Metaphysical Thoughts – Cinema and our fellow existence

stardust-memoriesDo you ever find it bizarre that we all exist in the same time and space? I am talking about the living, not the deceased. The deceased are much like cinema, but more on that in a later article.

We exist and we are often very concerned and consumed by this existence. Consequently, our burgeoning thoughts might be entirely self-centered. Yet, there are billions of other people equally wrapped up in similar thoughts at precisely the same moment in time. What does this mean? I have absolutely no idea.

But, do you ever ponder what another person is doing as you ponder it? They could be living their life in any shape or circumstance imaginable. You will never know, but you will always know that something is happening. I can’t work out if this is a freedom or an absolute affliction. How can it be that other people seem so free, yet, as individuals, we are wholly stuck with ourselves? I am not saying that we should all be Siamese twins. Rather, one of the many reasons is surely that our mind cannot belong to anybody else; I am focused on mind, not body. Our mind is a sole benefactor of our own being that can never ever, ever, ever be accurately distilled, or shared, by another individual. A sad truth, it seems.

This is where cinema comes in. I am not saying that cinema has the power to distill far away cognitions with unqualified accuracy, but actually I am, because cinema has no life in reality to tell us otherwise. In other words, the cinema (the character up on the screen) can’t turn back around at everyone in the auditorium and say, “Hey, actually that isn’t how I was feeling, you inconsiderate bastard!” Instead, we are free to interpret cinema by our own choosing. Yes, the arts really are liberal.

purple_roseForgetting this psychological insight, I want to return to my opening concern regarding time and space and suggest that cinema breaks apart our existence amidst this cosmic conundrum. When we watch characters on the screen, they do no longer exist in the same time and space as us (unlike our imaginary friend on the other side of the world) because they exist in a space of non-existence – the silver screen. We can think about these characters long after the show and know that they do no longer exist parallel to us, but that their effect can still be felt. Their effect might even be felt more than those, in reality, who exist as our friends and neighbours. These characters always exist in a completely altered reality of time and space. This is a profound magic trick that the cinema has been employing since its birth and one that has been interpreted in many ways through the history of film studies.

However, I want you to look at the trick from the bizarre perspective of why people in our real lives are all exactly in accordance with our own time. Don’t take this too scientifically (the laws of the universe can easily explain this), but looks at it more critically from a philosophical perspective. We are all living in the same moment. Being (a Martin Heidegger term for the universe – apologies for my painful simplification) can never escape from being (our own self), and vice versa. As this is the case for indefinitely ever after, we can begin to see cinema as it prevails to a utopian status! A simple conclusion: cinema is far more important, and more metaphysically demanding, than we may believe.

Written by Charlie Bury

A couple of film recommendations that shed light on some of these thoughts:

 – Stardust Memories (Woody Allen, 1980)

The Purple Rose of Cairo (Woody Allen, 1985).

Magic in the Moonlight – It is Woody Allen

magic-in-the-moonlight

Magic in the Moonlight (US, 2014)

UK Release by Sony Pictures Classics – 19th September 2014

Written and Directed by Woody Allen

Brief Synopsis: A profound romantic comedy about a pessimistic yet largely successful magician sent to unmask a likely fraud in the South of France.

Woody Allen manages to dispel a number of his perilous qualms surrounding mortality and the meaning of life into this loveably quotable and highly imaginative little picture. My favourite line from the film being: “You’re born, you commit on crime, and then you’re sentenced to death.” It is simply a delight for fans. There is ample intelligence to be sourced beneath the dialogue and turn of events in this film; it is a lesson in existentialism and it will open up a wonder of insightful queries for your mind to dwell on (but, don’t dwell for too long!). There are illustrious characters in tasteful dramatic conflict, elegant costumes, classy music, amiable and warm cinematography and just about whatever else you’d expect from Allen. However, if you aren’t a fan of Allen’s work, forget it, you will hate the film!

The plot is straightforward and the twist is undeniable, but this is no reason not to seep with enjoyment. In this case, one can know what to expect from Allen and that be the pure reason for the enjoyment. The charm and wit of his filmmaking is on show and it is an admirable trait, so thoroughly grounded in his vast body of work that we can forgive the odd slip-up and count it for bonus points.

Colin Firth plays the pessimistic magician who acts as we imagine Allen himself would; the character evidently explores Allen’s feelings and beliefs, as every good writer hopes to achieve through their characterisation. Firth is cast well and acts with the clear self-loathing and doubt that is needed for the typically unfriendly hermit. Although, I continue to struggle with his persona, the sly appearance that finds its way into all his films. However, it fits the character here, so the traits merge rather uncannily. Every turning point for Firth is leaps and bounds and one might feel a gurgle of over-acting, yet in the world of this hopeless world, the latter becomes manageable and a flamboyant image of the 20s. At times, I would have found the film more appealing if Allen had taken on the role, no doubt he would have been flapping all over the place, but he might have carried off the part with greater conviction (because he would be playing himself). This reminds me of Kenneth Branagh’s performance of an Allen archetype in Celebrity, which was spot-on; unfortunately, with Firth that isn’t the case so you have to give him an alternate epitome.

Emma Stone, dare I say, is somewhat divine in her portrayal of the young socialite spirit seeker. She is the perfect gauge of timid and alluring. Every subtle gesture can be read a number of ways, and it becomes clear that everyone is falling head over heels for her intriguing ways. There is the comedy that Stone brings to the character that excels; one can imagine a young woman travelling away from America in the 20s to be having just as much fun and commotion. Her obsessive admirer and the rest of his family are catastrophically ludicrous and provide much amusement in the way of tantalising prose and burlesque behaviour. Allen’s characters always sound wildly fictitious, yet they frankly resonate in conveying the truth behind certain ways of human beings and thus implement profound meanings. This makes a film special, and for me it is what makes Allen’s so enthralling.

There is a curious substance in Allen’s films that is hard to expound, it is neatly wrapped up in his pictures; the ingredient might be a direct belief explicated to the audience but without the bite; it is a piece of an artists integrity. Allen’s genius has not wavered despite what many critics say; the Allen that many of us know and love is still there to enjoy and explore further, as every new picture entails. I believe audiences get lazy when an artist grows old; I say stop reminiscing over Annie Hall and view each picture in the light of a fresh or, rather, more refined soul. Magic in the Moonlight explores the meaning of life and its inexplicable possibilities more head on than ever before; one way of looking at it is that the poor man still has no answers to life and its multifarious frustrations!

4.5/5 

A Discussion of Film Technique

Sergei-Eisenstein

The early filmmakers and film theorists (many of whom were both) discovered the fundamental techniques of film and hence called for the appreciation of the medium as an art form. Soviet filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin discovered the turbulent effects of montage, commonly referred to today as simply the process of editing: the stitching together of a series of shots to form a linear (or non-linear) narrative. [i] With montage, the filmmaker is able to transcend the space and time of a narrative; something that had never been done before cinema and that is taken for granted today. However, montage means far more than merely putting the constructs of a film together and as the masters of cinema have discovered, it is fundamental to their unique expression and intrinsic to ensuing direct control over audience reactions and behaviours.[ii]

The filmmakers in Hollywood began utilising tools of the camera and montage to a classical effect (angles, movements, continuity editing etc.) that reached pitch perfect by the 1940s (or more specifically, 1939, the year commonly referred to as the golden year for film). They used several camera angles to create compositions of varying meaning and perception that allowed greater control over the process and the editor to become the key manipulator of the unfolding story. For example, an editor chooses the exact frame on which to cut the characters action with a reaction (the cause-effect approach); whether dialogue or an action sequence. This formula of Hollywood film technique was flawless; it is the framework for approaching a classical narrative and classical cinema would know no different.

Citizen-Kane-Secrets

However, a couple of years later emerged further pioneering filmmakers introducing techniques to Hollywood that laid bare the current rhythmic montage and presented alternate methods. For example, the deep focus shots of panoramic views that allowed for far more effective shot sequences, like introducing a close-up parallel to a master-shot. Orson Welles and William Wyler are forerunners of such movements and throughout the 1940s and 1950s the auteur in film developed as the director implemented a greater and more vigorous understanding and control of their style. For example, in Citizen Kane, Welles uses single shots with a deep focus to cover entire scenes and, thus, carefully lets the audience pick out specific points of detail. Welles had full control to use a close-up or alternating shot to devastating effect simply because he savoured such tools at his disposal (of course, before sound, long takes were common, but scenes remained primitive and classical technique was only in its prospective development).

From the 1960s, film technique (or rather exploration of) explodes and is sewn together by innovative filmmakers from across the globe with an eye to pitch their new wave of style.[iii] It is clear, however, that the foundations of film technique and even experimental forms, were all manifest and in practice from the classical era of filmmaking. Exploitation films and progressive/subversive genres simply got buried beneath the mount of classical cinema until the disintegration of the studio system in 1948 (Paramount Case[iv]). B-movies started getting more attention and filmmakers plunged into the deep waters of making films on shoestring-budgets. However, really one needn’t look no further at the vast world of cinema, which today rehashes and replicates all that has come before (albeit with particular visions), than the pioneers and masters of early and classical cinema, if one wishes to gain a fully comprehensive understanding of film and technique.

Alfred-Hitchcock

I want to briefly discuss the film technique of Alfred Hitchcock (he is always a good place to start), a filmmaker who utilised just about every technique the cinema has to offer within his tales of deceit and murder. From revealing pans in trembling close-ups to harsh low-angles of towering objects and from suspenseful montage (and direction) to layers of allegoric meaning, he has carved a succinct and colossal discourse of film techniques.[v]

How is suspense created? We have all heard of Hitchcock’s label “The Master of Suspense” and whilst he did continually make thrillers, they didn’t necessarily have to have the same degree of suspense – this is the touch of Hitchcock, if you like. The basic indicator of suspense is revealing the horror before the subject (or in terms of dramatic construction – dramatic irony). For example, in Psycho the audience sees the shadow of the killer as he raises the knife behind the shower curtain before our heroine, who witnesses the latters brutal attack. Yet, Hitchcock has a certain aura (or added layer) of creating such suspense and this is accomplished by his specific use of film technique. Suspense is a narrative technique, like mystery (the reversal of suspense) or surprise (the coinciding revealing of an event), and whilst narrative technique and film technique are inextricable (one can’t exist without the other; just as to film something you have to apply a film technique – the cameras viewpoint), Hitchcock enriches, upholds and resolves the former technique with the latter.

shower-head-Psycho

The camera lingers in the shower with our heroine, immediately shadowing the heroine’s narrow field of vision. Amidst this field, Hitchcock moves his camera above the subject (she is nothing but an ant about to be stamped on) and across the axis (the 180 line: a relatively strict rule cinematographers abide by in order to keep the audience in line) to reveal all sides of our victim; she is weak and so are we. Hitchcock has offset the audience by his sequence and it is then that the killer is revealed in the shadows. Hitchcock has built up the suspense, in effect, before he has applied it. Whilst, you could rightly label narrative techniques under the heading of film techniques, in my analysis I am aiming to refer specifically to technical devices; the camera and the editing; the two vital and expedient processes of cinema.

Film technique is arguably more powerful than any story and plot structure, as it gives you infinite control over what the audience sees and how and when they see it. You cannot scatter a narrative and execute it to the same effect (Tarantino explores with the limitations of this effect notably in Pulp Fiction); scenes must retain a reasonably substantial order; each must punch into the next. However, a choice of film technique is immeasurable and impossible to avoid; it is what nurtures a filmmaker’s vision. The filmmaker can represent the subject however they please within the wondrous three-dimensional space that is offered to them. Beginning a scene in a close-up or a wide shot is the filmmakers choice, the narrative, or rather the plot, remains fundamentally the same, but the filmmaker can alter the audience’s reception to the narrative with film technique. Such is the power and the language of the cinema. It is not just shot composition, but the sequence of editing the shot compositions together that the filmmaker should adore. A close-up may be repeated, or only used for one second instead of four, as intended; all processes change the expression of the filmmaker and his judgement of the narrative. Indeed, a daunting process for the filmmaker is working out how to cover a scene, by cover I mean what shots they will use, and how they will stage and block the scene. Of course, there is nothing more exciting than this exposition, it is discovering the inner fibres of your film and it is also discovering the fibres of yourself, the filmmaker.

You will hear, “script is king”. Well, the filmmaker (film director) is “king” and queen. He is the sense and sensibility of the script and the pioneer of its land. Of course, you must have a great script, and a great filmmaker can make a great script great, but a great script on the shelf is not a great film, it is nobody. A great filmmaker would be silly to direct a script that wasn’t great (or at least that he/she thought wasn’t great) and therefore this discussion of script (or screenwriting) is vain to an analysis of film technique; we can assume the material that a filmmaker has chosen to work with is good.

wesmrfox2

I don’t wish to dismiss contemporary pioneers of film technique. Wes Anderson is a prime suspect of innovation and flair in filmmaking. Metaphorically, he creates a symmetrical box in which to frame his action that can move up, down, left, right, or in and out. Occasionally, the camera jumps to the far side of the box or sits on the roof, but it never breaks this manner of primitive and proportioned framing. Whist this is innovative, it is no more than a fresh refurbishment of film techniques; the director has utilised the techniques of the camera and staging to create his own style within his canvas, as should any great film director (or artist, in relation to their canvas). I will further define how I am using the term film technique (it often gets used as common excuse for anything film production), the technique is the central grouping of film compositions (shots), montage (edits) and sequences (scenes); techniques that have phenomenal undergrowth of exploration and which belong exclusively to the cinema.

These cannot be changed, the close-up shot will always be the close-up shot, but it is how the filmmaker uses it that I am concerned with. This draws on a fundamental principle of the cinematic language, it shows and then it tells; and film directors have often stressed the importance on how you show it that matters (this is characteristic to the subsequent telling). No contemporary filmmaker is able to pioneer, for example, the close-up shot (I believe first used by Georges Melies of the moon in Le Voyage dans la lune (1902)), but they can structure it effectively within a sequence that makes it innovative and appear utterly fresh and convincing, but it will be innovative only to that filmmaker’s style. In other words, technique, at its innermost core, is never new, but if it is utilised by a master, it can appear as such.

A reductive approach could argue that all film technique is drawn from the other arts, at the core of its invention, the seventh art is photographic, steals a generous palette from painting and it pinches the actor from the theatre. Of course, this can be ridiculed by modernistic approaches to film; the illusion of the moving image itself as a new phenomenon provides generous possibilities for techniques to evolve. The surrealists had an art form that is able to uncannily blend fantastical elements with the real; painting could never achieve the same impact. The close-up first appeared in painting, but the close-up in film will have an entirely different effect. Distinguishable meanings and implications are, of course, the beauty of each individual art form; and meaning in the cinema continues to blossom at the cutting-edge.

manhattan-shot

Lets not forget that film has been praised and simultaneously impugned for its tendency to merge multiple arts under one umbrella, but this is why the medium is home to some of the greatest artistic geniuses. Why did Woody Allen start making films? He could express his artistic values: his favourite music (Jazz), comedy (his own stand up and Mel Brooks), art, sculpture, photography (The Museum of Modern Art) literature (The Catcher in The Rye), theatre (Broadway), architecture (New York) and films (from Bergman to Bunuel) under one canvas. Indeed, as a true auteur of his craft, it also allowed him to express layers of meaning from his own life and concurrent philosophical insights – death, religion, moral relativity etc. – and appropriately (and with great talent) digest those interests via the language and technique of film.

I want to end this discussion by saying that if film technique is used correctly, if it connects with the concurrent meaning and implication of the subject, then it will create good and stimulating cinema. If it is masterfully constructed, if it connects with every sequence, act, and the entire story while adding an ambiguous but concise layer of allegory, then it almost becomes magic and is certainly categorised as great cinema. If you witness a masterpiece, it is because the magic of the film technique (there are other factors of course, you need a great story, but as mentioned earlier, a bad film director – a filmmaker who hasn’t mastered the language and his technique – won’t make a good film) used by the filmmaker seamlessly catches your tongue and sews you to the story, layer by layer, so you can only succumb to praise of what is an impeccable execution of the form. A separate discussion is raised, an audience’s varying interpretation of film technique (though this should be at the unconscious level – a filmmakers technique should pass the spectators eye integrally, or, in fact, unnoticed – at least this is the case for typical audiences). Let’s conclude that if the filmmaker has executed his technique how he wished (and he is closest to the material) then it will be so purely inscribed that even if you (as a viewer) don’t connect with the filmmakers intentions it will otherwise have an equivalent effect (possibly at the unconscious level) in an equal and opposite direction.

 

To be continued…

 

Notes:

[i]For a discussion on the three pioneering techniques of Soviet montage and related topics see Eisenstein Film Form and/or The Film Sense.

[ii]For a great book on film editing, see Walter Murch’s In The Blink of an Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing.

[iii]See Peter Cowie Revolution!: Explosion of World Cinema in the Sixties for an insightful introduction to world cinema and disparate styles of filmmaking.

[iv]For a discussion surrounding the studio systems collapse and the battle between the competing world industries (specifically Europe and America) see David Puttnam’s The Undeclared War: Struggle for Control of the World’s Film Industry.

[v] If you are interested in Hitchcock then there are plenty of great books to discover more about his technique and style. Here are a couple of my favourites: Hitchcock: Centenary Essays edited by Richard Allen S. Ishii Gonzales and Hitchcock: A Definitive Study of Alfred Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut.

Short Reflections from the Silver Screen: Husbands and Wives

Husbands-and-WivesHusbands and Wives

US. 1992. Woody Allen.

Woody gives us a rational taste for married life; it is compulsive and there are plenty of hysterics. But, ultimately, this movie delivers deep meanings, wistful emotions and it is classic Woody Allen.

Can our fantasies ever escape the truth? Is there more to relationships than the passion? Why are things in life so complicated? Such questions and themes Allen likes to explore, and does so fervidly here through two marriages that seem happily complacent on the surface, but are really dismally repressed with problems ranging from sexual thirsts to mere attention seeking. As always in Allen’s films, the cast is spot on and bold in their performances of largely inflammatory and disparate characters.

The relentless camera that darts around the room struggling to keep up with the couples’ tirades adds to the invigorating and neurotic emotional states that they possess. These long takes cut with interview snippets of the characters and a narrator’s voice over that give the whole film a documentary feel; it could even appear as an extraordinarily well conducted reality TV show on Husbands and Wives.

 

*All reflections are from my film journal.

Short Reflections from the Silver Screen: Play it Again, Sam

Play-It-Again-Sam

Play it Again, Sam

US. 1972. Herbert Ross

This is a very funny Woody Allen, I was laughing throughout at his endless Woodyisms and neurotic behaviours. In one scene, at his apartment covered in Humphrey Bogart movie posters, I laughed so loud and hard, I felt more awkward than Allen does himself in this film. And, there are some very awkward, almost squeamish, moments; most of which amount to Allen’s failing attempts at finding, or even approaching, a new girlfriend.

This may sound cliché and corny, but the script (based on Allen’s stage play) is tight, active and ends charmingly; Casablanca’s ending is recycled wonderfully; the film has a remarkably fresh pace.

The chemistry between Allen and Diane Keaton foreshadows their great relationship that would span the decade (working and personal). Allen’s acting, still with its goofy moments, does take a step back from his slapstick frenzy at the time (Take the Money and Run, Bananas, Sleeper) and adds some sentiment and melodramatic weight; it is really the first time that we see Allen play out his actual self. Keaton is a charmer who matches Allen’s offbeat approach; she is also a trendsetter with her fashion in this movie and those to come.

 

*All reflections are from my film journal.

David Blaine – “You’re a maniac”

david_blaine_real_or_magic

I quote Ricky Gervais above, one of the many celebrities to feature on David Blaine’s new TV show Real or Magic.

I’ve seen some of David Blaine’s stuff before, but this show casts a new spell on the meaning of magic. This show has stuck with me like a needle in my head (not my arm, as Blaine does with joy) ever since I watched it a few days ago on new years day.

There appears to be no logical reason behind the supernatural acts that Blaine performs, such as passing sensitivity from one body to another and sticking needles through different parts of his body with no pain or blood. Also, the fact that these acts are performed on various superstars from Will Smith to Kanye West puts the performance on a monumental scale. At one point, Harrison Ford says anxiously to Blaine, “Get out of my house.” He is truly freaked and it is an absolute thrill to watch.

Harrison-Ford-on-David-Blaine-Real-or-Magic

I actually found myself bursting out with laughter on occasion – at the madness of the magic and the dumbfounded expressions of Blaine’s victims. One simply can’t hold back at peoples gaping jaws and popping eyes, the disbelief of the Smith family is notably hilarious. However, there is also a moment or two of delight, for example when Stephen Hawking proclaims to Blaine, “I don’t know how you did it” with a wonderful smile on his face.

I’m truly flabbergasted by this show and cannot wait for the next episode.

So, is this guy an alien, a maniac, a natural born freak, or just a very clever man? Watch the show on 4oD and let me know your thoughts!

Watch on 4oD here.