Thursday, February 25, 2010

Escape Me Never

Escape Me Never
(WB, Peter Godfrey) is the sort of romantic melodrama that comes across as outdated today. In later 19th century Italy, Ida Lupino plays the role of Gemma, a gamine who's taken in by womanizing, underemployed composer Sebastian (Errol Flynn). She falls for Sebastian, who is busy chasing women, including his brother's fiancée. She decides to accept his errant ways but pays a price.

Such a narrative has especially retrograde implications by making the woman bear the brunt of "settling" in the marriage market. Yet I wonder if what's mostly come since - the downplaying of "settling" and the market - is not itself ideological. In other words, there's got to be some way to offer critique without slipping into historical chauvinism.

That the genre requires a high-key approach is no surprise. What surprises me is how fussy "polish" ends up being in much of the film. There's almost a Victorian over-adornment of the image with illumination and shadow. And, too, there are some thoroughly conventional choices, even leading to comic moments like this, where the illumination seems to be coming from both sides of the door!

Flynn, meanwhile, gets the full glamor treatment, even showing off more of a diffused glow than Eleanor Parker.

At other times, the cinematography is surprisingly dark, even minimal:

The image quality here shows how much film restoration matters for what we see. Sol Polito's work not only looks better but also makes more sense in a polished print/transfer like Now Voyager than here.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Truth Claims and Reality Effects

I know no issue seems more trodden than the issue of documentary veracity - or in particular the spectatorial investment in the real that documentary and documentary style engenders. I'm glad the field of documentary studies has found new research agendas and new angles of approach. Yet, like a moth to a flame, I return...

Post cultural studies, there's been a working consensus that the reality effect (to borrow Barthes' term) was overstated and even a straw man. Of course, viewers know that they are watching a film and are not just dupes to illusionistic filmmaking.

Well, two films I've seen lately have reminded me that I'm a dupe. The Hurt Locker falls short of being pure pseudodocumentary, but it uses a hand-held aesthetic to suggest a documentary-like veracity. There are a few moments when I was keenly aware of the camera's narrational presense, such as the racking of focus or the positioning of camera in a position in direct danger of gunfire. And intellectually, I was able to dissect the deconstructive action film/war film generic repurposing going on. But viscerally, I felt I was watching a slice of historical reality.

Perhaps more interesting theoretically was a similar investment in the historical real I felt watching Manda Bala (Jason Kohn, 2007), a documentary about kidnapping and political corruption in Brazil.

What's interesting is that the film is fairly stylized. Where The Hurt Locker appropriates documentary for the fiction film, Manda Bala appropriates a lush, fictional shooting style for documentary. True, there are moments of video images that stick out in reality-effect fashion:

Rhetorically, though, the film only partially uses these reality effect moments to buttress its arguments. Most of its truth claims come from the structuring of testimony, in which artifice of mise-en-scene corroborates the "officialness" of the bureaucrat.

The seeming paradox of much postmodern documentary - that Manda Bala creates a spectatorial investment in truth via means of artifice - is only a paradox because it overlooks the latitude documentary narration has in sublating the indexical trace to larger truth claims. Unlike Errol Morris, Jason Kohn does not back into his argument. Rather, he relies on the expository thread of the film's structure to carry a good deal of style.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Bishop's Wife/Heaven Only Knows

I'm not sure, but I suspect that Here Comes Mr. Jordan was responsible for a cycle of afterlife comedies. Down to Earth was pretty much a direct sequel, but other 1947 films revolved around angels coming to earth to rectify human wrongdoing.

Heaven Only Knows (Nero Films/UA, Albert Rogell) grafts the western and the romantic drama onto the afterlife comedy. Angel Michael (Robert Cumming) comes down to earth and becomes the fish out of water, the good guy mistaken for a sharp shooting outlaw. His goal is to get outlaw frontiersman Duke (Brian Donlevy) to find his missing soul and become law-abiding citizen - the key of course is the love of schoolmistress Drusilla (Jorja Curtright).

Visually, a high-key A-picture style pervades the film. Shot by Karl Strauss, the film oscillates between undistinguished setups, the generically-motivated effects lighting, and visual inventiveness. Take one scene, in which an angered Drusilla storms across the street to confront Duke.

The first shot is a highly diffused, barely modeled shot of Curtright, the second a typically high-key but contrasty exterior shot. Each shows a highly conventional approach to the subject matter. The interior at Duke's on the other hand, is staged deep, with three separate lighting zones for foreground, midground, and background. It's a quintessentially 40s shot - experimenting with staging in a non-showy way.

There are Strauss-ian touches like an underneath shot (POV from a book?)

and extreme effects lighting on a devil figure.

Ideologically, the film is a disguised social problem film. Much like Boy With the Green Hair (1948), it both implores for world peace and seems pointed against Jim Crow.

The Bishop's Wife is a message picture of sorts, though much more up-front in its theme. Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) is trying to raise money for a new cathedral and in the process has lost sight of the ordinary people whom the church is supposed to serve. That is, until angel Dudley (Cary Grant) arrives and among other acts seduces Henry's wife Julia (Loretta Young).

"Seduce" is used advisedly. The Bishop's Wife is a category E film if ever I've seen one: the romantic tension between Grant and Young characters threatens to derail the official message of the film.

And yet the film's contradictions can be its strength. Gregg Toland is DP here and the film's aesthetic seems to be to avoid generic treatment in order to shoot the fantastic in realistic style.

A rich, inky-black look is barely broken even by Loretta Young's glamour treatment.

The Bishop's Wife perhaps best exemplifies the in-house independent trend of the 1940s. It is very much a Goldwyn prestige picture, yet uses RKO stars and director. Narratively, it seems to be in an in-between spot between "Goldwyn film" and "RKO picture."

Friday, February 19, 2010

Technology and Aesthetic Adaptation

This week in the film history class I taught, not for the irst time, Paul Ramaeker's essay on diopter shots (“Notes on the Split-Field Diopter” Film History v. 19). In so many ways it's a remarkable essay, both for the quality of its research and writing and for the substantive contribution to cinema history. Plaudits aside, the essay interests me because it happens to be a well-executed example of an evolutionary model of technology and film style dominant now.

Essentially, this is an approach to film technology querying aesthetic adaptation of film technology and giving a somewhat dialectical picture. First, there is a stasis, generally defined by strong aesthetic conventions. Second, an external shock comes in the form of a new technology. Third, while some artists hesitate to embrace the new technology, others experiment with it, often through indiscriminate use. Fourth, artists learn how to reconcile the new technology to existing aesthetic conventions. Fifth, more assertive artists then learn how to tinker with these conventions. Utlimately, of course, the cycle can end as new technologies arrive or older aesthetic conventions fall into disuse.

Not every film historian of technology posits all of these steps (commonly accounts will stop at step 4 or 5), but a number of studies of technology fit it. Not only Ramaeker's essay, but Scott Higgins book on Technicolor, James Lastra's on sound, Patrick Keating's on classical cinematography, and David Bordwell's work on deep focus.

There's a good reason for the success of the adaptation-evolution model. It makes sense of the empirical, especially in reference to commercial film industries in which conventions are both highly internalized and highly enforced. Additionally, it finds an in-between spot between conflict and functionalist social models of the film industry: film technology is not mere science or mere ideology. As such, we find a clear research agenda that weights primary research without falling into the traps of discourse analysis.

For all these reasons I'm drawn to this model in my own research, which is arguing that Hollywood's adoption of social relevance, including a visual “realism,” was actually a give-and-take process rather than an imprint of Depression politics or wartime exigencies.

But a nagging part of me is wondering if there are other ways to conceive of aesthetic adaptation to new technology. Do some technologies proceed without a dialectical trajectory or such strong equilibrium toward the conventional? As usual, I worry about the totalizing danger of conceiving of a “system.”