Archive for William Cameron Menzies

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.

Sparring Filchers

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on July 2, 2021 by dcairns

THE NOTORIOUS SOPHIE LANG is only just a pre-code, but it’s a pre-code to the core, dealing as it does with a couple of competing jewel thieves. The title character is played by Gertrude Michael with a good deal of skill and charisma — the plot requires her to assume fake identities and GM is fully up to the task of putting on a Garbo voice and so on. Her romantic partner / competitor, Paul Cavanagh, is blander, but still capable. Best of all, Sophie has a long-suffering sidekick played by Alison Skipworth, who is always good value.

Co-directed by Ralph Murphy and William Cameron Menzies under what circumstances I know not — need to get the Menzies bio! — this looks cheap but is crammed with improbable twists and moves at a good lick. When circumstances force our heroine to flee across rooftops in just her undies, she drops through a skylight and lands in the dressing room of a fashion show, surrounded by other women in their undies. The coincidence is ridiculous but the movie wins points for coming up with some kind of a solution, and for showing us lots of women in their undies (apparently Ann Sheridan is in there somewhere, paying the bills while losing her Texas accent).

We don’t get any of Menzies’ more vertiginous compositions: the main stylistic device is a quick pan in wide shot from one half of the set to the other, a way of adding verve while saving time.

I realise I’ve seen the star in multiple films but she was always in the background of someone like Mae West, whom you can’t look away from and who didn’t give anyone else good lines. Away from that kind of gravitational pull, she’s zesty and appealing.

There was an attempt to spin Sophie into a series, but the code had kicked in so she couldn’t steal any jewels, which must have taken some of the fun out. Also, they couldn’t tempt Skipworth back.

THE NOTORIOUS SOPHIE LANG stars Calpurnia; Lord Penrose; Sir Joseph Whemple; Miss Mabel Jellyman; Lord Basil Epping; Apartment Thug (uncredited); Mr. Throstle; Prof. Summerlee; and Randy Monaghan.

The Sunday Intertitle: A Marvelous Second Husband

Posted in Fashion, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 7, 2018 by dcairns

What I need is the John Baxter’s Josef Von Sternberg biography, but it seems to not exist — online searches prove futile. Like it’s been unwritten out of existence. If I had a copy, I’d be looking into the rumour of his involvement in CHILDREN OF DIVORCE (1927), which is credited to Frank Lloyd. Sternberg himself, speaking to Kevin Brownlow I believe it was, plausibly and emphatically denied any involvement.* If anyone out there has a copy of Baxter’s bio, please check the index for me.

I decided to watch the film, an elegant if soapy melodrama starring Clara Bow, Esther Ralston and Gary Cooper, to see if I could detect any trace of the Sternbergian. This task was complicated by the fact that Frank Lloyd, while no visual genius or poet of kitsch, was no slouch either, and seems quite capable of coming up with a few baroque moments of his own. He has a fine, elegant style, for a Glaswegian.

The film’s first dramatic image occurs in the Parisian orphanage where two of the titular COD wind up. The mini-Clara is frightened about spending her first night amid these expressionistic shadows, as what COD wouldn’t be? This doesn’t particularly scream “Sternberg!” but it does scream “storyboard!” It’s more reminiscent of the kind of thing William Cameron Menzies would come up with. And indeed the film has no credits for production designer or art director, so who knows? Though he wasn’t at Paramount at this time. Sternberg, a bold artist with a cucalorus, MIGHT have crafted an image like this (note how the checkerboard flooring runs out, at an odd angle), but if he did it’s the only trace of his touch visible in the whole opening prologue.

Travis Banton’s sleek gowns provide most of the style for the film’s middle. Banton was a major Sternberg collaborator, dressing Dietrich in all her movies with the auteur, but he basically dressed all of Paramount so his presence here proves nothing. Clara and Gary also appear without their gowns in a memorable moment when he comes out of the shower and is shocked — shocked! — to find her in his bed.

As the film starts getting properly tragic towards the end, the lighting gets bold again. But it’s hard to believe Sternberg would have done two shots for wildly different sections of the film, and then walked, or that they reshot all his other stuff and left these moments. I feel Lloyd is simply doing what Hollywood directors did — reaching for more extreme stylisation at moments of extreme emotion. What Sternberg did was something else — I’m not even sure how to describe it, but his stylisation is constant and his extreme emotional moments tend to involve desire and masochism. He doesn’t stylise these moments further (things are already pretty baroque) but he lavishes upon them a peculiarly intense ATTENTION.


This psychological track-in, which makes us feel the emotion growing within Bow, is atypical of Lloyd, of the twenties, or Paramount and equally atypical of Sternberg. It’s terrific. I’m thinking it’s Lloyd, but who knows?


And this one is equally unusual, and unlike the track-in, would still be unusual today. As Clara stares at her reflection in despair, it sort of MISTS UP. I think it’s probably a gauzy substance over the lens rendered opaque by a little targeted light, something of that kind. It’s a bit like the trick in DOCTOR ZHIVAGO when Omar is cold and emotional in the frozen house, if you recall. This would be a striking effect for anybody to come up with. The film has two cinematographers (a clue that it had two directors? Not necessarily). Norbert Brodine was a bit of a special effects wiz (DELUGE, TOPPER, ONE MILLION BC). Victor Milner’s work was extremely elegant but less experimental. Anyway, this is a wonderful effect but we can’t really say with certainty who came up with it. I’ve been meaning to see more Lloyd and this moment makes the idea seem urgently tempting.

*No! Apparently Sternberg claimed 50% of this film as his own. In which case, all these grace notes are likely his, after all.