Monday, 2 March 2009

Looking In or Leaping Out

Watching Death in Venice again the other day, I was particularly struck by how often the camera is drawing you into the picture. Throughout the film, the gaze of Dirk Bogarde's Gustav von Aschenbach is redoubled by a roaming, searching lens, forever zooming in and moving towards some object or person in the middle distance. Nothing ever seems to come towards the camera of its own volition - the camera will always move out to meet it. The very next day I found myself watching the Marx Brothers' At the Circus, and found, this time, precisely the opposite effect - of things forever leaping out towards the camera, and by implication, beyond the screen and into my living room. Each performance of the circus itself is opened by an acrobat or an elephant looming straight towards the lens. At one point, Groucho turns straight to the camera, in the middle of a scene in which the money he is looking for is hidden in Eve Arden's brassiere, and says, "There must be some way of solving this without circumventing the Hayes code." Unlike some cinematic asides delivered straight to camera, Groucho is here clearly not inviting the audience into the picture, but rather himself leaping out of it so that he can comment on certain institutional factors governing its production. The few films I happen to have seen in the few days since this all tend to fit broadly in to one or other of these tendencies, drawing in or leaping out, that strike me as two different approaches to what might be seen as one of the fundamental problems of cinema - making a two-dimensional space into a three-dimensional space. So, of the latter tendency, what we might call extensive cinema, I have seen both At the Circus and All of Me, both characterised by things seemingly leaping out of the screen, or otherwise moving from the back of the shot towards the camera; and of the former, intensive cinema, since Death in Venice, I've watched Deep Red, and Who Saw Her Die, both of which feature a lot of point-of-view shots that sneak up on, and follow, various characters, lots of zooms and jump cuts into people and objects, bringing them into sometimes extreme close-ups. When George Lazenby is wandering the streets of Venice (in Who Saw Her Die), knocking on doors and windows in search of his daughter, when the door or window in question is opened, it is always the camera that enters the house, not Lazenby.

Obviously this is far from an exhaustive or even vaguely representative survey, nonetheless it may be worth remarking that both of my 'extensive' films concern performers (acrobats and singers in At the Circus, a lawyer and a musician in All of Me), whereas our 'intensive' trio are all about voyeurs and the act of looking, the testimone populare. From this we might expect other films which foreground cinema's voyeuristic mode, such as Rear Window or Peeping Tom, to fit into this tendency, and those films which foreground cinema's spectacular mode, disaster movies and musicals for example, to tend towards extensivity. Likewise, At the Circus and All of Me both have some sort of roots on the stage. Though At the Circus was written exclusively for the screen with no prior stage performance, its format and a great deal of the brothers' material comes from their Broadway years. Likewise, All of Me, though adapted from a novel, is, like The Jerk before it, still something of a showcase for material from Steve Martin's stand-up routines, such as his man who is not entirely in control of his own body, and of course his by then legendary catchphrase, "Well, excuuuuuuse me!" By contrast, those films I have labelled intensive all have some sort of literary origin. Death in Venice is adapted from Thomas Mann's novella, and our two gialli, though neither of them are adapted directly from novels, nonetheless pay a certain homage to the gialli filone's origins in the cheap detective thrillers published in Italy in the thirties and forties, bound in yellow covers (giallo in Italian means 'yellow'). In Deep Red, several buildings, even, at times, the sky itself, are a violent, bright yellow. Two of the film's characters are writers, one a journalist, the other the author of a book about urban myths which becomes itself a significant plot device and the object of a long big close-up during which David Hemmings's character opens the book and thumbs the pages as if to invite us into the very text itself. Who Saw Her Die is also not adapted directly from a book but does bear certain striking resemblances to Nicholas Roeg's (later) Don't Look Now which was adapted from a Daphne Du Maurier short story (having not read the Du Maurier I can't comment on whether the similarities between the two films are equally present in the short story, suggesting that it was a likely inspiration). Similarly to Deep Red, texts, albeit newspaper clippings, play a significant role in the plot of Who Saw Her Die, providing the vital clues that lead to the solution of the central mystery, and as Gary Needham argues it is characteristic of gialli in general to base their narrative structures on those of the literary genre that preceded them. Although, obviously, not all films are adapted from books or stage material, all films must in some way engage with the projection of three-dimensionality from a two-dimensional screen. In the current issue of Sight and Sound, for instance, during an article about the return of the 3D movie, that most, traditionally at least, extensive of cinematic novelties, a brief aside about Joe Dante's new film, The Hole, states, "3D movies traditionally poke the audience in the eye, " before citing Dante's wish for his new film to use the 3D imaging  to do precisely the reverse, "to make us reach instead of recoil." I wonder how many films will fit consistently into one or the other of these two tendencies, and whether there might be a third type, characterised by a certain flatness - I'm thinking for instance of the long, still takes of Stranger than Paradise, or the way in which Crash, despite being a literary adaptation and, in some ways, quite an 'interior' film, nonetheless has this rather forbidding metallic sheen to it that seems to forbid the audience from diving in and getting involved.