In all probability, last year’s Superman reboot, Man of Steel, was not designed to make me want to watch an entire movie about Krypton. But that’s what it did, maybe more than it did anything else.
That probably says more about how totally effective the early scenes of Krypton were more than it means anything about how much I liked the rest of the film (which was fine or something). Man of Steel’s Krypton is a vividly foreign place that clearly establishes its own peculiar aesthetic, one that is a lot more than a mere extrapolation from present trends in American design. Just as it should, the planet feels remote from anything we know in modern America.
First, as we see the birth of Superman (the first Kryptonian born the old fashioned way for quite some time, it seems), there’s a floating monitor-type thing that uses a bunch of pebbly metal beads to display information, like a picture of the Super-fetus. Like a lot of Kryptonian tech, it’s distinctly beyond anything humanity could build right now, but more importantly, it doesn’t look like anything Apple would make any time in the next century, either. The shapes of their buildings, tools and costumes, as well as the green-brown color palette of Krypton, build up a cultural context unlike anything you or I ever normally see – which makes perfect sense.
A quick post today; I’m in the middle of studying for my econ final. (Or playing Carcassone online against Germans. One of the two, at least.) I want to talk about a single shot from The Social Network that seems to break the fourth wall of cinema viewing without ever actually doing so.
It starts like this: Jesse Eisenberg, playing Mark Zuckerberg, has just let into his rental Justin Timberlake (playing Sean Parker) and his sort of anonymous-y companion. (“This is my…Sharon,” JT says, flustered by the immediate need to introduce a woman with whom he has a nebulous, possibly sex-based relationship.)
Eisenberg tosses JT a beer without incident. Then he throws one to Sharon, but it goes wide and smashes against the wall.
You can see the beer in mid-explosion on the white wall to the far left, looking like a burn mark on the paint.
Anyway, Eisenberg prepares to toss her another beer, but she’s not ready.
Eisenberg tosses the beer, which you can see at the beginning of its arc here:
…and shattering on impact less than a second later, in the same shot:
For a long time, I assumed that what was happening in this shot was that the beer was supposed to be breaking against the camera, which for this split second was assuming the role of wall.
So often, the camera is a non-presence in movies; it has a perspective but no weight. It’s a window, not a door, into the universe of the film. Even when it takes on the POV of a character (literally or figuratively), the camera/perspective is not a thing itself in the world of the story, but more like a passive receptor of the image. For director David Fincher to suddenly make the camera a physical presence meant the audience was suddenly aware that the camera was there, taking up space in the room along with Mark Zuckerberg and Sean Parker.
To get what I mean viscerally, just compare the broken beers. The first (from the first shot above) illustrates how it feels to watch a beer smash up at a remove, when it’s breaking apart on some remote object. Then, in bold contrast, the shot of the beer coming at us – and losing focus as it does – creates a fuzzy space of indeterminacy right in front of us as the beer attacks us, smashes on us, interacts with us.
In any event, now that I’ve had to watch this scene several times, I’ve finally realized that the beer breaks not on the camera-as-wall, but on a sort of overhang at the top of the frame.
This is even sublimely better, in a way, since it means that Fincher is getting the best of both worlds: The camera is still, in theory, a passive window without substance, but there’s still the psychological effect of having the bottle break on our own faces. In the end, the viewer is tricked into feeling that the camera – and by extension, the viewer herself – is part of the scene, but without having a justification for it.
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.
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.