Friday, February 02, 2007

Screengrab - Xibalba

"Morality is a question of tracking shots" - Luc Moullet, Cahiers du Cinema, 1959

Style is the grammar of cinema. How a filmaker uses his camera, where he positions it, how he composes and lights a frame, the palette he uses, how he cuts his shots together - this is style. I spend far too much time thinking about style, about how somebody with an invisible style can still manage to have a distinctive "voice" by a variety of different means (Howard Hawks or Woody Allen spring immediately to mind). How some directors alter their style from film to film but still manage to be more than mere hacks (Stephen Soderbergh, perhaps?). Or about how some directors have no real visual sense at all, and how this can really harm a well-scripted, nicely-acted film. Take Stephen Gaghan's Syriana, for example. Gaghan is primarily a writer ( he won an Oscar for his script for Traffic) and Syriana is full of good writing, both in terms of dialogue and characterisation. The actors are well-directed, with George Clooney giving probably the best performance of his career. But Gaghan seems to want to ape Michael Mann in his use of intimate hand-held cameras. The sense of authenticity, the intimacy of this style is present in Syriana, but Gaghan doesn't have Mann's eye or ability to orchestrate many elements to make a scene feel fresh and electric. Syriana always feels slightly pedestrian in its direction. There are none of those moments of sheer beauty familiar from Mann's work, which is a pity, because Gaghan's script is brave and deals with political issues in an adult way, a rarity in modern American cinema. But as a director, he will never be any more than competent - which is better than, say, Michael Bay can claim - which marks him out as an oddity in a Hollywood full of almost excessively visually-minded directors who came from the worlds of Music videos and advertising.

Darren Aronofsky, on the other hand, has a definite visual sense all of his own, and each of his three films is dazzling in its own way. He has co-written the scripts for each, suggesting that he has as much interest in narrative as style, a relief in terms of speculating about the future of his career. The Fountain may be his most visually ostentatious film, filled as it is with special effects and visual mirroring and echoing. Scenes and shots refer to one another, compositions recur. Aronofsky seems to love symmetrical compositions and his film is full of them to the point that it is noticeable whenever he breaks away for an asymmetrical shot.

Of course, cinema - and the eye - loves symmetry. The human face is symmetrical, as Aronofsky seems out to prove with his endless loving closeups of Rachel Weisz and Hugh Jackman, each staring deep into the camera. And the closeup is the most basic and perhaps most important shot in narrative cinema. But Aronfsky shoots so much of the rest of the film this way too : temples, a particular tree, people at prayer, the Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition, and even an overhead tracking shot. The only other director I can think of with such a symmetry obsession is Luc Besson, who perpetually places his characters right at the centre of the frame.

The Fountain addresses big, profound themes to match its visual style - love, death, spirituality - and though it doesn't really say anything radical or new, it is impressive in its very ambition and its visual grandeur. Also impressive is Aronofsky's willingness to use science fiction as a serious genre, a genre made for dealing with weighty themes. But those symmetrical compositions continue to bother me, mainly because I can't see a reason for their ubiquity throughout beyond Aronofsky's obvious affection for them. They don't seem to offer anything thematically, and it seems odd that a director as obviously smart and controlling as Aronofsky would be so casual about the look of his film. Perhaps it can be argued that they make the visual echoes throughout the film more obvious, with the various shots of Jackman in different time periods almost coalescing at the climax acting as the payoff. But then I recall his previous films, and the use of fish-eye lenses, which twist the world into a unique hall of mirrors symmetry, begins to seem particularly relevant. When I remembered this, the key recurring shot from Requiem for a Dream, it all made sense :

Hes just one of those directors who see the world this way, an image which is balanced on each side. Or at least, thats how he wants us to see it. Just like Besson, and to some extent Stanley Kubrick. Consider the iconic images from Kubrick's career and many of them are also symmetrical compositions : Kirk Douglas walking the trenches in Paths of Glory, Malcolm McDowell leering straight at the camera in A Clockwork Orange, the red eye of HAL in 2001, the boy rolling his tricycle along the corridors in The Shining...surely a director as deliberate and careful as Kubrick would have a reason for choosing this composition so often in his work? But thats another blog...

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Blogger daveysomethingfunny said...

I was thinking of Kubrick before you mentioned him. The whole composition thing had me thinking of him from the start...mostly around the shining.

I've watched it far too much and the main thing I gleam from the symetry in his and besson's work is that it adds an air of unrealness (not a word I'm sure) to the proceedings.

When Danny is rolling through the corridors and encounters the twins it's horribly unnerving but also unreal...theres still distance. This is the thing lots of people say about Besson...oodles of style but none of it feels real.

It feels unnatural but compelling to see things to perfectly balanced, as it doesn't happen in real life...although the possibility is there. It's hard to explain, but you know that ex[eriment they do when they show half a face mirroroed and it alooks all wrong, cos nature isn't symetrical? It's like that, only magnified.

2:56 am  
Blogger daveysomethingfunny said...

Worst edited comment ever. Sorry.

2:57 am  
Blogger Ross said...

Except the mirrored face looks wrong and unnatural, whereas the 'unreal' shots look like what they are - compositions, and so unnatural - but they look right. The point is that there is an artistry there that isn't present in just sticking a mirror up to the middle of someone's face.

They should do a film where they CG people's faces as mirror-symmetries.
Or not.

Actually it would make for a subtle altered reality nightmare sequence -the scene would look normal but things aren't quite right.

There should be a fuck ton more allegorical 70s style sci fi instead of the CGI action wank of ultraviolet and Aeon Flux.

We live in a world of fucking heathens who get Epic movie to number one.

2:06 am  
Blogger daveysomethingfunny said...

They did that film with symmetrical faces, and it was indeed a nightmare. It's anything with Jude Law in, personally I can't look at him for more than 30 seconds before my eyes start to water.

8:13 pm  
Blogger Ross said...

He was alright in Gattaca. And Existenz.
Closer? No. Trailer for B & E? No. A.I.? No. Maybe Enemy at the Gate...

8:04 pm  
Blogger David N said...

He's ok - if miscast - in Cold Mountain. And ok in Closer. Great in The Talented Mr Ripley. As a shallow, vain pretty-boy. Strange that. But hes just not a movie star, no matter how hard they try to make him one.

To be a Big Male Movie Star, you have to have appeal with both genders. The old "men want to be him, women want to be with him" thing. No man wants to be Jude Law, while they may envy his looks. He's too pretty, too metrosexual. At least Brad Pitt seems to be a bit of a slobbish oaf in real life. and Keanu Reeves doesn't look real. Depp is obviously far more than his looks. But Jude Law? Is there anything underneath that face?

12:04 am  

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