Monthly Archives: January 2012

Farhadi’s frame

For last week’s edition of the Chronicle, I reviewed Ashgar Farhadi’s A Separation and made special note of the film’s stirring final image. I’m not alone in this. Many critics are pointing to the subtle devastation brought about by Farhadi’s placement of his actors, who are positioned on opposite sides of a partition in the middle of a long hallway. It alludes to the film’s title—well, the American one at least—as the two are separated by a physical divide that occupies space within the frame.

As expertly designed as the image is, it’s not the only one to illustrate the boundaries that surround the characters. Throughout A Separation, Farhadi conceives a number of intricate shots either foregrounded by some sort of physical plane (therefor separating the actors from the camera) or assorted barriers he inserts within the frame (therefor separating the characters from each other).

In a film where open lines of communication are mired in myriad social, cultural and economic obstacles, Farhadi’s attention to spatiality renders what could have been boring, textureless shots of the film’s many interiors and instead turned their characteristics into tangible components of the mis en scene.

For example:

Nadir and his daughter, Termeh, spend much of the film at odds.

A shot of Termeh behind a pane of glass, one of many similarly designed shots.

Though Farhadi usually avoids resorting to metaphor when establishing A Separation‘s spatial organization, he can’t resist doing so in a key early scene: Nadir is offering the job of caretaker of his father to Hodjat, an unemployed man who is unaware that his wife, Razieh, has already accepted the job yet opts to quit after her first day, admitting to not asking Hodjat permission in the first place (as is required by Iranian law). Their conversation, seemingly innocuous, is shrouded by this small but glaringly overlooked detail, one which proves germanous to the film’s narrative. Farhadi conveys this is as such:

Nadir, employed and affluent, on one side of a glass partition.

Hodjat, from a decidedly lower standard of living, on the other.

Throughout A Separation, the role of victim is transferred from one character to the next. But as the adult constituents carry on with the ensuing drama, Farhadi pays special attention to Termeh and Somayeh, the children in the film who, despite their marginalized station as minors, bear perhaps the fullest burden of the narrative. As the film’s numerous, irascible conversations reach their assorted boiling points, Termeh and Somayeh are frequently either told to leave the room or are physically forced out, involuntarily separated from an issue they’re each intrinsically involved in:

Somayeh is forced out (by Termeh, ironically) as her mother pleads her case.

Simin whisks Termeh away before confronting Nadir about his lying ways.

All of which contributes to the tragedy that is the film’s final moments. Farhadi, whose realistic aesthetic borders on phenomenological, isn’t merely creating frames within frames: he’s providing a literal infrastructure by which his characters interact, a distillation of narrative technique that has rightfully secured him a nomination for Best Screenplay at this year’s Academy Awards.

His chances of winning perhaps aren’t great. But should he take home an Oscar, the win would signify his accomplishments as the author of his film—as opposed to the other category in which A Separation is nominated, Best Foreign Film, to which the award is seen more as a recognition of the representative country as a whole. Although, this year, that might not be much of a bad thing.

Here are a few more key frames from A Separation, for your (and my) viewing pleasure:

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Obligatory Oscar Post

Like most cinephiles, I spend 11 months out of the year drolly discrediting the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and their yearly awards show, only to become transfixed when the newest crop of nominees are announced. What can I say? I’m a sucker for the narrative. Each year, the Academy Awards present the supposed best films of the year and spend something like 3 or 4 hours congratulating Hollywood and the year it’s had. It’s equal parts sickening and mesmerizing and altogether impossible to ignore—but not like a car crash. More like a charlatan dressed in Givenchy, who’s as strong a rhetorician as he is an entertainer. The awards, of course, ultimately mean nothing. But the way the Academy is able to construct an air of importance around something as trivial as an awards show is fascinating—and, in a way, cinematic.

As usual, the crop of nominees reads like a laundry list of populist consensus, but there are a few surprises and intrigues:

  • Give credit to the Academy for taking a risk and nominating Melissa McCarthy for her supporting turn in Bridesmaids, in which she stands out amid an otherwise drab ensemble cast. Comedy is, without question, the genre most overlooked by Oscars voters, so to see the academy recognize a distinctly comedic role (a la Robert Downey, Jr. in Tropic Thunder), particularly one as intrinsic and well-conceived as McCarthy’s, is refreshing.
  • There are only 9 Best Picture nominees as compared to the last two ceremonies, where the category saw its full allotment of 10 films. Things have changed in the way Best Picture nominations are selected, but something tells me films like Drive, My Week with Marilyn, Bridesmaids, The Ides of March, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Tinkor Tailor Soldier Spy all split too many votes, leaving the 10th spot vacant.
  • The ever-controversial documentary category is, yet again, comprised of largely undeserving films. Considering this issue is the deadest of horses, I’ll move on.
  • Seeing A Separation nominated not only for Best Foreign film but also for Best Original Screenplay is fantastic. Not only is it a great film, but its growing success is shedding light on the state of Iran’s cinematic culture—one of the world’s richest and, in turn, most compromised. Considering the award for Best Foreign Film is meant to recognize a country as a whole as opposed to the merit of a single filmmaker, selecting A Separation as the winner of either the awards it’s nominated for could be construed as a bold statement of behalf of the Academy.

If the Best Picture nominees are indicative of moviegoers tastes this year, it seems nostalgia has been on the minds of many. The Artist and Hugo quite literally make nostalgia their key subject by romanticizing the era of silent cinema; Midnight in Paris does this as well, but in a different way: try as it might to decry the dangers of nostalgia, much like Hugo, it mythologizes individuals who likely wouldn’t have appreciated being mythologized, thusly categorizing them as figments of a director’s imagination as opposed to the living, breathing human beings they actually were.

The Artist, meanwhile, has turned silent cinema into kitsch, which is of course the sad outcome of nostalgia. As celluloid rapidly becomes a thing of the past (therefor making film, as a concept, something of a misnomer) I suppose it makes sense. Judged by its own merits, The Artist is a perfectly likable film that’ll likely walk away as Best Picture. When judged against cinema as a whole (the film invariably forces those with apt enough knowledge to do so), it perpetuates the notion that all silent pictures were funny and adventurous and had cute dogs in them. At the Oscars, the actual, literal history of cinema isn’t nearly as important the Academy’s version of it…

Not to be outdone, the rest of the noms seek to paint a rosy picture of their own assorted topics: The Help with its positive outlook on race relations in 1960s; War Horse and its assertion that war is hardest on animals; and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and it’s attempt to paint 9/11 in a nostalgic light, which…actually, I’ll just leave it at that.

Then there’s the odd 3 out: Moneyball, The Descendants, and The Tree of Life. I’ve got no beef with these flicks. In fact, one of them I outright venerate.

But do they stand a chance at winning? Does it even matter?

Haywire and Soderbergh’s “digital realism.”

The current critical consensus for the newest film from Steven Soderbergh is positive if not lukewarm. Yes, Haywire is a genre exercise. But Soderbergh has long excelled in distilling his thematic preoccupations via his intertextual approach to genre film making: He described The Limey (1999) as “Get Carter as made by Alain Resnais”; more recently, Contagion (2011) grapples with the global unconscious under the guise of an Irwin Allen-style disaster movie. Haywire, meanwhile, is intended to be Alfred Hitchcock’s version of a Pam Grier movie.

But because Soderbergh’s genre alchemy is already well known—and since I’ve already covered what it means to be Hitchcockian—I’m more interested in discussing Haywire‘s audacious mis en scene. For the film, Soderbergh used a 4K Red One camera, an expensive yet decidedly consumer-grade device said to produce images of the utmost quality. A number of recent films made with the Red One (including The Social Network, District 9 and Beginners) and though each effort, of course, varies in overall quality, the images themselves are rendered with stunning precision.

That’s not exactly the case with Haywire. Thought he’s worked almost exclusively with the Red One since his production of his Che Guevara biopic, Soderbergh has used the device in a way unlike any other directer. While others use the camera to ensure a flawless image, he seems to be doing the exact opposite. Indeed, key scenes in Haywire are often imbued with a harsh, fluorescent hue easily remedied in either post-production or by using simple diffusion fixtures that are built, quite literally into the camera. The end result is a disarming image with blurred, indistinct edges, brimming with the lifelessness of digital processing. This isn’t by accident.

A scene from The Girlfriend Experience

And another

The Informant!

Contagion boasted a similar aesthetic—as did The Informant! (2009) and The Girlfriend Experience (2009). What sounds like flawed filmmaking is, in reality, anything but. Rather than using the emergence of this new technology in its desired fashion, Soderbergh (under the guise of his pseudonym, Peter Andrews) is shooting his films in natural light, which, of course, has trouble translating to the digital format. When left untouched, actual light emits an unnatural glow most directors would remedy as to give their film a more “realistic” look. Soderbergh, however, often leaves the image unaltered, creating what I believe to be a new sort of a realism—in fact, a “digital realism,” one that strives to depict the world as captured by the Red One and its ilk rather than striving to manipulate the image to better replicate an actual “realistic” appearance.

Take, for example, Haywire‘s opening sequence and the light that seeps in through the diner’s windows:

This scene—aside from being a kinetic, superbly orchestrated fight scene—literally sheds light on what the world looks like when viewed through a digital lens. That’s what snow looks like when captured by the Red One’s CMOS image sensor. A bit different than when light burns onto celluloid, no?

From Contagion, here’s another scene with snow. If it seems less blinding, that’s because the overcast skies are prohibiting light from the sun from reflecting off the snow, further illustrating Soderbergh’s reluctance to manipulating the image:

Soderbergh, long noted for atemporal approach to narrative in addition to his aforementioned genre alchemy, is rarely distinguished for his visual strategies. Yet as he continues to tinker with the Red, he takes extra precautions to ensure that the audience is aware of the digital technology he’s employing, like an running commentary on burgeoning filmic technologies.

Another example, this time from The Informant!:

Notice the bright, florescent natural light and the way it juxtaposes the warmer, unnatural light coming from the fixtures in the elevator. The Red favors artificiality and Soderbergh is more than inclined to do its bidding, if simply to call attention to how it functions as the sort of sentient being it’s reputed to be.

This is perhaps what he meant when he said, “This is the camera I’ve been waiting for my whole career: jaw-dropping imagery recorded on board a camera light enough to hold with one hand…Red is going to change everything.”

To be Hitchcockian

For this week’s edition of the Chronicle, I reviewed Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear, which is currently making the repertory rounds on a new 35mm print and will have a brief run at the Music Box starting this Friday.

The two men together

In my review, I make mention of Clouzot’s reputation as the “French Alfred Hitchcock,” an apt though somewhat erroneous distinction. Both directors made thrillers, to be sure, but Clouzot’s style was less a distillation of Hitchcock’s and more of a mirroring—a recognition of similar preoccupations that lead to something of a friendly rivalry between the two. For instance, when Hitchcock infamously sought the rights to Le Salaire de la Peur, Georges Arnaud’s novel that provided the source material for Wages of Fear, the author proclaimed his desire for a French director and in swooped Clouzot. The result is a film that is wholly Clouzot’s (with its exotic setting and decidedly existential outlook, not to mention its comments on imperialism by way of its blatant anti-Americanism) though not without its nods to traits he shared with Hitchcock. Similar circumstances precluded the production of Les Diaboliques, where Clouzot again scooped up a project on which Hitchcock was keen. Additionally, the wild success of Les Diaboliques can be credited to the film’s ingenious promotion, in which audiences were urged not to spoil the film’s shocking twist ending—a tactic Hitchcock employed during the infamous hucksterism that was his promotion of Psycho.

     

All of which to say, what is it that qualifies a director as Hitchcockian? What are the traits one must posses in order to receive such a distinction? In my review, I cite Claude Chabrol as perhaps the most Hitchcockian of all French directors—more so than Clouzot or even the likes of his contemporary and friend, Eric Rohmer—because his work, as a whole, bears the mark of a director who absorbed the work of Hitchcock as opposed to merely consuming it . Of course, Chabrol has been considered Hitchcockian for decades and my labeling him as such is by no means a new idea. But this notion of absorption—of infusing the strands of another artist so that it becomes a part of your own aesthetic makeup—is the key element of being Hitchcockian (or Fordian, or Hawksian, or Minnellian, or whatever else).

Chabrol did this. As Richard Armstrong mentions over at Senses of Cinema, “From Hitchcock, [Chabrol] derived a sense of irony, the relationship between guilt and the individual, [and] the prospect of murder.” Note he used the word “derived,” and not “copied.” Too often, directors are chastised for “copying” others. The point of this blog post isn’t to point out the ways in which directors “copy” Hitchcock but to illuminate those whose work is the result of their absorption of his style, such as:

  • Michael Haneke and his exploration of an implicit audience in films like Funny Games and Cache—though the latter is more concerned with the actual mechanics of a shot rather than an audience’s relation to it, a la Code Unknown.
  • Pedro Almodovar and his furthering of Vertigo‘s psychosexuality under more defined homosexual terms in Bad Education, as well as his recent The Skin I Live In with Antonio Banderas playing a sort of bizzaro-world James Stewart a la North by Northwest.
  • Michael Mann and his “wrong man” motif in films like The Insider and Collateral, his most “classical” film and certainly his most underrated.

Each of these directors can aptly be labeled Hitchcockian, whereas directors such as M. Night Shyamalan (whose work has a rigid and pseudo-dogmatic stubbornness that wholly betrays Hitchcock’s playfulness) and Brian de Palma are, despite fitting the popular rhetoric, far too contextual in their influence to be considered truly Hitchcockian.

Clouzot, meanwhile can be said to be Hitchcockian in solely peripheral terms. Like many French directors who preceded the New Wave, his work is less concerned with cinema as a subject and more concerned with cinema as a process or an exercise. Hitchcock was the same way. Together, they represent of form of film making that is devoid of “-ians”—not to say that they were without influence, but instead contributed to a film grammar that has since become commonplace.

The beginning!

Or it could be…Either way, check back for assorted musings on the art, commerce, business and mystery of cinema. Find things like general reviews, expanded analysis, pieces on my personal relationship with the movies, commentary on film culture and various minutia I consider vital to the critical process.