Sunday, November 23, 2008

I Must Avoid Film Theory in the Future

During a conversation about Quantum of Solace last week, a friend wondered if I'm too critical on some films meant to be popcorn entertainment. I wondered about that too. I know that writing movie reviews has helped me understand my own thoughts about films, but has it made me more critical? Probably. Have I lost my ability to enjoy popcorn entertainment? I don't think so.

Some of my favorite films this year have been fun action films. I loved Wall-E and The Bank Job. I thought The Dark Knight was great, though my least favorite part of that film were the action scenes. I liked Iron Man though not as much as lot of people, but my favorite parts of that film were the action scenes and the testing of the armor. I even did ok with The Incredible Hulk.

Last year I liked the start of the Transformers and the opening action sequences but the later ones got progressively dumber and harder to follow. In spite of its complete stupidity I even liked Live Free or Die Hard.

I think I just don't like stupidity in my films, unless I'm in a particularly good mood or it's done for laughs. I like action enough that I want to see it and understand it and savor it. I know editing is now faster and video game playing audiences can handle it more. I enjoyed but barely kept up with the second Bourne movie, by the third I really liked the technique. The third one was edited by Christopher Rouse, the second by Rouse and Richard Pearson and it's Pearson who was a co-editor on Quantum. Maybe it's just Pearson I don't like.

But all of that is a long intro to the fact that I now know I really don't like Film Theory. Thursday I went to a lecture at Harvard, Hitchcock's Mountain: Technologies of Engagement in North by Northwest. It sounded like something I'd really enjoy, how my favorite director made one of the best scenes in one of his best films.

There was some good stuff in the talk. Basically it was filmed in a studio using optical mattes and rear projection. Closeups and medium shots using painted materials (rocks) were intercut with these shots. All of that is pretty obvious on viewing. There are tricks employed to make all this movie magic work better. First, keep the shots short so that the audience don't have time to stare at the image and find the seams in the mattes. Also loud music cues at the cuts help to distract the viewer so it will take longer to process the image (and see the flaws). Closeups of the actors, particularly with dramatic facial expressions, help too.

He also talked about some of the technical innovations that led to these techniques. Rear projection was limited by fringing, that is the center was bright and the edges dark, so it would look like a projection. In 1953 this was solved (I think with Vistavision but I might have misunderstood). Also he described some of the techniques artists used to paint the enormous mattes realistically.

The problem was the above was only about 15 minutes of an hour and half talk. I found the first 20 minutes a pretty worthless introduction. I don't remember much of note and at the time found nothing worthwhile to take notes of. Some if it was quotes by other film theorists that struck me as general, though I might have been missing something. Much of the rest of the talk was minutia stretched far longer than it was worth.

He explained the importance of an establishing shot to set up such a set piece, showing examples from both the beginning of Psycho (shots of Phoenix) and this Mount Rushmore scene. For this film, Hitchcock used a small round image of Rushmore straight on, like you've seen on every postcard. But the blackness around it suggests a telescope view and indeed he shows Cary Grant looking through one of those coin operated binocular viewers found at scenic locations. Hitchcock's two shots were effective and succinct but the speaker went on at length about how these viewers are so recognizable and found at various US National Park sites, listing at least a half a dozen like Niagara Falls, etc. If it's so well known, you can expect us to know about it.

There was a lot on why it was filmed on a set instead of on location at Mount Rushmore. What I expected to be a quick list of reasons, cost, the control a soundstage affords, the insurance costs of having stars climb Mount Rushmore and the difficulty of convincing the National Park Service to allow it, went on for a quite a while, including slides listing the actors salaries and a list of the other sets built on that soundstage. It's as if he needed to prove those reasons.

The presentation itself also had issues. The speech was read word for word and that's rarely a good thing. A powerpoint presentation at least avoided the use a slide template and just had large images with some overlaid text which was usually in some garish color and sometimes slid in using awful transitions. But ok, I know what to expect with powerpoint, what got me was the first question. It was another academic who was so blown away by the presentation was almost speechless but then needed to comment at length on how technically marvelous the slides were and if in fact powerpoint was used. He said the presentation was a self-referential example of the topic in how technology was used to perfect the point and that he spent the time trying to find a pattern to the color choice but was "undone". The speaker replied that he hoped he was undone in a good way and the response was "aren't we always looking to be undone?"

Personally I was undone by the fact that his list of the techniques (mattes, rear projection, painted materials and closeups) were not in the same order as they were mentioned in the talk. And if there was no system to the color choices of the text, why change the color? This is undone in a bad way. It's just sloppy presentation skills as far as I'm concerned.

The extensive listing of examples was a theme of the talk and included dates and names that didn't aid me at all in understanding the point. They seemed extraneous and I found them a distraction. If I was a film theorist I'd say it was Greenawayian. I kept thinking to myself, "I get the point, move on". However the second questioner picked up on this aspect and praised him for it, saying it would be useful to students to always remind them that these details were choices and made by someone to create this film. I suppose that's possible, but wouldn't a film student already know this? What really surprised me was the speaker's response; he said was "brought to tears" by this comment and he literally was!

The first commenter then found more to say. He was thinking about the shoes in this scene and how they would provide the least traction possible. The speaker said "yes you could write a whole paper on the shoes in this scene". Really? They were wearing everyday shoes because they didn't expect to be climbing down a mountain and Eva Marie Saint did slip because of her heels, it was a plot point. Sometimes a high heel is just a high heel.


Sean said...

"I know editing is now faster and video game playing audiences can handle it more."

This seems like it always comes up in discussions of modern fast-cut films, but is there actually any research or data which confirms this? Using video games as a touchstone when talking about fast-cut has never sat well with me.. While you may not mean it this way, from others it often seems like a shorthand or a dismissal...

Howard said...

As you know, I clearly don't mean it as dismissal. Conveniently I just read this economist book review of Grown Up Digital though I haven't read the book.

"There is growing neuroscientific support for this claim. People who play video games, for example, have been found to process complex visual information more quickly. They may also be better at multi-tasking than earlier generations, which equips them better for the modern world."

Also anecdotal (and not research) I remember something from a few years ago about how watching I Love Lucy is still good, but the jokes are quite slow and that that original audience wouldn't be able to handle Seinfeld without so education in in modern TV techniques.