Archive for James Cameron

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.

Ruhr Wars

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on May 19, 2020 by dcairns

I hadn’t watched DAMBUSTERS all the way through for decades, and so I remembered precisely enjoying the exciting action climax and the quaint-but-cool VFX, sure, remembered that… Remembered really enjoying Michael Redgrave but nothing specific.

Well, Redgrave is worth digging into. “They’ve aged him up,” declared Fiona. True. And Redgrave has made some slight modifications to his delivery and movement to suit an older character, but it’s so subtle it just melts into him and you forget there’s any acting going on. Something like DEAD OF NIGHT — extreme nervousness — allows MR to get showy, but this kind of invisible acting is something he’s also really good at.

Best Redgravian choice is when his moment of triumph comes — a dam is bust — and he doesn’t know how to do a fist-pump (had they been invented?) or he’s too repressed, so he pumps both fists DOWNWARDS as if he’s trying to detach his sleeves. Close to his sides, very repressed jubilation. Marvelous.

It wasn’t until I saw him outside a big shed with a couple cans of film under his arm that I realised this whole thing works as a metaphor for the film biz. Someone has an idea. They work up a proposal and shoot some tests, but they have to get it approved by a damn committee. Through personal connections they manage to catch the ear of a big shot with an office, and then they’re into pre-production. A crew must be selected, or as they call it here, “a crew.” After months of inertia, they suddenly have to get the whole thing together to meet a narrow window of opportunity. Then, having set it in motion, the minds behind it just have to sit back and see how it’s received by its audience (the Germans).

I truly believe the reason Peter Jackson hasn’t done his threatened remake yet is that he can’t decide what to call the dog. And the only reason he wants to make it is to have more realistic splashing. (Just like Cameron clearly wanted to re-re-re-remake the TITANIC story so as to include the detail of the ship snapping in two.)

Fiona, a stranger to the film, was astonished at the abstract effect of the bomb-splashes. An animated outline with shots of the sea inside it. It’s really kind of delightful. I think maybe it’d have been 5% more convincing if the sea was out of focus, and it should have been white water rapids all going UPSCREEN. But it’s adorable.

I pondered whether, by delving more deeply into the less appealing qualities of Wing Commander Guy Gibson, Jackson might be able to get away with giving him a racist dog. Probably not. It’s going to be a distraction whatever you try, and simply renaming the pooch Digger or Tigger or Trigger or Barkie is the least distracting option. People will get over it. And is your three-hour movie going to be accurate in every other respect?

A racist dog.

DAMBUSTERS, as directed by Michael LOGAN’S RUN Anderson is very watchable. The making-a-movie structure is really sound: Barnes Wallace battling committees is surprisingly exciting (following a character who’s right about something and faces opposition, hmm, there might be something in that) and then of course it leads into the operation itself, which is helluva exciting. The only possible hiccup is that you have to hand over from one lead character to another, which is often tricky in films. Redgrave is so much more interesting than Richard Todd that if it weren’t for the ramping-up of jeopardy, and the convenient baton-passing scene, it might not come off.

“The unfortunately-named Burpy,” said Fiona.

“I think it’s ‘Berkeley,'” I told her.

“I’ve been hearing ‘Burpy’ all through this film.”

“Well, he wouldn’t be the only one with an unfortunate name.”

It also struck me that, since Gilbert Taylor shot the effects work, that might be why Kubrick got him to shoot DR. STRANGELOVE — but the best stuff in this is done with real Lancaster bombers — and even Kubrick couldn’t supply real B52s — and with a vast miniature landscape — which wouldn’t have helped Kubrick much — but I would love to stride across it like a bespectacled Gojira — those plane shots in DR. S. always seem slightly disappointing, especially given what would be achieved in SK’s very next film. Oh, and George Lucas must surely have grabbed Taylor as his STAR WARS D.O.P. because of how the Death Star assault is so massively influenced by this.

As director, Michael Anderson’s best thing — apart from close-up of dog-scratches on door, a real hearthrob but probably in the script — is the sudden shock cuts from noise of battle to dead silence in the operations room, and the beautifully composed, near-abstract images there:

THE DAM BUSTERS — which everyone seems to call DAMBUSTERS — stars Dunois, Bastard of Orleans; Col. Eisenstein; Frau von Kalteneck; Claudius – The King; Nathaniel Beenstock; Capt. Edward John Smith; Cavendish ‘The Surveyor’; Quint; Captain Alec Rattray; Lord Alfred Douglas; Tiberius; Tang How – Tong Leader’s Aide; Six-Eyes Wiener; Klove; and Number Six.

Maiden Voyage

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on April 1, 2020 by dcairns

Vol. II of The Shadowcast begins with a voyage on the unsinkable Titanic. There will be shuffleboard, and dancing in steerage.

Dress warm.