Matthais Stork: Chaos Cinema/Classical Cinema, Part Three

Cinematographer Gregg Toland, ASC

ONE

Gregg Toland is widely regarded by most contemporary cinematographers as the essential locus for a discussion of breakthrough movie image creation. The most cited of his films is the collaboration with Orson Welles on Citizen Kane, a film that looms large in anyone’s movie canon, as much for its narrative innovation as for the deep focus and wide angle camerawork that heralded its signature style, a style that seems largely to have stuttered after Toland’s death in 1948. The irony is that this deep focus technique has found new standing in digital 3D cinematography, even as 2D video cinematographers labor to remove the onus of the wide-angle “video look,” and as CCD imagers have grown ever larger. With the improving dynamic range of 35mm. sensors and by selection of longer focal length lenses, this video “look” is eroding; at its highest quality HD video now closely matches film.

Less well known than Toland’s collaboration with Welles is the cinematographer’s multi-film collaborations with other directors such as Howard Hawks, but especially with John Ford, who like Welles, shared with Toland his single card credit on The Long Voyage Home.

But it is the five films that Toland made with William Wyler that best illustrate his now classic style of cinematography. Wyler’s reputation has waxed and waned with the shifting fortunes of time. His humanist films, like those of his contemporary Fred Zinneman, suffered greatly under the lash of auteurist critics like the late Pauline Kael, whose writer’s peccadilloes have been revealed in a new biography.

Amazon.com: Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark link

But today, Toland’s films with Wyler constitute a high point of classic American film drama. A scene between Bette Davis and Herbert Marshall in The Little Foxes, the fourth of these films, economic in its shot selection, has become one of those iconic clips favored in film history compilations.

The half dozen shots (not the number of cuts) that make up this near three-minute scene are a kind of cinematic textbook. Each shot, including the insert of the spilled medicine bottle, seems essential to the overall emotional fabric of the scene. Recently, I enlisted a number of friends who have teenagers, to ask their kids to watch this scene. I was curious if its pacing still had emotional connection for a teenage audience. As expected, their reactions were mixed. The black and white images were predictably a major roadblock for some. Also, several wrote me that “the actors looked so old.” But for the few who were intrigued enough to look at the scene a second time, there was a surprising reaction, one that, of course, Wyler and Toland aimed for. Davis’ stone-faced mien, as Marshall stumbles up the stairs with an out of focus background, was both shocking and riveting. Here is the reaction of one young man, a high school senior:

I watched the clip twice, but it only took one viewing to notice [that] the way it was shot differs from all new films.  The shot of the woman's face where the camera panned up to the man falling onto the stairs kept a long feeling of suspense in this ominous scene.  Also the dark set and the woman's cold stare started a dreary mood from the beginning.

Several others said they found that the scene defied their “expectations.”

Expectations… When we think of classic style in the arts we think of one conforming to expectations. But the fact is that in the movies, as in the other arts, what today may be deemed classic was a few years before, disruptive. Film grammar has always been fluid, changing with the technology that constantly presents new opportunities for creative expression.

TWO

Retro-style, a vain attempt to re-capture lightning in a bottle, is often disconcerting. Recently, I saw the official French entry for this year’s Oscar consideration, Declaration of War, a film co-written by, starring, and directed by the talented Valérie Donzelli. It’s a film that unabashedly mines most of the stylistic tics of the Nouvelle Vague, wrapping itself in a cloak of too many colors. One recognizes the camera and editing techniques of Truffaut and Demy, as well as pillaging of Claude Lelouch’s music style.

Because filmmaking adopts ever more cutting edge technologies in how we adapt our movie stories, the challenge we face is how to wrestle this sometimes-unwieldy equipment to the ground, master and use it. We are, it seems to me, at such a crossroads with the latest film-like digital cameras and finishing computer systems like the DaVinci Resolve, one of those magical tools of the digital intermediate suite. Years ago, when I was a camera operator on a Universal TV series, an old studio gaffer shouted out across the set to a neophyte electrician struggling to assemble a high-tech lamp, “Hey, kid, you gotta be smarter than the equipment.”

On a human scale, we may not be so smart about how we master our quickly evolving technologies. Many of us are “digital tourists” caught between the worlds of emulsions and numbers, as opposed to our children, the “born digital” natives. Such an onslaught of new technology while manna to techno-philes, is often confusing to those who, like a painter with a fixation on a certain textured canvas, pliable brushes, or a brand of oil paint, finds comfort and creative freedom in using familiar tools.

What does this have to do with Matthias Stork’s video essay on Chaos Cinema/ Classical Cinema that began this multi-part personal meditation a month ago? Well, I’m just a working filmmaker coming to terms with a film style, Chaos Cinema, which seems antithetical to what many generations of filmmakers have practiced. There’s not much danger this will be the only technique as long as filmmakers strive for narrative clarity. Chaos Cinema seems by definition to be disjunctive, even fragmentary. But wait.

The French New Wave beached over fifty years ago but it, too, began as a much discredited, iconoclastic assault on the French “tradition of quality.” Its bold methods embraced by a generation of ex-film critics redefined cinema style, no more so than in one of its earliest manifestations, Jean-Luc Godard’s first feature, Breathless. An early scene of Jean-Paul Belmondo driving a stolen car jump cuts time and space inside the closed vehicle. Quick, disruptive cuts around his stopped car as a motorcycle cop approaches him, followed by a unexpected ECU of Belmondo’s gun, reflect stylistic traits that within a few years found a partner in the New American Cinema of the 70s. Here is the scene:

Consider the simple screen direction violation of Belmondo’s car (L-R) being chased by the cop (R-L). This screen direction reverse is no more a mistake than the abrupt image size changes and jump cuts throughout the film, a kind of proto-chaos aesthetic. Yet, later in the hotel room scene with Jean Seberg (as in the middle act of Contempt), in an improvised two-character dialogue scene shot in few setups, it seems to stretch time (and some viewer’s patience) to the breaking point. It doesn’t aspire one whit to traditional narrative structure. The film comes at you in scene bursts, a kind of celluloid quanta. The movie defies narrative logic up to the very end with Seberg standing blank faced over Belmondo’s supine body in the middle of a Paris street. Godard, more than any director of the time, influenced my American film school generation that had gown up with mainstream movies from the humanist directors that came out of the Depression and World War II. The first American cinema eruption of this new wave came in 1967 with Bonnie and Clyde, the script that writers Benton and Newman first offered to Godard, then to Truffaut. Wisely, neither wanted any part of the Hollywood system.

THREE

If the concept of Chaos Cinema can be reduced to the single aspect of spatial confusion, rather than eruptive cutting, it becomes open to a number of contemporary, even cult, American directors who have also embraced the long take. Foremost of these may be Gus Van Sant, especially in films such as Elephant, but especially in Gerry, a film that from its opening shot of Casey Affleck and Matt Damon in an endlessly uncut, head-on car mount two shot, places the actors as well as the viewer in such a displaced environ that you can almost sense Samuel Beckett whispering offstage. A three and a half minute steadicam shot in failing twilight sets the scene for such a complete spatial dislocation that it slowly, inexorably becomes the heart of the film.

It is no surprise, then, that a synthesis of seeming conflicting film styles may be found in a filmmaker who came to movies out of the world of experimental art and video. A BBC News profile explained director Steve McQueen in this way:  "They wouldn't let you throw the camera up in the air," he once commented and has gone on to show he knows few limitations on what can be done with a camera.

His very first film from 2008, Hunger, tells, as if from the inside, the story of Bobby Sands, an Irish Republican prisoner and his hunger strike in the hellhole of Northern Ireland’s Maze Prison. Here is the trailer from the Criterion DVD release.

Criterion.com – Hunger link

The last act of the film documents an aesthetic of  temporal and  spatial displacement as the psycho-neural effects of Sands’ hunger strike overwhelm him. But the movies’ centerpiece is a nearly twenty-four minute scene between Sands (Michael Fassbender) and a Catholic priest (Liam Cunningham) where Sands defends his mates' protests and the priest attacks him for self-mythologizing.

The entire scene is photographed in about half a dozen shots, the first of which is a semi-silhouette two-shot that lasts nearly seventeen minutes; it is followed by an insert of Sands lighting a cigarette, then a static close up of Sands that runs for five minutes.  Here is a link to that shot. (Unfortunately, the scene is not properly formatted to the 2:40 aspect ratio.)

imdb.com: Hunger clip link

There is nothing about this film that evokes the long take style of the intricately moving camera of some East European art film directors like Tarr or Tarkovsky whom we examined last week. While perhaps not attracting the audience of a Michael Bay film, Hunger has plenty of riveting, even excruciating action. Even Homer Simpson might like it. Conversely, my point man on eastern European art cinema, Jozo Zvoko, will also like it.  While it isn’t realistic to cite a single film as emblematic of some synthesized style, perhaps Hunger may be a jumping off point. McQueen has a new film, just opened, Shame, that stars Fassbender again and Carey Mulligan, with whom I worked on Shana Feste’s The Greatest, a film that has its own challenging long take of Pierce Brosnan, Susan Sarandon, and Johnny Simmons in a silent three shot, riding in a hearse.

The immersive effect of the long take has reached a kind of apotheosis in video gaming, especially in “ego shooter” war games where the player moves in an uncut, continuous flow of action. The influence of first person gaming has been explored by critics mainly in terms of its violent action and it is this narrow perspective that Chaos Cinema has adopted. But the sense of continuous flow is crucial to the gaming experience.

Recently, bus advertising has made awareness of the sales date of the video game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 unavoidable. A recent NPR story states that in the first 24 hours of its release in the US and the UK, it sold over 6.5 million units for gross receipts of $400 million. It’s not unreasonable to think that much of the time and money spent by the sought after young male audience for movies, has retreated to gaming. The non-stop orgy of violence can satisfy the most rabid of armchair Marines. One YouTube clip emphasizes the continuous first person point of view.

Another one is all but indistinguishable from that of a Chaos Cinema action film.

FOUR

Last month, Carol and I were invited to discuss the intersecting roles of the editor and cinematographer in this rapidly changing digital world at a post-production master class for Creatasphere. We shared with the filmmakers attending how editors had confronted the challenges of digital technology a decade before cinematographers; but today, the overlapping of image creation with image manipulation in the editing suite has taken on quite unexpected dimensions, ones that have not always made for the happiest affinities.

An acknowledgement of the feature film as a series of well crafted, narrative images, realized by the cinematographer, was incontestable in the movies’ first century. The editors’ Moviolas, Steenbecks, and Kems were loaded with 1000’ rolls of film. Images, the actual frames were right there, visible, and the editor had considerable physical labor cutting and splicing shots. Film dailies were an indisputable artifact moving through her hands.

When non-linear digital editing platforms such as Lightworks and the Avid, then Final Cut Pro, replaced film dailies and became the editing technique of today, the manipulation and moving of shots on editing systems became easier, simply the flick of a few buttons rather than the onerous, time-consuming task of loading and running film rolls, cutting and splicing. A greatly accelerated computer time trumped human time in the critical thought process. Many editors (including most recently Steven Spielberg and editor Michael Kahn, long time film editing holdouts now working digitally) say it took a long time to adjust to the results of computer editing—the necessary manipulation of film daily rolls having supported a slowed down and deliberative process, a more human time frame. There is no denying the simple fact that the powerfully rapid response time of computer editing asserted itself also into the rhythm and timing of shots. Acceleration of the cutting pace, shortening each shot, piling on cuts, created an illusion of beefed-up action. It also became easy to supply alternate “cuts” of scenes for the ever growing number of producers and studio executives who wanted to see their notes realized as cut scenes on DVDs. It doesn’t take much imagination to imagine the travails of a director and editor being given notes for half a dozen different versions of the film, each empowered producer with ideas how to quicken the pace. Often, this does result in tighter, more disciplined work; often it creates head-on conflicts with the editor as unsought for mediator.

One other thing happened, something with major consequences for cinematographers. As the idea of the discrete movie shot becomes more abstract, that is, more removed from the actual photographic image you can hold in your hands, the camera shot becomes mere data, a series of ones and zeroes, stored in an electronic drive, not on a strip of film of thousands of images. This may seem an elusive point to make, not one that is widely spoken of by either editors or cinematographers. They may be more distracted by the expanded creative possibilities of digital image manipulation, both on set and in the post-production DI suite, than they are in an arcane dialectic of analyzing just what defines the cinematic image. But it does have a real impact on the way editors work with the cinematographer’s images.

The responsibilities of the editing room have expanded as editing platforms have incorporated ever more numerous and agile software programs. Most “picture” editors are now expected to cut music, sound effects, temp many visual effects, create titles, color correct—in short, to approach as closely as possible the look of the final film with an up-rezed Avid output, so the movie can be readily screened for a preview audience. As the workload of the editor has expanded, she, not the cinematographer, has become more and more the de facto custodian of the film image. This becomes apparent in large visual effects driven films where the cinematographer may shoot dozens, even hundreds of shots against a green screen and not have major involvement in the subsequent rendering of the finished movie until the DI suite—if then. Many younger cinematographers, with little post-production experience or clout, complain of being all but shut out of the final timing process. Some say this is due to self-styled “auteurist” directors who see themselves as vfx wizards, or as fellow cinematographers or colorists, or some editors who find it hard to hand over to the cinematographer control of the images they have nursed daily for months—or even to producers who worry that the cinematographer is not a time saving asset but someone who will “play” in the expensive DI suite, costing him way too much money. I’ve heard all of these arguments. In short, the field of play has become much more multi-dimensional than in the celluloid era. And as the technology has changed, so has the resultant aesthetic. Here we get to the crux of the dilemma. The Chaos Cinema/Classical Cinema polarization is partly a product of this evolution of equipment as it is has been introduced into the creative workflow. But this is not the whole story.

FIVE

Steve Jobs’ recent death has brought into sharp focus the wondrous decade of digital image and text platforms that have become vital to us. Broad based personal communication and information search tools, as well as immersive societal, academic, and corporate research databases have propagated at an unimaginable rate. We are overwhelmed with information destinations, and the competition among them generates overload and confusion in users. A very human effect is that our ability to process and evaluate information, to critique and evaluate it in a human scaled time frame, eludes us. In short, we are all becoming somewhat ADD. This is an underlying theme by visionary media critic Jaron Lanier in his recent book, You Are Not a Gadget.

Amazon.com– You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto link

Consider this. In any given restaurant environment, an established venue for intimate conversation, food and drink—how many of our neighbors are making phone calls, checking email, or texting, rather than conversing with their partners? Short attention spans and distraction seem the new norm. There’s an old mantra from the 70s EST self-improvement seminars, “Be Here Now.”

I think it’s safe too say that most of us are not as fully present in the present as we once were. And what about our “born digital” children? Only time will answer that question.

The rapid fire, disruptive style of Chaos Cinema becomes a veritable mirror held up to the reality of today’s multi-media platforms and to our diminished attention span; it’s not just a subversive cinema aesthetic. It will take some distance from our own immersion in it to decide whether Chaos Cinema will evolve to be a new paradigm for movies as a new Classical Style or become just another one of those techno-based time capsule techniques that peak, wane, and disappear as the art of filmmaking moves ever forward into its always uncertain future?

Next: The "Lost Souls" photographs of Lena Herzog and the "cabinet of wonders" that inspired them--- as well as her thoughts on the deep dimensions of pyrogallol developing, and the exactitude of laser aligned printers.

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