28 April 2009

Camera Movement in PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC

This is a paper I wrote for class on Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc. It focuses on camera movement, particularly the use of the tracking shot. I tried to match descriptions with clips. The tone is very dry as this is an academic paper, but I hope some insight can be had.

While the formal element that has come to distinguish Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is the close-up, its function within the film is largely defined by its relationship to other elements of mise-en-scène, most significantly by the tracking shot. By using extensive camera movement in contrast to close-ups of Joan, Dreyer highlights the violence in Joan’s accusers as well as Joan’s saintly otherness. It is by closely examining the tracking shots and their function throughout the film, in conjunction with the relationship they share with the editing, that a deeper understanding of Dreyer’s characterizations can be grasped.

The first real shot of the film*, after the somewhat obligatory shots of the records of Joan’s trial, is a tracking shot that travels screen right showing the room where Joan’s trial takes place. Within this shot there are two distinct groups of characters, the judges/priests and the soldiers, which are respectively set in the foreground and background. While this could certainly function as an establishing shot, Dreyer seems less concerned with establishing spatial coordinates than he is with establishing a unity between the two groups. The movement of the tracking shot joins the various individual characters on screen into a collective whole, suggesting everyone within the frame is on the same side – the priests, judges, soldiers, and even the scribe. The tracking shot also initially disallows any emotional connections to be made with the various characters since they occupy the frame for such a short time and share it with so many others, forming a rather faceless mass.

This mass is almost immediately contrasted to the entrance of Joan, who is given the film’s first close-up. Joan’s close-ups throughout the film are marked by their purity: the frame is usually filled with nothing but Joan’s face with the background completely bare. This technique not only emphasizes the beauty and distinction of Joan’s face in contrast to nearly everyone else’s, but it also brings attention to the stasis of the frame, which clashes with the movement and underlines Joan’s moral and spiritual stability. Though some judges are given close-ups, these are done in a sporadic fashion, making it easy to confuse one ugly judge with another – some appearing and then disappearing forever (like Michel Simon’s close-up), while others are interrupted by the appearance of another face within the frame suddenly. The opposition created between mass identity and sole identity as well as movement and stasis through the juxtaposition of these two techniques causes a certain friction to be created. This friction is further punctuated by the various tracking shots of Joan’s accusers as they become less patient and their questions become more hostile.


*(3:20) **(7:04) ***(8:26)

There is an underlying violence at the root of the Dreyer’s use of camera movement. This violence is first experienced in a backward tracking shot of a thin priest standing up to yell at Joan after she answers that she was sent by God**. The combination of a quick backward tracking shot with the priest simultaneously standing up creates a very forceful motion, much like a small explosion, which is accentuated by the way it is quickly and unexpectedly edited between two close-ups.

As Joan’s trial progresses, the unpredictable nature of the editing further emphasizes the violent nature of the court. By not being able to anticipate the next image on screen, Dreyer creates a sense of chaos among the judges, priests, and soldiers. Take, for example, the shots following Joan’s statement regarding the English being chased out of France or dying there***: a young British soldier is given a tight close-up, shot with a quick tracking movement forward; cut to a close-up of Joan; cut back to the same shot of the young soldier; cut to a close-up of an old priest who then moves towards the camera; cut to a tracking shot that travels screen right to show the reactions of other priests, some of which start to stand; cut to a medium-long of the old priest coming between Joan and the soldiers, looking down at her.

In this sequence Dreyer emphasizes the agitation and latent violence of the court through camera movement and editing. The quick, pendulum-like tracking movement of the young soldier makes the soldier’s face seem like a punching fist. This is followed up with the old priest physically moving out of the frame, suggesting a certain power to overstep not only spatial boundaries, but, given his position and subsequent actions, moral and legal ones as well. The tracking shot of the reacting priests in this sequence again works towards a certain mass unity in opposition to Joan, but paired with its accelerated speed and sudden appearance through editing carries over the violence first suggested by the young soldier. The final shot of this sequence, of the old priest coming between the soldiers and Joan, suggests that he prevented some great violence from the soldiers while at the same time gives off a menacing tone in the way the priest is postured over Joan like some robed vulture. This sequence expresses a swelling of hostility and violence that reaches a breaking point through certain camera movements and editing patterns.

Another violent swell and climax occurs during the torture room sequence****, which explicitly links movement with violence through Eisensteinian editing. After Joan exclaims “Alone with God!” there is a cut to a still shot of a thick chain which slowly travels upward. This is cut against a slow tracking shot of the heads of different judges. Dreyer then cuts back to the chain, which reveals a giant hook on the end. By cutting these images against each other Dreyer likens the links in the chain to the unified row of judges’ heads. The cut back to the giant hook, a torture device, makes clear that the unified purpose of the judges and priests, who are visually united through the tracking shot, is one of violent intentions towards Joan. Dreyer emphasizes this comparison by shooting several sets of torture devices – spiked logs, funnels, saws – in the same type of tracking shot that he shoots the rows of judges. The visual assault of the giant spiked wheel spinning cut against sporadic close-ups of yelling judges, again linked together through montage, swells to a point of intensity and increased speed in editing and onscreen movement until it climaxes with Joan fainting. While this final sequence does not have any tracking shots, it does display an incredible amount of movement from objects and characters on screen, allowing the connection between movement and violence to remain.

****(4:07)

The last significant sequence featuring tracking shots occurs while Joan gets her hair cut until she burns at the stake. Dreyer introduces a new set of characters to the film – villagers and freakshow performers – who are shot in a tracking shot that moves camera left. These tracking shots are cut between close-ups of Joan getting her haircut and weeping. While it would seem odd for Dreyer to shoot these characters in the same way he shot the judges and torture devices, the point is not so much to villainize the villagers or performers but to highlight the mounting violence within the film. The performances are mostly violent in nature – sword swallowers, contortionists – and the villagers seem to be united by their appreciation of these violent performances. Even so, Dreyer is careful to make the villagers sympathetic characters as they weep for Joan when she burns on the stake. They are shot in tracking shots, cut between tracking shots of the wood burning. In this case, the tracking shots again serve to unify various individual characters into a mass whole, this time in opposition to the other unified mass, which are the soldiers. Thus, the tracking shots of the villagers are also underscored by violence – the burning of the wood matches the burning of their anger about Joan’s innocent death. This anger swells through the editing back and forth between the images, heightened by a particular pendulum-like tracking shot (which resembles the previous pendulum-like shot of the young soldier) in which weapons are thrown from the castle window down to the soldiers. The violence erupts with the proclamation made by a villager that the judges have burned a saint, causing a series of rapidly edited shots featuring motion that resembles the final shots of the torture chamber sequences.

In some ways it seems that the final sequence serves to ultimately show how a crowd of villagers have taken up Joan’s spirit and resisted the English soldiers, giving significance to her death. On the other hand, the final sequence seems more like a slaughter than a fight, with defenseless villagers (many of which are old women) being bludgeoned by giant spiked balls within a second of protestation. In this case, I would suggest that Dreyer wants to insist on Joan’s saintliness as a distinction which sets her apart from everyone else – soldiers, priests, judges, and villagers – making the final violent scenes a foil to her divinity. Throughout the film this distinction is visually made through Joan’s constant close-ups, which are unique in their framing, repetition, and duration. Also, Joan never once appears in a tracking shot, simultaneously suggesting that she is unique and that she is absent of hostile violence. Though Joan is a soldier and has fought in battles, the motivating factor for such violence has nothing to do with the resentment and anger that fuel the violence of the judges, soldiers, or even the villagers – Joan’s actions are divinely inspired by God. Ultimately, Joan is alone with God, and everything Dreyer does throughout the film in terms of technique is used to convey that.


22 April 2009

Emperor's Twilight Years: DREAMS and RHAPSODY IN AUGUST

There is a very interesting series going on at BAM entitled "The Late Film." The focus is on late films of certain directors -- Ozu, Bresson, and Kubrick among several others -- which are marked by certain stylistic or thematic departures from the earlier work of their artistic peaks. Here is their description:

A great director often reaches a point towards the end of a long career when he works completely at his own pace. The work made in this period can be ddeceptively casual or slightly feverish, but is made with absolute assurance, often in defiance of stylistic and structural norms. These films can be among the most complex and interesting in a body of work, often approaching signature themes from new angles, as illustrated in this series of late films by master directors.

This was followed up by A.O. Scott of the NYTimes in an interesting article called "Directors in their Magic Hour" in which he cites the contradictory energies of these films -- "the work of accomplished artists past their prime and full of promise... Late work is both familiar and strange, characteristic of the artist and yet markedly at odds with everything that preceded it."

Though he's not represented in this series, I thought it would be interesting to look at the late works of Akira Kurosawa, particularly Dreams (1990) and Rhapsody in August (1991).

Kurosawa (1910-1998) has a body of work that reaches into several different genres and styles -- from samurai pictures (Seven Samurai, Yojimbo), to detective films (Stray Dog, High and Low), to moral dramas (Drunken Angel, Ikiru), to literary adaptations (The Idiot, The Lower Depths) -- each marked by a commanding artistry through visual style and narrative construction that has come to be recognized as Kurosawa's auteurist stamp. Though arguable, I would say Kurosawa's artistic peak begins with Rashomon in 1950 and ends with Red Beard in 1965, which is quite a long peak, highlighted by several internationally-recognized masterpieces of cinema.

Red Beard is significant not only because it is Kurosawa's last film in black and white, but it also marks the end of his professional relationship with Toshiro Mifune. He apparantly spent longer on the production of this film (over two years) than any other project he undertook up to that point in his career. The story focuses on the humanist and existential themes Kurosawa had investigated throughout his entire career, making it almost a type of summation of all of his work up to that point.

After Red Beard Kurosawa went through a series of disasters: he was fired from the production of Tora! Tora! Tora!; Japanese film studios were shutting down; his first color feature, Dodeskaden, the first and only production from his newly-founded production company Club of the Four Knights, was a commercial failure; a year later after the failure of Dodeskaden he attempted suicide.

Nearly a decade after his suicide attempt Kurosawa managed to make two samurai epics (Kagemusha, Ran) which saw a return to form in a powerful way. (I personally think Ran is among his best work, if not his masterpiece; I still have not seen Kagemusha.) These films can perhaps be seen as the lion's last roar before he lies down; a final exertion of strength and power in the twilight of his life. After Ran (1985), Kurosawa made three films -- Dreams (1990), Rhapsody in August (1991), and Madadayo (1993) -- before dying of stroke at age 88 in 1998.


Dreams (or, Akira Kurosawa's Dreams) features a series of vignettes in which a surrogate Kurosawa of different ages are the subjects of various dream worlds. The dreams range from the whimsical (surrogate Kurosawa entering a Van Gogh painting to meet the tortured artist) to the horrifying (nuclear holocaust). Each of these dreams is characterized by a reflective tone in which the world of the dreams is as mystifying to the protagonist as it is for us as viewers. Most of the time there is a strange awe evoked by these dreams, a mixture of wonder and of fright. Death is a somewhat dominant theme throughout, but it is often paired by a desire to take claim of ones life despite it. But not always -- sometimes life is just hell, as in the dreams about nuclear holocaust and its effects, which are more like nightmares.

The visual style in Dreams is distinguished by the expressionistic use of color. Having the leeway to disregard realism in his use of color Kurosawa seems to enjoy using bold, bright colors to accentuate the lush dream worlds -- certainly the influence of his life-long flirtation with painting. The painting-like quality of the film is accentuated by its slow pace. It seems Kurosawa wants to encourage us to look around the frame and take in all the color and wonder of the dreams, to slow down and think about the conversations unhurriedly unfolding. This meditative tone culminates in the last dream in which surrogate Kurosawa talks with an old man who lives in a village completely devoid of modern technology. He slowly explains why their lifestyle suits them best as he mends a watermill wheel, only to be interrupted by a funeral parade which celebrates death with joy and dancing in the acknowledgment that life was well-spent. Perhaps that is how Kurosawa wishes to see his life, perhaps he can only do so in dreams (or on film).

Made a year later, Rhapsody in August brings back the contemplative tone and slow pace of Dreams, this time within an attempt at realism. The story focuses on a grandmother living in Nagasaki. She is visited by her grandchildren during their summer vacation and spends her days telling them stories about the nuclear bomb dropped at the end of WWII and her family. The stories range from sad (her husband dying) to magical (a water spirit saving her brother), somewhat matching the different moods created by the dreams in the previous film. The four grandchildren in turn investigate the different sites their grandmother mentions, become a quartet of travelers in the present in search of the ghosts of the past.

The children are left as surface characters, denied any depth or any real interest, merely serving as surrogates for our own investigation into the meaning of the bomb and its effects. Kurosawa speaks very directly here, making no real attempt to deal with the grander meaning of the war as a whole. He instead focuses on the lives of this one grandmother and those she knew and how they were effected as victims to an absurd moment in history. The film caused some American resentment in its failure to address anything except the victimization of the Japanese during the war, though it seems a little silly to me to accuse Kurosawa of being prejudiced -- he is not so concerned with the politics and history of that war in particular it seems, but of the larger implications of wars started by governments and sacrificing people, in some way reiterating ideas from Ran; it is about human suffering, not politics.

As far as camera movement, Rhapsody in August maintains a calm, meditative tone by making the most of the still shot. There are some very beautifully-composed shots in which two characters stare at the sky or into the woods and seem to just take it all in, as Kurosawa encourages us to do. The colors are not as loud as they were in Dreams, but there is certainly splashes of beautiful color every now and then, especially when filming the natural world. There is a particularly effective scene of a line of ants climbing a long rose stem to reach the bright pink flower (apparently directed by Ishiro Honda, of Godzilla fame).

While the grandchildren try to understand the bomb the grandmother's half-American nephew (played by Richard Gere) visits the family and seeks forgiveness and understanding for the bomb on behalf of Americans. It is a touching gesture that attempts to bridge understanding between generations, cultures, and nations. Even so, the grandmother cannot shake the "eye" of the bomb and the memories that plague her. All that's left to do is for her family to try to take care of her and to empathize.

In view of Kurosawa's entire ouevre these two films (I have not yet seen Madadayo) seem to reflect a certain contentment that Kurosawa has in looking back over his career and his life as an artist. He is still seeking, still asking questions, but the explorations are done in a way that lacks the urgency inherent in those earlier films. There is a certain peace which make these two films somewhat endearing for those who love Kurosawa or are familiar with his career. Though as artistic achievements they do not have the scope and depth of earlier masterpieces, they are still good films within a more self-contained world and are perfect for what they are.

15 April 2009

Top 10 Favorite Film Characters

Saw this meme going around some film blogs and thought I'd join in on the fun. As much as I'd like to avoid lists in place of actual posts I can't help myself every now and then.

1. John McCabe of McCabe & Mrs. Miller











"I've got poetry in me. I do. I've got poetry in me. I ain't going to put it down on paper. I ain't no educated man. I got sense enough not to try it."

Warren Beatty is a pleasure to watch and every wince, every smile, speaks volumes -- even when we can't hear a goddamn thing he says. It's his inability to say what he really feels/thinks that has me empathize more than anything else.

2. Norman Bates of Psycho











"I think I must have one of those faces you can't help believing."

Certainly the most sympathetic killer I've ever come across on the screen. I somehow relate to his stuttering, conflicted, and mild-mannered ways -- but not the whole killing/mommy-complex thing. And Anthony Perkins is probably the closest I'll get to having a screen star doppelganger.

3. GTO of Two-Lane Blacktop













"If I'm not grounded pretty soon, I'm gonna go into orbit."

Every bit of GTO's vanity -- his v-neck sweaters, his gloves, his loafers -- covers up an incredible loneliness that is made all-too clear in his toothy smile. He just wants to be loved.

4. Sanjuro of Yojimbo/Sanjuro











[family he has just saved is crying with gratitude] "Stop. Stop crying. It’s pathetic." [they keep crying] "I hate pathetic people. I'll have to kill you."

Sanjuro is the ultimate badass -- the Japanese (and original) Man With No Name. His cynicism and hostility, however, merely surround his humanist core and a desire for justice. And Toshiro Mifune is tops for me.

5. Jef Costello of Le Samourai











"I never lose. Never really."

The definition of cool for me. I wish I could pull off a trench coat and fedora like Alain Delon.

6. Guido of 8 1/2














"The truth is: I do not know... I seek... I have not yet found. Only with this in mind can I feel alive and look at you without shame."

Guido comes off as arrogant, vain, and self-indulgent (and he probably is), but he is ultimately in constant search for something genuine, for a life without contradictions. And he does it all with such charm and stlye.

7. Daniel Plainview of There Will Be Blood









"There are times when I look at people and I see nothing worth liking. I want to earn enough money that I can get away from everyone."

Maybe a bit of an obvious choice, but I am never tired of seeing this character on screen. Chinatown's Noah Cross was going to make this list, but I thought having both might be redundant.

8. Travis Bickle of Taxi Driver











"Loneliness has followed me my whole life. Everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There's no escape. I'm God's lonely man..."

Travis is someone who I always feel like I am on the verge of understanding and empathizing with, but who always takes things a step further than I can keep up with. This keeps him constantly interesting.

9. C.C. Baxter of The Apartment















"Ya know, I used to live like Robinson Crusoe; I mean, shipwrecked among 8 million people. And then one day I saw a footprint in the sand, and there you were."

Who doesn't love CC Baxter? Our loser hero; the one who never really gets things his way; the one suffering pain and loneliness with a smile; the one always on the verge of giving up; the one with the key everyone wants but that doesn't do him any good; the one that taught us nice guys finish last.

10. Eli Cash of The Royal Tenenbaums













"Please stop belittling me."

Eli Cash is representative of all the fantastic characters Owen Wilson plays in Wes Anderson's films -- lonely men suffering identity crises who go after things they can't have. They are also incredibly funny.

There we have it. Kind of funny/sad/creepy to find the characters I am drawn to are either psychotic (Bates, Bickle, Plainview), contract killers (Sanjuro, Costello), vain (McCabe, GTO, Guido, Cash), repressed (McCabe, Bates, GTO, Plainview, Bickle, Cash) or just plain lonely (all of the above). Also, I seem to be drawn to men who wear hats (Mccabe, Costello, Plainview, Baxter, Cash), but I think that may just be coincidence.

Who are your favorites?

13 April 2009

A Certain Slant of Light

*This is an echo post I made for another site, which is now defunct and was mostly unread. I thought I'd repost it in case it finds an extra reader or two through this blog. It's also a lazy way of updating without having any new material.


There are always those movies which, for whatever reason, we are put off by (or even hostile towards) the first time around, only later to come back to once or twice and find out it is one of our favorites. One of those films for me is Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven.

My first experience with a Terrence Malick film was his latest The New World which I saw a few years ago. At that point I had never heard of Malick and was not really conscious of film being anything more than entertainment. Safe to say The New World was not entertaining - I could barely hear anything the characters were saying, silence and nature imagery displaced dialogue and characterization, the camera felt distant, cold, and unconcerned for its characters. There was lush visual beauty, sure, but the slants of light that came through the trees seemed disingenuous, as if they were enough to make up for the lack in everything else.

A couple of years later I watched Days of Heaven based on the recommendation of several people. Though at that point I had learned a bit more about films and was better able to appreciate more "difficult" works, I still felt unsatisfied by the film. I could not understand what Malick was telling me. What is the lesson? What are the symbols? Where is the meaning hidden?? I was frustrated, not so much by the film but by my inability to understand it. Even so, the images struck me a little more than I remember The New World affecting me - the shots in the wheat fields at magic hour, the swarm of locusts, the great hellfire. I determined that this was worth another look.

Before I had that second look at Days of Heaven, however, I watched Badlands, Malick's first film. This film was much more immediately accessible as its story structure was nestled in a genre (lovers-on-the-run ala Bonnie and Clyde), and it thus established a comfortable frame of reference from which to appreciate (or hate) it. I loved Badlands immediately. I think this was because of a few reasons: my love of the Bonnie and Clyde archetype, the strangeness of its alteration of that story, the beautiful shots, and my awareness of the enigma that is Terrence Malick through an inside joke. I think Badlands is a good place to start for Malick because it starts with themes and techniques central to Malick but which offer them in a more "viewer-friendly" way in terms of narrative expectation.

I later went back to Days of Heaven (as it was rereleased on DVD in a pristine restoration approved by Malick), this time deciding to leave any expectations I had at the door. What I discovered the second time around was that my focus on narrative and intrinsic meaning was largely misguided. I found the images incredibly arresting and let myself soak them in with every shot, abandoning prior anticipations of the characters' appearance or the progression of their story. There are almost as many shots of fowl and fauna, of horizons and fields, as there are of the central characters. The film's tagline "your eyes... your ears... your senses... will be overwhelmed" makes sense as it is a visual and aural spectacle that largely insist on the beauty of the filmic image as being jusutified in itself without the need of any narrative conventions of character or plot.

I eventually watched Days of Heaven again, quite recently, and realized that the displacement of character and plot by visual aesthetics is not completely the case. The story is actually a very engaging and beautifully tragic one that does not need any compensation by visual polish. I think what I learned the third time around was that sometimes I have to stop looking for importance in a film. My appreciation of its visual aesthetics is only an appreciation of a part of the film and not of the film as a whole. I think I was covering my inability to understand the characters by insisting that they were ultimately not important, but that is antithetical to the film. Yes, the visual is largely important, but they exist for the characters and for the story; Malick does emphasize visuals and camerawork in telling the story, but that does not mean the story is unimportant. I think this is in many ways like a silent film, which allows the camera to tell the story more than dialogue or tightly scripted narrative construction. The third time around I was able to enjoy the film much more completely, adding realizations upon my previous viewings. I was able to experience it, if that makes sense.

I think Days of Heaven deserves more viewings and I will certainly watch it many more times as the years pass. I think this is really part of the magic of Days of Heaven because it deconstructs my expectations in order to allow me to experience film in a new way, a more emotionally resonant way. I believe I will see much more in The New World when I come back to it and I look foward to that happening. I'm sure I will look at those slants of light in a new way. I still have to see The Thin Red Line to complete my Malick ouvre, but I will take my time. After all, I may not like it that much the first time around.