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Archive for the ‘Cinema Studies’ Category

Title Card "Le Genou De Claire"

Title Card "Claire's Knee" (1970)

“In a film, the power relationship is reversed: the direction is king, the text subservient.  A film script is in itself of little or no consequence, and mine is no exception to that rule.  If it seems to resemble literature, the appearance is deceiving; it is rather a yearning for it.”  — Eric Rohmer, preface to ” Six Moral Tales”

Revered for his exquisitely probing dialog Eric Rohmer’s highly advanced mise-en-scene is something rarely evaluated.  Working with frequent collaborator Nestor Almendros on the fifth installment of his Six Moral Tales, Claire’s Knee, Rohmer directs with a lightness of touch to appear nearly effortless.  Of course, this is not the case.

The story revolves around Jerome (Jean-Claude Brialy), who is spending three weeks in the Alps of Haute-Savoie (eastern France) while waiting to be wed.   The scene we’ll look at is quite simple.

A brief summary leading up to the scene:  At the start of the film Jerome runs into an old friend, Aurora, a novelist, living in Tallories.  Aurora, knowing the old Jerome to be quite the lady’s man, is tempted to test his fidelity.   She introduces Jerome to nearby neighbors Madame Walter (Michele Montel) and her 14-year-old daughter, Laura (Beatrice Romand).

friday-july-3rd

July 3rd: Jerome and the three ladies are having drinks and a light conversation outside. This ends with young Laura and her mother getting into a minor disagreement.  Laura sulks off.   Aurora, sensing opportunity, sends Jerome off to console the her.

Jerome approaches through the woods in a wide shot.

jermone-approaches

Rohmer pans to the right to reveal Laura sitting along the shore, feeding swans and crying lightly.

laura-water

Jerome reenters, crossing the frame, positioning himself to right of Laura, their backs to us.

jermone-remind-you

It’s clear that Jerome, even without Aurora’s goading, is intrigued by the precocious Laura, a keenly conscious girl, wise beyond her age.  (A testament to Romand’s talent & Rohmer’s scripting/directing).

We cut in closer, to a medium, of Jerome, still from behind; he looks out at the landscape:

jerome-nice-spot

He asks Laura if this is her secret place.

“Yes, when people upset me,” she replies.  She speaks of her relationship with her mother, of how she’s misunderstood, while acknowledging that her mother truly does love her.

We cut to a reverse of her, again, medium shot.  The camera hovers just above her — albeit not from Jerome’s prospective — emphasizing youth & vulnerability.

laura-adore

When we cut back to Jerome we find the camera is now positioned directly in front of him.  (We also get a glance at the verdant hillside and a cabin behind.)  Jerome ensures Laura of her mother’s loyalty.

jerome-nice-things1

While speaking he sits, the camera tilting with him as he does.

jerome-flattering

As the conversation continues Rohmer opts to pan from left to right from Jerome to Laura.

Laura relents the fact that no matter how much they (she & her mother) disagree she will always be her mother.  She concedes running off was childish.  She inquires what her mother said after her departure.

say-2

Jerome relays that her mother thought Laura’s disgruntlement may lie in the fact that she was not allowed to go to Corsica with friends.  (Her mother thinking she is too young.)  Laura disagrees…

laura-no-go

And then, suddenly turning on a dime, she complains of Haute-Savoie being “stifling.”   She pops to her feet, the camera tilting up with her as she does.

“When I’m bored I’d rather be anywhere but here,” she says.

laura-corsica

Cutting back to Jerome this time we find him in stark contrast to the feisty Laura:

jerome-beauty

Laura agrees with him that it is beautiful, “but sometimes I feel smothered.”  Jerome turns and stands, the camera, once again, tilting up…

jerome-mountains

…then panning right to form a two-shot of both actors.

laura-exhasting-beauty

Jerome suggests that they go hiking.  Laura excepts the invitation.

“You have to get away now and then,” she says.

To that Jerome extends his motto:

jerome-lovers

“Exactly,” says Laura in concurrence as she exits the frame.  Jerome follows.

We end were the scene opens, the wide shot, as they both exit.  Laura coquettishly running ahead then falling back to take Jerome’s hand.

walking-away-1

The last shot of the sequence is another wide, further back towards the house; the wind blowing the trees and overgrown brush.  Laura breaks away from Jerome and playfully frolics off-screen.  Jerome walks simply after.

walking-away-2

With both out of frame Rohmer holds on his almost painterly composition for another beat.

ducks

For a scene rife with dialog we see much is going on here.  On close inspection we find Rohmer panning, tilting, and virtually circling around his characters, all while directing our attention to the conversation.  This is one of Rohmer’s greatest traits, his lightness of touch.

Here Rohmer relies primarily on medium shots to move; creeping any closer to the characters would break uniformity.  Mood shifts must be genuine in the acting.  What also can be noted is the repetitive camera movements whose patterns lure you into the atmosphere.  There are three pans to the right & three tilts (one down, two up).  It is an unfair assessment to think Rohmer simply placed a camera down, in a beautiful setting, and watched his characters speak.  His camera is in constant movement.  Yet it’s the simplicity of movement that reflects attention.

Almendros’ mastery of handling natural locations also cannot be taken out of the equation.  This goes well beyond simply framing up a picturesque shot.  Almendros’ talent was finding the shot that was at once beautiful but also natural within the environment itself.  The compositions here do not call attention to themselves individually–the subject is almost always the centerpiece–but instead, through their sum total, radiate the beauty & essence of said locale.  Rarely is photography like this seen in cinema.

And as much as this scene is about the spoken word it is what is not said which is important.  Underlying the scene is the fact that Laura may have ran off because she had just discovered that Jerome was engaged; childishly reveling her crush on him.  In lesser hands this would be a subject of discussion but with Rohmer his confidence lies in his ambiguities.

It’s interesting to watch Laura in constant oscillation between young woman and little girl.  One moment she’s crying, the next confident and defiant.  Yet there’s an image here that sums her up perfectly: the establishing shot of her along side the swans as Jerome approaches.  Reminding us that she is indeed a very young & innocent girl, despite her feisty intelligence, she recalls one of the sweet, unspoiled youths Renior would have painted.   (Although it is noted that Rohmer saw the film in a “Gauguin-esque” style)

young-laura

Laura recalls one of Renoir's young girls

young-girl-with-a-basket-of-flowers-by-renoir

Young Girl with a Basket of Flowers. Pierre Auguste Renoir

And if Laura is defined by the shot along side the swans it is easily understood why Jerome will soon be entranced by the titular knee of Claire: provocative, modern.

claires-knee

Lastly, it is impossible to analyze Rohmer without some mention of dialog.  The final exchange between Jerome & Laura is quite telling.  Laura says, “you have to get away now and then.”  To which Jerome responds almost identically with, “Lovers have to get away from each other now and then.”  Laura’s statement speaks of an individual while Jerome’s speaks of being in relationship.  The core of The Six Moral Tales is a pilgrim’s progress; a man weathering the storm of temptation to reach his love.  Each is an odyssey in their own way.  None end in the “happily ever after” but in an echo of Odysessy’s words to Penelope, “Wife, we have not yet come to the end of all our trials.”

Ending his preface to the “Six Moral Tales” (in book form) Rohmer asks, “why be a filmmaker when you can be a novelist?”  I have no answer to this question.  But I do relish the fact that Rohmer had a choice & chose cinema.

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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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(This is the first post of an ongoing series entitled: Cinema Studies. It will consist of in-depth investigations into the minutiae of film, the gears of cinema; middle-level research, if you will)

This first study will look at transitional sequences in two renowned American films: Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978) and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II (1974).

The two transitions here are selected for certain similarities:

1. Each begins with a character deep in thought on the precipice of a major decision.
2. Both transitions propel us a significant period of time either forward or backwards.
3. The primary tool used in both sequences is the dissolve: “a gradual [overlapping] transition from one image to another.
4. Each sequence—arguably for this analysis—uses four shots to achieve its transition.

First Days of Heaven.

A brief summary leading up to the transition: Two harvesters, Bill and Abby, are a couple pretending to be brother and sister to the world. In an earlier scene Bill overhears a doctor’s diagnosis that The Farmer, the rich proprietor of the farm they’re working on, has about a year or so to live. That information combined with The Farmer’s infatuation with Abby leads Bill to concoct a scheme of faux love-and-marriage in order to come into his large inheritance.

The sequence we’ll look at is when Abby apprehensively agrees to the swindle transitioning into her wedding.

In the sleeping quarters of the harvesters Bill convinces Abby to execute the scam with a deviously convincing argument, he hates seeing her “stooped over out there”:

Days 1

“I hate it,” he concludes, blowing smoke into the frame—an old silent film trope implying evil (or here avarice).

days-2.png

Ennio Morricone’s meditative score begins as Abby contemplates Bill’s words. Abby gets up and walks out of the room. She literally and metaphorically walks from the dark shabby boarding room (Bill’s influence) into the light (the farmer’s charm), from enclosure (poverty) into openness (prosperity), heading directly towards the farmer’s massive home framed above her.

Note the reflection of the farmer’s estate in the small pond. We see both the literal home that Abby will inhabit and the illusion, Abby’s true inheritance. We begin to hear the sound of birds…

days-3.png

days-4.png

The score quickly diminishes as Malick cuts to a shot of migrating birds flying from left to right. Their squawking overwhelms the soundtrack. The birds reside in the lower two-thirds of the frame but in relation to the previous shot of Abby our immediate perception is that we’re now looking up.

Days Birds

This brief shot of migrating birds then dissolves into a shot of treetops.

Days Birds Dissolve

The squawking diminishes and the sound of rustling trees (which seems exaggerated) takes over. Now we are certainly looking up. We learn this because the camera begins to tilt down.

During this tilt we hear portentous words uttered from a person unseen, ominously foreshadowing the film’s apocalyptic finale.

Days Judgement

As soon as these words are spoken Morricone’s score trickles back (as if on cue).

As tilt finishes we find ourselves at Abby’s wedding. The words have been spoken by the priest.

Days Wedding

Within seconds we’ve transitioned from an unspoken decision to a definitive answer. We’ve also seamlessly moved from late fall into spring; the migrating birds serving as a symbolic bridge between seasons.

Beyond the dissolves what’s vital here is the movement within the frame, our eyeline is in constant movement. Abby walks out into the open; the birds give the impression of looking up moving to the right; we dissolve into the trees and lastly our eyes move down into the wedding. From the ground, up, right, and down back to the ground. Like a patient’s eyes following the doctor’s light Malick moves us fluidly from shot to shot.

A small part of Malick’s brilliance comes from his seemingly effortless and elliptical editing. But on closer examination one finds it a calculated and intricately involved series of images telling a deeper story than may appear on the surface (not to mention the equally exquisite sound work). In many cases the editing is so fluid words like “dreamy” or “intoxicating” become adjectives in which to describe it. But we must not underestimate the arduous efforts required in achieving these masterful qualities.

Next The Godfather Part II.

Brief Summary: Michael Corlene’s life, and that of his family, have been put into harm’s way. A failed assassination attempt has just occurred. Michael has decided to go see Hyman Roth in Miami who he suspects is behind the hit. Before leaving he enters his son’s room to inform him that he’ll be gone for a while. His son asks his he can come but Michael say he cannot.

The sequence of note here is when Michael sits up and the scene dissolves back several decades to his father’s early immigrant experiences in New York.

As Michael leans backs his head takes fills the left of the frame.

Godfather I

Slowly the shot dissolves 41 years into the past:

Godfather 2

Michael’s father, Vito Corleone, is positioned on the right side of the frame. It is important to note the light that shines directly within Michael’s temple. It is as if his past is being illuminated, his familial past, extracted directly from his mind.

Godfather 3

Vito looks to something off screen, down and to the right.

The shot dissolves into a wider shot of Vito’s apartment. We now see Vito’s wife and learn he is looking at his little son Santino (aka Sunny).

Godfather 4

vito and sunny (use me)

This third wider shot connects us thematically to the first. At these two overlapping moments of time each head of the Corleone family looks down upon their firstborn sons. Throughout this sequence a physical light shines in the upper left hand portion of the frame. The final dissolve begins…

Godfather Dissolve

…as it completes we find we are at a theater. The light in the right side of the frame has now transformed into one of the most iconic America symbols, The Statue of Liberty. (This shot can be considered the end of this transitional sequence because the following shot arrives via-a cut)

Godfather Statue of Liberty

At its core The Godfather saga is a story of immigration. The Statue of Liberty serves an important symbol throughout the drama. In terms of chronology the most significent moment of young Vito’s life (besides the murder of his brother and mother) is the sight of the Statue of Liberty as he arrives in America. She’s an expression of hope. He is one of the “huddling masses yearning to breathe free.”

Young Vito

Statue of Liberty

As the years pass the statue takes on a different connotation, one of liberty betrayed. As seen below she hovers above a scene of murder (from Godfather Part I), now small and almost obscure. Again note the statue is positioned in the upper left of the frame.

Statue of Liberty Wheat Field

So as we fall backwards in the history of the Correlones we see fathers looking upon sons, but we are also reminded that this is a story of assimilation. The light in the upper left becomes a symbol of the seminial dreams which will end tragically. The light in Michael’s temple is Lady Liberty.

Both directors, Malick and Coppola, are working with similar tools to achieve different outcomes. Malick glides us forward using movement within the frame while Coppola dissolves backwards in time utilizing static compositions which specificaly placed elements to deepen his overall theme.

These are two examples of the million of ways cinematic transitions can function.

*The transitions studied here can be found here:

Days of Heaven (Criterion Collection) 38:15 – 38:58

The Godfather Part II (Paramount Pictures) 43:16 – 44:09

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