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Archive for March, 2008

In his indispensable book “Figures Traced In Light” David Bordwell takes an in-depth look at cinematic staging, its evolution and variations, seen through four directors: Feuillade, Mizoguchi, Angelopoulos, and Hou. In that vein I plan to use my ‘Cinema Studies’ to also look at this understated stylistic approach to filmmaking. For this study we’ll look at Preston Sturges’ 1941 screwball comedy The Lady Eve.

A brief summary up to the point of study: Charles Pike (Henry Fonda) aka Hopsie is heir to an ale (not beer, “there’s a difference”) fortune. Returning to New York after spending a year in the Amazon studying snakes Hopsie is on a cruise liner home. He quickly falls in love and becomes betrothed to an oil tycoon’s daughter, Jean (Barbara Stanwyck). Unbeknownst to him Jean is actually part of a professional card-sharking con-team.

Our scene of study runs 2:14 with roughly ninety percent taking place in a single shot.

The day after his proposal Hopsie waits to meet Jean on the deck. He leans leisurely on the rail and whistles to himself.

Lady Eve 1

He strolls casually to the right and back, the camera dollies with him.

Lady Eve 2

Sturges sets the mood: vivacious, commodious. People pass by cheerily, breakfasters eat and chat, children are heard playing off-screen.

From the door in the background Hopsie’s confidant/right-hand-man Muggsy and the ship’s purser approach.

fonda-a3-deck.png

They fill the right side of the frame and direct their attention towards Hopsie.

Lady Eve 3

Lady Eve 4

Muggsy expresses concern that Hopsie is being had by a “a gang of sharpies.” He then grabs the envelope the purser is holding explaining there’s evidence inside to prove his theory. Muggsy exits.

Grabbing Envelope

Muggsy exits

The camera pushes in closer to form a two-shot of the purser and Hopsie. The purser suggests that if Hopsie hasn’t lost any money to not look in the envelope.

Purser/Hopsie

Hopsie assures the purser he has not lost any money and hands the envelope back.

Perplexed as to why Hopsie hasn’t been swindled the purser suggests “they might be aiming for higher game.” He then asks a pointed question:

Love?

“What’s it got to do with you?,” the offended Hopsie fires back.

“Look at the photograph and I’ll take the consequences. Good morning, sir.” With that the purser exits leaving us alone again with Hopsie.

purser leaving

Hopsie shrugs off the implication, opens the envelope, and pulls out a photo.

looking at photo

We cut to an insert of the photo; a jarring cut that moves from a medium-wide shot to an extreme CU. (We half-expect the photo to start moving)

The photo is of Jean, her father, and their third man.

A musical cue also corresponds to the cut. . . ominous sounding horns, building.

the photo

We cut back to the wide, Hopsie still does not understand. The music continues to climb towards a climax. He flips the photo over.

flipping over

We cut to another insert: the back of the photo. As a viewer we don’t have to read the words to know what’s written. But Sturges still has to express the gravity of this moment from Hopsie’s point-of-view. . .

back of photo

. . .he does it ever so elegantly by slowly-slowly dissolving, for 10 seconds, from the written text into a CU of Hopsie.

fade down1

Note: this is not the wide shot in which the whole scene has played out in, this is a close-up emphasizing this particular moment. The music crescendos and slips into a somber tune.

fade down2

Sturges then jump cuts from the CU back to the wide. Hopsie takes his time, carefully placing the photograph back into the envelope, as if tucking away his love for Jean. All the while his mind racing.

putting away

putting away2

He turns and peers back for a moment.

turning

Then listlessly makes his way towards the door.

walking away

Sturges holds the wide (rack focusing as he moves into the background) until Hopsie is clearly through the door.

Through the door

By holding on the wide shot, as he makes his way into background, Hopsie, from our perspective, becomes smaller within the frame, visually becoming a diminutive character. (A technique Welles and Toland thoroughly explore the same year while making Citizen Kane).

By the end of this scene the mood is completely inversed from whence it began. The sounds of the children can still be heard but their mirth now adds to the hollowing out of the scene.

When one thinks of Sturges one thinks of high-fueled comedy, rapier wit, and screwball antics; The Lady Eve is no exception. Yet in the midst of all the rambunctiousness is this beautifully directed scene that could compare to something we’d find in Wyler or Welles picture. Using the minimal of camera set-ups (a wide and brief CU) and two inserts Sturges navigates us through a complex set of emotions with a deft touch. And by working mainly off the wide when he does employ a close-up or slow dissolve we’re witness to the powerful intrinsic qualities of each. Both techniques are used so haphazardly now that they’ve become ubiquitous and undervalued.

The subtlety of cinematic staging can reveal a complex subset of cinematic traits (movement within the frame, shifting eyelines, the play of perspective) that one could argue derive from the very roots of what cinema is and always has been . . . an art of observation.

Looking once more at our study one can see how Sturges invisibly directs this scene. He begins with an lofty-wideness of frame, allowing the character breathing room as he paces; soon other characters enter and exit, and as they do we slowly tighten in on Hopsie; we’re shown the photo/text (the main purpose of the scene) transition to a numb dissolve into Hopsie’s disheartened face; he then exits the scene a defeated man (shrinking by the step). The whole sequence quietly inches forward, the exit of characters allowing Sturges to creep clandestinely towards his climax. He quietly manipulates our subconscious emotions through subtle visual cues, creating a visual tension, done without an over-abundance of editing or unnecessary camera set-ups. Even without sound I believe most of what transpires here could be understood.

This is a extremely simple example, yet excellent study-piece, on how thought-out cinematic staging continues to challenge the barrage of ‘intensified continuity‘ filmmaking, so effervescent today, by offering a wealth of complexity while using the minimum of tools.

More on this to come.

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Paraguayan Hammock (2006)

hammock

The sun rises slowly on a shot of two trees, the ground covered in leaves. A dog barks incessantly somewhere in the distance. After a while an elderly couple wanders out from the woods behind. The woman constructs a hammock and they sit (see picture above, this is the shot in which much of the film plays out). Their conversation meanders from the weather, the dog, food, health problems, to “the war,” and their son who has left to fight that war.

As the story unfolds (told through a few other static shots, always from a distant position) our grip on reality slips. We realize that on this isolated farm time has become an enigma, shuttling back and forth like the hammock on which they sit. The couple’s conversation (presented via-voice-over) blankets shots of the old man harvesting, the woman sitting beside a stove, the man sitting outside their home, etc. The woman vaguely recalls someone telling her her son has died in battle, but the person doesn’t give the right middle-name for her to fully believe.

Has the son actually died in war? Is the mother disillusioning herself? And when did the son actually leave? How long has he been gone? Is the war over? Has it been over for quite some time?

These questions merge into obfuscation as night falls. It begins to rain. The couple, effete from their mental-rummaging, reach a breaking point as the darkness engulfs them; cognizant of their fragile morality.  They pack up the hammock and enter the dark-dark woods as the rain patters on . . . most likely to repeat this scene until their son returns or death whisks them away.

A beautiful minimalist experience by first-time director Paz Encina. In Guarani with subtitles.

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