Archive for The Fall of Troy

The Sunday Intertitle: Eventide

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 11, 2010 by dcairns

Concluding out short series of silent Italian epics with the mother of them all, CABIRIA.

“It had everything but a plot.” ~ camera assistant Karl Brown’s double-edged review isn’t quite accurate: Gabriele D’Annunzio and Giovanni Pastrone’s script fairly creaks with plot, but it lacks an obvious throughline, since the plight of Cabiria, separated from her rich Roman parents, isn’t the central focus of all the action, and we keep switching to new characters whose importance hasn’t been established. The bit everybody remembers, Cabiria’s rescue by muscleman Maciste from sacrifice to a pagan god, occurs about an hour in and is followed by a whole bunch of new characters appearing and wresting the storyline right off the tracks.

Meanwhile ~ which intertitle do you prefer? I have to deplore the tendency to throw away beautiful old intertitles like the one at top, while adding bland and anachronistic-looking translations. Is subtitling that difficult? The marvelous hand-crafted titles of CABIRIA are part of its overall design. And good design is particularly important here since D’Annunzio’s titles are so damn wordy.

The design also includes things like the spectacular (and uncredited) sets, which inspired Griffith’s INTOLERANCE and its Hollywood Babylon, the special effects by Eugenio Bava (Mario’s dad), including a furiously erupting Mt. Etna, and the gliding camerawork, made possible by Segundo de Chomon’s custom-built dolly, the first of its kind.

The previous Italian super-productions we’ve examined have been both much shorter and much more static, from a camera placement point of view. THE FALL OF TROY provides us with a slow pan, sweeping this way and that to more-or-less follow the action, but Pastrone here attempts something quite new. The purpose of his tracking shots was to explore the sets, which were so big they utterly dwarfed the actors. If you began with an establishing shot, the human figures were practically dots, but a shot framed for the cast would exclude the magnificent backdrops. Pastrone’s goal was to somehow combine an extreme long shot with a more conventional head-to-toe framing (he rarely goes as close as a medium shot).

The effect of the moves is interesting. The settings come alive as three-dimensional constructions (no matte paintings here, just the occasional volcanic miniature) which we can move through, almost like players in a big vidgame. Dramatically, on the other hand, the slow steady drift inwards at the start of almost every scene/shot, and the rhyming drift out at the end, have a slightly flattening effect, making everything seem calm and stately. Even though the plot is three hours of war, torture (much of it censored in most extant copies) and frenetic running around, the mood conjured by Chomon’s steady trundle is one of tranquility.

It was a lesson learned by Griffith, whose chase scenes had often been followed by a car-mounted camera as breathless as the action. Perhaps the Italians didn’t notice that this had the effect of intensifying the mood, since the primary aim was obviously to simply keep the subjects in frame as they motored along. When Griffith made his own ancient world epic, with elephant statues cribbed from Pastrone, he shot Belshazzar’s feast celebrations with two cameras mounted on an elevator, mounted on a track. This prototype of the camera crane allowed him to move in on a single figure amid the cavorting multitude, while dropping from a bird’s eye perspective to one of human level. And the effect has sweep and grandeur, perfectly matched to the emotional mood of the scene.

Nevertheless, CABIRIA was there first, and there’s something interesting and soothing about the way the camera movement reduces the sense of danger that the rest of the film is working to attain. It’s a little like being thrust into CONAN THE BARBARIAN after necking a 10 mg of valium.* And this leads to me to a couple of sweeping generalizations: while American films moved the camera to follow the action and European ones used it to explore space, American films used the emotional power of the movement to emphasize the mood of the scene, while European ones used it to complicate, to add something new. But don’t take that idea too seriously!

*Maciste is at one point tethered to a giant millstone, just like Arnie in the John Milius loincloth extravaganza.

The Sunday Intertitle: Borgnetto and Pastrone attempt a pan

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , on April 4, 2010 by dcairns

THE FALL OF TROY, from 1911, represents a massive advance in scale and sophistication from NERO, OR THE FALL OF ROME, made just a few years earlier. But what it doesn’t have is a greater sense of real involvement with the action, since it’s still played out in a not-too-elaborate version of the tableau style, where the camera observes from a distance as the Italian cast move about and gesticulate. While other film-makers in Europe were moving their cast in depth as well as from side to side, so as to achieve medium shots while still shooting each scene as a static wide without cuts, these Italian epics more or less treat the action as a view from the front of the stalls.

One difference is that the intertitles are a little less anxious to spell out everything we see — in NERO, they tend to “spoil” every scene by telling us the outcome before we’ve had a chance to see the action. That’s a little less the case here, where using more title cards allows the filmmakers to deliver the story in smaller morsels.

But there’s one big moment (among many spectacular scenes) where Luigi Romano Borgnetto and Guiseppe Pastrone (who would go on to make CABIRIA) break out of the static pattern and attempt a pan. Tremulously, they scan the scene of the Greek armada anchored not far from Troy. A swimmer arrives with the news that the Trojans have taken the bait and wheeled the big wood horsie into their citadel. Oddly, rather than panning across the scene with the swimmer, they start on Agamemnon and company, then begin panning off, without obvious motivation. The Greeks suddenly point, as if urging the camera onwards, and we discover the intrepid spy  swimming past the impressive fleet (I think it’s one or two life-sized ships and some big miniatures). Now we follow him back to shore, and even pan back to the nearest ship as it’s prepared for boarding, then back to the Greek army, then back to the ship as they climb aboard.

It’s a mixture of traditional narrative movement, following that which is important to keep it in frame, and something new. When the Italians really got into camera movement, they moved the camera in order to explore the world of the film, rather than to follow the subjects around or to increase the sense of drama in a moment, which were and are the American uses of movement. I think you can still see this approach to the moving camera in Bertolucci, who likes to move without seeming motivation.

But for real dolly shots, you have to wait a week. That’s not so bad, the Italians had to wait three years.

The Sunday Intertitle: Rome Wasn’t Burned in a Day

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on March 28, 2010 by dcairns

NERO; OR, THE FALL OF ROME was a groundbreaking work in its day (1909) –” It’s what I call an epic!” as the lady says in IN A LONELY PLACE. Director Luigi Maggi showered largesse upon his fourteen-minute masterpiece, including producing intertitles in several languages, which is how you can enjoy the movie’s lovely intertitles here in English 101 years later (how time flies!). Incidentally, the Kino copy of this movie on their THE MOVIES BEGIN series is somewhat better preserved than the one I’m taking frame-grabs from here — except it’s missing much of the climactic burning.

We’re in a strange period of film history — most movies are still made in the tableau style, with one big shot per scene, but a few filmmakers are pushing the boat out with interpolated close-ups. Not Maggi! Where he extends the boundaries of film narrative is with his intertitles, which add a layer of sophistication which his gesticulating players cannot attain. But the result is a curiously undramatic form, similar to that in the heavily titled Edison FRANKENSTEIN. Read on…

Maggi’s title cards spell out the basic story beats, which are then enacted by the cast, against a splendid array of multi-perspective backdrops and even an exterior location. This has the effect of making the action of the film a mere addendum to the titles, with the drama a redundant illustration of information we already know. There aren’t many intertitles — the first one tells us that Nero is ditching his wife for Poppea, and then we get three and a half minutes of action showing that this is true. It’s kind of charming, and not like other forms of cinema, but I’m not sure how this innovation could ever be really useful. Trying to find an analogy, I thought of illustrated books, but in a book the sense is carried by the text and the illustrations, perceived by the eye before the text has been devoured, serve as either spoilers or teasers. But Maggi reverses that scheme, with the text as spoiler and the illustration as text.

I’m interested in these Italian epics because they advanced the use of camera movement. Segundo de Chomon, ace innovator, animator and filmmaker, designed the first purpose-built dolly for CABIRIA in 1914, and the Italians used it to explore their gigantic sets. Italian camerawork has arguably been more about exploring screen space than narrative ever since. There’s precisely zero movement in NERO, though. As the films got bigger, the need for the camera to move grew greater. Let’s follow this trend through history over the next few weeks…

Despite featuring no interesting performers, or at any rate no performers who are allowed to register as interesting, and a plot that unfolds in strange spurts of verbiage separated by long passages of unnecessary enactment, NERO is quite entertaining, especially his obscure vision of… what? Hell? The Romans didn’t really have a Hell where the guilty are punished, so I’m not too sure what’s going on here. Maybe that’s Maggi’s greatest, most perverse accomplishment — making a film where everything is explained but major plot points remain quite opaque.

Next week: THE FALL OF TROY!

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