Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Gravity

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

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

The cultural chalk circle

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Sandra Bullock in Gravity

Gravity was the best movie I saw last year, which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, since Gravity was pretty much the only movie I saw last year. Now, this isn’t entirely true—I caught Star Trek Into Darkness, Man of Steel, and The Hobbit in theaters, and got around to watching a fair number of others at home—but it still marks a drastic drop from my old routine, in which I’d often see a new movie in theaters every week. I’ve noted before that having a baby daughter turned me overnight into a studio executive’s idea of the average moviegoer, who is only motivated to get out of the house for a sequel or a proven franchise, but I’m still shocked by how quickly the transformation took place. When you look at it in another light, though, it only brings my moviegoing habits, which were always something of an outlier, into line with the rest of my pop cultural life, which has long been growing more circumscribed. My house is crammed full of books, but I read embarrassingly little new fiction, and I buy maybe five or six new albums a year. And if I managed to stay a cinephile for comparatively longer, it only postponed the contraction of our cultural lives that takes place sooner or later for most of us, usually around the time that we start to have more things competing for our attention.

When you’re born, without knowing it, you’ve dropped a stake at a certain random point in a huge expanse of art and pop culture. The books you read, the music you hear, and the media you experience are all shaped by the tastes of your parents and the immediate community to which you belong, which enclose a subset of all the art available within an invisible chalk circle. Later, as you enter the wider world of works intended for people your age, you expand that circle outward into the books and movies that everyone around you seems to know, from Dr. Seuss to The Phantom Tollbooth. As time goes on, the circle continues to broaden, and to strike out into unexpected directions, and it’s in high school and college that it seems to reach its greatest circumference. It’s no mystery why: you’re young, unencumbered, but hungry for knowledge, and although you haven’t had a chance to differentiate your life significantly from those of your peers, you can treat art and literature as glimpses into other forms of human experience, or mirrors that reflect back some aspect of your own. It’s no accident that most people seem to spend more time listening to music in their late teens and early twenties than at any other point. You’ve got access to more influences than ever before—along with faster Internet connections, at least in my day—and you use the resources you have to start putting together a soundtrack for your own story.

Orson Welles in The Third Man

Later, though, the circle starts to contract. After graduating from college, many people stop reading books altogether, and the rest of us rarely have much time to explore beyond the table of new releases at Barnes & Noble. When you look at Pitchfork’s list of the top albums of the year, you’re lucky if you can recognize even a third of the names. If a new book or album gets sensational reviews, you’ll check it out, but for the most part, you stick to a handful of old stalwarts, which means that you always make a point of picking up the new Radiohead, even if you only play The King of Limbs a couple of times. Once again, the reasoning here isn’t hard to see. You’ve got a job; you’ve got social obligations; maybe you’ve started to raise a family; and the gaps in your life that you used to fill up with art are occupied by life itself. One by one, the babies get thrown out of the sleigh, and although you don’t miss some of them as much as you expected, you cling to others for as long as you can. For me, a movie house has always been a special place of magic, and I made pilgrimages to that temple on a weekly basis, so its not surprising that I only gave it up when my life had already changed in empathic ways of its own.

But as Harry Lime says in The Third Man, it’s not that awful. Television, for instance, has slowly expanded to become a larger part of my cultural awareness—as it was when I was growing up, before contracting in college and immediately thereafter—and although this isn’t a new pattern in American lives, I’ve been lucky enough to have it coincide with what everyone agrees is a golden age for the medium as a whole. I’m slowly working my way back around to music, in an indirect fashion, courtesy of my ukelele and a new record player, which allows me to rediscover albums that aren’t readily available anywhere else. Reading is still a problem, and while I still get through a vast amount of nonfiction, usually for one writing project or another, my personal consumption of fiction for the last year has been limited to a few John D. MacDonald novels, a smattering of short stories, and the first third of Infinite Jest. Still, I hold out hope that it gets better from here. My circle of culture is smaller than before, and it continues to be recentered, but for most of us, that’s just the way it works. And although the outer limits of that chalk circle grow fainter with time, it’s reassuring to know that it’s still there.

Written by nevalalee

January 2, 2014 at 10:06 am

Posted in Books, Movies

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The lost art of the extended take

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Karen Allen in Raiders of the Lost Ark

For Christmas, I got my wife a copy of The Wes Anderson Collection by Matt Zoller Seitz, which is one of those ideal presents that the giver buys for the recipient because he secretly wants it for himself—I’ve spent at least as much time browsing through it as she has. It’s a beautiful book of interviews with a fascinating subject, and I suspect that it will provide a lot of material for this blog. Today, though, I’d like to focus on one short exchange, which occurs during a discussion of Anderson’s use of extended tracking shots. Seitz points to the drinking contest in Raiders of the Lost Ark as an example of a great director subtly shooting a long scene in a single take without cuts, and shrewdly notes that our knowledge that the action is unfolding in real time subliminally increases the suspense. Anderson agrees: “You’re not only waiting to see who’s going to get knocked out with the liquor; you’re waiting to see who’s going to screw up the take.” Elsewhere, Seitz has written of how the way the scene was shot adds “a second, subtle layer of tension to an already snappy scene…our subliminal awareness that we’re seeing a filmed live performance, and our sporting interest in seeing how long they can keep it going.”

This is a beautiful notion, because it exemplifies a quality that many of my favorite films share: the fictional story that the movie is telling shades imperceptibly into the factual story of how the movie itself was made, which unfolds in parallel to the main action, both invisibly and right in front of our eyes. It’s something like Truffaut’s statement that a movie should simultaneously express “an idea of life and an idea of cinema,” but it’s less about any specific philosophical idea than a sense that the narrative that the movie presents to us is a metaphor for its own creation. We see this in a movie like Citizen Kane, in which it’s hard not to read the youthful excitement of Kane’s early days at the Inquirer as a portrait of Orson Welles arriving on the RKO lot, and its later, disillusioned passages as a weird prefiguring of what would happen to Welles decades down the line; or even a movie like Inception, in which the roles of the participants in the mind heist correspond to those of the team behind the camera—the director, the producer, the production designer—and the star looks a little like Chris Nolan himself. (Someone, possibly me, should really make a slideshow on how directors tend to cast leading roles with their own doubles, as Anderson often does as well.)


And the ultimate expression of the marriage between the filmed story and the story of its creation is the extended shot. It’s a moment in which the movie we’re watching fuses uncannily with its own behind-the-scenes documentary: for a minute or two, we’re on the set, watching the action at the director’s side, and the result is charged with the excitement of live performance. If every cut, as Godard says, is a lie, a continuous take brings us as close to the truth—or at least to a clever simulacrum of it—as the movies can manage. It doesn’t need to be overtly flashy, either: I’ve never seen a better use of an extended take than in the party scene in 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, in which the camera remains stationary for an entire reel. But there’s also a childlike pleasure in seeing filmmakers taking a big risk and getting away with it. You see this in the massively choreographed long takes, involving dozens or hundreds of players, in movies as different as Absolute Beginners, Boogie Nights, and Hard BoiledAnd if the hallway fight in Inception ranks among the most thrilling sequences of the decade, it’s because we’re witnessing something astonishing as it must have appeared that day on the set, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt getting battered by the walls of that rotating corridor.

So it’s worth taking a moment to remember that it’s not the long take itself that matters, but the fact that it puts us in the filmmaker’s shoes, which we lose when an extended take is the result of digital trickery. I’m as big a fan as any of the opening shot of Gravity, which recently made my updated list of the greatest movie openings of all time, but there’s no escaping the fact that we’re seeing something that has been invisibly stitched together over many different days of filming, and nearly everything in sight has been constructed through visual effects. This doesn’t make it any less miraculous: along with Life of Pi, it marks a turning point, at least for me, in which digital effects finally live up to their promise of giving us something that can’t be distinguished from reality. But it’s a triumph of vision, planning, and conceptual audacity, without the extra frisson that arises from the sustained tightrope act of an extended shot done in the camera. As time goes by, it will become easier to create this sort of effect from multiple takes, as Cuarón himself did so brilliantly in Children of Men. But it can’t compare to the conspiratorial tension we get from a true tracking shot, done with the full possibility of a disastrous mistake, in which the movies, so often crafted from tricks and illusions, really do seem to defy gravity.

Written by nevalalee

December 26, 2013 at 9:10 am

The greatest opening shots in movies

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Blue Velvet

Note: Since I’m taking a deserved break for the holidays, I’m reposting a couple of my favorite entries from early in this blog’s run. This post was originally published, in a slightly different form, on January 20, 2011.

When I sat down to make a list of my favorite opening shots in film—having done the same yesterday with closing shots—I found that the task was surprisingly difficult. For the most part, an opening shot lacks the same power as its opposite number at the end: instead of a summation of all that has come before, an opening shot is more like a declaration of intentions. As a result, the appeal is to the eye and mind, rather than the heart.

Still, there are some wonderful images here. Note that I’ve restricted myself to one shot per director, if only because Kubrick would have completely taken over otherwise. And for many more possibilities, check out Jim Emerson’s terrific Opening Shots project, to which I owe several of the entries below. Click for the titles:

The likability fallacy

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Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’m at a point in my life—it’s called “fatherhood”—in which I can see maybe three or four films in theaters every year. My wife and I saw The Hobbit the week before our daughter was born, and since then, our moviegoing has been restricted to a handful of big event movies: Star Trek Into Darkness, Man of Steel, Gravity. In general, my criteria for whether a movie is worth catching on the big screen are fairly simple. It needs to be something that would be considerably reduced on television, which applies particularly to a film like Gravity: I loved it, and I plan to watch it again and again, but its impact won’t be nearly the same at home. Reviews count, as well as my own intangible excitement over a franchise, and beyond that, I tend to go with directors whose work has impressed in the past, which is why I know that the one movie I’ll definitely be seeing next year is Chris Nolan’s Interstellar. In other words, after a lifetime of seeking out strange and challenging movies in theaters, I’ve turned into something like a studio’s idea of the mainstream moviegoer, who tends to prefer known quantities to interesting gambles, and is happy to catch the rest on video. You can complain all you like about Hollywood’s reliance on sequels, remakes, and established properties, but when I look at my own choices as a movie lover with a limited amount of time, I can’t say it’s entirely wrong.

But if there’s a bright side to all this, it’s that it allows me to treat myself as a kind of guinea pig: I can take a hard look at my newfound conservatism as a moviegoer with what remains of my old analytical eye. So much of how Hollywood operates is based on a few basic premises about what audiences want, and as I’ve become less adventurous as a viewer, I’ve gotten a better sense of how accurate those assumptions—presumably based on endless focus group testing and box office analysis—really are. And I’ve come to some surprising conclusions. I’ve found, for instance, that star power alone isn’t enough to get me out of the house: I’m an unabashed Tom Cruise fan, but I still waited for Oblivion to arrive at Redbox. I don’t need a happy ending to feel that I’ve gotten my money’s worth, as long as a darker conclusion is honestly earned. And the one that I can’t repeat often enough is this: I’m not worried about whether I’m going to “like” the characters. Studios are famously concerned about how likable their characters are, and they get nervous about any project in which the lead comes off as unsympathetic. Industry observers tend to think in the same way. As a writer for Time Out recently said of the trailer for The Wolf of Wall Street: “Why should we give a damn about these self-absorbed, money-grubbing Armani-clad cretins and spend our money and time learning about their lives?”

Martin Scorsese

Well, to put it mildly, I can think of a few reasons why, and they’re strong enough that The Wolf of Wall Street is the next, and probably last, movie this year that I expect will get me into theaters. Spending three hours in the company of an Armani-clad cretin seen through the eyes of Martin Scorsese strikes me as a great use of my money and time, and while I can’t speak for the rest of the world, the movie we’ve glimpsed so far looks sensational. Part of this, of course, is because Scorsese has proven himself so capable of engaging us in the lives of unlikable characters. I don’t think there’s a sympathetic face to be seen throughout all of Casino, one of the most compulsively watchable movies of all time, and Scorsese has always seemed more comfortable in the heads of the flawed and unredeemable: it’s the difference between Goodfellas and Kundun, or Raging Bull and Hugo, and even a sleek machine like Cape Fear comes off as an experiment in how thoroughly he can grip us without a likable figure in sight. But there’s a larger principle at work here, too. Scorsese, by consensus, operates at a consistently higher level than any other filmmaker of his generation, and if he’s drawn to such flawed characters, this probably tells us less about him personally than about the fact that his craft is powerful enough to get away with it. Likability wouldn’t be a factor if all movies were this good.

In other words, any fears over the protagonist’s likability are really an admission that something else is going wrong, either in story or execution: the audience doesn’t care about the characters not because they aren’t sympathetic enough, but because it hasn’t been given a reason to be invested on a deeper level. Trying to imbue the hero in a meaningless story with more likable qualities is like changing the drapes while the house is on fire, but unfortunately, it’s often all the studio can understand. As Shane Black notes in the excellent interview collection Tales From the Script:

Movie stars are gonna give you your best ideas, because they’re the opposite of development people. Development people are always saying, “How can the character be more likable?” Meanwhile, the actor’s saying, “I don’t want to be likable.” You know, they give you crazy things like, “I wanna eat spaghetti with my hands.” Crazy’s great. Anything but this sort of likable guy that everyone at the studio insists they should play.

“Make him more likable,” like “raising the stakes,” is a development executive’s dream note: it doesn’t require any knowledge of the craft of storytelling, and you won’t get fired for suggesting it. But let’s not mistake it for anything more. I don’t want my characters to be likable; I want them to be interesting. And if the characters, or the story around them, are interesting enough, it might even get me out of the house.

Written by nevalalee

December 3, 2013 at 9:43 am

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