1. CINEMA: DEAD AGAIN
MZS: We just came through a pretty tumultuous year for movies, and for the media and the entertainment industry in general. Although it’s not possible to cover everything, I’d like for us to at least touch on some of what I think were evolutionary highlights—moments, movements, trends or developments that altered movies, or how we perceive movies.
Right after the first of the year, David Denby tried to to get at a big part of this—specifically the effect of technological change—in his New Yorker piece “Big Pictures.” But it didn’t satisfy me. In fact, parts of it were so out-of-it that they reminded me of an old episode of Gilligan’s Island where the castaways run into a Japanese soldier who wanders out of the bushes where he’s been for 20 years not knowing that the war is over.
KU: “I went to LA, and here’s what I’m bringing back to you New Yorkers—the world is ending.” It’s the sort of thing I expect from him. I recall Jonathan Rosenbaum pointing out in his book Movie Wars that both Denby and David Thomson declared movies dead one week, and then, when L.A. Confidential came out, they resurrected them.
MZS: In fact, Denby, who was one of the guys I admired and read very closely coming up, has declared movies dead on more than one occasion. Declaring cinema dead is a favorite hobby of critics. Armond White’s done it, I’ve done it. Peter Rainer, who’s now at the Christian Science Monitor, did it back in 1998, when he reviewed Armageddon for the now-defunct Los Angeles New Times. But that’s the salient point here: Denby’s piece reads suspiciously like what Godfrey Cheshire would call a “Death of Cinema” piece. Even though the intent of this New Yorker article is supposedly to suss out how the delivery system that brings movies to us is changing, what really comes through is a kind of mourning for the way things used to be.
KU: If, indeed, things used to be the way he remembers. But Denby’s already made up his mind. His enthusiasm is in the past.
MZS: Writing about the experience of watching Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl on a video iPod, he writes:
“Pirates has lots of wide vistas and noisy tumult—a vast ocean under the dazzling sun and nighttime roughhousing in colonial towns, with deep-cleavaged prostitutes and toothless drunks. What I saw, mainly, was a looming ship the size of a twig, patches of sparkling blue, and a face or a skull flashing by. The interiors were as dark as caves. My ears, fed by headphones, were filled with such details as the chafing of hawsers and feet stomping on straw, but there below me Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom were dueling like two angry mosquitoes in a jar.”
That’s a really funny description, but it fails to take into account what I like about watching movies on an iPod, which is that sense of intimacy. And yes, of course, when you’re dealing with something that includes a number of wide shots, an iPod is not the way to experience it. But there are compensations, and one of them is the sense of the movie being inside your head, which you can only get when you watch a movie with headphones on. And then, over and above that, there’s the idea of literally being able to hold a movie in the palm of your hand, which I think is just incredible. I think the thrill of that, the intimacy of that, really does compensate for the lack of scale. And I say that as somebody who loves the big screen experience, and who ten years ago never would have imagined myself saying something like that. But I do watch movies and television programs and other things on my iPod, and I enjoy it. It’s a different experience, it brings out different qualities in what you’re experiencing. Which is not to say it’s how I’d like to watch Lawrence of Arabia, because it’s not. But I’ve watched a lot of stuff on the train going to and from work, and loved it.
KU: Something I read a while ago that strikes me now is a piece on Titanic where the writer talked about how the film was shot so that it could be masked for both television and theatrical exhibition and not lose anything.
MZS: Right. James Cameron always shoots in Super 35mm, which has an image that’s 4x3 originally. But he simultaneously frames his movies in the viewfinder so that, for theaters, he can crop out a narrow, rectangular piece that matches the dimensions of CinemaScope, which has a 2:35 to 1 aspect ratio. So the whole time Cameron is shooting something, he’s simultaneously envisioning a movie that can be shown in a wide, narrow format in theaters and also on standard, squarish TV monitors, without losing what Cameron thinks is essential information. Basically, Cameron is making sure he can always cut a narrow rectangle out of an almost-square. As he shoots, he’s picturing his movie in two formats.
KU: It calls into question something you and I have often talked about, which is, “What is a true CinemaScope film and what is a mock ’Scope film?”
MZS: True CinemaScope horizontally squeezes a wide rectangular image into a more squarish frame of 35mm film. Then, when the movie is projected in theaters, a ’Scope lens in the projector will unsqueeze the image, to re-create that wide rectangular frame. True CinemaScope uses the entire film frame. But cropped Super 35mm only uses part of the frame, a rectangular swath of it. That swath is then squeezed during post-production and printed to film or DVD, then it’s unsqueezed again when you watch the movie. Aren’t we wandering far afield here?
KU: I was about to bring it back: You said you didn’t want to watch Lawrence of Arabia on an iPod, and no, you wouldn’t, because David Lean didn’t think to compose simultaneously for CinemaScope and also for an iPod.
KU: But I wonder, what is in directors’ heads today when they think about all the different modes of exhibition? What does that create in the product? Is it a detriment? Is it a positive? Is it all of these things at once?
MZS: Then you get into a really thorny area for classicists, perhaps an area they don’t want to go, which raises the question, “How critical is the aspect ratio of the frame to whatever it is that the filmmaker is trying to express?” And the obvious answer is, maybe it’s not as critical as we think. If, in fact, you can simultaneously compose for a theatrical print of CinemaScope dimensions and a 4x3 image that can show on a standard TV or an iPod, and preserve most of the information that you think is essential and not feel you’re compromising too much either way, then maybe the aspect ratio is not crucial.
And this brings us to what I’d really like to talk about: What do all of these technological changes, and the reaction against them by folks like Denby, tell us about the essence of cinema? What is the essence of cinema?
When Godfrey Cheshire wrote his “Death of Film/Decay of Cinema” article, one of the most important pieces of film criticism published in this country in the last 20 years, he identified not just what was happening, but what choices we were going to have to make as consumers and as patrons of the arts. And what he was getting at was that we need to rethink our frame of reference—we need to rethink our terms. He later gave an example in a review for the North Carolina Independent of Toy Story 2, which was created entirely without film, then printed to film for theaters, most of which did not yet have digital projection in 1999. In the review, Godfrey said that throughout his career, he’d habitually referred to any feature length motion picture as a film, and now felt he needed to break himself of that habit, so he made a point of referring to Toy Story 2 as a “movie,” because for Godfrey, the essence of cinema was bound up in film.
But now, is it? When we say “cinema,” do we mean film, and do we always necessarily have to mean film? And beyond that, do we have to mean all of the things that have traditionally been associated with film, namely a film projected in 35mm in a theater for a paying audience of strangers?
KU: I would say no. Film is where it all began. However, there have been all kinds of film used in production, and all types of film processing. Jacques Tati was one of the first people to use video for a feature, in his movie Parade (1974), though I’m willing to bet there are examples even before that.
It occurs to me that one of the problems with what you call “classicists”—especially in America, but probably abroad, too—is that, for them, the Hollywood model is the dominant model.
MZS: Let’s define what you mean by the Hollywood model.
KU: Narrative storytelling, genre, actors performing a plot—
MZS: Meaning a goal-directed narrative?
KU: A goal-directed narrative, a goal-oriented story. Something akin to that. And perhaps awards recognition can be brought into it as well—something that’s seen as the end result of all of that.
MZS: And when you talk about the Hollywood model, I assume you mean not just the movies that come out of Hollywood, but perhaps the cinema that comes out of other countries, which is often either aping Hollywood or attempting to react against Hollywood?
KU: What I’m talking about is the tendency of critics to hold Hollywood up as the high standard against which everything must be measured, even though they criticize it heavily nowadays and talk about how it’s not what it used to be. In this way, Rosenbaum was clearly onto something when he pointed out how Denby and Thomson declared movies dead and then used L.A. Confidential to resurrect them. I do my best not to be closed off to the potentialities of any motion picture: “Hollywood films”, “Foreign films”, “Avant-garde films”, “Home videos”—at a very basic, gut level these distinctions are anathema to me.
One of the greatest movies I’ve ever seen is Abbas Kiarostami’s Five Dedicated to Ozu, which is a five-sequence video. Funny, I was just reading The Hollywood Reporter review of the movie before you called, though I won’t deign to call it a review, because it’s basically just a snarky takedown of it. And then there was something on the blog too, where Sean Burns got on, and he was talking about Children of Men, and how shocked he was that you and I and some other people didn’t like it. “I thought this board was full of Brian De Palma apologists,” he said, and (the coup de grâce), “If the rest of us “squint really really hard” might Inland Empire look slightly less like it was photographed inside a toilet?”
MZS: Man, that hurt.
KU: Then Odie came back in another thread, “If Lynch pulled a Warhol, and shot three hours of my toes, scoring the “footage” to Nina Simone, critics would hail it a masterpiece because Lynch’s name was on it.” Myself, I think that if David Lynch’s name wasn’t on it, said “footage” would look, sound, and feel completely different.
What Inland Empire proves to me—a belief I’ve long held—is that the camera betrays the true intent of the person who’s using it. They can state their aims and goals but, as Spielberg has shown, stated aims don’t always hold water, which is why I wish he (and Tarantino, too), would just shut up some of the time. That’s one of the reasons I admire Terrence Malick so much, because he doesn’t speak—he just lets the movies talk for themselves. It’s also why I appreciate Robert Altman’s view of his movies as children that he’s nurtured up to a point before they just up and walk away from him. The point being, I think, that when a director’s name—or the name of whoever you consider the auteur—is on a film, they have created it, it’s unique to them and you have to deal with that.
2. FILM & VIDEO
MZS: In that spirit, let’s focus on a few movies that are undeniably expressions of a singular viewpoint, and that all have one conspicuous thing in common. I have an asterisk next to this moviegoing year, so there are probably a lot of movies that I should bring into this discussion that I can’t, but five of the movies that I saw this year that made a really, really strong impression on me were shot on video. And they are all movies where the fact that they were shot on video was intentional, and integral to what the movies are and what they wanted to achieve. Those five movies are Superman Returns, A Prairie Home Companion, Iraq in Fragments, Miami Vice and Inland Empire. They were shot with different types of equipment, different budget levels, different aims. I’d like to go through them one by one and try to get at what I think video brought to each movie.
In the case of Superman Returns, which was on the high end of the scale, shooting on high-definition video was a means to exercise tighter aesthetic control over a big-budget superhero movie, from the digital effects to the color scheme, and probably to keep costs down, though the budget on that movie was so enormous that I can’t imagine it saved them very much. I read a lot of reviews of that movie. Few of them mentioned that it was shot on video, which is a tangential issue that I’m not going to harp on too much, but it annoys the shit out of me that many critics who believe cinema equals film only point out that something was shot on video if they didn’t like it. If they did like it, they don’t deign to mention it in their review.
KU: Maybe they don’t notice it.
MZS: I’m not a mind-reader, and I wouldn’t presume to guess. But I do think that if you’re in that camp, you need to be consistent on this point and address it whenever it comes up, even if it means a throwaway parenthetical, because the alternative is hypocrisy. What we’re talking about here is the essence of cinema and whether film is what defines it. My point is, while Superman Returns is not that different in its style from many grandiose, imaginatively produced superhero pictures, what’s special about it can be somewhat traced back to the decision to shoot on high-def.
But then you get something like Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion. In Altman on Altman, he talks throughout about how picture is not the most important thing. That’s a heretical thing for an auteur to be saying, but he says it over and over and over again in that book. He talks about how, when he was making McCabe & Mrs. Miller, he put multiple fog filters over the lens to degrade the image as much as possible. He wanted it to be murky, he wanted it to be hazy, he wanted it to be as difficult as possible to make out details. That was part of the aesthetic. Sound was more important to him than picture. Movement of people within the frame, and the seeming randomness of it, was more important to him than tight classical compositions. All of this stuff is very intentional, just as it was intentional for Cassavetes.
So it was not a shock to me at all when Altman gravitated toward video—first in the 80s with projects like Tanner ’88, then again with high definition when he shot The Company—he claimed it, loved it, shouted his love from the rooftops. In A Prairie Home Companion he uses it to cover rather than shoot his actors, to get in there with them in a way that’s very intimate even for him, to open up and explore a limited interior set in ways that remind me of the small films and the TV work that he did in the 80s, particularly play adaptations like The Dumbwaiter and The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial.
Then there’s Iraq in Fragments, which Steven Boone did a great job of explicating technically and aesthetically, and which achieved impressionistic, visionary effects with nonfiction footage that were likely only possible because the movie was shot on video. Obviously it’s the documentary filmmaker’s tool almost by default, because of cost, portability and relative unobtrusiveness, but there’s a powerful sensibility to that movie nonetheless.
I’m kind of moving up the chain here in order of the radical intent of the director, so the next one has to be Miami Vice. Michael Mann has often been criticized for being slick, particularly in the first half of his career, when he shot mostly with a single camera and micromanaged every frame, from the lighting to the décor. Supposedly he once re-shot an entire scene from The Insider because he didn’t like the tie a particular actor was wearing. But all in all, The Insider was looser and more spontaneous than anything he’d made before, and so was Ali, the first Mann film to use high-definition video in certain scenes, a fact that few critics noticed at the time. Robbery Homicide Division, Mann’s short-lived CBS show that was shot on high-def, was a natural outgrowth of the looser style of The Insider and Ali, and it predicted where he was going to go with Collateral, which mixed 35mm film and high-def video, and then Miami Vice, which was shot almost entirely on high-def.
On all three of these productions, Mann shot with multiple cameras, he used available light whenever possible, even during street scenes at night, and if somebody’s face was in shadow at a moment when they were saying something important, or if they were slightly out-of-focus as a result of the project being shot on the fly, he didn’t give a shit. In Miami Vice, which takes that approach further than anything he’s ever done, if there wasn’t enough light in the shot, he just cranked up the gain on the camera, which brings out detail but also increases the amount of grain in the image, which any professional DP will tell you you’re not supposed to do in a dramatic feature—and here’s what blows my mind: he left the grain in! There is software that can go through the finished cut of a movie, shot on film or video, and remove grain; there’s a way to make the texture consistent from shot to shot. Yet Mann apparently chose not to use it.
Detractors of Miami Vice sometimes complained that there were differing levels of grain from shot to shot, particularly in the night scenes. Well, put two and two together. If Michael Mann is a technical obsessive, which he certainly is, that stuff would not be in there if he didn’t want it to be in there—if he didn’t want you to notice it. And then next question is, why does he want you to notice it?