Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Emmanuel Lubezki

The children are our future

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Clive Owen and Clare-Hope Ashitey in Children of Men

Sometimes a great film takes years to reveal its full power. Occasionally, you know what you’ve witnessed as soon as the closing credits begin to roll. And very rarely, you realize in the middle of the movie that you’re watching something extraordinary. I’ve experienced this last feeling only a handful of times in my life, and my most vivid memory of it is from ten years ago, when I saw Children of Men. I’d been looking forward to it ever since seeing the trailer, and for the first twenty minutes or so, it more than lived up to my expectations. But halfway through a crucial scene—and if you’ve seen the movie, you know the one I mean—I began to feel the movie expanding in my head, as Pauline Kael said of The Godfather Part II, “like a soft bullet.” Two weeks later, I wrote to a friend: “Alfonso Cuarón has just raised the bar for every director in the world.” And I still believe this, even if the ensuing decade has clarified the film’s place in the history of movies. Cuarón hasn’t had the productive career that I’d hoped he would, and it took him years to follow up on his masterpiece, although he finally earned his Oscar for Gravity. The only unambiguous winner to come out of it all was the cinematographer Emmanuel Lubzeki, who has won three Academy Awards in a row for refinements of the discoveries that he made here. And the story now seems prescient, of course, as Abraham Riesman of Vulture recently noted: “The film, in hindsight, seems like a documentary about a future that, in 2016, finally arrived.” If nothing else, the world certainly appears to be run by exactly the sort of people of whom Jarvis Cocker was warning us.

But the most noteworthy thing about Children of Men, and the one aspect of it that its fans and imitators should keep in mind, is the insistently visceral nature of its impact. I don’t think I’m alone when I say that I was blown away the most by three elements: the tracking shots, the use of music, and the level of background detail in every scene. These are all qualities that are independent of its politics, its message, and even, to some extent, its script, which might be its weakest point. The movie can be refreshingly elliptical when it comes to the backstory of its characters and its world, but there are also holes and shortcuts that are harder to forgive. (Its clumsiest moment, for me, is when Theo is somehow able to observe and overhear Jasper’s death—an effective scene in itself—from higher ground without being noticed by anyone else. We aren’t sure where he’s standing in relation to the house, so it feels contrived and stagy, a strange lapse for a movie that is otherwise so bracingly specific about its geography.) But maybe that’s how it had to be. If the screenplay were as rich and crowded as the images, it would turn into a Christopher Nolan movie, for better or worse, and Cuarón is a very different sort of filmmaker. He’s content to leave entire swaths of the story in outline form, as if he forgot to fill in the blanks, and he’s happy to settle for a cliché if it saves time, just because his attention is so intensely focused elsewhere.

Michael Caine in Children of Men

Occasionally, this has led his movies to be something less than they should be. I really want to believe that Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the strongest installment in the series, but it has real structural problems that stem precisely from Cuarón’s indifference to exposition: he cuts out an important chunk of dialogue that leaves the climax almost incomprehensible, so that nonreaders have to scramble to figure out what the hell is going on, when we should be caught up in the action. Gravity impressed me enormously when I saw it on the big screen, but I’m not particularly anxious to revisit it at home, where its technical marvels run the risk of being swallowed up by its rudimentary characters and dialogue. (It strikes me now that Gravity might have some of the same problems, to a much lesser extent, as Birdman, in which the use of extended takes makes it impossible to give scenes the necessary polish in the editing room. Which also implies that if you’re going to hire Lubzeki as your cinematographer, you’d better have a really good script.) But Children of Men is the one film in which Cuarón’s shortcomings are inseparable from his strengths. His usual omissions and touches of carelessness were made for a story in which we’re only meant to glimpse the overall picture. And its allegory is so vague that we can apply it to whatever we like.

This might sound like a criticism, but it isn’t: Children of Men is undeniably one of the major movies of my lifetime. And its message is more insightful than it seems, even if it takes a minute of thought to unpack. Its world falls apart as soon as humanity realizes that it doesn’t have a future, which isn’t so far from where we are now. We find it very hard, as a species, to keep the future in mind, and we often behave—even in the presence of our own children—as if this generation will be the last. When a society has some measure of economic and political security, it can make efforts to plan ahead for a decade or two, but even that modest degree of foresight disappears as soon as stability does. In Children of Men, the childbirth crisis, which doesn’t respect national or racial boundaries, takes the sort of disruptions that tend to occur far from the developed world and brings them into the heart of Europe and America, and it doesn’t even need to change any of the details. The most frightening thing about Cuarón’s movie, and what makes it most relevant to our current predicament, is that its extrapolations aren’t across time, but across the map of the world as it exists today. You don’t need to look far to see landscapes like the ones through which the characters move, or the ways in which they could spread across the planet. In the words of William Gibson, the future of Children of Men is already here. It just isn’t evenly distributed yet.

The smart take

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Michael Keaton in Birdman

There’s nothing here about technique! There’s nothing in here about structure! There’s nothing in here about intentions!

—Riggan, to a theater critic in Birdman

Now that Birdman is gaining some serious Oscar momentum, with a string of late wins at the guild awards, it’s probably safe for me to admit that I didn’t like it. My hopes were high, and I was giddy with excitement for the first twenty minutes or so. There are extraordinary virtues here: the acting all around, particularly by Keaton and Edward Norton, who does his best work in years, and of course the tremendous technical trick pulled off by director Alejandro González Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who make most of the film look as if it were unfolding in a single continuous take. Yet I slowly felt my enthusiasm begin to deflate. The script feels like less a screenplay than an early outline, with sections marked off for generic beats or situations—a confrontation, a fantasy sequence, a moment of revelation—without much consideration for the specifics of what two human beings might really say to each other. Every scene feels like a placeholder for a more fully realized version, filling a slot in the structure and nothing else, and any insights the movie might have about the creative process, theater, or modern celebrity founder on a bright high schooler’s idea of how people in show business would act and talk.

I’m not all that familiar with Iñárritu: the only previous film of his I’ve seen is Babel, which suffers from many of the same flaws. (It’s a visually arresting movie that isn’t about what it claims to be: it has what sounds at first like an ambitious vision of interconnectedness and misunderstanding, but its plot hinges on ordinary carelessness and stupidity.) And yet I’m not sure I want to blame him for the film’s shortcomings, which are an inevitable result of its unworkable formal constraints. When you look back at the history of movies, you find that films built around long takes usually feel undercooked on the screenplay level. That was certainly true of Hitchcock’s Rope, the most famous early effort in that line, and even of a movie like Gravity, which I loved. Gravity has amazing strengths, and its script is smartly constructed, but few of its fans would point to its dialogue or character development as models to imitate. And it doesn’t take long to figure out why. A continuous shot can be thrilling in the manner of a daring circus performance—although it’s less exciting now, when it’s possible to stitch takes together so seamlessly—and it can be a useful tool when suspense or impact depends on a scene unfolding in real time, as it does in movies as different as Touch of Evil and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days. But when used indiscriminately, it robs us of a central element of movie art: the cut.

Michael Keaton and Edward Norton in Birdman

Movies are told in cuts. That might sound like an academic point, of greater interest to students of Eisenstein and Vertov than to working directors, but really, it’s intensely pragmatic. Cuts convey and create information that couldn’t otherwise exist: as Lev Kuleshov famously demonstrated, and as Hitchcock later reminded Truffaut, you can take the same shot of a man’s face and give it different emotional connotations, based on whether you intercut it with the image of a bowl of soup, a dead child, or a beautiful woman. Nothing we can do in staging or writing comes close to that kind of concision, and to reject it deliberately, as Birdman does, puts tremendous pressure on every other aspect of the film to do the heavy lifting. And if it falls short, there’s little we can do to fix it. Editing a movie, as I’ve noted many times before, isn’t just a matter of assembling footage, but of finding a film’s true life and rhythm. A boring or unconvincing scene can become compelling once we figure out what to emphasize and remove, and films are often improved by lifting out or transposing entire sections. A movie like Birdman makes this impossible, so everything we see onscreen is the equivalent of a decent second draft, minus that last, essential polish. And we feel it in every scene that meanders without resolution or every line that falls flat and refuses to be removed.

Given all this, I’m almost impressed that Birdman works even as well as it does. To shoot that second draft and end up with a great movie would require the best screenplay in the world, which this isn’t. (Evidently, Iñárritu came up with the idea for the movie’s structure first, then developed the script to fit, which reverses the process that most good movies follow.) In On Directing Film, David Mamet speaks disparagingly of movies that just “follow the protagonist around,” and he writes what amounts to a scathing review of Birdman two decades before the fact:

“Wouldn’t it be nice,” one might say, “if we could get this hall here, really around the corner from that door there; or to get that door here to really be the door that opens on the staircase to that door there?” So we could just move the camera from one to the next?

It took me a great deal of effort and still takes me a great deal and will continue to take me a great deal of effort to answer the question thusly: no, not only is it not important to have those objects literally contiguous; it is important to fight against that desire, because fighting it reinforces an understanding of the essential nature of film, which is that it is made of disparate shots, cut together…It might be nice to have these objects next to each other so as to avoid moving the crew, but you don’t get any sneaky artistic good out of literally having them next to each other. You can cut the shots together.

And that sums it up. Birdman is a great stunt and a technical marvel, but it would have been a better movie if it weren’t. And that’s the unkindest cut of all.

The light of distant stars

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Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar

By now, Interstellar has inspired plenty of conversation on subjects ranging from the accuracy of its science to the consistency of its intricate timelines, but I wanted to highlight one aspect of the film that hasn’t received as much attention: its use of physical miniatures. If you’re a visual effects nerd like me, Interstellar represents a welcome return to a style of filmmaking that other directors seem to have all but abandoned, with huge, detailed models—the one for the spacecraft Endurance was a full twenty-five feet across—shot against star fields in the studio, a tradition that stretches back through Star Wars to 2001. And the result speaks for itself. The effects are so good that they practically fade into the background; for long stretches of the film, we’re barely aware of them as effects at all, but as elements in a story that persuasively takes place on the largest imaginable scale. (There’s even a sense in which the film’s scientific rigor and its reliance on modelwork go hand in hand. Dealing with big, unwieldy miniatures and hydraulics can only make a filmmaker more aware of the physics involved.)

Last week, I suggested that Christopher Nolan, the most meticulous creator of blockbusters we have, is drawn to IMAX and the logistical problems it presents as a way of getting out of his own head, or of grounding his elaborate conceits in recognizably vivid environments, and much the same is true of his approach to effects. If Inception had unfolded in a flurry of digital imagery, as it might easily have done in the hands of a lesser filmmaker, the story itself would have been far less interesting. Dreams, as Cobb reminds Ariadne, feel real while you’re inside them, and it’s revealing that the most controlling of directors understands the value of techniques that force him to give up control, while paradoxically allowing for greater realism. As Nolan says:

These are things you could try to calculate into CG if you had to, but the wonderful thing about miniature shooting is that it shows you things you never knew were there or couldn’t plan for. I refer to it as serendipity—this random quality that gives the image a feeling of life.

And the randomness is key. Critics often speak of the uncanny valley when describing how virtual actors are never as convincing as the real thing, and a similar principle seems to be at work with other visual effects. Computers have made enormous advances in depicting anything a filmmaker likes, but there are still crucial details—artifacts of lighting, the behavior of surfaces seen against real backdrops—that digital artistry struggles to replicate, precisely because they’re so unpredictable.

George Clooney on the set of Gravity

Light, it seems, is a problem as intractable, in its own way, as the subtleties of human expression, and while we may feel less of a visceral reaction when the technology falls short, it still prevents us from immersing ourselves completely in the experience. Even in films like The Return of the King or Avatar, which look undeniably spectacular, we’re often conscious of how expertly the imagery has been constructed, with the uniform, unreal light of a world that exists only on a hard drive at Weta. It holds us at arm’s distance even as it draws us in. That said, technology marches on, and it’s telling that Interstellar arrives in theaters almost exactly one year after Gravity, a movie that takes a diametrically opposite approach to many of the same problems: few practical sets or models were built, and for much of the film, everything in sight, from the spacesuits to the interiors to the panorama of the earth in the background, is a digital creation. The result, to put it mildly, looks fantastic, even in IMAX, and it’s the first movie I’ve seen in a long time in which computer effects are truly indistinguishable from reality.

At first glance, then, it might seem like Interstellar arrives at the scene a few months too late, at a point where digital effects have met and exceeded what might be possible using painstaking practical techniques. Really, though, the two films have a great deal in common. If the effects in Gravity work so well, it’s in large part due to the obsessiveness that went into lighting and wirework during principal photography: Emmanuel Lubezki’s famous light box amounts to a complicated way of addressing the basic—and excruciatingly specific—challenge of keeping the actors’ faces properly lit, a detail destined to pass unnoticed until it goes wrong. Interstellar takes much the same approach, with enormous projections used on the sound stage, rather than green screens, in order to immerse the actors in the effects in real time. In other words, both films end up converging on similar solutions from opposite directions, ultimately meeting in the same place: on the set itself. They understand that visible magic only works when grounded in invisible craft, and if the tools they use are very different, they’re united in a common goal. And the cinematic universe, thankfully, is big enough for them both.

Written by nevalalee

November 11, 2014 at 10:05 am

Birds of a feather

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Nathan Lane and Robin Williams in The Birdcage

A while back, for the book Inventory by The A.V. Club, the director Paul Thomas Anderson shared his list of “Two movies that without fail or question will make me stop dead in my tracks and watch them all the way to the very end, no matter what else is happening or needs to get done.” The films were The Birdcage and The Shining. His second choice probably won’t raise many eyebrows—The Shining‘s fingerprints are all over his work, particularly There Will Be Blood—but the first one might give us pause. Yet when I watched it over the weekend, I had no trouble seeing why Anderson finds it so appealing. There’s the astonishing opening shot, for instance, which zooms across the waters of South Beach and continues in an unbroken movement into the club where Robin Williams is greeting patrons and overseeing his floor show of drag queens. Among other things, it’s impossible not to see it as an influence on the opening tracking shot of Boogie Nights, which would come out the following year. (The cinematographer here, incidentally, was Emmanuel Lubezki, who would go on to do spectacular work for the likes of Terrence Malick and Alfonso Cuarón and win an Oscar for his indispensable contributions to Gravity.)

After almost twenty years, it’s fair to say that The Birdcage holds up as an unexpectedly rich, sophisticated slice of filmmaking. Like many of Anderson’s own films, it has a deep bench of supporting players anchored by a generous lead performance: I felt like watching it primarily as a reminder of how good Robin Williams could be with the right direction and material, and what stands out the most is his willingness to dial down his natural showiness to highlight the more flamboyant performances taking place on all sides. He’s essentially playing the straight man—well, sort of—to Nathan Lane and Hank Azaria, but his restrained energy and intelligence give all the actors around him an additional kick. Not surprisingly, for a movie directed by Mike Nichols from a script by Elaine May, it’s often subversively clever, like a Woody Allen film disguised as a studio crowdpleaser. Lane’s very first line is a reference to The Red Shoes, and the film is packed with nods to gay culture, like the way Lane’s show begins with the opening notes of “The Man Who Got Away,” a la Judy at Carnegie Hall, that probably went over the heads of much of its audience. But I don’t think even I would have watched it nearly as attentively or affectionately without the clue from Anderson.

Paul Thomas Anderson

And Anderson clearly knew what he was doing. Whenever you’re asked to provide a list of your favorite movies or other works of art, there are several competing impulses at play: you’re torn between providing a list of major milestones, the films that speak to you personally, or simply the ones that you enjoy the most. There’s also an awareness that a surprising choice can be notable in its own right. After composing his final list for the Sight and Sound poll of the greatest movies of all time, Roger Ebert wrote:

Apart from any other motive for putting a movie title on a list like this, there is always the motive of propaganda: Critics add a title hoping to draw attention to it, and encourage others to see it. For 2012, I suppose [The Tree of Life] is my propaganda title.

Whether or not Anderson was thinking explicitly in these terms, there’s no question in my mind that he listed The Birdcage so prominently as a way of highlighting it in the reader’s mind. This is a great movie, he seems to be saying, that you may not have sufficiently appreciated, and listing it here without comment does more to lock it in the memory than any number of words of critical analysis.

That’s the real pleasure—and value—of lists like this, which otherwise can start to seem like pointless parlor games. We don’t learn much from the debates over whether Vertigo really deserves to be ranked above Citizen Kane, but it can be enlightening to discover that Quentin Tarantino’s favorite films include titles like “The Bad News Bears,” “Dazed and Confused,” “Rolling Thunder,” and “Pretty Maids All in a Row.” (Going through the Sight and Sound lists of great directors is like a miniature education in itself: after seeing that both Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola named Andrej Wadja’s Ashes and Diamonds in their top ten, there’s no way that I can’t not see this movie.) Once we’ve worked our way through the established canon, as determined by a sober critical consensus, the next step ought to be seeking out the movies that people we admire have singled out for love, especially when they take us down unexplored byways. After watching one movie through Anderson’s eyes, I wish he’d tossed out a few more titles, but maybe it’s best that he left us with those two. And the next time The Birdcage comes up on television, it’ll stop me dead in my tracks.

Specific Gravity

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George Clooney on the set of Gravity

Over the weekend, I picked up the excellent new Blu-ray release of Gravity, and I spent most of last night watching some of its riveting special features. I’d long since been blown away by this film’s cinematic and technical ambitions, which have been amply chronicled elsewhere, but seeing the production footage took my appreciation to another level. Alfonso Cuarón, his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and visual effects supervisor Tim Webber began with a considerable logistical challenge—how to depict weightlessness with a constantly moving camera and many extended takes—that required both the development of new technology and a considerable amount of ingenuity. Many of you have probably already read about the light box that was used to film the actors’ faces and integrate them into digital environments, the robotic cameras, and the innovative wirework, all of which required obsessive dedication and attention to detail, and the result is simultaneously spectacular and meant to be taken for granted. If the lighting on Sandra Bullock’s face hadn’t matched her surroundings, few of us would have been able to articulate the issue, but it would have subtly undermined the entire film.

And what strikes me the most about Gravity‘s accomplishments is their specificity. These techniques were designed at great expense to address the particular problems that this story presented, and it’s unclear how often something like Lubezki’s light box will be used again. For most movies, even ambitious science-fiction epics, the existing toolbox of visual effects is more than adequate. Digital head replacement, for instance, has been used for a long time, and for a film that doesn’t need to confront the complicated filming and lighting challenges that this story involved, there’s no reason to move beyond what has worked in the past. (It’s also important to note that these virtuoso extended shots serve a clear purpose—to recreate the feel of real space footage, which doesn’t have the benefit of rapid cuts and multiple cameras. Again, the storytelling drives the technology, not the other way around, which is precisely how it should be.) As a result, the behind-the-scenes footage from Gravity has a very different feel from similar material about, say, Avatar: in the latter case, you have a movie that points the way forward for countless similar films, while the former feels like a gorgeous set of solutions to problems that may never arise again.

Sandra Bullock in Gravity

But of course, every artistic advance, in any medium, results from an attempt to tackle something specific. It always comes down to artists confronting the projects they’re working on at the time, and if the solutions they discover happen to have a more general application, that’s just a happy accident. As a writer, you’re never thinking in terms of conscious innovation; you’re just trying to get a character out of one room and into another, or to evoke a particular theme or emotional state. The innovations themselves arise from the difficulty of the problem you’re trying to fix, which is contingent on many other factors, and will often end up being greater than you originally expected. Cuarón didn’t set out to invent a new kind of filmmaking with Gravity; he states repeatedly that he originally saw it as a small, relatively simple movie with two characters that could be made in a short period of time, but in the end, it took him half a decade. (I’m reminded a little of the French director Leos Carax, who wanted to make an intimate film set on the Pont Neuf in Paris, which was closed for construction at the time. Unfortunately, by the time he started shooting, the bridge had reopened, so he simply built his own bridge from scratch, as well as much of the city to either side, and the result was the most expensive movie ever made in France.)

And there’s no way of knowing how the specific solutions created by Gravity will be used in the future. In all likelihood, it’ll be in ways we can’t expect. Maybe, if they ever get around to the remake of Ben-Hur they’re always threatening to produce, it’ll be used to convincingly put actors into an extended take of the chariot race, with the camera moving fluidly among the wheels and the horses’ hooves; maybe it will be used in a dream sequence by the likes of David Cronenberg; or maybe it will be something else altogether. All that matters is that the solutions exist, and in time, they’ll be used to tackle problems that nobody could have imagined. And innovations don’t need a budget of millions of dollars, as long as you remember that they come from an extended engagement with specific problems. I’ve pointed out before that what we call genre is really a set of best practices, a collection of conventions, worked out by trial and error, that have proven to work for a wide range of stories and audiences. If they seem inevitable now, it’s only because the solutions—which originally were designed for the benefit of just one story—ended up being so powerful. There’s no such thing as pure research in the arts: it’s all about getting the sentence or the shot you need today. And if achieving it sometimes requires inventing a new science or art form, well, that’s just part of the game.

Written by nevalalee

March 11, 2014 at 9:44 am

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