Thursday, March 12, 2009

Art and the Cinema, Part 2

Hey, again, for anyone who cares, sorry for the lateness of this. Midterms stacked up and I went to New York for a few days, and though I planned to work on the bus ride, I forgot I can get carsick. So yeah, hope a few of you stuck around and it isn't too little, too late.

As you may recall from Part 1 of this article, I was discussing my personal reaction to an article in Design Observer. Though I agreed with, and was greatly moved by, many of the points made there (especially by Rick Poynor), I did take issue with one section of the article that started all this, and it’s a trend I’ve noticed across cinephile blogs.

The contemporary obsession with “look” is often a distraction: all these numbskull caper and action movies that try to disguise their emptiness and lack of heart with desaturated colors, hyperactive camera lunges, syrupy layers of post-production, and the feverish intercutting of blip-length shots. That’s not what I mean by a concern with visual expression. I’m interested in visual style as a product of vision, not as an end in itself, and that’s what we see in Godard, Herzog, Malick or Lynch.

The more of this “look” filmmaking I see — Domino (2005) was probably the pits: I had to bail out — the more I admire the locked-off shots, long takes and trust in performance, made possible by fine writing, seen in classic American, European and Japanese cinema, where the action is allowed to unfold in its own time within the film frame, after careful planning. The frenetic contemporary shooting style often seems like a denial of the power of the image. It annihilates the image, smashing it stupidly into a series of transitory kinetic sensations that prevent you from looking at anything for very long, or thinking about what you are seeing and why the director wants you to see it.


So, turning back to film, it’s unlikely that many experienced viewers would consider Tony Scott, as “author” of Domino, to be the artistic equal of Bergman, as author of Fanny and Alexander.

Let’s start at the end and work our way back. First, it depends on what Poynor means by “artistic equal.” If he simply means, “Tony Scott doesn’t make films as great as Ingmar Bergman,” then, well…yes. Of course. That’s just silly. I am but a young cinephile, but I consider Bergman to be, if not the finest director who ever lived, then certainly one of the finest; a true master. Bergman is a man almost devoid of “equals,” especially if you consider the accomplishments made over his lifetime and variance of his work (say what you will about tone, though there are legitimate arguments to be made there; I’m talking about variance and development of style). The man simply made some of the best movies ever, and did so stunningly often.

But I strongly object to the use of quotations around “author” in regards to Scott, but not to Bergman. There is little doubt in my mind that Scott’s technique was not only more difficult than many of those Bergman employed, but was equally as inspired in its curiosity in exploring the possibilities of film. Bearing in mind Tony Scott’s process, is his achievement in Domino, in visual terms, really all that different from what Bergman experimented with in Persona?

There’s a fantastic featurette on the Domino DVD that deals solely with the visual style of the film. Basically, they used six hand-cranked cameras for all of the “manipulated” shots. All of those cameras were loaded with high-speed reversal film, which increases the grain and pumps reds, greens, and yellows. They would crank the cameras forward and backward to get images to layer over each other, sometimes shooting at different frame rates. The film would then be processed on machines not meant for that stock, and transfer at a high speed, creating streaking and trails. The ultimate goal was to create texture you can touch, reach, and smell, and to let the mistakes that would happen with reverse-cranking inspire them. Thankfully, the DVD shows some of the dailies, which aren’t so different from the final product, indicating relatively little postproduction work on the individual image.

Upon revisiting the film, I found that there actually weren’t as many “manipulated” shots as I’d remembered. A good number of them are composed, lit, and colored in a pretty standard fashion; maybe a touch high-contrast, but skin tones still look like skin tones.

But Poynor’s after something more fundamental here – this constant insistence that quick-cutting is a lesser form a filmmaking than the long take. I’ll admit my reverence for the long take, both in admiration of its execution and proclivity to be mesmerized by it. Indeed, Poynor’s example of the man in the car wash immediately brought to mind Matt Damon and Casey Affleck’s walk through the desert in Gerry, which – as those who read Part 1 remember – I’m quite fond of.

But I never for one second questioned Domino especially as a piece of art, and it still strikes me as that. For one, it uses the “look” more effectively than any other film that comes to mind to illustrate a character tripping on…I believe mescalin. Second, working on the definition I do, this is a film that constantly transcends what it literally represents, when it’s even representing something literal. And, finally, if the issue is that it’s just hard to follow, I’d ask any viewer to just pay closer attention. There’s no more tired argument, whether it be against Paul Greengrass (the Bourne films), Christopher Nolan (the two recent Batman films), or Tony Scott, but it’s all there onscreen, easily interpreted and deciphered.

Further, the art of Domino IS the editing. A few readers suggested I only saw compositions in film, but here’s an instance where the art is in how the shots relate to one another. Scott’s compositions are fairly standard, with only a few standouts (remember, this is the guy who you could very well credit with the silhouettes-against-the-horizon look that plasters the standard summer blockbuster), but the way the shots end up relating to each other is stunning. First, I challenge anyone to come up with an average shot length for this film; at the very least, it would be a frame-by-frame exercise, and even then I’m not entirely sure it could be done. Second, if you do, PLEASE explain how you decided where some of the shots end. There are several instances where only a few frames are cut to create a jump-cut, sometimes across film that’s already been reverse-cranked, so you have figures and their “ghosts” moving fractionally across the screen.

What you end up with, when the film is at its absolute height, is a revolution of the term “motion picture.” Shots will seem to morph into and around each other, and though you know subconsciously that at some point the set-up has changed and there WAS a cut, it becomes nearly impossible to figure out where and how that happened. Scott’s ability to challenge and subvert the very basics of the language of filmmaking – how one picture relates to another when projected in rapid succession – makes Domino one of the supreme artistic achievements of the new millennium.

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