Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Shining

The steady hand

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Danny Lloyd in The Shining

Forty years ago, the cinematographer Garrett Brown invented the Steadicam. It was a stabilizer attached to a harness that allowed a camera operator, walking on foot or riding in a vehicle, to shoot the kind of smooth footage that had previously only been possible using a dolly. Before long, it had revolutionized the way in which both movies and television were shot, and not always in the most obvious ways. When we think of the Steadicam, we’re likely to remember virtuoso extended takes like the Copacabana sequence in Goodfellas, but it can also be a valuable tool even when we aren’t supposed to notice it. As the legendary Robert Elswit said recently to the New York Times:

“To me, it’s not a specialty item,” he said. “It’s usually there all the time.” The results, he added, are sometimes “not even necessarily recognizable as a Steadicam shot. You just use it to get something done in a simple way.”

Like digital video, the Steadicam has had a leveling influence on the movies. Scenes that might have been too expensive, complicated, or time-consuming to set up in the conventional manner can be done on the fly, which has opened up possibilities both for innovative stylists and for filmmakers who are struggling to get their stories made at all.

Not surprisingly, there are skeptics. In On Directing Film, which I think is the best book on storytelling I’ve ever read, David Mamet argues that it’s a mistake to think of a movie as a documentary record of what the protagonist does, and he continues:

The Steadicam (a hand-held camera), like many another technological miracle, has done injury; it has injured American movies, because it makes it so easy to follow the protagonist around, one no longer has to think, “What is the shot?” or “Where should I put the camera?” One thinks, instead, “I can shoot the whole thing in the morning.”

This conflicts with Mamet’s approach to structuring a plot, which hinges on dividing each scene into individual beats that can be expressed in purely visual terms. It’s a method that emerges naturally from the discipline of selecting shots and cutting them together, and it’s the kind of hard work that we’re often tempted to avoid. As Mamet adds in a footnote: “The Steadicam is no more capable of aiding in the creation of a good movie than the computer is in the writing of a good novel—both are labor-saving devices, which simplify and so make more attractive the mindless aspects of creative endeavor.” The casual use of the Steadicam seduces directors into conceiving of the action in terms of “little plays,” rather than in fundamental narrative units, and it removes some of the necessity of disciplined thinking beforehand.

Michael Keaton and Edward Norton in Birdman

But it isn’t until toward the end of the book that Mamet delivers his most ringing condemnation of what the Steadicam represents:

“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 movie 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 this desire, because fighting it reinforces an understanding of the essential nature of film, which is that it is made of disparate shorts, cut together. It’s a door, it’s a hall, it’s a blah-blah. Put the camera “there” and photograph, as simply as possible, that object. If we don’t understand that we both can and must cut the shots together, we are sneakily falling victim to the mistaken theory of the Steadicam.

This might all sound grumpy and abstract, but it isn’t. Take Birdman. You might well love Birdman—plenty of viewers evidently did—but I think it provides a devastating confirmation of Mamet’s point. By playing as a single, seemingly continuous shot, it robs itself of the ability to tell the story with cuts, and it inadvertently serves as an advertisement of how most good movies come together in the editing room. It’s an audacious experiment that never needs to be tried again. And it wouldn’t exist at all if it weren’t for the Steadicam.

But the Steadicam can also be a thing of beauty. I don’t want to discourage its use by filmmakers for whom it means the difference between making a movie under budget and never making it at all, as long as they don’t forget to think hard about all of the constituent parts of the story. There’s also a place for the bravura long take, especially when it depends on our awareness of the unfaked passage of time, as in the opening of Touch of Evil—a long take, made without benefit of a Steadicam, that runs the risk of looking less astonishing today because technology has made this sort of thing so much easier. And there’s even room for the occasional long take that exists only to wow us. De Palma has a fantastic one in Raising Cain, which I watched again recently, that deserves to be ranked among the greats. At its best, it can make the filmmaker’s audacity inseparable from the emotional core of the scene, as David Thomson observes of Goodfellas: “The terrific, serpentine, Steadicam tracking shot by which Henry Hill and his girl enter the Copacabana by the back exit is not just his attempt to impress her but Scorsese’s urge to stagger us and himself with bravura cinema.” The best example of all is The Shining, with its tracking shots of Danny pedaling his Big Wheel down the deserted corridors of the Overlook. It’s showy, but it also expresses the movie’s basic horror, as Danny is inexorably drawn to the revelation of his father’s true nature. (And it’s worth noting that much of its effectiveness is due to the sound design, with the alternation of the wheels against the carpet and floor, which is one of those artistic insights that never grows dated.) The Steadicam is a tool like any other, which means that it can be misused. It can be wonderful, too. But it requires a steady hand behind the camera.

The last tango

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Bernardo Bertoclucci, Marlon Brando, and Maria Schneider on the set of Last Tango in Paris

When I look back at many of my favorite movies, I’m troubled by a common thread that they share. It’s the theme of the control of a vulnerable woman by a man in a position of power. The Red Shoes, my favorite film of all time, is about artistic control, while Blue Velvet, my second favorite, is about sexual domination. Even Citizen Kane has that curious subplot about Kane’s attempt to turn Susan into an opera star, which may have originated as an unkind reference to William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies, but which survives in the final version as an emblem of Kane’s need to collect human beings like playthings. It’s also hard to avoid the feeling that some of these stories secretly mirror the relationship between the director and his actresses on the set. Vertigo, of course, can be read as an allegory for Hitchcock’s own obsession with his leading ladies, whom he groomed and remade as meticulously as Scotty attempts to do with Madeline. In The Shining, Jack’s abuse of Wendy feels only slightly more extreme than what we know Kubrick—who even resembles Jack a bit in the archival footage that survives—imposed on Shelley Duvall. (Duvall’s mental health issues have cast a new pall on those accounts, and the involvement of Kubrick’s daughter Vivian has done nothing to clarify the situation.) And Roger Ebert famously hated Blue Velvet because he felt that David Lynch’s treatment of Isabella Rossellini had crossed an invisible moral line.

The movie that has been subjected to this kind of scrutiny most recently is Last Tango in Paris, after interview footage resurfaced of Bernardo Bertolucci discussing its already infamous rape scene. (Bertolucci originally made these comments three years ago, and the fact that they’ve drawn attention only now is revealing in itself—it was hiding in plain sight, but it had to wait until we were collectively prepared to talk about it.) Since the story first broke, there has been some disagreement over what Maria Schneider knew on the day of the shoot. You can read all about it here. But it seems undeniable that Bertolucci and Brando deliberately withheld crucial information about the scene from Schneider until the cameras were rolling. Even the least offensive version makes me sick to my stomach, all the more so because Last Tango in Paris has been an important movie to me for most of my life. In online discussions of the controversy, I’ve seen commenters dismissing the film as an overrated relic, a vanity project for Brando, or one of Pauline Kael’s misguided causes célèbres. If anything, though, this attitude lets us off the hook too easily. It’s much harder to admit that a film that genuinely moved audiences and changed lives might have been made under conditions that taint the result beyond retrieval. It’s a movie that has meant a lot to me, as it did to many other viewers, including some I knew personally. And I don’t think I can ever watch it again.

Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris

But let’s not pretend that it ends there. It reflects a dynamic that has existed between directors and actresses since the beginning, and all too often, we’ve forgiven it, as long as it results in great movies. We write critical treatments of how Vertigo and Psycho masterfully explore Hitchcock’s ambivalence toward women, and we overlook the fact that he sexually assaulted Tippi Hedren. When we think of the chummy partnerships that existed between men like Cary Grant and Howard Hawks, or John Wayne and John Ford, and then compare them with how directors have regarded their female collaborators, the contrast couldn’t be more stark. (The great example here is Gone With the Wind: George Cukor, the original director, was fired because he made Clark Gable uncomfortable, and he was replaced by Gable’s buddy Victor Fleming. Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland were forced to consult with Cukor in secret.) And there’s an unsettling assumption on the part of male directors that this is the only way to get a good performance from a woman. Bertolucci says that he and Brando were hoping to get Schneider’s raw reaction “as a girl, instead of as an actress.” You can see much the same impulse in Kubrick’s treatment of Duvall. Even Michael Powell, one of my idols, writes of how he and the other actors frightened Moira Shearer to the point of tears for the climactic scene of The Red Shoes—“This was no longer acting”—and says elsewhere: “I never let love interfere with business, or I would have made love to her. It would have improved her performance.”

So what’s a film buff to do? We can start by acknowledging that the problem exists, and that it continues to affect women in the movies, whether in the process of filmmaking itself or in the realities of survival in an industry that is still dominated by men. Sometimes it leads to abuse or worse. We can also honor the work of those directors, from Ozu to Almodóvar to Wong Kar-Wai, who have treated their actresses as partners in craft. Above all else, we can come to terms with the fact that sometimes even a masterpiece fails to make up for the choices that went into it. Thinking of Last Tango in Paris, I was reminded of Norman Mailer, who wrote one famous review of the movie and was linked to it in another. (Kael wrote: “On the screen, Brando is our genius as Mailer is our genius in literature.”) Years later, Mailer supported the release from prison of a man named Jack Henry Abbott, a gifted writer with whom he had corresponded at length. Six weeks later, Abbott stabbed a stranger to death. Afterward, Mailer infamously remarked:

I’m willing to gamble with a portion of society to save this man’s talent. I am saying that culture is worth a little risk.

But it isn’t—at least not like this. Last Tango in Paris is a masterpiece. It contains the single greatest male performance I’ve ever seen. But it wasn’t worth it.

Red shoe diaries

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Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes

Earlier this week, my daughter, who is three years old, watched her first live-action movie. It was The Red Shoes. And although it might seem like I planned it this way—The Red Shoes, as I’ve said here on multiple occasions, is my favorite movie of all time—I can only protest, unconvincingly, that it was a total accident. Beatrix has been watching animated features for a while now, including a record number of viewings of My Neighbor Totoro, but she had never seen a live-action film from start to finish, and I’d already been thinking about which one to try to show her first. If you’d asked me, I’d have guessed that it would probably be Mary Poppins. But over the weekend, Beatrix started asking me about my own favorite films, and The Red Shoes naturally came up, along with a few others. (The first movie we discussed, for some reason, was The Shining, which led to an awkward plot summary: “Well, it’s about a family, sort of like ours, and the daddy is a writer, like me…”) I said that it was about dance, which piqued her interest, and I suggested that she might like to see the self-contained ballet sequence from the middle of the movie. She did, so we watched together it that night. When it was over, she turned to me and said: “I want to watch the rest.” I agreed, expecting that she would tune out and lose interest within the first twenty minutes. But she didn’t, and we ended up watching the whole thing over two evenings.

At first, I was understandably thrilled, but the overnight intermission gave me time to start worrying. The Red Shoes is a great movie, but its climax is undeniably bleak, and I spent a restless night wondering how Beatrix would handle the scene in which the ballerina Victoria Page falls to her death before an oncoming train. (It didn’t help that during the first half, Beatrix had said cheerfully to me: “I’m Vicky!”) The next morning, when she asked to watch the rest, I sat her down on my knee and explained what happened at the end. She told me that she would be okay with it, and that if it bothered her, she wouldn’t look at the screen, as long as I warned her in time. That’s more or less how it went: when we got to the ending, I told her what was coming, and she turned her head toward the back of the couch until I said the coast was clear. When the movie was over, I asked her what she thought. She said that she liked it a lot—but I also noticed that her eyes were glistening. It’s the first film of any kind she’s ever seen, in fact, that didn’t have a happy ending, and when she’s asked me why grownups enjoy watching sad movies, I’ve struggled with the response. I say that sometimes it’s good to feel emotions that you don’t experience in your everyday life, or that a sad movie can make you appreciate your own happiness, or that you can take pleasure in how well a sad story is told. But she didn’t seem all that convinced, and to be honest, neither am I.

The Red Shoes

It was especially enlightening to watch The Red Shoes through her eyes. It’s a movie with a strikingly fatalistic view of life and art: Lermontov tells Vicky that she can’t be married to Julian and be a great dancer at the same time, and the film implicitly confirms his judgment. “You cannot have it both ways,” Lermontov says grimly. “A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love can never be a great dancer. Never.” It doesn’t seem to leave Vicky with much in the way of a middle ground. Yet although I’ve watched this movie endlessly over the last twenty years, I realized, seeing it again with my daughter, that I’m not sure if this reflects Powell and Pressburger’s true opinion or if it’s simply a narrative convention that they needed to enable the story’s tragic ending. For that matter, it doesn’t need to be one or the other: it feels a lot like a conclusion into which they were forced by the material, which is as valid a way as any for an artist to discover what he or she really thinks. And you don’t need to accept the movie’s bleaker aspects—I mostly don’t—to appreciate its merits as entertainment. Still, this isn’t a distinction that you’re likely to understand at the age of three, so I found myself telling Beatrix that the movie’s apparent message wasn’t necessarily true. It’s possible, I think, to have a satisfying creative career and a happy personal life: it’s certainly hard, but less than an order of magnitude harder than succeeding as an artist in the first place.

I don’t know how much of this Beatrix understood, but then again, I’m never entirely sure about what’s going on in her head. (On the night before we finished The Red Shoes, I passed by her bedroom and noticed that she was lying in bed with her eyes open. Looking straight at me, she said: “I’m thinking about the movie.”) And I wouldn’t be surprised if we quickly moved on to the next thing: Beatrix still says that her favorite movie is Ponyo, which makes me very happy. But hey, you never know. The Red Shoes has been responsible for more careers in dance than any other movie, and I know from firsthand experience how much impact a passing encounter with a piece of pop culture can have on your inner life. I’m not sure I want Beatrix to be a ballerina, which, if anything, is the one career that offers even less of a prospect of success than the one I’ve chosen for myself. But I want her to care about art, and to appreciate, as Lermontov tells Vicky, that a great impression of simplicity can only be achieved by great agony of body and spirit. On a more modest level, I want her to understand that we watch sad movies for a reason, even if it’s hard to explain, and that it’s both normal and good for the emotions they evoke to be as intense as the ones we feel in real life. Of course, she’ll probably come to that conclusion on her own. The other day, Beatrix looked at me and said: “I want to watch the movie about the girl at the restaurant.” It took me a while to realize that she was talking about Chungking Express. I replied: “You will soon.” And I meant it.

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June 3, 2016 at 8:32 am

Hail to the King

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Stephen King

“The golden age of science fiction,” the fan editor Peter Graham once wrote, “is twelve.” And it seems fair to say that the golden age of horror fiction comes shortly thereafter. If science fiction tends to take hold of the imagination of curious kids in search of stories in which intelligence is a means of empowerment, rather than isolation, they often latch onto horror in the years when middle school and the onset of adolescence send them looking for a kind of narrative that can put their terrors into a more tangible form. Between the ages of twelve and thirteen, I read so much Stephen King that it’s a wonder I had time to do anything else: at least fifteen novels in all, from Carrie to Needful Things. And I know that I’m not alone in saying that the best time to discover King is when you’re just a little too young for it to be appropriate. The recent rise in fiction geared exclusively toward young adults, which includes its share of horror titles, isn’t a bad thing, but it means that a teenager looking for interesting reading material is less likely to turn first to The Shining or The Stand. Which is a loss in itself—because I’ve come to realize that King, for me, wasn’t just a gateway drug into reading in general, but toward an especially valuable mode of fiction that I can only describe as modernist realism put into the service of more primal fears.

King has never ceased to produce bestsellers, but if his reputation continues to rest on a main sequence of early books—stretching roughly from ‘Salem’s Lot through It—this isn’t just a question of his having produced his best work in his youth. He was, and is, a writer of enormous talent, but he was also the right man at the right time. His most influential novels appeared in the mid- to late seventies, at a time when mainstream fiction was uniquely enterprising in turning the tools of modernist realism onto genre plots. The first category to take full advantage of that bag of tricks, not surprisingly, was the suburban sex novel: the difference between Peyton Place and Updike’s Couples is more one of style than of substance. A few earlier horror novels, notably Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, had covered some of the same ground, with meticulous, almost fussily detailed looks at upper-class households on the verge of crossing over into the supernatural, but King was the first to do it over multiple books. And it was a surpassingly good trick. King’s basic formula, with convincing observations of everyday life providing a backdrop for increasingly horrifying events, may seem obvious now, but surprisingly few other writers have pursued it consistently. (One exception is Peter Straub, whose Ghost Story is one of those late entries in a genre that has a way of codifying everything that came before.)

John Updike

And much of King’s appeal comes from his ability to create what John Updike called “specimen lives,” with carefully constructed characters who turn out to be both timelessly interesting and emphatically of their era. King’s novels are rooted much more in the culture and politics of the seventies than we tend to remember. The Shining often reads like a haunted house story informed by Watergate, as when Stuart Ullmann smugly informs Jack Torrance that Wilson, Harding, Roosevelt, and Nixon all stayed in the hotel’s presidential suite: “I wouldn’t be too proud of Harding and Nixon,” Jack replies. And The Stand originated in a confluence of ideas that could only have occurred at a particular historical moment, as King recounts in Danse Macabre:

The story about the CBW spill in Utah…became entwined in my thoughts about Patty Hearst and the SLA, and one day while sitting at my typewriter…I wrote—just to write something: The world comes to an end but everybody in the SLA is somehow immune. Snake bit them. I looked at that for a while and then typed: No more gas shortages.

When we turn to his characters themselves, we find finely nuanced portraits of ordinary individuals who wouldn’t have been out of place in an Updike novel. Time has turned them into period pieces, but they’re as valuable, in their way, as the literary novels of the time, and the care that King lavished on assembling those mundane lives goes a long way toward explaining the power of the terror that follows.

Gradually, King strayed from that template, particularly as his own success made it more difficult for him to write convincingly about protagonists who weren’t members of the upper middle class. (The transitional novel here is It, in which nostalgia takes the place of reportage for the first time, and which a character observes of his friends: “And then there’s the passingly curious fact that you’re all rich.”) But those early novels—in which King fused the textured social observation of the seventies with something older and darker—stand as permanent landmarks, and when we look at lesser efforts in the same vein, we’re reminded of how hard it really was. One reason why Jaws reads so strangely today, as I’ve noted before, is that it’s an early attempt to fuse the slightly sordid air of a sexy bestseller with a monster story, and the two halves don’t work together: instead of allowing each piece to enhance the other, Benchley gives us a hundred interminable pages about Ellen Brody’s affair that never connect in satisfying ways to the action on the boat. King cracked the code in a way that Benchley didn’t, and a book like Pet Sematary is a master class in fusing a realistic psychological novel with a plot out of Poe. In time, both King and the culture around him moved on, and the artistic moment that produced his best novels seems to have passed. But the books still exist, for whatever teenagers or adults feel like seeking them out, and for lucky readers, they can still spark the kind of hunger that they once awoke in me.

Written by nevalalee

October 30, 2015 at 8:28 am

My ten great movies #4: The Shining

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For most of the past decade, the Kubrick film on this list would have been Eyes Wide Shut, and while my love for that movie remains undiminished—I think it’s Kubrick’s most humane and emotionally complex work, and endlessly inventive in ways that most viewers tend to underestimate—it’s clear now that The Shining is more central to my experience of the movies. The crucial factor, perhaps unsurprisingly, was my decision to become a writer. Because while there have been a lot of movies about novelists, The Shining is by far our greatest storehouse of images about the inside of a writer’s head. The huge, echoing halls of the Overlook are as good a metaphor as I’ve ever seen for writer’s block or creative standstill, and there isn’t a writer who hasn’t looked at a pile of manuscript and wondered, deep down, if it isn’t basically the same as the stack of pages that Jack Torrance lovingly ruffles in his climactic scene with Wendy.

The visual, aural, and visceral experience of The Shining is so overwhelming that there’s no need to describe it here. Instead, I’d like to talk about the performances, which are the richest that Kubrick—often underrated in his handling of actors—ever managed to elicit. (Full credit should also be given to Stephen King’s original novel, to which the movie is more indebted than is generally acknowledged.) At one point, I thought that the film’s only major flaw is that it was impossible to imagine Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall as a married couple, but I’m no longer sure about this: there are marriages this strange and mismatched, and the glimpses of their relationship early on are depressingly plausible. Duvall gives what is simply one of the major female performances in the history of movies, and as David Thomson was among the first to point out, Nicholson is great when he plays crazy, but he’s also strangely tender in his few quiet scenes with his son. “You’ve always been the caretaker,” Grady’s ghost tells Torrance, and his personality suffuses every frame of this incredible labyrinth.

Tomorrow: A masterpiece in six weeks.

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May 19, 2015 at 9:00 am

An unfinished decade

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Joaquin Phoenix in The Master

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What movie from our best films of the decade so far list doesn’t deserve to be on there?”

Toward the end of the eighties, Premiere Magazine conducted a poll of critics, directors, writers, and industry insiders to select the best films of the previous decade. The winners, in order of the number of votes received, were Raging Bull, Wings of Desire, E.T., Blue Velvet, Hannah and Her Sisters, Platoon, Fanny and Alexander, Shoah, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Do the Right Thing, with The Road Warrior, Local Hero, and Terms of Endearment falling just outside the top ten. I had to look up the list to retype it here, but I also could have reconstructed much of it from memory: a battered copy of Premiere’s paperback home video guide—which seems to have vanished from existence, along with its parent magazine, based on my inability, after five minutes of futile searching, to even locate the title online—was one of my constant companions as I started exploring movies more seriously in high school. And if the list contains a few headscratchers, that shouldn’t be surprising: the poll was held a few months before the eighties were technically even over, which isn’t close to enough time for a canon to settle into a consensus.

So how would an updated ranking look? The closest thing we have to a more recent evaluation is the latest Sight & Sound critics’ poll of the best films ever made. Pulling out only the movies from the eighties, the top films are Shoah, Raging Bull, Blade Runner, Blue Velvet, Fanny and Alexander, A City of Sadness, Do the Right Thing, L’Argent, The Shining, and My Neighbor Totoro, followed closely by Come and See, Distant Voices Still Lives, and Once Upon a Time in America. There’s a degree of overlap here, and Raging Bull was already all but canonized when the earlier survey took place, but Wings of Desire, which once came in second, is nowhere in sight, its position taken by a movie—Blade Runner—that didn’t even factor into the earlier conversation. The Shining received the vote of just a single critic in the Premiere poll, and at the time it was held, My Neighbor Totoro wouldn’t be widely seen outside Japan for another three years. Still, if there’s a consistent pattern, it’s hard to see, aside from the obvious point that it takes a while for collective opinion to stabilize. Time is the most remorseless, and accurate, critic of them all.

Inception

And carving up movies by decade is an especially haphazard undertaking. A decade is an arbitrary division, much more so than a single year, in which the movies naturally engage in a kind of accidental dialogue. It’s hard to see the release date of Raging Bull as anything more than a quirk of the calendar: it’s undeniably the last great movie of the seventies. You could say much the same of The Shining. And there’s pressure to make any such list conform to our idea of what a given decade was about. The eighties, at least at the time, were seen as a moment in which the auteurism of the prior decade was supplanted by a blockbuster mentality, encouraged, as Tony Kushner would have it, by an atmosphere of reactionary politics, but of course the truth is more complicated. Blue Velvet harks back to the fifties, but the division at its heart feels like a product of Reaganism, and the belated ascent of Blade Runner is an acknowledgment of the possibilities of art in the era of Star Wars. (As an offhand observation, I’d say that we find it easier to characterize decades if their first years happen to coincide with a presidential election. As a culture, we know what the sixties, eighties, and aughts were “like” far more than the seventies or nineties.)

So we should be skeptical of the surprising number of recent attempts to rank works of art when the decade in question is barely halfway over. This week alone, The A.V. Club did it for movies, while The Oyster Review did it for books, and even if we discount the fact that we have five more years of art to anticipate, such lists are interesting mostly in the possibilities they suggest for later reconsideration. (The top choices at The A.V. Club were The Master, A Separation, The Tree of Life, Frances Ha, and The Act of Killing, and looking over the rest of the list, about half of which I’ve seen, I’d have to say that the only selection that really puzzled me was Haywire.) As a culture, we may be past the point where a consensus favorite is even possible: I’m not sure if any one movie occupies the same position for the aughts that Raging Bull did for the eighties. If I can venture one modest prediction, though, it’s that Inception will look increasingly impressive as time goes on, for much the same reason as Blade Runner does: it’s our best recent example of an intensely personal version thriving within the commercial constraints of the era in which it was made. Great movies are timeless, but also of their time, in ways that can be hard to sort out until much later. And that’s true of critics and viewers, too.

The Wire cutter

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Clarke Peters on The Wire

Earlier this week, David Simon, the creator of The Wire, posted a fascinating piece on his blog about the recent conversion of the series from standard to high definition. Like everything Simon writes, it’s prickly, dense with ideas, and doesn’t sugarcoat his own opinions. He has mixed feelings about the new release, and although he ultimately comes down in favor of it, he doesn’t exactly give it a ringing endorsement:

At the last, I’m satisfied that while this new version of The Wire is not, in some specific ways, the film we first made, it has significant merit to exist as an alternate version. There are scenes that clearly improve in HD and in the widescreen format. But there are things that are not improved. And even with our best resizing, touchups, and maneuver, there are some things that are simply not as good. That’s the inevitability: This new version, after all, exists in an aspect ratio that simply wasn’t intended or serviced by the filmmakers when the camera was rolling and the shot was framed.

The whole post is worth a read, both for its insights and for its reminder of how much craft went into making this great series so convincing and unobtrusive. We don’t tend to think of The Wire as a visually meticulous show, in the manner of Mad Men or House of Cards, but of course it was, except that its style was designed not to draw attention to itself—which requires just as many subtle decisions, if not more.

Simon likes to present himself as a visual naif, “some ex-police reporter in Baltimore” who found himself making a television series almost by accident, but he’s as smart on the subject of filmmaking he is on anything else. Here he is on the development of the show’s visual style, as overseen by the late director Bob Colesberry:

Crane shots didn’t often help, and anticipating a moment or a line of dialogue often revealed the filmmaking artifice. Better to have the camera react and acquire, coming late on a line now and then. Better to have the camera in the flow of a housing-project courtyard or squad room, calling less attention to itself as it nonetheless acquired the tale.

Compare this to the exchange between Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut in their famous interview:

Hitchcock: When a character who has been seated stands up to walk around a room, I will never change the angle or move the camera back. I always start the movement on the closeup…In most movies, when two people are seen talking together, you have a closeup on one of them, a closeup on the other…and suddenly the camera jumps back for a long shot, to show one of the characters rising to walk around. It’s wrong to handle it that way.

Truffaut: Yes, because that technique precedes the action instead of accompanying it. It allows the public to guess that one of the characters is about to stand up, or whatever. In other words, the camera should never anticipate what’s about to follow.

David Simon

As it happened, when The Wire premiered twelve years ago, widescreen televisions were just coming on the market, and the industry shift toward high definition occurred about two seasons in, after the show had already established its defining look. Simon notes that he felt that a shift to widescreen halfway through the run of the series—as The West Wing was among the first to attempt—would draw unwanted attention to its own fictionality:

To deliver the first two seasons in one template and then to switch-up and provide the remaining seasons in another format would undercut our purpose tremendously, simply by calling attention to the manipulation of the form itself. The whole story would become less real, and more obviously, a film that was suddenly being delivered in an altered aesthetic state. And story, to us, is more important than aesthetics.

In the end, The Wire took a more subtle approach. Each scene was shot in widescreen, but composed for a 4:3 image, and the decision was made early on to tell much of the story in medium shots, with minimal use of closeups. This served the needs of the narrative while granting the show some flexibility when it came to the prospect of a future conversion, which, if nothing else, is easier now than ever before. (During the filming of It’s a Wonderful Life, Frank Capra spent most of one night manually enlarging every frame of the scene in which Jimmy Stewart breaks down while praying: it was a spontaneous, irreproducible moment, and they couldn’t get a closeup in any other way. These days, as I noted in my piece on The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo, you can do it with a click of a mouse.)

Still, there are always tradeoffs. This isn’t the first time a filmmaker has been forced to deal with shifting formats, and when you look back on the two most significant previous moments in the history of aspect ratios—the introduction of CinemaScope and the dawn of home video—you find directors and producers struggling with similar issues. Many early movies shot on widescreen, from Oklahoma! to Around the World in Eighty Days to Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, were actually filmed twice, with an alternate version prepared for theaters that hadn’t yet made the conversion. And we know that the problem of filming a movie both for theatrical release and for television obsessed Kubrick, who composed each shot for The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and Eyes Wide Shut so that it could be shown either letterboxed or in full frame. (Kubrick was good, but not perfect: the full frame versions, which expose regions of the image that would be matted in theaters, occasionally lead to small goofs, like the shadow of the helicopter clearly visible in one of the opening shots of The Shining.) Making movies at such transitional moments is an inevitable part of the evolution of the medium, but it’s never fun: you find yourself simultaneously dealing with the past and some unforeseen future, when the present provides plenty of challenges of its own.

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