the cinematography of la dolce vita: that’s deep, man

I’ve got an essay coming on La Dolce Vita for the Brattle Theatre Film Notes blog — I’ll add a link when they put it up. The Brattle Theatre’s Film Notes blog just posted my essay about La Dolce Vita, but I also wanted to post these great screen grabs that show how damn satisfying the cinematography is and the incredible use of depth.

If you want the tl;dr version of this post, just look at these two compositions, which are the opening shots of their respective scenes:

Either one of these shots is near-perfect on its own, but they’re even better put side by side like this, because you can see the echoes: The top one is almost all white, the bottom almost all black; the top shot has a vanishing point somewhere on the right half; the bottom’s is at approximately the mirror point on the left.

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i need to stop writing this post before i convince myself that sucker punch is actually brilliant

Man of Steel, Zack Snyder’s new Superman movie, is coming out this weekend. I’m going to use that as a reason to write about Sucker Punch, his last movie, because I’ve been wanting to write about this hot mess ever since it came out two years ago.

Although it’s probably not very good in the final analysis, Sucker Punch plays with a lot of smart ideas, including an ironic self-awareness that most blockbuster action directors never mess with. In case you’re wondering if I’m just trying to find something complex about this movie, worry not: This self-consciousness is plainly implied by the movie itself, and even if Snyder can’t really figure out what that means or what to do with it, I like that he tried.

We’re immediately put on notice by the first image, a slow crawl forward through a theater that moves toward a curtain with the Warner Bros. logo on it. That curtain opens up onto another curtain with the production company’s logo, which in turn opens directly onto the first scene. In this very first image, then, we are being given a staged scene that is patently artificial, since of course we don’t normally watch the action of a movie take place on a theater stage unless it happens to take place in a theater. It’s the film equivalent of breaking the fourth wall.

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don’t be turned off by raccoon mario: a very half-hearted case for immortals

I’m sure a lot of people saw the trailer for Immortals and dismissed it as a sword-and-sandals deal that would be about the joy of spearing your enemy and not much else, but this one is significantly more artistically ambitious than the average Conan movie. I like that Immortals takes risks, even when it results in costumes like this, which I think of as “Edgy Raccoon Mario”:

It’s easy to take shots at this movie, but actually the willingness to embrace unique visuals pays off in some beautiful moments. The single best part from this perspective is probably the climatic battle between Zeus’s cohort of gods and their nemeses, the Titans. (Titans, like all creepy things, stoop a lot for reasons that are unclear.) It begins when Zeus and the other four Olympian gods arrive on earth by dropping in as clouds of gold dust — very heavy gold dust, apparently, because they come in at a fast rate — and they materialize upon hitting the ground. Each landing makes a sound like a metal door being clanged shut, as if they were iron statues dropped to earth, and the camera even shudders a little bit, as if being shaken by the impact. It’s a great effect.

Once they land, Zeus proclaims something — does it matter what, really? — and then hurtles his hammer toward the camera, through a bunch of Titans milling around. The hammer comes closer, closer, then freezes in mid-air, and the camera pulls back slightly while the hammer is stuck there. This all happens in literally the blink of an eye.

This doesn’t make sense for a second, but then we cut to see that the hammer has stuck itself in a wall of rock. This means the camera had been taking the perspective of the wall in the previous shot, when the hammer got frozen “in” the camera’s eye. That’s awesome anyway, and it’s even a little more awesome because it’s just awesome that Zeus can throw a hammer so that it is embedded in stone even if it intercepts the stone parallel to its long axis … if you see what I mean? It’s hard to explain without drawing a diagram, really.

The rest of the fight is that rarest of cinematic battles, the one that is both graceful and convincingly brutal. One of a few reasons that I can’t do it justice with screen shots is its clever use of slo-mo: As each of the Titans is injured, he goes into slo-mo while the golden Olympians keep moving at regular speed. It’s a great look and it seems like a fresh take on the slo-mo action sequences that have become de rigueur since The Matrix.

The god-on-Titan battle is one of the best examples of the movie’s occasional success at feeling operatic. (Or, at least, what I imagine “operatic” to feel like, since I’ve never been.) It’s not easy to make combat feel this light and flowing, and the only other filmmakers that I can think of that can pull this off are Zhang Yimou (I’m thinking of the sleeve-throwing scene from House of Flying Daggers) and the Wachowskis (to a lesser extent) with the incredible stairway melee from The Matrix Reloaded. Immortals isn’t as good as those movies, though, because it doesn’t induce the operatic emotions that Zhang and the Wachowskis make a part of their package.

It’s hard to pinpoint why Immortals isn’t very moving, but I think it has something to do with a slack script. The main tension in the film seems to be whether Theseus is going to put himself in mortal danger for what he believes in, but we already pretty much know he is from the very beginning; it’s never suggested that he has to wrestle with the idea much. He starts out stubborn and valiant and ends that way. In the meantime, there are a lot of other minor points that seem to be resolved about as quickly as they are introduced. Should he bury his mother, even though he doesn’t believe in her gods? Yes. Should he switch allegiances and join forces with the most evil guy in the world? Question answered as soon as it is asked. Is he going to find the MacGuffin, in this case a powerful bow that looks like the kind of thing Apple would design if they were into archery? Yes, duh. And is he going to lose it when a wolf runs away with it? Okay, that was kind of surprising.

There’s also a lot of misused time with the gods, who seem like they ought to fit into the story but who might as well have been written out entirely. Theseus can prove his mettle on his own, so why drag in Zeus and friends, who spend most of the movie wanting really badly to be part of the action, only to be held back by contrived-seeming reasons?

I have one more niggling detail about the gods I just can’t get over: All of the gods, including top-dog Zeus, are played by people under 40. I know Zeus is immortal and never ages, but can you just give us this one? The least they could do was slap a white beard on the actor playing him, especially if his primary function in the group is Obstinate Father. I mean, we don’t need a Liam Neeson here, but maybe a Sean Bean would do, or really anybody who is visibly older than the other gods. As it is, it looks like one generic young hardbody was inexplicably given the authority to boss around the other generic young hardbodies.

Anyway, I guess if I have to settle for some beautiful pictures, I will, but I wish there had been some deeper sentiment or philosophy evoked by this movie. It just wasn’t meant to be.

the opaque camera in boudu saved from drowning

I’ve seen three films by Jean Renoir at this point, and I’d rather not say it, but to tell the truth I don’t get why he’s revered among directors.

The first two that I saw were the ones he’s best known for, Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game, and I didn’t dislike them so much as I didn’t understand why I needed to watch them. I’ll use a painfully vague term on the condition that I promise I won’t get in the habit: Both movies seemed a bit unfocused to me.

And so it is with this most recent film of his that I’ve just seen, Boudu Saved From Drowning, from 1932. Boudu is homeless and living in Paris. After losing his dog, he wanders a bit, seeming not particularly to have any emotion about the loss. And then, wandering across a bridge, he walks to the railing and jumps off into the water. With a telescope, a Monsieur Lestingois sees this and rushes from his nearby bookstore to jump in the river and save Boudu. After a kind of CPR that looks suspiciously like forcing the victim to do calisthenics, Lestingois succeeds in reviving the tramp, and now the bourgeois bookseller feels compelled to look after him. Boudu effectively becomes an unwilling member of the household, joining the aging Lestingois, his wife, and their maid — who is also the older man’s mistress.

The rest of this movie might have consisted of a story running like this: Boudu would gradually master the etiquette and values of his benefactors, with some outrageous missteps along the way. But Boudu in fact has no interest in fulfilling others’ expectations of him, or even the story’s expectations. More to the point, his immutability isn’t about a principled stand of any sort; Boudu isn’t resentful of other people’s demands so much as he’s only marginally aware of them. He can’t even remember Lestingois’s name after the man buys him a suit. It’s not clear what Boudu wants or even why he tried to kill himself. His only sustained interest is in women’s immediate attention and sexual favor.

Lestingois, for his part, doesn’t change either. From what I see, the movie has little purpose except to amuse, which, to be fair, it does pretty well. Michel Simon, playing Boudu, has an alluring mien about him, and the odd way his teeth jut out and his cheeks bunch up when he smiles are fascinating. But, you know, funny teeth don’t make a significant film, so it’s slightly uncomfortable reading as Christopher Faulkner tries in vain to wrench some meaning out of the raw material of the actual movie in his essay for the Criterion Collection.

For one, he takes this part of Paris, at least in the mind of the French, to be “the center of culture, of learning, of civilization,” while Boudu “explodes those values as hypocritical, bankrupt, ineffectual.” “Explode” is really too strong a verb, since at worst Renoir (operating through Boudu) only casually points up some of the vanity of the bourgeoisie. (Why do they own a piano? To play? No, to show that they are respectable people.) Or, maybe a bit more biting, there’s the point where one man awkwardly grabs Lestingois’s hand to shake it and congratulate him for his valiant effort to save the poor man’s life even as Lestingois is still making that effort and the life is in the balance.

Those are Boudu’s hands barely legible at the bottom of the image; Lestingois is still in the middle of working them as though he would like Boudu to come out of this not only alive but also with sterling pecs. (The scene comes a little after minute 23 in the video above.)

Faulkner goes on to postulate that “Boudu’s energy is ultimately a threat, even a social threat, that eventually will have to be banished from the narrative.” This is a primo example of why writers avoid the passive voice: The passive construction “to be banished” doesn’t tell you who did the banishing. In fact, Boudu ends up banishing himself at the end of the film by wandering off once separated from the Lestingois troop, as though he had already forgotten them once they were out of sight. Exactly who is banishing whom in this scenario?

I watched Boudu because it’s mentioned in Gilberto Perez’s great book, The Material Ghost. His analysis of Boudu is a good example of how Perez reads aesthetics extremely finely; unlike Faulkner, his theory of meaning actually works with what we saw in the film. As Perez puts it, referring to the inscrutability of Boudu’s emotions and intent: “Boudu remains opaque throughout the film, opaque in our eyes as in the eyes of the bourgeoisie” (p. 74). The theory is distinctly plausible, and the best part is how Perez specifically links Renoir’s shots to this idea:

As this tramp is not to be contained by the conventions of bourgeois society, so this film is not to be contained by the conventions of bourgeois comedy. Renoir’s camera prepares for Boudu’s escape from the bourgeoisie by continually drawing attention to the world beyond the frame, vividly bringing into the play the world beyond the plot. (p. 155)

This last observation is particularly sharp, and it helped me think about a puzzling sequence that begins around 1:15 in the video above. We see Boudu (in bowler hat) on a boat, floating in a river, headed with his bride and Lestingois to a wedding on shore nearby. We cut to the wedding party, and as the music strikes up, we cut to a shot that begins right at the edge of the shore, facing the violin player back on firm ground.

The camera pulls back out over the water, where we imagine Boudu is. Is this perhaps his POV?

No. The camera pulls past Boudu and his wedding boat, meaning this view belongs to no one at all. It is extraneous and even out of place — a big cinematic effect that seems unmotivated by anything else and only tangentially related to what we care about, which just confirms what Perez is saying about the camera pointing to the world outside of the story we’re being told. It’s kind of messy in a deliberate way. Or at least I hope it’s deliberate.

I’m not sure how I feel about all of this: I agree that Renoir evokes “the world beyond the plot,” but I’m not sure if it has anything to do with Boudu being opaque. Boudu would probably be opaque no matter how he was filmed or what you showed of him; some people never express their emotions through words or even actions. Maybe the limitations on how well we understand Boudu are not so meaningful; maybe the man is simply inscrutable, as lost in his own head as we are in this movie.

the six dollar fifty man messes with expectations you didn’t even know you had

In my post on Tuesday about the awesome New Zealand short The Six Dollar Fifty Man, I didn’t get into some of the neater storytelling sleight of hand used by the directors for fear I would scare off some people. But the movie has two great ploys that it would have been sad to forget about just because they’re a little hard to describe.

First, a great switcheroo, though you might want to check out the video before you read on to make the following more comprehensible. You’ll see at about the 2:00 mark (and in the above screen shot) that our little hero Andy, dressed in red, has just jumped off a roof. This creates an immediate tension — what the ef is this kid thinking and is he going to be okay when he lands? — and the next shot is of the ground below at a blank spot where we think he’ll arrive any second, probably disastrously. And then, suddenly, dropping into the frame … is a doll, in a pinkish outfit that looks like Andy’s, and, wait huh? Then the kid alights gracefully in the background.

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the six dollar fifty man: being a superhero without being obvious about it

I swear I was planning on digging in and perusing several shorts to find one worth posting, but The Six Dollar Fifty Man happened to be the first one I looked at under Vimeo staff picks. It’s from a couple of years ago but only seems to have been posted to Vimeo a couple of months ago, and besides, it would have been completely worth posting anyway.

I admit off the bat that there are probably too many close-ups, but that’s true of loads of films, and this has some stellar compositions that make up for it. Check out this peach of a shot, from about 9:50:

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more take this waltz: why are parallels so satisfying?

That scene I blogged about last week from early in Take This Waltz? Totally referenced later in the same film. To the screen shots!

The top shot is the early nighttime scene, and the bottom is the later daytime scene that comes near the end of the movie. The compositions are a near match, and by starting the second scene this way, director Sarah Polley is practically telegraphing to us that we should be on the lookout for parallels (which are even easier to spot if you’ve already written a blog post about the earlier scene).

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