Thursday, 12 March 2009

"Right now it's only a notion, but I think I can get the money to make it into a concept, and later turn it into an idea."

Almost immediately after posting that last missive, I started to think more about this idea of the flatness of the cinematic image and how this is either exploited or compensated for in the work of different directors. Experimental film, such as the work of Stan Brakhage, struck me as one area where, perhaps under the influence of Clement Greenberg's formalist aesthetics of painting, the flatness of the screen becomes the very object of the film. Sure enough, a post over at Tativille locates precisely this quality in the work of another avant-garde film-maker, Nathaniel Dorsky. Then, for perhaps the hundredth time, I watched Bananas

Woody Allen's third feature as director (his Duck Soup, right down to the farcical courtroom scene, displaying wonderfully, as Zizek says of the Marx Brothers' film, "the madness, the "fun," the cruel irony, which are already present in the totalitarian state.") features none of the traits of extensivity and intensivity identified in the previous post; the camera, and the characters, tend, almost universally, to move from side to side, never coming towards the lens or being chased away by it. Nothing leaps out at us, nor are we ever really invited in. 

Over the next few days, watching a few more of Allen's films, I came to regard this degree of pictorial flatness to be characteristic of his work as a whole. There are significant exceptions to this rule, and watching closely the working of the cinematic style when it deviates from this style can be potentially illuminating with regard to the film in question. 

Take The Money and Run, like many of Allen's earlier films, is essentially a generic pastiche, only whereas, say, Love and Death, parodies just one genre, Take the Money and Run runs the whole gamut, from thriller to romance, via western, biopic, documentary (with the documentary interview, a recurring trope in Allen's films, later to be replaced by the psychoanalyst's couch, and one of a series of devices he uses to palm off lengthy expository dialogue), western, slapstick, and prison break, with, perhaps appropriately, intensive movements on the purse about to be snatched, or the thief being chased by the camera down an alleyway, when we are in the 'thriller' mode, and an extensive leap out of the frame as the convicts rush to make their escape. 

By Interiors (another pastiche you might say, only this time not of a genre but a director - Bergman), we see lingering shots of all sorts of blank surfaces, characters tend to dress in the same colours as the matte interiors around them, almost fading into the walls behind them. Hannah and Her Sisters, likewise, is characterised by a growing concern with various types of screen, from windows and mirrors to, of course, the silver screen itself (with the only extensive moment in the film coming when the characters go to watch Duck Soup at the cinema and the Marx Brothers leap out at us, singing and dancing). The only moment where anyone really walks towards an unmoving camera, any sense of the image coming towards you is undercut by scores of joggers running in the opposite direction.

Though Crimes and Misdemeanors shares the earlier films' obsession with using screens and surfaces to frame the action, there is a certain camera move, on several, particularly emotive, moments in the film, moving in to a tighter shot of the subject(s), drawing the viewer right up to the neck of the character(s). This seems to be precisely in order to spite the manifesto for comedy espoused by the sitcom producer, Lester (Alan Alda), "Don't get too close to the pain... If it bends, it's funny. If it breaks, it ain't." In a sense, Allen is here giving us his own comic manifesto in negative, and many of his films from the 80's and 90's seem intent on proving, not always successfully, that you can get close to the pain and still be funny. In certain scenes in Crimes and Misdemeanors, we also start to see the first signs of the almost total neglect the camera seems at times to show towards the characters in several of Allen's films of the 90's, most notably Deconstructing Harry. 

By the time he gets to Deconstructing Harry, Woody Allen has developed a directorial style so ambiguous and chaotic that it seems to prefigure the computer-generated 'Automavision' which Lars von Trier claims to have created for The Boss of it All. Shots jump about haphazardly, crossing the line and cutting off heads, whilst actors walk off-screen mid-speech leaving the camera facing a blank wall. This apparent cinematographic insouciance is belied, however, by a similar zoom in close to that in Crimes and Misdemeanors, the difference being that here the move is always into the face of Woody Allen's character, in order to tell us that the fractured directorial style is a reflection of the lead's fractured psyche.

The principal exceptions to Woody Allen's general tendency towards this kind of cinematic flatness are those films, such as Bullets Over Broadway or Celebrity, whose subject is the spectacle itself. In Celebrity, despite the tabloid frenzy of the plot, the camera remains, on the whole, at a slight dignified remove, as if to distance itself from its own content. But, of course, in a film where everyone is famous, the real 'stars', Nicole Oliver (Melanie Griffiths) and Brandon Darrow (Leonardo DiCaprio), still have the power to leap out of the frame towards us like the genuine cinematic spectacle they represent. Similarly, in Bullets Over Broadway, it is again generally the 'stars', Helen Sinclair (Diane Wiest) and Warner Purcell (Jim Broadbent), who leap out off the stage and out of the screen at us, but also the gangsters - for the very point of the film seems to be about the synchronic exchangeability of actors and gangsters, artists and murderers, the way each feeds off the other's reflected glamour. Perhaps the most notably extensive moment, however, comes in a scene with the camera placed low, a train comes towards us, practically running the camera over. We are reminded, of course, of cinema's origins in precisely this kind of extensivity - the Lumiere brothers' L'Arrive√© d'un train √† La Ciotat.