Archives for the month of: September, 2013

(This is a short piece, published in April 2013, that I was invited to write for the ‘Research Provocations’ column of the website, Stereoscopic Media [http://www.stereoscopicmedia.org], which is an online resource for contemporary academic work on 3D cinema and audio-visual media)

Bruce Bennett (Lancaster University, UK)

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In its fetishistic preoccupation with novel technology much of the commentary on contemporary 3D films overlooks the composition of the films, evaluating them as more or less successful demonstrations of the spectacular potential of digital stereoscopic cinema. Moving away from this limited frame, I propose that the emerging aesthetic and narrative conventions of 3D cinema are structured by a restricted ideological conceptualization of space. In particular, I suggest that the exoticized spaces of 3D cinema are structured by a racializing discourse within which the perilous journeys undertaken by heroic protagonists are depicted in terms of a hazardous colonial expedition into terra incognita that is uncivilized, primitive and largely uninhabited.

Perhaps the most striking and frequently observed stylistic feature of contemporary 3D cinema is the mobile camera, whether actual or ‘virtual’. This is evident in the tendency towards almost continual, restless camera movement with cameras tilting, panning, arcing, craning, tracking or zooming during a shot, but also, more visibly, in a plummeting, penetrative and technically virtuosic travelling shot, sometimes functioning narratively as a subjective point-of-view shot. The unchained stereoscopic camera exemplifies a central fascination within 3D cinema with space and mise-en-scène. This is a medium-specific property of cinema generally, but it also marks the intersection between the spectatorial experience of 3D cinema and the narratively dispersed pleasures of navigating and exploring the virtual environments of a first-person shooter video game.

A preoccupation with the investigation of narrative terrain is common to many 3D documentaries and fictional feature films. The mobile cinematic ‘eye’ that roams over the real and fantastic spaces depicted in these films is, effectively, an adventurer’s eye that scans, maps, penetrates and, by implication, colonizes these unfamiliar, remote and inhospitable spaces from deep space to the ocean floor. 3D cinema’s cartographic visuality is motivated in part by ethnographic curiosity and archaeological desire. It reproduces an explorer’s gaze.

Implicit in this exploratory optics is a particular conceptual and ideological perspective upon the world: an exoticizing, ethnographic gaze that scrutinizes the world extending beyond the borders of the familiar and the known, emphasising and fetishizing the strangeness and difference of what falls within the stereoscopic frame. This emphasis upon cultural, spatial and historic difference implies a correlative desire to occupy, to chart and to understand. This oscillation of distance and proximity is redoubled and articulated precisely by the spatial illusion of 3D cinema in which physical space appears to recede away from the viewer while certain objects appear to emerge from those spatial depths to brush against the viewer’s body or to poke her in the eye. The ethnographic dimension of this illusory gaze lies both in the camera’s restless mobility as it roams through this receding narrative space, as well as, for many 3D films, in the motivating narrative frame of an exploratory expedition or journey.

There are numerous examples of digital 3D films that depict racialized, primitive others, but the articulation of digital 3D cinema’s ethnographic gaze is also evident in its spectacular treatment of space. The space through which the 3D camera moves is constructed as a novel, richly detailed visual field to scrutinize, navigate and consume. Implicit in the mobility of the camera that probes the diegetic space of the film is a desire both to see more and to observe more closely. It is a gaze that is both actively inquiring and acquisitive, which conflates the tourist’s gaze with the film spectator’s gaze. In this respect, the technological fantasy of immersion and transportation (physically and spiritually) underlying 3D cinema is an over-familiar and reactionary fantasy of unrestricted movement. 3D cinema promises the spectator the pleasures of colonization and domestication of exotically remote spaces in the same way that, for example, the actualités of the Lumière brothers transported European viewers through Europe, Asia, Africa and North America. What remains disappointing  and troubling about the current wave of digital stereoscopic cinema is the way in which, despite the medium’s capacity to take us on unexpected journeys through time and space, these films leads us backwards again and again along well-trodden paths through spaces ordered around racialized, imperialist, and strictly gendered hierarchies.

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This piece was originally published here: http://tinyurl.com/bpbkwln

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Bruce Bennett (Lancaster University, UK)

(This is the introductory essay I wrote for Pleasureland [2012], a book of photographs by Darren Andrews, a Lancaster-based photographer and musician [http://www.darrenandrewsphotos.co.uk])

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This collection of photographs of seaside resorts in England shares its name with the seafront fairground which opened a century ago in Southport, Merseyside. In one sense the collection’s title is gently ironic, insofar as these photographs emphasize the distance between the utopian promise of sunny, liberated bliss implicit in the name ‘Pleasureland’, and a material reality of cold weather and grey skies, empty promenades and beaches, ugly graffiti, discarded syringes and abandoned vehicles. However, more subtly and significantly, it also describes the sense, which is captured strongly in these images, of the seaside as a separate realm, out of phase with everyday normality and the routines of work, and disconnected from history. When we visit this place, the conventions and proprieties of dress and behaviour that we follow for the rest of the year are briefly suspended. We are repeatedly drawn to the seaside with the hope that we can step out of our habitual roles…slow down…and stop. Indeed, many of us go to the beach on sunny days in order to sleep. ‘Dreamland’, the name of Margate’s now defunct amusement park, is a particularly appropriate encapsulation of the appeal of the seaside. The seaside is a place (comprising many places) with a tenuous relationship to reality.

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Darren Andrews’ photographs frame the seaside as a theatrical, carnivalesque, and sometimes darkly sinister zone in which locals and holiday-makers rub shoulders with costumed, bewigged, tattooed performers – punks, drag acts, freakshow artists, clairvoyants, magicians, jugglers, dancers. Viewed from this perspective, it is a world of masks, surfaces and signs in which identities become fluid and hard to read. In one respect these images highlight the way that old traditions of popular entertainment that have been erased and over-written elsewhere linger on in the marginal spaces of seaside resorts. The seaside bears the traces of history in a different way from other parts of the country. Just as geological history can be read in the fossil record represented by the rock strata of a corraded sea cliff, so we can read social and cultural history through the different periods of architecture stacked up alongside one another in the buildings lining the seafront. Victorian Moorish, Edwardian neo-mannerism, art deco, post-war minimalism and concrete brutalism are sandwiched tightly together to form a three-dimensional timeline. However, it is also as if time moves more slowly at the edges of the island and the attractions that would have drawn Victorian millworkers to the seaside on their annual wakes week holiday – deck chairs, donkey rides, piers, Lidos, fortune tellers, portrait photographers, fairgrounds, variety theatres – are still (if only just) present.

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The images collected here also dramatize the way in which we are all called upon to perform when we move through any social spaces. More so than most other sorts of public space, however, the seaside resort is a stage. Promenades or esplanades were designed as places to be seen, to be on display, to become exaggerated versions of ourselves and the dancers, musicians and performers in excessive make-up embody the demotic theatrical spectacle of the seaside.

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Some of these photographs are also characterized by a certain surrealism. They depict the seaside as a strange, crepuscular, oneiric place dotted with incongruous objects. There are images of a crushed car half buried in the sand, a ballet dancer in tutu and pointe shoes stretching on the promenade, a ghostly three-masted sailing ship emerging from the sea fog, an iron man waist-deep in the water facing a wall of wind turbines. Andrews’ untitled and undated photographs are not simple social documents, stylistically banal ethnographic records of particular events, but reframe reality as ritualistic and poetic. Rather than reinforcing familiar, comic and condescending stereotypes of working-class culture and leisure activities to generate a parodic image of ‘British people in hot weather’ (to cite the title of a song by Manchester band, The Fall), they present us with an image of ‘weird’ Englishness. This is a theme that is explored further in his most recent series of photographs, Dark Corners of the Land (2012). Shot with home-made pinhole cameras (a format that demonstrates Andrews’ commitment to the creative labour and physical materiality of traditional photography), this series of black-and-white landscape photographs depicts points on the possible route from Pendle to Lancaster along which the ‘Pendle witches’ were transported four hundred years earlier to be hanged. These photographs, marked by visual distortion, lens flare, unusual angles and varying sharpness of focus, were exhibited with a sound installation derived from field recordings made in the same locations (which was created by ‘Victor Noir’, a shadowy Lancaster-based multi-media art collective), and they present the familiar and bleak geography of Lancashire as a troubled landscape haunted by violence and death, and also as a space marked by a visionary mysticism. This concept of certain locations as symbolically and historically loaded, spaces in which the past continually threatens to irrupt into the present, is a continuity that runs through Andrews’ work. At certain points Pleasureland shows us an apocalyptic landscape in which wintry seas threaten to engulf the land and it is a landscape which is barely illuminated by the sun. Some of the images have the same unsettling, non-naturalistic quality as film scenes shot with a ‘day for night’ effect and recall also the ‘moon-blanched land’ referred to in Matthew Arnold’s poem, ‘Dover Beach’.

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The final photograph in the accompanying book, Pleasureland, is of a single streetlight on a seafront esplanade in this half-light. Painted on the tarmac cyclepath in front of the streetlamp is the word ‘END’. This melancholic image epitomizes a sense of the seaside as both symbolic and geographical limit or extremity. It constitutes the end of the road, the edge of the world or, to borrow the title of a short story by JG Ballard, the British writer whose work is preoccupied with the hallucinatory, disorienting environments of beaches and holiday resorts, the terminal beach.

Some of the most well-known contemporary photographs of the British seaside are those of Magnum photographer, Martin Parr. Parr’s flash-lit, harshly coloured photographs depict the British seaside as a crowded hellish space littered with junk food, rubbish, unsupervised children, and grotesque bodies sporting gaudy and ill-fitting clothing. Collectively titled ‘The Last Resort’ (1985), his images of the New Brighton resort on the Wirral peninsula display a quite different sensibility from Andrews’ photographs. Martin Parr’s satirical photographs, which draw on the caricaturing aesthetic of seaside postcards, emphasize the tastelessness, abjection and false consciousness of working-class culture and cast a contemptuous eye over the spaces and people in front of the lens. They prompt us to ask how any of the figures captured in the frame could possibly imagine that they are enjoying themselves, how they could possibly imagine that they are in a ‘Pleasureland’.

Andrews’ photographs, by contrast, are far less cynical or patronizing. Rather than the ugliness and absurdity recorded by Parr’s work, Andrews’ images find a poetic beauty and an unsettling particularity in the bodies, faces and spaces on display. In this regard one of the British photographers whom Darren Andrews has most affinity with is Bill Brandt (1904-1983). The German-born Brandt wrote in 1948 that ‘the photographer must have and keep in him something of the receptiveness of the child who looks at the world for the first time or of the traveller who enters a strange country’. Brandt’s atmospheric landscapes, portraits and photojournalism portray Britain as an unfamiliar, enigmatic almost alien environment. In a similar way, Andrews’ eye is drawn to the oddness, eccentricities and mythical potential of the English seaside, and this collection of images invites us to view this strange land from the same perspective.

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These two publicity photographs of the  director, Michael Bay, on the sets of the superproductions, Transformers (2007 – top) and Transformers 4: Age of Extinction (currently in production – bottom) speak volumes about the fantasies and pleasures of masculinity that underpin the film-making process. This is evidenced in the US director Sam Fuller’s dry observation (in a cameo role as a party guest in Pierrot le Fou (Godard, 1965) that ‘Film is like a battleground’ or Francis Ford Coppola’s claim (at a press conference in the documentary, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse [Bahr, Hickenlooper, Coppola, 1991]) that ‘Apocalypse Now  is not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam’. The machismo and self-importance of these claims, in which the film director imagines himself general or commander-in-chief of an army, is nicely punctured by Orson Welles’ comment, upon being shown the RKO film studios in Hollywood for the first time in the 1940s, ‘This is the biggest electric train set a boy ever had!’ The pictures of Michael Bay at work suggest that, for all the pressures and anxieties of managing a production with a budget of over $150m and hundreds of collaborators and employees, on one level film-making remains a matter of boys playing with bigger, better and louder toys.

Introduction to The Red Shoes (Powell, 1948) – Dukes cinema, Lancaster, 11/12/11

Bruce Bennett (Lancaster University, UK)

(This was the introductory public talk I gave for the screening of  Powell’s film during a short series of world classics)

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The Red Shoes is one of the most celebrated films of world cinema and it is a striking measure of the esteem the film is held in that American director Martin Scorsese has a copy of the film’s poster mounted on the wall above his bed so that when he wakes up each morning he is reminded of what he is up against as a film-maker.

The film is the best-known work by the British director, Michael Powell, who produced a very distinctive body of work within the constraints of the commercial film industry from the 1930s through to the late 1960s. Powell was born in 1905 and began his career in the silent film industry in the South of France as a comic actor playing bit parts before following a conventional route of working his way up through the business. He began directing in the 1930s making ‘quota’ films. Like a number of European countries where cinema screens were dominated by American imports, the UK passed protectionist legislation in 1927 restricting the screening of US films in cinemas. This was intended to protect the British film industry, but also to protect British culture from creeping Americanisation by setting a quota for the proportion of British films screened so that cinemas were required to give at least 7.5% of screens over to UK films. In order to capitalise on the resulting growth in demand for British films, many studios rushed out cheaply made films that were known as ‘quota quickies’. These were B-movies, running at around an hour and had a fairly low critical status – Powell directed 23 films between 1931 and 1936, most of which have been lost, but this allowed him to learn his trade as a director and his 1937 film, Edge of the World, was the first film of his to receive any serious critical recognition.

It is about the depopulation of a small island in the outer Hebrides and was shot on location with much of the cast consisting of local inhabitants. It brings together documentary style with poetic, visually rich, representations of the landscape and in this respect demonstrates the characteristic qualities of many of his later films – a blend of realism with fantastic, mythic elements. As Powell explained, by contrast with the documentary aesthetic and serious social purpose of much British cinema of the time, ‘our business was not realism but surrealism. We were storytellers, fantasists…We […] started with naturalism and finished with fantasy.’ Although, Powell directed several war films and contemporary dramas, his work remained consistently out of step with British cinema’s emphasis on realism, and the final straw was the 1960 serial killer film Peeping Tom. That film, which explored the psyche of a cameraman who murders women while filming them, received such a critical mauling that it was impossible for him to get backing for film production in Britain. He moved to Australia, where he made a few fairly obscure films, and ended his career working in New York as a consultant to Martin Scorsese.

Collaboration

One of the most significant features of Powell’s film-making career is his dependence upon collaboration. Film-making is always a collaborative process, but Powell’s career demonstrates this particularly clearly. As he explained in the 1980s

‘It’s essential for the cinema. It’s a matter of life and death. The director doesn’t have to be responsible for the initial idea. His job is to get the best collaborators he possibly can and then suck their brains, take the money and put it up there on the screen, then leave the actors to take the brunt.’

The Red Shoes is one of the clearest examples of this collaborative approach to film-making, and is the product of three of Powell’s key collaborators.

The first is British cinematographer Jack Cardiff who worked on three extraordinary Powell films in succession, A Matter of Life and Death (1945), Black Narcissus (1947 – for which he won an Oscar) and this film (for which he was refused an Oscar nomination due to professional jealousy by American film-makers). Scorsese describes the film’s ballet sequence as a ‘moving painting’, and Cardiff’s work is indeed marked by a painterly sense of dramatic lighting, rich colour schemes enhanced by the use of Technicolor, and experimentation with a range of optical and photographic effects. Technicolor was a system of colour film production that required special cameras that exposed three strips of film simultaneously. These negatives were processed using coloured dyes to produce the characteristic deep, saturated colour of Technicolor film, which became a signature of Cardiff’s films. Cardiff wrote in his autobiography about Powell: ‘He was the most stimulating director I ever worked with. He’d encourage me to go ahead with any idea I had, however wild and experimental. Nothing was too risky for Michael and I always knew if I tried something he’d back me up.’

The second key collaborator on this film was the exiled German painter and theatre designer Hein Heckroth, who had worked on the previous two films as costume designer and on this film worked as production designer (in charge of the set designs) winning an Oscar for his efforts. Heckroth was a surrealist painter and his production design is characterised by a rejection of naturalism very much in sympathy with Powell’s aesthetic.

However, the most important collaborator for Powell was the Polish immigrant screenwriter, Emeric Pressburger. Powell met him in the late 1930s when they both worked for the Hungarian producer Alexander Korda, and they went on to form an independent production company, The Archers, through which they made 17 films in 18 years. One of the most striking features of the films is the success with which they blend commercially attractive themes with stylistic and narrative experimentation so that it is difficult to place their films within generic categories. Powell said of Pressburger that without him ‘I think I would have made a lot of very interesting, pictorial, but rather dull films. He brought a very necessary theatrical thrust into the films.’ It is significant that Peeping Tom, the film that more or less ended his career, was the second film he made after terminating his partnership with Pressburger.

Their production company was a means of establishing creative independence within the film business but it also amounted to an artistic manifesto. This was outlined by Pressburger in a letter to Deborah Kerr trying to persuade her to act in their 1943 film, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp:

One, we owe allegiance to nobody except the financial interests which provide our money; and, to them, the sole responsibility of ensuring them a profit, not a loss.

Two, every single foot in our films is our own responsibility and nobody else’s. We refuse to be guided or coerced by any influence but our own judgement.

Three, when we start work on a new idea we must be a year ahead, not only of our competitors, but also of the times. A real film, from idea to universal release, takes a year. Or more.

Four, no artist believes in escapism. And we secretly believe that no audience does. We have proved, at any rate, that they will pay to see the truth, for other reasons than her nakedness.

Five, at any time, and particularly at the present, the self respect of all collaborators, from star to prop-man, is sustained, or diminished, by the theme and purpose of the film they are working on. They will fight or intrigue to work on a subject they feel is urgent or contemporary, and fight equally hard to avoid working on a trivial or pointless subject. And we agree with them and want the best workmen with us; and get them. These are the main things we believe in. They have brought us an unbroken record of success and a unique position. Without the one, of course, we should not enjoy the other very long. We are under no illusions. We know we are surrounded by hungry sharks. But you have no idea what fun it is surf-bathing, if you have only paddled, with a nurse holding on to the back of your rompers.

We hope you will come on in, the water’s fine.

Michael Powell was apparently a very difficult person to work with, someone who enjoyed being challenged by his collaborators, but who was also prone to bullying and he had very few friends within the British film industry.  Consequently many technicians and actors refused to work with him, and this was a particularly tough shoot. The dance sequences were shot on soundstages at Pinewood studios and the dancers had to perform for hours a day on concrete floors during a heat wave, conditions made worse by the need for very powerful lamps (since Technicolor film is quite insensitive). What made things more difficult for them is that since a film sequence is composed of multiple short takes from a variety of camera angles that are then edited together into an apparently continuous sequence, the dancers were required to repeat very short sequences of movement over and over again. Moira Shearer, who plays the protagonist Vicky Page, complained that the longest uninterrupted period they could dance for was 25 seconds and that:

‘when they came to look at the rushes, without fail they chose the least good performance because it was the one where they had got everything right cinematically. And so they threw away really good dancing […] I remember weeping in the dark in the little cinema at Pinewood when I saw it because I thought, this is a travesty of so much that a lot of people have done.’

The Red Shoes was an expensive film, especially in the context of post-war austerity. It over-ran its 15-week schedule by 9 weeks and the film-makers over-spent its £300,000 budget by a further quarter of a million pounds. When Pressburger screened a rough cut of the film for the executives at Rank, the company that financed the film, they walked out of the screening room without saying a word, convinced that the film-makers had blown their sizeable investment on making an arthouse film. As a result, the film was released in the UK without a premiere and very little publicity and it received mixed critical reviews. It was only when the film was picked up in the US for distribution that it began to receive very positive critical reviews and to generate a substantial return. People returned to see the film repeatedly, and in addition to winning three Oscars, the film became the highest-grossing British film ever. Despite this, it was the last time the film-makers would have this degree of independence, which is sadly ironic given that the subject of the film is creative freedom.

It tells the story of a young dancer and a young composer employed by the world famous Lermontov ballet company and gives us a view of the exotic and banal business of professional creativity. The story is based on the Ballets Russes, the ballet company run by Sergei Diaghilev and the film reworks the story of Sergei Diaghilev’s relationship with Vaslav Nijinsky who left Diaghilev to marry one of the other dancers in the company, Romola de Pulszky. This story of backstage romance, jealousy and conflicted loyalty centres around the development of ‘The Red Shoes’ ballet, a retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen story. The performance of the ballet is the spectacular centrepiece of the film, and it is the realisation of an aesthetic ideal that Powell called ‘composed cinema’, a pure, non-narrative synthesis of sound, movement and image. Powell described the dance as a ‘Freudian film-ballet’ by which he means that when Vicky dances the Red Shoes ballet she is expressing her repressed fears and fantasies. In this respect it explores a theme that is common to a number of his films – that of female desire and repression. Powell’s films are very unusual for the period in relation both to British and Hollywood cinema for their depiction of women. Women’s bodies are rarely presented as erotic objects, but rather the films show bodies shot through with erotic emotion and desire. Crucially, too, female characters are often partners or central characters, rather than trophies to be won or accessories of the male protagonists. Instead, the films often present a woman’s point of view and invite the viewer to identify with the female characters as much as with the male characters.

For Powell, after years of films which had instructed people to die for their country, he said that this was a film which stressed the importance of passion and art, a point that was recognised in one of the rare positive reviews the film received in the British press upon its release. Writing in The Observer, CA Lejeune concluded that:

A film that is in love with the ballet is clearly not going to be everybody’s love; but enthusiasm is such a strong infection, and any picture that deals as single-heartedly with its subject as The Red Shoes will have something to say to people who know what it is to concentrate passionately on one job, to live for it and live in it.

References:

Jack Cardiff (1997) Magic Hour: A Life in Movies. London: Faber and Faber

Ian Christie (2002) Arrows of Desire: the Films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. London: Faber and Faber

Ian Christie, Andrew Moor (eds.) (2005) Michael Powell: International Perspectives on an English Film-maker. London: BFI

Kevin MacDonald (1994) Emeric Pressburger: The life and Death of  Screenwriter. London: Faber and Faber

Michael Powell (1990) Edge of the World: the Making of a Film. London: Faber and Faber

Michael Powell (2000) A Life in Movies. London: Faber and Faber

Introduction to Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958) – Dukes cinema, 7/10/12

(This was the introductory public talk I gave for the screening of Hitchcock’s film at the Dukes cinema in Lancaster)

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Tonight’s screening is of Vertigo, the 1958 film by British director, Alfred Hitchcock, who was described by French critic and film-maker Francois Truffaut as one of the two great British directors of the twentieth century, the other being Charlie Chaplin. The occasion for tonight’s screening is the latest poll of film-makers, critics, academics, curators and programmers conducted every ten years by the British Film Institute’s journal, Sight and Sound. In the latest poll, Vertigo was ranked as the greatest film ever made, displacing the usual poll winner, Orson Welles’s 1941 debut, Citizen Kane. Such surveys have dubious value, of course, and tell us as much about the values of the individuals surveyed as they do about the films themselves. I think cineastes might also argue endlessly over whether Vertigo is actually a better film than North by Northwest, Rear Window, I Confess, Notorious or The 39 Steps. Nevertheless, any opportunity to rewatch a Hitchcock film is welcome and this film, more than most of Hitchcock’s others, repays repeated viewing due to its ambiguities and subtleties.

Vertigo was adapted from a French novel, From Among the Dead, by Boileau and Narcejac, which the authors had written in the specific hope that they could sell it to Hitchcock. They had previously written the novel that was the basis for the 1955 French thriller, Les Diaboliques, which Hitchcock had wanted to direct, but was beaten to it by Henri-Georges Clouzot. The basic story of Vertigo – familiar from many other films – is that of a detective who becomes obsessed with the woman he is investigating, but what makes Vertigo distinctive is the way in which this familiar narrative is presented to us as it explores the unstable psychology of the protagonist who, ‘To put it plainly’, as Hitchcock says, ’wants to go to bed with a woman who’s dead’. The film’s title describes not just the medical condition suffered by the traumatized protagonist, Scottie Ferguson (played by James Stewart, who starred in four Hitchcock films) but also the way in which he becomes psychologically and emotionally unbalanced, losing all perspective.

Like many of the most interesting directors, Hitchcock was always concerned with the visual qualities of the film, he was a capable draughtsman who drew his own storyboards, and experimented continually with camera movements and visual effects. As a result many of his films have a quite distinct aesthetic appearance – this film looks very different from the harsh black and white of Psycho, released two years later, or the graphically stylized appearance of his early films which were strongly influenced by German expressionist cinema.

Vertigo is not a naturalistic or realist film and this emphasizes the dream-like quality of the narrative, so that the style of the film is determined by the themes it explores. It is shot in vividly coloured Technicolor, which produces a sense of unreality or theatricality, even though the film makes extensive use of real locations. This effect of unreality is emphasized periodically by the use of coloured light and fog filters on the camera lens, which produce a blurred image that suggests that we are looking not at an objectively truthful image but a subjective image, seeing reality through the unreliable eyes of the detective, Scottie. The slightly unreal quality of Technicolor film is emphasized by the symbolic use of colour in sets and costumes throughout the film so that key characters are consistently associated with particular colours.

The cinematography of this film is also striking for its unusual qualities – there is a frequent use of acute high and low angled shots, as if the camera is suffering sympathetically from the spatial disorientation of the main character. The most famous example of what we might call this ‘subjective cinematography’ – indeed, one of the most famous shots in the history of cinema – is a shot looking down a bell tower in which the camera tracks backwards while simultaneously zooming in, which gives the effect of space suddenly expanding. The same camera movement is copied in Spielberg’s Jaws, Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Matthieu Kassowitz’s La Haine. However, the camera is generally quite static throughout the film and camera movements are infrequent and particularly noticeable, perhaps drawing our attention to the artificiality of what we are watching. The composition of shots throughout is very deliberate too. Pay attention to the way that characters are placed within the frame and within the set. In particular, notice the way that mirrors are used throughout the film as a recurring visual symbol.

The pace at which the narrative unfolds is quite slow compared with some of Hitchcock’s dynamic thrillers. Vertigo has quite a steady pace, an effect that is emphasized by relatively undynamic editing and lots of repeated shots – there must be more shots of actors behind the wheel than in any other Hitchcock film. This rather steady quality is reinforced by the lead actors’ performances, which are also notably inexpressive. Hitchcock is famous for his apparent contempt for actors, declaring in a TV interview that he thought they should be treated like cattle, but there is a reason behind this, which is not just the result of spite or frustration at a career spent dealing with overpaid narcissists. Rather, like many directors, Hitchcock felt that an expressive performance by an actor interfered with what he was trying to achieve in the film and he preferred an actor to be neutral – if an actor gives a consistently flat performance in take after take it is much easier to edit various takes together into a smooth, continuous sequence in post-production. From Hitchcock’s perspective, the role of the actor is to provide the film-maker with raw material than can later be assembled into a complete cinematic performance:

‘When a film has been properly staged, it isn’t necessary to rely upon the actor’s virtuosity or personality for tension and dramatic effects. In my opinion, the chief requisite for an actor is the ability to do nothing well, which is by no means as easy as it sounds. He should be willing to be utilized and wholly integrated into the picture by the director and the camera. He must allow the camera to determine the proper emphasis and the most effective dramatic highlights.’

The actor, for Hitchcock, is just one element of the overall design of the film. Hitchcock complained that Kim Novak, who plays Madeleine, arrived on set with all sorts of preconceived notions of how to play the role, and how her character should look and dress.  By contrast, James Stewart’s performance style is often characterized by underplaying, making him an ideal actor from Hitchcock’s perspective. As Francois Truffaut observed of James Stewart in this film, he doesn’t emote, all he does is look – hundreds of times.

Another notable stylistic feature of this film is the music. The score is by Bernard Herrmann whose first score was Citizen Kane, and whose last was Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, but who is probably best known for his score for Psycho. By contrast with the sparing use of music in Psycho, however, the incidental music in Vertigo is very insistent running across an hour and a quarter of the two-hour film. The score reinforces powerfully the sense of queasiness and unease that pervades the story.

There has been a huge amount of academic writing on Hitchcock’s films, and a great deal has been written about Vertigo in particular. One of the reasons for this is that Vertigo has been seen by many critics as a film that is, on one level, a film about cinema, a film about watching films. Hitchcock was very interested in the questions of identity, unconscious desire, compulsive behaviour, and repression explored by psychoanalysis, the ideas of which were very influential upon many European and American directors from the 1920s onwards. This is particularly evident in his 1945 film, Spellbound with Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck, which is about a psychiatrist whose colleague has amnesia but thinks he may have murdered someone and undergoes psychoanalysis in order to determine what actually happened. Hitchcock later dismissed Spellbound as ‘just another man-hunt story wrapped up in pseudo-psychoanalysis’, but similar issues are examined in many of his films in more or less direct ways, and Hitchcock proposed that Vertigo is essentially a film about fetishism. Academics have suggested that this story of the voyeuristic observer who is fatally seduced by an image, can be seen as a metaphor for the audience’s love of cinema, the way we are moved and overwhelmed by spectacular images that we study from a distance. In this respect, it has a complexity that is not present in many detective films.

The opening titles, which were designed by graphic designer Saul Bass, emphasize this thematic focus – they begin by showing us an extreme close-up of a woman’s eye – before showing us a series of hypnotically rotating spiral patterns, zooming slowly in and out, which symbolize both the circular, repetitive nature of the narrative and also the dizzying disorientation experienced by Scottie. This is a film, the opening titles announce, about looking.

Another related feature of Hitchcock’s films in general, and Vertigo in particular, that has interested critics is the way that femininity is represented in this film. The detective’s fetishistic love is a love for an idealized, impossible image of femininity rather than for a real woman. Ironically and sadly, in his fixation upon this idealized figure, the protagonist Scottie consistently ignores and misreads the attentions of his loyal, tomboyish female friend, Midge. As well as being a film about watching films, Vertigo is also a film about the way that men look at women, and, in particular, it is a film about the way women on film are looked at.

Although the film retains the 2-part structure of the source novel, Hitchcock and a succession of screenwriters altered the story in adapting it for the screen, removing the surprise twist that the book depended upon and replacing it with a story in which, from the middle of the film onwards, the audience knows more than the protagonist about what is going on. The decision was made to ensure that the narrative was suspenseful, and Hitchcock explained his approach to writing the screenplay in the following way: ‘I put myself in the position of a child whose mother is telling him a story. When there’s a pause in her narration, the child always says, “What comes next, Mommy?”’.

Vertigo was not one of Hitchcock’s most commercially successful films, although it was one of his favourites. He said of the film that ‘the story was of less importance than the overall visual impact on the screen once the picture was completed’, but nevertheless, he remained troubled by what he saw as a gaping flaw in the story. I’ll leave you to decide what that is and whether it is a problem.

Reference:

Francois Truffaut (1986). Hitchcock. New York: Simon and Schuster

Introduction to Throne of Blood (Kurosawa, 1957) – Dukes cinema, 12/3/12

Bruce Bennett (Lancaster University, UK)

(This was the introductory public talk I gave for the screening of Kurosawa’s film at the Dukes cinema in Lancaster)Image

This film is by the most famous Japanese film-maker, Akira Kurosawa, and stars Toshiro Mifune, his regular collaborator and by far the most famous Japanese actor. Kurosawa and Mifune came to international recognition in 1951 when his period drama, Rashomon, won the golden lion prize at the Venice film festival. Rashomon tells the story of a samurai and his wife who are attacked by a bandit while travelling through a forest – the samurai is murdered and his wife raped and the film presents the incident in flashback from the perspectives of four different people during a trial. At the end of the film it is left unclear which of the four contradictory versions of events is correct and this ambiguous storytelling had a powerful impact upon European art cinema. It was as a result of this film’s success, compounded by the Seven Samurai in 1954, that Kurosawa, who directed his first feature film in 1942 and died in 1998, came to stand for Japanese cinema for international audiences.

Kurosawa and Japanese cinema

Kurosawa directed 31 feature films, many of them humanist dramas about the difficulties of contemporary Japanese life such as I Live in Fear (1955) about an old man who becomes obsessed by the threat of nuclear war, 1950’s Scandal, which is about a paparazzi photographer harassing a musician, the 1949 detective drama, Stray Dog, about a policeman who loses his gun, which is then used to commit a murder, or 1948’s Drunken Angel about an alcoholic doctor working in the post-war Tokyo slums. He also directed a number of literary adaptations, including a version of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, which I think is the best version of Dostoevsky in cinema.

However it is samurai films or jidai-geki (period dramas) with which Kurosawa, who was a descendent of samurais, is most closely associated – George Lucas named the jedi knights in Star Wars in recognition of his passion for the Kurosawa films he watched as a film student in the 1960s – and the international success of Kurosawa’s jidai-geki films led to accusations from Japanese critics and film-makers that he was a westernised director, whose films often reproduced a stereotypical tourist’s eye view of Japan for international audiences, characterised by views of Mt Fuji, tea ceremonies, cherry blossoms and hara-kiri.

Kurosawa refuted this and claimed:

‘If a work cannot have meaning for Japanese audiences then I – as a Japanese artist – am simply not interested in it.’

Nevertheless, one of the characteristics of Kurosawa’s films, and of Japanese cinema more generally, is a tendency to incorporate imagery, story structures, characters and visual style from other national cinemas. This is the case for any national cinema, of course, but Kurosawa was keenly interested in international cinema and one of his key reference points was the work of the American director John Ford who specialised in Westerns. He claimed that Ford’s 1946 western, My Darling Clementine was ‘a model of how cinema should be’ and wrote in his 1981 autobiography that he felt that the person he would most like to resemble as he grew old was John Ford. He met John Ford in London in 1958 when Throne of Blood was shown at the national film theatre and Kurosawa was delighted when Ford said to him, ‘You really love rain’, replying, ‘You really have seen my films’. His hero worship went as far as emulating Ford’s practice of wearing a flat cap and sunglasses on set. The influence of Ford’s films is evident in the depiction of landscape in Kurosawa’s samurai films, in the thematic preoccupation with rootless drifters and loners passing through villages and hamlets, the stand-offs and bursts of sudden violence, and the mythical, heroic, masculine view of history.

So, while Kurosawa epitomises Japanese cinema for international audiences, he is also a good example of the way in which any national cinema is involved in a constant exchange. For instance, his 1961film, Yojimbo (the bodyguard), an adaptation of a Dashiell Hammett western novel, was remade three years later by the Italian director Sergio Leone as A Fistful of Dollars, while perhaps his most famous film, The Seven Samurai was remade as the American Western, The Magnificent Seven.

Adaptation

As an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Throne of Blood exemplifies this internationalism. Kurosawa had wanted to make a film of Macbeth for a long time but was initially deterred when he saw an adaptation by Orson Welles from 1947. He had been beaten to it. Kurosawa treated adaptations as an opportunity for experimentation and Throne of Blood was the first of two films he released in 1957, both of which were adaptations of stage plays and which are radically different in terms of style. The second was the Lower Depths, an adaptation of a 1901 play by Russian playwright, Maxim Gorky, which confines the action to a claustrophobic set and is heavy with conversation, while Throne of Blood by contrast is visually spectacular and makes dramatic use of landscape, as well as vast sets.

This is a very cinematic adaptation; although the play provides the narrative skeleton, dialogue is minimal and characters have been replaced, merged and discarded, and it is perhaps Kurosawa’s most stylised film. Rather than a reverent transcription of the text of the source material – a filmed play – the film takes Shakespeare’s play as a foundation on which to build something quite singular. The screenplay was written by Kurosawa and his three regular co-writers without any reference to the text of the play, which is an indication not so much of an arrogant disdain for the source material, as of their familiarity with Shakespeare. Indeed Kurosawa returned to Shakespeare much later with his 1985 film, Ran, which was an adaptation of King Lear.

Throne of Blood sets the drama in 16th century feudal Japan, the setting for almost all samurai dramas, but while there are gestures towards historical authenticity, the film is not really concerned with a realistic depiction of Japanese society of the period. The director insisted that the actors wore heavy, accurately reconstructed military costumes, and carried real swords rather than the lightweight fake weapons used in samurai films, because he felt that this would produce a distinctive performance – they would move differently. However, the guiding aesthetic principle of the film is simplicity and abstraction, rejecting the elaborate textural detail of his other historical dramas in order to reduce the film down to essential elements.

Donald Richie, a US historian of Japanese cinema, has said of the film’s stark style, for example,

‘There has rarely been a blacker and whiter black and white film. Kurosawa purposely restricts himself. The only punctuation he allows himself is the simple cut and the simple wipe. There are no fades, no dissolves, nothing soft, nothing flowing.’

The sound design is similarly simple. The score is by Masaru Sato, who scored many of Kurosawa’s films, but music is used much more sparely here than in other films, appearing as percussive rhythms, chanting, musical accents and rhythmic interruptions. Diegetic sound is very prominent as a result – the sound of a kimono swishing across the wooden floors, the sound of clanking armour, the clatter of horses’ hooves, the screeching of birds, and the swoosh of arrows flying through the air – and silence also hangs heavy.

If the costume design aspires to historical authenticity, the make-up and performance styles are far less realistic. Toshiro Mifune and Minoru Chiaki, who play the protagonists Lord and Lady Washizu, are made up in the style of actors from classical Japanese Noh theatre, and Chiaki moves and strikes poses in the extremely formal, non-naturalistic manner of a Noh actor, whose movements follow very precise conventions.

Mifune’s acting style could not be more different – he is one of the most physical performers in cinema and Chiaki’s emotional restraint is a radical contrast with Mifune’s frantic, kinetic, performance. Kurosawa made 16 of his 31 films with Mifune and was first drawn to the actor when he happened across him performing in an audition in the 1940s in Toho Studios in Tokyo. He said he was transfixed and that, ‘It was as frightening as watching a wounded or a trapped savage beast trying to break loose’. Mifune is a very powerful physical presence in all of Kurosawa’s films that feature him – he stalks round the sets, stretching, yawning, eating, scratching himself,  continually adjusting his costume as if he’s constrained by clothes, laughing suddenly and roaring his lines. This film, which is partly about a man being driven to insanity, provides a perfect context for this intense performance style.

The film makes a feature of the foggy landscape around Mt Fuji, the thick forests and black volcanic sand but this wild landscape is sharply contrasted with the austere, geometrically precise, almost empty interiors that resemble stages across which a few objects are very carefully placed. Kurosawa trained as a painter and as a result the shots in his films are very carefully composed with as much attention paid to abstract graphic qualities as to the content of the image. Actors are treated as part of the overall visual design of the image and are frequently required to pose almost immobile.

Staging and direction

There are also a couple of very unusual features of Kurosawa’s technical approach to film-making that are notable in relation to the look and effect of this film that help to explain why his films are so notable. The first is that Kurosawa spent much more time than was usual for the period rehearsing scenes with his actors – they rehearsed for a month, much of the time in full costume, so that when it came to shooting scenes, Kurosawa claimed he didn’t need to watch what the actors were doing.

‘While the cameras are rolling, I rarely look directly at the actors, but focus my gaze somewhere else. By doing this I sense instantly when something isn’t right. […] I believe this is what the mediaeval Noh playwright and theorist Zeami meant by “watching with a detached gaze”’.

A second unconventional technique is that Kurosawa filmed using three cameras placed at different angles to the action, something he began while shooting the action sequences from Seven Samurai and continued to do for the rest of his career. This is extremely wasteful, and therefore expensive, in terms of the amount of footage produced – film-makers traditionally almost always use a single camera, repeating a scene and reshooting from each angle separately – but it also meant that Kurosawa would often only do one take. The intention behind this is to produce an intensity in the performances that would be dissipated if actors had to do take after take, and it also means that actors cannot direct their performances towards a single camera, which potentially results in a less theatrical quality of performance.

One of Kurosawa’s virtuoso strengths as a director is in shooting technically complex action sequences – such as battles and chases  – of which there are several in this film. These are technically complex both in the sense that large numbers of actors and animals are moving quickly back and forth across large spaces and also in that this action has to be filmed and edited together into sequences of shots that are coherent and continuous. Kurosawa’s action sequences emphasize the confusion and the chaos of battle. He frequently uses low camera angles and obstructed views – shooting through the legs of passing horses and soldiers or through tree branches for instance – fast panning shots and tracking shots following charging horses along forest paths, and cuts together shots of movement going in opposite directions. Battlefields in Kurosawa’s films are often drenched in torrential rain, or enshrouded in smoke and fog to add to the sense of disorientation.

Throne of Blood was intended by the studio, Toho, to exploit Kurosawa’s growing success as a director of prestigious period dramas and to outshine the generic samurai films that were being churned out by competing studios. It turned a profit but was not a significant commercial success. However, it was well-received by critics both abroad and in Japan and is the film that cemented Kurosawa’s reputation as an internationally significant artist. The reviewer for Time magazine said of the film on its US release,

‘No doubt about it now, Japan’s Akira Kurosawa must be numbered with Sergei Eisenstein and DW Griffith among the supreme creators of cinema. Throne of Blood is a nerve-shattering spectacle of physical and metaphysical violence, quite the most brilliant and original attempt ever made to put Shakespeare in pictures.’

Kurosawa’s later assessment of this film is rather more modest, ‘I keep saying the same thing in different ways. If I look at the pictures I’ve made, I think they ask, “Why is it that human beings aren’t happy?” […] Throne of Blood, on the other hand, shows why they must be unhappy.’

References:

Stuart Galbraith (2002) The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune (Faber and Faber)

Akira Kurosawa (1983) Something Like An Autobiography (Vintage)

Donald Richie (2005) A Hundred Years of Japanese Films: A Concise History (Kodansha)

Introduction to 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968) – Dukes cinema, Lancaster, May 9th, 2012

Bruce Bennett ( Lancaster University, UK)

(This was the introductory public talk I gave for this rare screening of Kubrick’s film at the Dukes cinema in Lancaster, the screening of which was actually approved by the Kubrick estate only because it was accompanied by an introductory lecture)

Image

2001: A Space Odyssey, released in 1968 (and pronounced two thousand and one, not twenty-oh-one according to the director) was the eighth feature film directed by the American film-maker, Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick was not a hugely prolific director and completed only another five films before his death in 1999 aged only 70, but, partly as a result of his methodical approach to film-making, all of his films are highly individual, painstakingly crafted, conceptually rich and complex, and, I think, often very beautiful.

Kubrick was born in 1928 in the Bronx, the child of Jewish Austrian immigrants. His father was a doctor and he had a relatively comfortable, secular, liberal, family life. Although his academic performance at school was shockingly poor and he was frequently absent, he was reputedly an expert chess player, playing for money in New York parks, and also a cinephile, a jazz obsessive, and a precociously capable photographer who was employed as a photojournalist by Look magazine at the age of 17. In the early 1950s he directed a few short news-reel documentaries and in 1953 released his first feature, a war film called Fear and Desire. He went on to direct two fascinating, inventive, visually rich thrillers, Killer’s Kiss (1955), about a boxer who winds up in trouble with gangsters, and The Killing (1956), the story of an armed robbery at a racetrack. These were followed by the 1957 anti-war film, Paths of Glory, which starred Kirk Douglas as a WW1 French army officer defending his troops in a court martial against a charge of mutiny. Although it was banned in France, the film was a commercial success and on the basis of that, Kirk Douglas encouraged Universal pictures to hire Kubrick to take over directing Spartacus when the experienced director, Anthony Mann was fired one week into the shoot because of his differences with Douglas. Douglas was apparently prompted by the misguided expectation that Kubrick would be easy to manipulate but in Kubrick’s first revision of the screenplay he cut so much of Douglas’s dialogue that he was left with only two lines in the first 30 minutes of the film.

Douglas later described him as a ‘talented shit’.

Spartacus was an extremely technically and logistically complex film. Shot on 70mm Technicolor, it was one of the most expensive films ever made with a cast of up to 10,000 performers, but it won four Oscars, establishing Kubrick, who was still only 31, as a major director.

He found the experience of working for an egotistical Hollywood star and a major studio frustrating and later claimed it was the only film over which he didn’t have ‘absolute control’, but it also taught him that he could play the system. Indeed, one of the almost exceptional features of Kubrick’s career is that he managed to retain a great degree of independence while working with major Hollywood studios on expensive ‘prestige’ productions – Woody Allen is a comparable figure although he never worked on such large-scale films. As a result of this independence, Kubrick is frequently discussed as an auteur, a film-maker whose work displays a consistent, identifiable individual style and consistent thematic preoccupations. His absolute control was achieved by occupying several roles in the production in addition to direction. He co-wrote the screenplays of most of his films, worked as film editor and camera operator, and, crucially, he was usually the producer which meant that the cast and crew were employed by him – he was employer rather than another employee. Interestingly, while he worked hard to ensure his autonomy, at the same time he also relished the challenge of working on big-budget studio productions. Michael Herr, who co-wrote the screenplay of his 1987 Vietnam film, Full Metal Jacket, recalled,

He was excited by the roar of the propellers as the big money took off and went flying through the system, circulating and separating into fewer and fewer larger pockets […] He had great respect for the box office, if not the greatest respect, and found something to admire in even the most vile movie once it passed a hundred million.

Kubrick’s next film, Lolita (released in 1962), was shot in Britain where Kubrick decided to settle, buying a manor house near St Albans. This is often attributed to a pathological fear of travel – Kubrick was quite private and as a result there are all sorts of wild rumours in circulation about him: he was supposedly terrified of flying (even though he had a pilot’s licence), he hated cars and would only be driven at under 30mph and only when wearing a crash helmet (even though he owned and drove a Porsche), he was supposedly an autistic, sadistic, anti-social recluse with a phobia about germs – but, moving to Britain was probably a strategic move that allowed him to keep a distance from the executives of the LA-based studios who couldn’t drop onto the British sets.

As a result of this carefully managed independence, there are certain signature features of Kubrick’s work that are visible in most of the films he made, and that are evident in 2001.

Precise cinematography: As a photographer Kubrick paid a great deal of attention to the image; the films are full of long takes with perfectly symmetrical compositions, slow zooms and very smooth tracking shots. He often uses wide-angle lenses that produce images with great depth of field, emphasising receding space.

His films are also full of intricate, carefully designed spaces, such as the Overlook hotel in The Shining, and the vast war rooms in Dr Strangelove, and a great deal of attention is also paid to lighting. The costume film, Barry Lyndon, for example, is famous for the interiors that are shot using only natural light and candle light while by contrast much of 2001 is lit with an almost shadowless light – ‘high key against white’ – which required so many lamps that the sets caught fire a couple of times from the heat. Among other things, the film is almost certainly responsible for the cinematic convention of spaceship interiors that glow with light.

Colour schemes in his films are also carefully organized, even where, as in 2001, the range of colours is very restricted. One notable signature of Kubrick’s films is the prominence of whites and reds.

Kubrick’s films are marked by mannered, non-naturalistic performances – in some of the films, like 2001, The Killing and Barry Lyndon actors are encouraged to act in a very minimal, inexpressive fashion, while in others, like Dr Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange and The Shining, actors deliver excessive, exaggerated performances. Kubrick apparently enjoyed working with actors who could improvise and scripts were rewritten day by day during a film shoot, although he was famously impatient with actors who used ‘the method’. When Malcolm McDowell asked him for advice on how to play a scene in A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick replied, ‘Malcolm, I’m not RADA. I hired you to do the acting.’ When he was blocking a scene in Spartacus where Laurence Olivier and Nina Foch would be filmed sitting in the arena watching a gladiatorial contest, Nina Foch asked him for motivation, ‘What am I doing Stanley?’, and Kubrick replied flatly, ‘You’re sitting here with Larry waiting for the gladiators to come out.’

The plots of Kubrick’s films are often organised in quite an unusual way. British science fiction writer, Brian Aldiss, who worked with Kubrick on his last uncompleted film, AI, said that Kubrick saw a narrative not as a fluid, linear, chronological thread, but as a series of ‘non-submersible units’ – a series of disconnected blocks arranged in a row that can be rearranged in different orders. This is a very unconventional way of thinking about a film’s story structure and it is evident in the way that Full Metal Jacket is clearly divided into two parts, the first taking place in an army training camp, the second in Vietnam. Similarly, 2001 is partitioned into four separate sections, and is also divided by an intermission.

Editing in Kubrick’s films is often unusually abrupt, rather than seamless. Whereas the goal for mainstream film editing is usually to make the cuts invisible, with Kubrick’s films we are aware of the dramatic cuts between shots. He appears to want us to admire the complex artificiality of the film, to notice that we are watching an aesthetic construction, not to confuse it for reality. French theorist, Michel Chion has suggested of Kubrick’s unconventional editing, for instance, that ‘each cut feels like a decision, a choice, a chess move’. In a particularly clear example of this, 2001 includes one of the most famous cuts in film history – at around 15 minutes in there is a slow-motion shot of a bone spinning through the air and there is a ‘match cut’ (so-called because it joins two visually similar, or matching shots together) from the bone to a satellite floating in space. With this match cut the narrative jumps forwards three million years and implies a direct link from the prehistoric apes’ discovery of tools to the development of space travel. It is the cut that is striking as the images on either side.

Music plays a prominent role in Kubrick’s work and in the films it is often used ironically or in a disjunctive relationship to the image. This is increasingly evident from Dr Strangelove onwards, which finishes with a montage of nuclear explosions accompanied by Vera Lynn’s rendition of ‘We’ll Meet Again’. Just as editing is typically intended to be an invisible element of the film’s structure, so the score is traditionally intended to remain more or less un-noticed, but in Kubrick’s films, the score is often very audible. This is emphasized in 2001 through the scarcity of dialogue, which draws our attention both to the music, the sound effects and to the silences.

Kubrick also frequently worked on genre films – war films, thrillers, science fiction films, costume films, and horror, and it seems that one of the creative challenges they posed was – as with a jazz musician playing a standard – how to take a familiar, culturally debased template and transform it into something highly individual, into a work of art that requires careful scrutiny and reflection. For example, the novelist Arthur C Clarke, who co-wrote 2001, said in a 1966 interview, ‘Science-fiction films have always meant monsters and sex so we have tried to find another term for our film’. So, Kubrick, who was fascinated by the idea of aliens, conceived of 2001 as a ‘mythological documentary’. It was intended to open with ten minutes of interviews with scientists and the opening prehistoric sequence was to be accompanied by a voice-over like a nature documentary.

The film was going to include aliens and a nuclear stand-off between the US and the Soviet Union was going to play a central role in the narrative, which would end with a nuclear apocalypse triggered by the aliens. The first objects we see floating in space are the nuclear weapons orbiting the earth that were going to destroy the planet at the conclusion. Much of these recognisable genre elements were stripped out by Kubrick during the production and editing of the film so that it became progressively more ambiguous. While there is still around 40 minutes of dialogue in the film, there is very little explanation or exposition. The result was a film that became increasingly abstract, mysterious and allegorical as production progressed.

This elusive quality is partly responsible for the film’s fascination (and its significant commercial success – it cost $10.5m and grossed $31m) and has led to a proliferation of interpretations. On its release, Arthur C Clarke observed, ‘If you understand 2001 on the first viewing we will have failed’. There is a huge amount of academic writing on Kubrick’s cinema in general, and this film in particular, and one of the particular strengths of 2001 is that it allows a range of readings.

Michel Chion suggests that Kubrick enjoyed telling stories about systems that go out of kilter and that 2001 is yet another example. It’s been seen as a film about the dehumanising effects of technology, or a cautionary film about surveillance society. Art critic, Annette Michelsen, suggests that the great theme of 2001 is learning, while Michel Chion suggests on the contrary, it is about amnesia. Film critic, Alexander Walker suggests it is about intelligence. It has also been discussed as a film about religion. Kubrick suggested in 1968 that ‘the God concept is at the heart of 2001 – but not any traditional anthropomorphic image of God’, while Clarke claimed it was the first $10m religious movie.

It has also often been regarded as a film about film – that is to say, a film whose central theme is the cinematic experience, the unique experience of film as an audio-visual medium, rather than a literary medium that is primarily concerned with dialogue, plot and character. In spite of his desire for control over his films, Kubrick was reluctant to suggest a preferred reading of the film, ‘I don’t like to talk about 2001 much’, he said in 1968, ‘because it’s essentially a non-verbal experience…It attempts to communicate more to the subconscious and to the feelings than it does to the intellect.’

References:

John Baxter (1998). Stanley Kubrick: A Biography. Harper Collins

Michel Chion (2001). Kubrick’s Cinema Odyssey. London and New York: BFI Press

Michael Herr (2001). Kubrick. Grove Press

Annette Michelsen (1969). ‘Bodies in Space: Film as Carnal Knowledge’, Artforum, vol. 7, no. 6

Alexander Walker (1999). Stanley Kubrick, Director: A Visual Analysis New York: W.W. Norton

 

Introduction to Playtime (Tati, 1967) – Dukes cinema, Lancaster 19/9/13

Bruce Bennett, Lancaster University UK

(This was the introductory public talk I gave for a rare screening of Tati’s film at the Dukes cinema in Lancaster)Image

In a famous essay[i] from 1954 the film critic (and later director) Francois Truffaut complained that French cinema was dominated by quality cinema that comprised ‘faithful’ literary adaptations and historical dramas made by film directors who were unimaginative hacks who made no creative transformations to the scripts they were filming – they simply added pictures. By contrast, Truffaut celebrated the existence of another group of film-makers that he termed ‘men of the cinema’ or ‘auteurs’ who understood cinema as an essentially audio-visual rather than literary or theatrical medium and Jacques Tati, who directed this film, was one of the directors he used as an example of the film-maker as artist. At that point Tati, who was heavily influenced by silent film comedy, had only directed two films, but he was already clearly an innovative and individual film-maker with a sense of the rich comic and narrative possibilities of film sound and the film image.

Playtime, released in 1967, was the fourth of Tati’s six feature films and the third featuring M. Hulot, the Mr Bean-like character for whom Tati is best known. Having won an Oscar for his previous film, Mon Oncle, in 1958, by the time he came to make Playtime Tati was both critically highly regarded and commercially secure, and hoped that this film would be his masterpiece. He wrote to a friend as he was preparing it that, ‘Playtime is the big leap, the big screen. I’m putting myself on the line. Either it comes off or it, or it doesn’t. There’s no safety net’.

Unfortunately, the film is probably best known as a commercial disaster for several reasons including an extremely protracted production process. Tati scouted for locations in factories, airports and cities throughout Europe but, unable to find a location he would be able to close off and shoot on for weeks or months, he decided the only solution was to build the massive city sets in a studio. Since there were no studios big enough near Paris, they decided to build a new permanent studio complex on the outskirts of the city, which could be used for other productions once Playtime was complete. This was a financially sensible move except that, as they later discovered, the land they bought was ear-marked for a link-road connecting the ring-road around Paris with a nearby motorway, and so it was compulsorily purchased after the film was completed.

Construction of the vast set, ironically dubbed ‘Tativille’ by journalists, began in autumn 1964. They built two huge soundstages to shoot the interior scenes, the largest in the country at that time and also laid out a road system so that the moveable tower-blocks, which were built as flats and empty frameworks, could be rolled around the location on railway tracks to create different street layouts.  A few months into the construction of the set, it was destroyed by a storm – whereupon Tati discovered the film’s financiers had failed to insure the production against acts of God, costing them weeks of time and over a million Francs.

Shooting continued until October 1966, during which time they had filmed on 365 days – perhaps the only film-maker who comes close to this excessive schedule is Charlie Chaplin who shot for 190 days while making City Lights. After the film wrapped, Tati then spent another 9 months editing the film and continued to edit it after the premiere in December 1967 in response to audiences’ reactions at early screenings.

The slow pace of production was partly due to Tati’s perfectionism – ‘I like team-work’, he quipped, ’as long as I’m in charge of the team.’ – and partly due to financial problems: there were several periods when they shut production down due to lack of money. By the end of the film Tati and a number of family members had sold property and mortgaged their houses to bankroll the film whose cost is estimated to have been about 17m Francs (and whose initial budget was 2.4m), but Tati was bankrupted by the cost of the shoot and so much of this probably went unpaid.

In some respects, Playtime is a simple story. It takes place across roughly 24 hours in Paris during which a group of American tourists and M. Hulot, who is played by Tati, wander around the city, bumping into one another repeatedly. There are lots of characters in Playtime, but Tati is generally uninterested in complex characterization in this film – even the protagonist, M. Hulot is a cartoonish caricature rather than a fully developed character – and most of the characters represent types, rather than individuals.

He is interested in miscommunication and polite misunderstanding. Rather than being driven by aggression, determination and ambition, and a clear sense of goals, characters in his films frequently pinball through life, propelled by accidents, chance encounters and often becoming lost in the process. As a result the narrative structure of the films is at once quite complex and vague – chance and repetition are substituted for the progressive linear narrative development of classical Hollywood cinema.

This is quite deliberate. Tati said later in a 1973 interview that although it wasn’t a commercial success, Playtime was the fullest realization of his intentions as a film-maker. Although he continued to make films he said that:

Playtime will always be my last picture because of the dimension on the décor, regarding the people. There’s no star, no one person is important, everybody is; you are as important as I can be. It’s a democracy of gags and comics’.

Typically a film narrative is organized around one or two individual characters, who are given more time on screen and are treated differently in terms of sound and image from other characters. They’re shown in close-up, their dialogue is clearly reproduced over background noise, they’re presented as psychologically rich individuals. The intention with Playtime, by contrast, is that no character is more important than any other, but also, that the décor – the space in which the action takes place – is just as important as the actors. This is a radically unusual way of composing a film.

In practice it means that there are very few close-ups. Instead we have lots of long shots, and lots of shots that are on screen for a long time too, giving us time to study the image. This allows Tati to fill the frame with information. Whereas a film will usually make it very clear to the viewer where her attention is meant to be directed, leaving some areas of the image out of focus or less brightly lit, Playtime is full of shots that invite us to scan the frame searching out interesting and significant details – it doesn’t tell us where to look

It is a film that demands sustained scrutiny, like a painting, and, as a result, the American critic Noel Burch said in a 1969 review of Playtime, ‘Tati’s film is the first in the history of cinema that must be seen not only several different times, but from several different distances. It is probably the first really “open” film’. By which he means that the film is open to a variety of interpretations or ways of seeing.

It was important for Tati too that Playtime was shot on 70mm film, which is very detailed and allows the film to be blown up and projected onto a large screen with no loss of resolution. It is a film format that was usually reserved for spectacular productions like Lawrence of Arabia or 2001 (which was released a few months later), but Tati was interested in using the potential of this spectacular format very differently. Thus, he said:

‘What I like in wide-screen films are not cavalcades, gunfights, crowd scenes and so on, what I find extraordinary is that the device allows the viewer to have a fuller appreciation of a mere pin dropping in a large empty room.’ (Bellos 2011: 259)

As well as paying a great deal of attention to the composition of the image, sound is also very important to Tati. The film was shot silently and the soundtrack composed afterwards and the principle behind the sound design seems to be equally democratic – there is a democracy of sounds in this film. Normally in a film the dialogue is always privileged on the soundtrack but in Playtime, the sound effects are just as prominent on the soundtrack as speech and there is also very little scaling so that sounds coming from the background are often as loud on the soundtrack as sounds coming from action in the foreground. There is quite a lot of dialogue but it is often mumbled and hard to discern and Tati is far more interested in the sounds that we don’t normally pay attention to – the clicking of stiletto heels on lino floors, the hum of air-conditioning systems and crackle of neon lights, the squeak of vinyl and puff of air as someone sits on a chair in a waiting room. This is a fascinating film to listen to as well as to watch.

One of the other pleasures of watching Playtime, as with all Tati’s films is the pleasure of seeing bodies dancing through space. Choreographed, repetitive movement is very important in his films and the result here is almost an urban ballet. It is a film about the mundane but delicate dances we all perform as we move through modern spaces, negotiating turnstiles, and revolving doors, escalators, lifts, pedestrian crossings and office buildings.

Finally this film explores a theme that is central to most of his films, which is that of modernity – Mon Oncle, Playtime and his next film, Trafic, are all films about a modern high-tech world in which our lives are reorganized by technology and transport systems. Cars, in particular, are one of the most visible motifs of this, and the films are full of grid-locked roads and vast car-parks. Although his first two films offer a nostalgic, seductive view of traditional, rural France, it is a France that is under threat from modernization and the subsequent films are about the ways in which France becomes cosmopolitan, modernized, and Americanized.

However, the films are very ambivalent in their treatment of this theme. On the one hand they make fun of the way in which fashionable, self-important people surround themselves with unreliable high-tech, consumer goods, but on the other hand they offer us an optimistic view of a utopian, futuristic world. Although Charlie Chaplin was one of Tati’s heroes – and M. Hulot might well be named after the name the French gave to Chaplin, Charlot – there is little trace in Tati’s films of the satirical anger at the modern world that we find in Chaplin’s work.

As Alex Bellos, Tati’s biographer puts it, ‘Tati’s use of gadgetry and innovation is remarkable for its ambiguity: especially in Playtime […] he exploits the new almost equally for its comic potential and for its aesthetic pleasure.’ (253) So, for example, Playtime is a celebration of the minimalist visual beauty of plate-glass, stainless steel, black leatherette, grey lino and formica, tarmac, curtain-walled office blocks, autoroutes, roundabouts, lamp-posts and street-lights. Thus, concludes, Bellos, ‘All Tati’s work, […] is angled towards reconciliation, not revolt. Tati was not out to change the world, but to help us look at it with less horror.’ (311)

Given that Playtime was released in France at the beginning of a period of radical social upheaval, not long before the general strike and riots in Paris, this may help to explain its lukewarm reception since it could have been perceived as being out of step with the spirit of the times. Although it was well received by film critics, it failed to turn a profit although this wouldn’t have been helped by Tati’s insistence that the film could only be shown in cinemas with 70mm projectors and stereo sound systems, refusing to allow the film to be distributed on a standard 35mm print (and, of course, until the popularization of large-screen TVs, the film was almost impossible to watch on television, limiting its subsequent accessibility – it is a film that is better known by reputation than exposure).

But it could also likely that audiences found the film confusing and frustrating to watch because it required them to adjust their expectations of what a film is, which is perhaps not what people look for on a night out. A French critic reviewing the film on its release declared it to be ‘An Absolute masterpiece of confounding and vertiginous beauty […] Never, perhaps has a film placed so much confidence in the intelligence and activity of the spectator: the challenge was too great to find a commensurate response’.

So this is the challenge this film continues to pose to its audience: are you sufficiently intelligent and imaginative to enjoy the confounding, vertiginous beauty of this film?

Alex Bellos (2011) Jacques Tati: His Life and Art (London: Harvill Press)

Michel Chion (2002) The Films of Jacques Tati (Toronto: Guernica)

‘Tati’s democracy’ – transcript of a 1973 interview with Tati by Jonathan Rosebaum  http://www.jonathanrosenbaum.com/?p=15628


Cinema, time and children: This short piece on the importance of the historical significance of the child in cinema and in discourses around media effects, and also the ways that cinema can document and represent time is posted on the Lancaster University blog page here: http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/news/blogs/bruce-bennett/cinema-time-and-children/

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