Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Filming the World

To a considerable extent, and increasingly, many of the films of the past two decades have been a betrayal of the medium's origins.  Films today take the world for granted. Fewer and fewer films are being shot on location or on elaborate sets. But in more subtle ways, filmmakers - pressed for time, as always - are uninterested in showing us anything more of a specific locale than they need to get a story moving. If a film is set in New York City, for example, it would be established by an opening shot of the familiar skyline. Afterward, the setting needs no more reason to be evoked or explored. In fact, an audience's belief in the reality of a setting is expected to be manipulated, but in ways significantly different from theater's suspension of disbelief.

Eighty years ago, if a film wanted to show us an office worker going to work, it would be cut in such a way that would show us the worker getting off the bus or the trolley on the street and walking into a building. Then a cut to inside the building would show him coming through the door and walking to the stairs. Then another cut would show him reaching the first landing and walking up another flight of steps, and so on until he reaches a certain floor and walks through the door of his office. Critics like to argue that this is simply unnecessary today, that we no longer have to see the man walking through all that scenery, and that a simple jump-cut would eliminate all that useless footage.

Anyone who has seen Godard's breakthrough film, A Bout de Souffle, will remember how Godard used jump cuts to surprising effect. What they don't know is that Godard, novice filmmaker, shot a great deal more footage that he then had to eliminate because the producer told him to shorten the film's running time to ninety minutes. So the famous scene in which Jean-Paul Belmondo is on the phone with a girlfriend, tells her he wants to see her, and in an instant is there standing beside her was not the result of Godard's design but of the producer's demand for a shorter film.

Many film critics and filmmakers argue that audiences have changed since the 1950s, that, having long since been familiar with the language of film, they're sophisticated enough to know that Belmondo wasn't just teleported miraculously from a phone booth to his girlfriend's room; and that they know that Belmondo must have walked the intervening distance and that they didn't need to see Belmondo covering all that ground.

I think, however, that when Werner Herzog made up his mind that the best way to represent the life of Fizcarraldo (a visionary or a madman with whom Herzog seemed to identify), who employed an army of Amazon natives to haul a huge riverboat over a mountain in his quest to build an opera house in the jungle, was to stage virtually the same stunt in front of his cameras, he performed a service to realism that went largely unappreciated.

There is a marvelous scene in the Buster Keaton film The Cameraman in which Buster is talking on the telephone with Sally, a young woman he wants to go out with him. When she tells him that her date with another man is off, before she can hang up the phone, Buster runs at top speed the several blocks between his boarding house and hers. When, startled, she turns to find him standing right behind her, he says, "I'm sorry if I'm a little late."

The scene is very funny and charming, and it shows off Keaton's superb athleticism. But its comedic impact relies on the film showing us as much of the intervening landscape between those two boarding houses as time and comedic timing allowed. But Keaton was also expecting viewers of his film to appreciate the views of the real world that he included in his gags - a lost world of real weight and dimensions that is practically forgotten today.

If one were to ask an audience of virtually any movie today if they could tell you whether a scene took place in the morning or the afternoon, or even what season it was, they probably could not. The time of day or the season, they might suggest, didn't matter. These details obviously don't matter to most filmmakers. This is possibly due to a belated modernist indifference to the world and to experience. It's commonplace for any contemporary visual artist to avoid references to what he actually sees, let alone indicating whatever feelings he might have for it, lest he be accused of being in the rear guard rather than avant. This would certainly explain the growing preponderance of CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) in films.(1) Why spend money on actors or wait for the right light to shoot a scene when a computer can do it all for you? I've noticed a common trick filmmakers now use to create the illusion of cold weather: computer generated steam emerging from actors' mouths.

But what if images of specific locales and particular weather that may seem to be incidental to a film's construction were, in fact, intended to be an essential part of its attempt to establish not just certain aspects of reality but the verity of the film's story and its characters? Very early in its development, film acquired a close relationship with the world. We know, for example, that the the detail that most fascinated the first audiences of the Lumiere Brothers' film Feeding the Baby in 1895 [see photo above] was the wind stirring the trees in the background. It surprised them because the trees in the scenery of theater performances had always been painted on backdrops. They were astonished to notice that the trees in the film were moving because they were looking at real trees, that the films existed in a reality that a theater production could only suggest.

We have also learned to think about film actors differently. Although we know they are actors playing parts in a made up story, we believe sufficiently in the world that they inhabit for the duration of the film to believe that, unlike stage actors who drop the pretense of acting when they walk offstage, film actors, when they leave a scene, go on living their made up lives, unseen by the camera or by us. It's possible to imagine a filmmaker following a character out of a scene on a tangent that takes the film in a totally different direction. In his film, Shoot the Piano Player, Francois Truffaut introduces us to a piano student leaving Charles Aznavour's flat and his camera follows her for a few minutes for no other reason than to introduce us to the possibility of the film going somewhere else entirely. After following the girl for awhile, Truffaut returns us to the film's central story.

Some of the greatest filmmakers demonstrate to us their love of the world by paying attention to seemingly minor - but actually major - details. When Erich von Stroheim adapted Frank Norris's novel Greed to the screen in 1924, he was encouraged by the big budget provided by his producers at MGM to go to some absurd extremes for the sake of the novel's reality. For example, when a character is sitting inside a house and Harris mentions that a particular car was parked in the street outside, Stroheim took the liberty of actually having a car of the exact same make parked in the street outside the house. Even though we never see the car in the scene, Stroheim believed that its presence there outside the house was somehow essential to the reality he was trying to re-create. I've written before about how Stroheim insisted on taking his cast and crew down an actual mineshaft to shoot a scene, rather than just re-create the mineshaft on a studio set. Viewers of the film in 1924 may never have known that Stroheim had gone to such lengths for the sake of realism, but, like Werner Herzog taking his cast and crew up a remote Amazon tributary rather than using some placid backwater for his scenes in Fitzcarraldo, but going to such lengths derived from a faith in verity, in truth, that is being forgotten.

Robert Bresson announced at the start of his extraordinary 1970 interview with Charles Thomas Samuels that "For me, filmmaking is combining images and sounds of REAL things in an order that makes them effective. Later on in the same interview, Samuels pointed out to Bresson how, in many of his films, he dwells on a setting a few beats longer than anyone else:

Samuels: "Before a character enters a place or after he exits from it, the camera holds on a set. . . In Diary of a Country Priest he rides his bicycle to the house of the Bishop of Torcy. He enters the house, and you hold outside the house. It happens repeatedly in Pickpocket. . . In Une Femme douce the couple comes into the house, and the camera remains on the door. Then they walk upstairs and the camera holds on the landing. We see the door to their apartment before they open it and after they close it etc. You weren't conscious of this?"

Bresson: "Of course I was conscious. Let me tell you something about doors. Critics say, 'Bresson is impossible: he shows fifty doors opening and closing;' but you must understand that the door of the apartment is where all the drama occurs. The door either says, 'I am going away or I am coming to you.' When I made Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, I was also accused of showing too many doors. And Cocteau said I was criticized for being too precise: 'In other films you see a door because it just happens to be there,' he said 'whereas in your films it is there on purpose. For that reason each door is seen, whereas in other films the door is scarcely noticed.'"

Despite being known for his "transcendental" style, Bresson knew how important it was that a film should, in Auden's words, "be before it seems" - how it should establish itself in reality before attempting to be metaphorical. In his masterpiece, A Man Escaped (whose literal title is A Man Condemned to Death Escapes), Bresson carefully captures the experience of his protagonist, a Frenchman imprisoned during the German Occupation (an experience Bresson knew first-hand), through the smallest physical details, because he knew that it was only through such details that the experience could come alive for the viewer.

In his audio commentary of the DVD edition of his film, The Tailor of Panama, the film's director, John Boorman, stated that he would like to see a disclaimer in the end credits of some films that informs viewers that "no CGI was used in the making of this film." I don't think that Boorman's disclaimer is likely to catch on, or attract much interest among filmmakers, especially young ones who seem far more interested in creating fantasy worlds rather than looking closely at the world in which they live. The trend today is away from the aesthetic origins of film, away from images of the real world into images of digitally manufactured worlds. The people who fled from their seats when the Lumiere Brothers' train entered the station in 1895 - because they believed that it was a real train entering the room where the film was being screened - have been replaced by people who no longer expect that what they are being shown on the screen has much to do with reality, and are no longer amazed or moved by the truth.



(1) Like everyone else, I was appalled when I learned that Philip Seymour Hoffman had been found dead of a heroin overdose early in 2014. Recently, I was further saddened to discover that the makers of the final Hunger Games film resorted to using a digital mock up of Hoffman so that they could complete scenes left unfinished at his death. At least there is some consolation in the knowledge that Hoffman will be remembered for much more than just those colossally useless movies.

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