I write cursive on legal pads.

Art of the Close-Up

Added on by David S. Hooker.

American actor and director John Cassavetes once said that “the greatest location in the world is the human face.” Such admiration and respect for the endless potential of the close-up shot can be seen throughout cinema, most notably in Carl Dreyer’s “Passion of the Joan of Arc” (1928) which utilizes such framing to express subtle and complex emotions without dialog, with the same being observed in recent films such as Sally Potter’s “Orlando" (1992) and Christian Petzold’s “Phoenix" (2015). In “Orlando,” we see the close-up used to frame the ever-growing personality of the titular character that doesn’t shy away from challenging social norms, reflecting the aversion to said norms via its Mise En Scene. In “Phoenix” similar use of composition helps communicate the struggle to rediscover who one is after everything has been destroyed. By harnessing the camera to paint internal landscapes, these films create a cinematic language that, like Dreyer’s emotion without dialog, communicates more than just what is being said.

When Orlando’s affluent family sits down to eat dinner with the Menshikovs, a royal family visiting from Russia, we are given a sense that Orlando is more interested with princess Sasha than Lady Euphrosyne, his fiance, well before such is vocalized. As the dinner scene begins we watch the camera pan into Orlando as he is formally introduced to Sasha. Quickly thereafter, it cuts to Sasha sitting across the table from Orlando, between two stately dudes (Lord of Moray & Lord Vere). Sasha says something in Russian, then French, to nothing besides shrugs. Finally she says “enchanted” in English and everyone finally understands. Once Sasha finishes introducing herself the camera cuts to Orlando; “Enchante,” he says, the camera zoomed so close his face takes up the entire frame. A conversation in French takes place between the two, Sasha and Orlando, as this close-up, shot-reverse-shot pattern becomes the mainstay framework for their conversation. Such framework is a masterful choice as it condenses the physical space between the two characters. As aforementioned, the two are sitting at opposite sides of a table, essentially separated. What the mise en scene does is bring them into a closer, more intimate setting without ever moving them in the physical space. We see their connection as well as hear it in the form of the French language, already vivacious with love. What’s more, during this exchange, we are given a quick close-up of Lady Euphrosyne’s face, who appears less-than-enthused if not slightly disgusted, either by her lack of understanding or by Orlando’s blatant gaze transferring. Whichever the case, Lady Euphrosyne’s face alone conveys much more than words can describe.

Juxtapose this conversation with one which occurs in tandem further down the table, between someone from Orlando’s ilk (communicated through his clothing/speaking language as no name is given) and a Russian Ambassador. The Englishman is rambling on and on to the translator, who stands between the two men, to tell the Ambassador about the frost the region’s had as The Russian Ambassador sits quietly, looking a tad confused and annoyed (Orlando). While both men sit on the same side of the table, and are in closer physical space than Sasha and Orlando, the camera doesn’t pan any closer than a medium shot from them. This, with the added touch of the translator standing between them, communicates the emotional distance between the two men as not only can’t they communicate because of a language barrier but because of a cultural one as well. Meaning that whereas Sasha and Orlando share mutual understanding of French and are both educated, the two men falter because they lack such common ground.

This cultural distance is further communicated in the following scene when the two families are dancing on the frozen pond. Orlando’s family performs a formal dance, with rigid, precise movements on a rug laid across the ice while Sasha’s ilk skates freely around them. The camera cuts to Lady Euphrosyne and Orlando, Euphrosyne expressing worry and frustration as Orlando’s attention drifts toward Sasha. One can interpret the formal dancing, and the rug itself, as the closed off world within Orlando sees himself as trapped. With such a world going against nature (i.e. dancing on a rug on the ice rather than just skating), it alludes to Orlando being against his own nature within that world’s rigid formality. Yet, despite being warned by Muray and Vere that he’s “throwing away a great career,” Orlando still maintains eye contact with Sasha. The camera closing closer to their faces with each cut until we’re almost in the same intimate space we occupied at the dinner table. However, just as the camera equals such framing, Orlando breaks away from the dance and joins Sasha on the ice. This moment perfectly symbolizes what Orlando does mentally, which is break away from the formal, “closed-off” social constrains of his world and sets his own path to search for who he really is, not what the world or society expects from him.

Similarly, within the frames of “Phoenix” we find a search for the self, yet, unlike Orlando, Nelly doesn’t search for what she can discover but for what she has lost in the Concentrations Camps of Nazi German. This idea is best delivered in a scene in which Lene, Nelly’s friend, takes her to see her old home. Nelly leaves the car and approaches a large pile of rubble where the building use to be. Nelly walks up the pile, the camera cuts to two shards of glass in which Nelly stares blankly into. Within each shards is a reflection; the shard on the left of the frame has Nelly’s head cut off and the shard on the right shows she newly reconstructed face. Such symbolism alludes to Nelly’s lost pass, how the left shard conveys a fragmented Nelly whose face, and person-hood, is destroyed along with the ash and rubble of her old home. Whereas the right shard represents the newer Nelly, no longer in pieces, split from the older version and raising from the dirt. This imagery is subtle and foretells Nelly’s journey to the audience visually. What’s more, Nelly only partially vocalizes what this images suggests as she goes into a state of shock upon seeing her reflection (the first time the audience is shown her doing so in the entire film), runs back to the car and states to Lene that she “no longer exists.” What she means here without realizing is that her previous self no longer exists and, from this point forward, she searches for what she’s lost only to build upon it. So not only does the glass shard image foreshadow but also marks the starting point for Nelly to become anew.

Such visual foreshadowing occurs throughout “Phoenix,” including a dream sequence in which Nelly, still wrapped in bandages, walks into darkly lit room with wood paneling. Only much later into the film do we find out that the room shown in the dream is an actual place where Nelly hid away from the Nazis but was discovered and arrested. This nuanced detail assists the audience in empathizing with Nelly by forcing us to focus on small details in a manner similar to how Nelly has to pick up on tiny hints and suggestions from others as she pieces together who she was. Such mental work is overwhelming and, much like the previous visual hints, doesn’t always come right away. Often, one must watch “Phoenix” multiple times in order to pick up on its symbolism and metaphor. Likewise, Nelly has to repeat these aspects and details in her mind, much like her “practicing” how to write her name, before sense can be made from them (if at all). We see Nelly doing such as she asks Johnny about “his wife,” saying to him that it would be “understandable” if he gave her up given the circumstances and so on. Such rationalizing on her part, in addition to the introspective facial expressions she gives as people discuss the past with her, suggests a deep inter-monologue. This mirrors Lene’s introspective glances and meditative habits, how she often can’t make eye-contact with Nelly when talking of past friends and places. Essentially Lene chains herself to the future as it’s too painful for her to look toward the past. The result is that where Nelly is collecting herself and tries to come to terms with the past in order to walk toward the future, Lene is too guilty to come to those terms and tries to escape (at first to Palestine, then, ultimately, by suicide).

Such subtlety echoes in “Phoenix” until the very final scene in which Nelly and Johnny perform “Speak Low” for their group of “friends,” having reunited to see Nelly who, think believe, has just left the concentration camp. Johnny begins to play as Nelly softly speaks the words. Her eyes closed at first slowly open as the song progresses, only to finally look directly toward Johnny and begin singing beautifully. Upon singing the words “Tomorrow is near,” Johnny stops playing and his face expresses shock and realization that the woman who stands before him is Nelly. At which point Nelly continues with, “Tomorrow is here.” This reveal, in sync with the lyrics, is masterfully executed and this particular moment marks Nelly’s ascension from the ashes of her past as she not only confronts them directly (literately in front of everyone who turned her in) but sees her rediscover her voice.

Much like “Phoenix,” “Orlando” also foreshadows itself in its use of repetition, one example being a piece of dialog which comes toward the beginning and middle of the film. When Princess Sasha asks Orlando why believe she belong to him, he replies, “Because I adore you.” Later, after Orlando becomes a woman, Archduke Harry proposes to Orlando marriage, saying that he “is England” and that Orlando is his. When Orlando asks on “what grounds,” the archduke replies, “Because I adore you.” (Ain’t the male-gaze grand?) In this situation, we see Orlando experience objectification on both sides, having objectified Sasha and then having been objectified by Archduke Pastel Pants. Much like the visual cues in “Phoenix,” this repeated dialog helps convey Orlando’s introspection, growth and eventual epiphany. This is further illustrated in actor Heathcote Williams playing both poet Nick Greene as well as the publisher that Orlando brings her novel to. Having the same actor play two literary characters which Orlando seeks approval from, we see Orlando's writing prowess improve alongside her life experience (being shot down at first as his journey just began, only to be told her novel was “brilliant” later on).

In all, Orlando and Nelly share a common desire to endure others expectations. Orlando falls in love and peruses another despite being engaged to someone he doesn’t love, assimilates seamlessly into foreign culture, refuses to kill during war and becomes a woman who calls out the misogyny of her former counterparts. Nelly, expected to died in Auschwitz, survives to find her husband and friends who turned her in to the Nazis, pieces herself and history back together, and sings “Keep Low” with Johnny (something she admits she always wished to do again) which reveals to him that she’s the real thing and not an impostor. Both characters strive against the grain and complacency of their respective worlds and comes out as fierce and elegant as a Phoenix or Falsetto singing Angel.

Works Cited
Orlando. Dir. Sally Potter. Perf. Tilda Swinton and Heathcote Williams. Sony Pictures Classics, 1992.
Phoenix. Dir. Christian Petzold. Perf. Nina Hoss. Indigo/Janus Films, 2015.

Jean Renoir's "Grand Illustion"

Added on by David S. Hooker.

The first time I ever heard of Jean Renoir I was with my friend John, who was fresh out of Graduate School, sitting in Providence’s Avon cinema to see Renoir (2012), a film about Jean’s father, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, which sees (among other things) Jean coming home from the war and falling in love with one of his father’s models. Since then I’ve only maintained an acquaintance with Mr. Renoir and still have yet to see any of his films (well, until now). I have, however, witnessed the breathe of his influence upon directors I admire, such as Orson Wells, Satyajit Ray and Errol Morris. What’s more, La Grande Illusion and The Rules of the Game are frequently referenced on great film polls from magazines such as Sight & Sound and websites like IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes. With such acclaim, I was excited to finally get around to watching one of his films, particular his “explicit anti-war film.”

In doing research for La Grande Illusion I was surprised to find varying opinions on its cultural perception, particularly getting some lackluster reviews when it was first released in the U.S. In a 1938 piece for the New York Times, Frank Nugent gives a lukewarm review in which he seems more impressed with the films turnout rather than the actual film, calling it “a strange and interesting film” and saying that for “a war film it is astonishingly lacking in hullabaloo.” While not intently negative, Nugent isn’t overwhelmingly positive (such as the film’s later acclaim). Furthermore, the most positive thing Nugent says is toward the actors, “Erich von Stroheim's appearance as von Rauffenstein reminds us again of Hollywood's folly in permitting so fine an actor to remain idle and unwanted.” Nugent’s word choice in this review actually mirrors how he describes Grande Illusion, “Time after time [Renoir] permits his drama to inch up to the brink of melodrama: one waits for the explosion and the tumult. Time after time he resists the temptation and lets the picture go its calmer course.”

In another article written in 2016 for Sight & Sound, Ginette Vincendeau discusses Grand Illusions’ wavering notability within the cinema canon since its release, stating that “...in the aftermath of World War II and the revelations of the Holocaust, three areas in particular appeared problematic: the film’s pacifism; its view of war as steeped in chivalry, with sympathetic portrayals of ‘good Germans’; and the representation of Rosenthal, which was now read as having anti-Semitic resonances.” This certainly gave me pause and made me consider the “casual racism” of yore, how cultural sensitivity wasn’t as developed as it is in modern age. For example, in his New York Times review Nugent describes the Rosenthal character as only “a wealthy Jew,” and doesn’t really describe him further. Granted, Nugent doesn’t delve into much at all but the casualness of calling Rosenthal “just another Jewish character” is off-putting to my modern sensibilities. Reading this made me consider Grand Illusions’ initial acclaim as, to a degree, mere pandering to a wider audience through low brow humor and stereotypes. While Vincendeau does mention that the directly anti-Semitic remarks which take place within the film could be seen as Renior’s critique of Antisemitism itself, such reasoning has been applied to Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and I can’t say I’m convinced of it in either case. If one wants to critique racism, I feel sarcasm is (usually) a horrible way to approach it as it could become lost in translation and interpreted as sincere. Holding the notion that Grand Illusion could approache its subject with this regard, I began to mentally tread more cautiously into this film.

However, upon watching the film I was surprised by the amount of humorous absurdity present. In one scene, as Boeldieu and Maréchal sit down to have dinner with the German soldiers, the same ones who had shot them down, a German soldier brings in a wreath for the dead French pilots, at which point the German Captain Rauffenstein stands up and apologies for the “coincidence.” Another scene sees the characters digging a tunnel in order to escape the prisoner camp only to discover that a prisoner was shot attempting to escape in the same location the tunnel was suppose to end. Other scenes are more subtle, such as Boeldieu wearing a fur coat in a POW camp, POW’s having a snowball fight in the prison yard, the main characters eating wine, cheese and fish in prison (eating better than the German soldiers). Such subtle humor echoes that of the French visual-comedian Jacques Tati, which is great but very unusual, and unexpected, for an anti-war film, as Grand Illusion as often been described. What’s more, this absurdity is so abundant that it became overwhelming and seemingly contrived, so much so that I became annoyed and found myself wishing for more grit and soberness. Perhaps I’ve been trained to expect war films (of any kind) should contain some grounding and sincerity, a la the Kubrick model (Paths of Glory, Full Metal Jacket). And while Kubrick did have humor in his war films, such as the use of pop music in Full Metal Jacket or the dark humor of Dr. Strangelove, he always balanced the jokes with real weight and consequences. In Grand Illusion, Renoir appears to make no effort to keep his feet in the muck; we see no battlefields, no wounds other than Maréchal’s arm brace, and the only on-screen death is Boeldieu which is highly dramatized. For Renoir, as his title suggests, it’s a grand illusion, a farce, an ideal of what war should be or, rather, how nations idealize wars as patriotic and heroic acts. It’s in this warped thinking that Renoir finds the absurd and mocks it, and I enjoy the film for this aspect, however, my modern mindset makes it impossible to ignore that these characters are having too grand of a time in a prisoner of war camp. At points I understood why critics found the film’s pacifism an issue, because the German’s weren’t chivalrous to their POWs nor was World War I ever this clean and friendly, yet the films persists in this portrayal without ever presenting the true horrors of war in any sincere manner. While not its intention, this lacking/ignoring of actual prisoner camps conditions causes the film to be interpreted as a revisionist and almost sympathetic to the Germans.

This being said, I found the portrayal of Rosenthal to not be as overtly anti-Semitic as I presumed from my research, although I find the fact of him being Jewish to be “tacked-on” at best and I thought it could’ve been left out entirely. Nothing is gained from him being Jewish, if anything the most important aspect of his character is that he’s rich and gets epic parcels, otherwise his Jewishness is merely happenstance and doesn’t play a very large role. What’s more, there’s only two points where Rosenthal’s ethnicity plays any significance, and it’s small: when he’s lamenting how Jehovah made Jews “stingy” and Maréchal says “To hell with Jehovah, you’ve been a real pal,” and when Maréchal and Rosenthal argue after escaping and Maréchal says he could “never stomach Jews.” Both of these scenes add nothing to the overall message of the film and add no depth to the character of either Rosenthal nor Maréchal. In fact, in the former scene, Rosenthal could just as easily lamented how Jehovah (or God or Allah) made bankers stingy to the same effect. It might be true that Renoir wanted to be make fun of Antisemitism but his attempts come off contrived. Granted, this is similarly as contrived as everything else in Grand Illusion but its deficiency in moving the plot forward or developing character relationships leaves one to question why he bothered mentioning Rosenthal’s ethnicity at all.

With all its flaws, in the end I did enjoy Grand Illusion. While far from my favorite film it was nice to finally get around to watching a cinema classic that has alluded me for so long. It does leave me wanting to explore more of Renoir’s catalog with the hope that he’s less sarcastic in his other works and, from those pieces, I’ll be able to paint a better portrait of him.

Mark Bould’s “Solaris”

Added on by David S. Hooker.

“By rights, I should not like Tarkovsky,” writes Bould in his introduction’s opening line, “This realization has taken a mere three decades to percolate.” And percolate he does, through the remainder of the book he goes back and forth from praising Tarkovsky’s film-making genius to pointing out character flaws and inconsistencies, notably of Tarkovsky’s dislike of SciFi and his blatant misogyny. We see Bould struggle on the page, sorting out his conflicting feelings towards the director, unable to shake the man from the art. This aspect is the book’s greatest strength as it pulls no punches and doesn’t treat its subject matter with a fanboy tint. While there are moments where Bould devolves to a pile of “name drops,” on the whole we are given a front row seat to an analysis as complex as the director it focuses on.

Bould quotes Tarkovsky in the book’s first section, stating “I don’t like science fiction, as I don’t like to escape life.” Surprising words coming from the man who directed three of the best SciFi films ever made (I might be biased). Yet Bould illuminates why Tarkovsky might’ve thought of this while still (seemingly) obsessed with the genre, pointing out that in his dairies that Tarkovsky saw SciFi as a “hypercommercial gesture,” although Bould admits to not understanding Tarkovsky’s logic in believe so. However, he does try by exploring Tarkovsky’s “temperamental kinship” with Stanisław Lem, writer of the novel Solaris. Similar to Tarkovsky, Lem also disliked SciFi yet a majority of his creative output is considered as such. For the two men, SciFi was an exploration into “mankind’s destiny,” Bould quoting Lem, “[exploring] the meaning of life in the cosmos … [bringing] forth a deluge of answers for key questions of every reasoning being [but] in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred it fulfills its task with stupidity.” So, much like Lem, Bould surmises that Tarkovsky saw SciFi as the most palatable way of showcasing the existential questions he often asks in his work while keeping with the “realist” terms Tarkovsky seeks out (no better time to question one’s existence than the time your dead wife physically manifests on your spaceship). Additionally, in terms of genre, as Bould also observes, Tarkovsky wanted his work to be interpreted on its own merits and not held to cliche standards that a genre film would. “What is Bresson's genre? He doesn't have one,” writes Tarkovsky in Sculpting in Time, “Bresson is Bresson. He is a genre in himself. Antonioni, Fellini, Bergman, Kurosawa, Dovzhenko, Vigo, Mizoguchi, Bunuel — each is identified with himself. The very concept of genre is as cold as the tomb.”

“Subscribing to the crudest of biological determinism and sexual binaries,” Bloud writes, “[Tarkovsky] insists that ‘the woman is totally different from the man’ and, because of her unique nature, she ‘can’t exist independently of the man’ without becoming ‘no longer natural.’” Bould continues further by stating the significance of Hari killing herself (twice) once she “begins the demonstrate her independence from Kelvin,” and that at least in Soderbergh’s Solaris, the Hari character “points out that she is only suicidal because that is how Kelvin remembers her.” Admittedly, the latter, Soderbergh explanation was my initial interpretation of Tarkovsky’s Solaris, yet, until reading Bould’s book, I wasn’t aware of Tarkovsky’s misogyny. Considering how personal Tarkovsky’s films are, to the point of being nearly autobiographical in the case of “Mirror,” it makes sense that such sexist aspects of Tarkovsky’s character would seep into his films, making it near-impossible to dismiss the director’s sexism while interpreting the art. Such an assertion would certainly make Tarkovsky furious, as he stated in Sculpting in Time, “I had the greatest difficulty in explaining to people that there is no hidden, coded meaning in [Mirror], nothing beyond the desire to tell the truth. …I was disappointed in my turn. Such was the reaction of the opposition party in the audience; as for my own colleagues, they launched a bitter attack on me, accusing me of immodesty, of wanting to make a film about myself.” While Bould makes it clear that Tarkovsky doesn’t cover up his character flaws, it’s evident that he would’ve preferred them overlooked in the larger scope of his films. Unfortunately, Bould makes a strong point that separating the film and the person directing is impossible and, therefore, cements the misogyny in its roots.

Peppered along with Bould’s strongest arguments are his fatal flaw, as he seems determined to name drop as many films as he can throughout book. While most is to convey comparison between those films and a facet of Solaris he’s discussing, Bould tends lack any further detail other than merely mentioning the name. For example, on page sixty Bould discusses the change in aesthetic for scifi films, “With Solaris, Richard Fleischer’s Soylent Green (1973) and John Carpenter’s Dark Star (1974), the look of the future began to change, to become more beat-up and more likely to break down.” He then immediately segways to Star Wars, Alien and Bladerunner, giving details into their relation to Solaris, but gives no further observations into how the two former films played into his observation. I found this to distract from Bould’s comments because, while he might make a fantastic remark about similar attributes between Bladerunner and Solaris, my mind is still trying to connect Solaris with Dark Star. There are certain instances when such references are accompanied with photos, aiding to the understanding of the reference but, more often than not, they’re just there with the hope that the reader knows enough film history to not get lost. While these BFI monographs are geared toward film lovers, of which I consider myself, even I require specificity to aide in my comprehension. At times it feels as though he’s trying to reach a word limit by plopping these references without regard to their overall context to his ideas. Ultimately, I feel there were too many of them and while I evenly sorted out what Bould was getting at, felt a more casual reader would’ve just stopped reading or just skipped to the next section.

On the whole, Bould’s Solaris is a solid recommendation. It certainly has its flaws but the light it sheds on Solaris and Tarkovsky himself are so insightful that one can overlook them. I certainly enjoyed it and found it to complement Tarkovsky’s Sculpting In Time in a very thought provoking way. However, as the man himself wrote, “A book read by a thousand different people is a thousand different books.”