destined to collide with the Italian inventor’s creation.

In other news — we’re going to the pictures! This has become a somewhat irregular event. The occasion is JAWS in 3D IMAX. I’m excited by the IMAX, a little nervous about the 3D. I haven’t seen any fake 3D movies, I’ve refused to. Although GRAVITY is sort of a fake 3D movie and I love that. What I mean is I haven’t seen any movies not originally designed to be seen in 3D. But I love 3D. I’ve just paused Wim Wenders’ PINA, on flat DVD. I’m a little cross that Edinburgh Filmhouse never deigned to screen that one, to my knowledge, in three dimensions. They invested in the chargeable electric glasses system, then decided their audience didn’t like 3D and stopped using it. Tsk. I thought *I* was their audience! I’m crazy about the third dimension, I practically live there.

PINA is very enjoyable so far — I love the dancing. The filming is fine. Editing less so. But I wish I could see the missing dimension.

The Do-Over

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 17, 2019 by dcairns

Firstly, don’t read this if you haven’t seen ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD yet and are planning to. I will discuss the ending. The first review I read was in The Guardian where they coyly described it as “audacious” and said they could reveal no more, and I immediately flashed on what it could be and was correct.

Oh, potential spoilers for INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS and GRAVITY also.

Fiona turned to me with her adorable WTF? face when this one revealed its hand, an expression I recall from the similar moment in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (and from GRAVITY, where it seemed, in the moment, impossible that a certain actor could be exiting the picture midway). But she explained afterwards that it wasn’t that her mind was blown by this twist, but that Tarantino was brazenly recycling the twist from IB (“What we must never do,” says Jake Hannaford, that wise and wizened old goat, “is steal from ourselves.”)

“What’s the POINT?” she wanted to know.

First section of movie: skilled recreation of 1969 LA. Some very good lookalikes and performances from people playing Bruce Lee, Steve McQueen (sympathetic here, “an asshole” in Polanski’s opinion, and I take him to be a fine judge of that quality with special insight), Connie Stevens (!), James Stacy (?), Charles Manson, though they needed a Polanski who looks more like a twelve-year-old (though Rafal Zawierucha does good Polanskian grunts of disgust). Product placement of defunct and/or fictional products. An evocation of the plight of the actor on the slide, both sympathetic and skeptical. Numerous lingering and lascivious shots of young girls’ feet.

Paul Duane, on Twitter, seemed to like the same parts of the film I did, and noted: “I was relieved about one thing: no grandstanding QT monologues.” Well, Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) gets one grandstanding m., but it’s supposed to make us want to see him get punched, so yes, that does feel like QT has figured something out about the way audiences process the grandstanding m.

Incidentally, this is a very white film. Which makes the casual racism (“Don’t cry in front of the Mexicans”) harder to excuse — sure, I buy it as accurate to the period, but it also means the film can be enjoyed by racists without anything to give them cognitive dissonance and we have TWO scenes of white, fair-haired people defeating Chinese people in fights — Brad Pitt and the actual Sharon Tate in THE WRECKING CREW, knocking out Nancy Kwan. Though I was glad of the cutaways of Lee training the movie’s Tate (Margot Robbie), which allows him to close out his role on a positive note, like Travolta in PULP FICTION, who buts for that film’s playful structure would make his concluding appearance dead on the toilet with an inferior paperback thriller by his side.

For about the ninth time running, I was disturbed by Tarantino’s compulsion to make his characters assholes. His impulse to save the inhabitants of Cielo Drive is sort of sweet, sort of adolescent, but certainly tainted by the way he does it — with an alternate, counter-historical bloodbath, a cathartic outburst of movie violence, performed by a hippy-hating alcoholic actor and a possible wife-killer.

Leo’s character gets an ego-boosting compliment from a child actor — and doesn’t return the compliment. Is it because he’s an asshole and QT wants us to notice that, or because he didn’t think about it? Hard to know.

Tarantino said at the time of NATURAL BORN KILLERS that he hated serial killers and thought the right thing to do was execute them, and he hated them even worse for that because he was in all other respects opposed to the death penalty. I can understand that.

I think what’s going on with these alt histories is maybe that Tarantino hates the Holocaust and the Manson killings because they take the fun out of fictional violence, if you really think about them. So wouldn’t it be nice to replace them with fictional violence, take a fantasy revenge on the perpetrators, numb the pain of the real-world horror? Well, no. The only part of this I can approve of is the undercutting of the pseudo-catharsis with fantastical absurdity (the handy flame thrower in the garage), reminding us, in Bokononist fashion, that we’re being given a comforting lie.

MY version of a happy ending to this story would be one in which NOBODY gets hurt. I can feel the visceral energy of the manic gonzo mayhem but I don’t want it or need it in this context.

I think I can get another post out of this movie’s movie allusions, though… so I will.