Thursday, April 19, 2012

Road To Perdition

Sam Mendes is a favorite of mine, stemming from his work on my favorite film, American Beauty. This movie was my inspiration into filmmaking, due in large part to Alan Ball’s adept storytelling style and Mendes’ beautiful depiction of emotional frailty and violence. He carries this style into Road To Perdition, focusing heavily on the emotional impact of the story by using imagery to do the talking, keeping dialogue to a minimum.

Mendes is a storyteller in themes. In American Beauty, Mendes creates beauty in simple, mundane objects, such as a plastic shopping bag, which is used to help the audience realize that there “is so much beauty in the world…” that we fail to notice. In Road To Perdition, he creates beauty by setting the lighting and coloring in such a way that you feel as though you’ve stumbled into a great painting, versus a crime film. This film actually lacks standard coloring, instead focused on shades of brown, with hints of greens and blacks mixed in.

Mendes uses water as a constant theme in most of his movies. Water equals death. However, a key fact to note is that water is always flowing and changing and moving, and cannot be restrained. My guess is that Mendes was also attempting to state something to the effect of “fate cannot be controlled or managed. It is a benevolent force. No matter how hard we try to pull fate into the direction we want it, it will take the course that it determines, just as water does.” I think in this film, while water represents death, it can also represent fate.

The word Perdition is also a theme. Perdition has been used as a term for hell, and Sullivan Sr. is stuck in contradiction-he is literally leading his son to the city of hell, but also wants to protect him from it.

The cinematography in this film is some of the best you will see as a moviegoer. Atmospheric is the way that I would describe the lighting. This movie is filled with soft shadows that often fall off into nothingness. However, the scene with the boy standing on the beach is my favorite-the brightness of the sky meshes with the water and the beach in a way that reminded me of what heaven must be like…utter brightness. This then melds into white snow and a bike riding through it. Lighting for bright scenes, such as snow, is no easy task. To be able to create such a beautiful scene, taking the audience from standing at the edge of the water with this boy, not in an overly colored or saturated scene, but rather in starkness, then transform into snow, is nothing short of skilled brilliance.  

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Man With A Movie Camera

This film was a complete, head to toe lesson in cinematography, not only how to visually make a film, but how to visually look at the world around you. The first thing I noticed and the last thing that stuck with me were the beautiful frames of each scene. Vertov does not simply show a building perfectly framed in the center of the lens. Instead, we see rows and rows of windows rising above from a low angled shot. Or we see strong, steel, straight beams of the top of a building cut through the frame as another lower building below is just inside the lower thirds of the frame. I'm assuming that Vertov had very little to no time to set up each shot, which speaks to his brilliant, artistic, cinematic mind. I found myself realizing that while he is aiming to paint a true to life portrait of a single day in Russia, his work actually showing us how we SHOULD look at the world, not how we DO look at the world. Even though it flew by with a flash, my favorite shot was of a trolley car sliding vertically along the same axis of the camera, while another trolley car crisscrossed horizontally in front of the frame. Seeing the two trolleys flow against each other in such a way was absolutely beautiful. It's a way that I wouldn't have looked at them, but it showed me what I'm missing by not stepping into another vantage point.

I don't believe that Vertov's goal was to depict what daily life looks like, I think rather he was showing us how daily life is depicted through the lens of a camera, when we step outside our minds' eye to look at life from another perspective. We as humans do not often crouch low to look at train wheels speeding by. We don't often peer out over the city we live in, looking at the shadows cast by a low hanging tree. We don't often catch the beauty of following a reflection in glass versus staring at the subject itself. But we should.

Showing the eyeball in the lens, showing the camera sliding into the frame, is a great representation of  an ever-present eye. He calls it the "truth-eye." However, this film helped me realize that cameras don't always capture what we see. They don't always record what we witness. Instead, if the person behind the camera is aware enough, cameras capture events in life from the angles in which we wished we could have seen them.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest

This film is on nearly everyone's favorite films list, and for good reason. When I first saw this movie, many years ago, I thought it was about something else entirely. I had the naive belief that it was more of a comedy about a revolt at a mental institution, led by the charismatic McMurphy. Watching this movie now, I realize that it's more of a drama, a story instead about McMurphy's defeat. A human story.

I hadn't previously thought about the cinematography of this film, as there weren't many epic, complex shots. I realize now, however, that the simplicity of the cinematography is where the beauty of this film lies.   Draining the asylum of color and life, Wexler does a nice job of portraying what this place would have looked like to his prisoners. Utilizing some nice filters, and also making the whites really glow and pop, the focus remains on the characters in this character-driven story. Also, the camera shots seem to focus on reactions: the reactions of each character to the scene and what's happening to them in it. I love this. The characters' emotions, reactions, and feelings are the heart of this story. Simple but intentional focus gives power to their plight.

This story has a common theme for the time period-a fight against the establishment. However, this movie takes this theme to a more engaging level by focusing on who these characters really are, and how they really feel, versus just on their mental illness and their alienated state.

Apocalypse Now

Apocalypse Now succeeds on many levels. On an emotional level, we connect with its message of the futility of war. On an entertainment level, the script does a fine job of keeping the audience engaged and interested throughout. Where I believe this movie succeeds the most, however, is on a cinematic level. By using very specific shot angles, this story, the setting, and the characters remain unforgettable.

The most common shot angle that I recognized was a high or very high angle. We are continuously looking down on the island, as if we are riding along the sky inside one of the helicopters with the soldiers. This not only determines how we will view and remember the island, but also solidifies our involvement with these characters. This high angle shot also causes a diminution of the villagers. We see them scatter throughout the island, attempting to fight back. When Colonel Kilgore and his men blow up the village, we see from above the power, aggression and devastation that Napalm and weapons of mass destruction can cause.

One of the most powerful shots of this movie is near the end, when Willard finally meets Kurtz. This mysterious man remains fascinating, as he shown in partial darkness, with just a little bit of light on his face. This haunting image was perfectly crafted. Utilizing just a bit of light to show us enough of his features to be intrigued, but keeping him in partial darkness, is a perfect tangible metaphor for the man Kurtz has become-steeped deep in the darkness of the jungle, but enlightened to the worlds' atrocities.

Apocalypse Now is another great example of a movie carefully crafted, wherein every single shot was done with full intention and made a definitive impact in the telling of the story.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Blade Runner

It had been 20 years since I first watched Blade Runner with my brother. I remember having a fond affinity for this movie, but couldn't remember exactly why. I tend to think that I'm not a fan of the sci-fi genre, and yet some of my very favorite films are science fiction-based; 2001, Total Recall, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Metropolis....even Back to the Future. It seems that the most common element in sci-fi genre is the question of life. Why am I here? Do I matter? What life is valuable? Are there other life forms? The way that sci-fi directors choose to examine the question of life seems to determine how I feel about the film. Their choices in use of angles, filters, transitions, cuts, and subtext are what draw me in or shut me down to these types of films.

Blade Runner is visually a very beautiful film. Ridley Scott appears to employ a film noir style, very downbeat, bleak and black. The common film noir themes are also preset: fear, insecurity, suspicion, mistrust. I appreciate movies that focus on the visual asthetic, while keeping the dialogue tight and allowing subtext to speak. Every shot seems very intentional, and helps to move the story forward. The unfortunate voice over was a major distraction from the visual elements, however I have heard that the voice over was removed from the Director's cut in 1992. Whew.

The "eyes" seem to be the visual tie-in throughout the scenes in this film. From the eye at the intro to the film, to the man who developed the Replicant's eyes, to the Owl's eye, it's clear that the eye is an important visual cue. I personally feel that this was Scott's way of representing humanity visually. The eye, with its sensitve iris that shifts with a sudden change of feeling or emotion, is a sure sign of humanity. While the scientific geniuses in Blade Runner have come up with a way to imitate to near perfection everything about humans in their Replicants, emotion, empathy and feelings are elements that they can't quite imitate. And the humans have discovered that the eye will clearly divulge emotion.

Per the film noir style, the majority of the Earth in Blade Runner is shadowed in dark hues. When light is present, it is usually in harsh contrast to its surroundings, such as when the blinds are opened against Deckard's face in Tyrell's mansion. The dark hues help to present Earth as an abandoned place full of decay and disillusionment.

The most common shots seemed to be close ups or medium close ups on faces and eyes.
The cuts linger on eyes and faces for at least two beats beyond the dialogue, which is a terrific directorial decision, as it allows us to see the emotion in the eyes and faces of the characters, to really pay attention to the expressiveness of the actors, to make the scenes much more powerful.

My favorite scene of the film visually is the scene of Deckard interviewing Rachael. Her deep red lips are a welcome color contrast to the bleakness of other scenes. The cuts between her full lips wrapped around her long cigarette and Deckard’s weary, weathered eyes and face and tight lips are beautiful. The transitions aren’t overused, and the back and forth dance between interview questions is cut like a two players in a careful chess competition.

The ending of this film is terrible...contrived both through dialogue and visual elements. Should Ridley Scott have ended on the rooftop with Roy and Deckard, I would have been extremely impressed. Thankfully, I too have heard that the ending changed in the Director’s cut as well.

Scott uses the camera angles effectively throughout, to help us connect with or to show conflict within each character. He uses a low angle on Rachel when she is in turmoil about learning that her memories are fabricated, which helps us feel compassion and empathy for her, he uses a straight-on angle to the eyes during Roy’s final scene on the rooftop to help the audience connect directly with what Roy is experiencing, and the camera is almost always level with Deckard, to show that he is a straight shooter and we are on the same level as him.

Ridley Scott is clearly challenging us to define humanity, and what makes something human and worthy of life. Through careful camera angles, critical lighting choices, and thoughtful cuts, we as an audience can connect with not only the human struggles throughout this film, but also the Replicants.