Archive for Raskolnikov

Dress to camera

Posted in FILM, literature, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 11, 2020 by dcairns

I have this neat little book by filmmaker Tony Bills called Movie Speak — it’s a guide to the language used on film sets, stuff I often don’t know because I hardly ever get to be on a film set. “Dress to camera” means to arrange a prop or person to see it best, usually by moving it into frame. The word “cheat” is also used a lot for this, that’s the one I know. You have a perfect composition of a guy leaning on a desk but you want to see the telephone, but it’s not visible, so you get the props guy to slide it into view, a deliberate continuity error which you’re confident you can get away with because the angle is so different from the wide shot, or because you haven’t established the position of the phone yet.

Walter Murch says some good stuff somewhere about hieroglyphs, or anywat about ancient Egyptian figure drawing. People look kind of odd in these things, and he says it’s because they arranged the body parts into their most recognizable aspect. The body and limbs are frontal so you can see the shape and the number of limbs, but the feet sideways so you can see how the feet stick out. The hands are turned in a way that’s not impossible but not exactly natural, so you can distinguish the fingers. The heads are sideways so you can see what a nose is.

Murch says that the way editing fragments space and people is arguable a means of achieving the same goal: showing everything in its most recognisable, or maybe most dramatic aspect.

The most extreme example of this might be Edgar Ulmer’s description of the German expressionists building a whole different set for every camera angle — something I doubt they ever did, at least not consistently. But, given unlimited resources, for that kind of look it might make sense.

Josef Von Sternberg writes in his memoir that when he was an assistant, his director told him to never arrange a chair onscreen in such a way that one leg was behind another, because it would look like it had three legs and some idiot in the audience would get distracted waiting for it to fall over. He seems to take this notion pretty seriously. I think it should be taken seriously but not literally — it’s not primarily a lesson about chair photography, it can apply to everything. Dress to camera.

And this leads me to Murnau’s important advice to Hitchcock: “Remember, it doesn’t matter what’s on set, only what the camera sees.” And my cinematographer friend Scott Ward’s dictum, “Nothing in film is any good unless you can photograph it.” That’s not wholly true, it ignores sound, and the things which can be suggested or inferred. But he said it in the context of a TV show where someone had proposed having four characters wear shiny helmets which would have reflected the entire crew and everything behind the camera, so I think he was definitely onto something.

The Sunday Intertitle: You Raskol, you

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on August 21, 2011 by dcairns

Thanks to Neil McGlone for RASKOLNIKOV, admittedly jumped-around by random splices that teleport its cast short distances, and intertitled in a schizoid mix of Russian and Italian, just two of the many languages I don’t speak. But this film is so consistently hard to see, I’m grateful for an opportunity.

Robert Weine’s expressionist take on Crime and Punishment suffers an almost unique disparity between its prominence in all the literature on German cinema, and its frustrating unavailability on DVD and on the repertory circuit. Is this the result of some unspoken value judgement, silently declaring the film to be less interesting than its design, less significant than its place in history? A possible basis for such a dismissal lies in the undoubted fact that German expressionism and Dostoevsky are unlikely bedfellows. True, one must accept that the movie adopts the bare bones of the novel’s plot and doesn’t really attempt its nuance or depth: that being the case, we have to overlook its failings as an adaptation and consider what it achieves in its own right.

KOWMAP — Russian for “nightmare”? If so, how apt that would be! A map drawn by a cow would be a geographical nightmare indeed!

And what is that? Given my inability to read the intertitles, my findings are only preliminary, but I’d hold the film’s sheer visual beauty up as its prime virtue. More solid and less painterly than Weine’s earlier CALIGARI, it serves up a constant stream of striking images, setting its tale in an expressionist-constructionist St Petersburg of jumbled, off-kilter shapes. The actors hue to a roughly naturalistic style, somehow moving through the jutting diagonals without producing too violent a clash, although all interaction with the zany UPA-meets-UFA doors is fraught with peril. The Big Idea is obviously to portray Raskolnikov’s world as a nightmare, a slightly inflexible approach which struggles to accommodate subtleties —

For instance, here’s the stairway to the pawnbroker’s flat (above).

And here’s the same stairway in Raskolnikov’s nightmare, after he’s murdered the pawnbroker. Both sets and shots are wondrously striking, of course, but there’s something oddly unsatisfactory about the very idea of an expressionist nightmare version of something that’s already an expressionist nightmare.

By contrast, the scenes involving Detective Porfiry are relatively restrained — the angles are still skewed, but the structures within the police station mainly look as if they might actually belong to a real, non-avant garde building, reflecting the character’s status as an avatar of rationality. While outside, all is chaos ~

I guess the problem with all of this is that it’s vague and amorphous where the novel is clear and specific. In the book, Raskolnokov’s troubles stem from poverty (or that’s certainly how he sees it), which Weine can’t convincingly evoke on his shattered-mirror stages. The novel’s character has nightmares that reflect upon and deepen the central narrative in the allusive way typical of real dreams, while the movie’s character has nightmares which replay scenes we’ve already witnessed, only with even wonkier walls.

None of which stops the film being a jagged visual feast, and more than worthy of a full Institute Murnau-Stiftung type restoration and re-release. Are you listening, Herr Stiftung?