While some commentators have linked this idea to Kelly Shimoda’s series “Women Putting on Makeup” (see the video below), the core issues are quite different: Shimoda’s intimate and personal videoportraits of women applying make-up in front of mirrors reflect on the construction of identity, while Riegler’s installation forges a first-hand voyeuristic experience between individuals of the opposite gender.
Alexander Riegler’s installation
Riegler’s project brings awareness to issues of voyeurism and narcissism that are partly similar to the ones about the movies discussed in class. However, the lack of a third-party spectator observing such dynamics is precisely what makes the difference between this installation and a classical cinematic experience. Furthermore, the fact that both men and women are informed of the installation before entering the restrooms brings awareness to those mechanisms of spectatorship that, during a film screening, are primarily located in the unconscious.
The project reminded me of the one-way mirror scenes from Wim Wenders’ Paris Texas (1984), where Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) tries to reconnect with his wife Jane (Nastassja Kinski), years after their separation, by way of a similar device. The communication between the two characters takes place entirely at a strip club, where the male customers sit behind one-way mirrors and use a telephone to communicate with female performers who can't look back. In such context Travis’ explanation for his past behavior (he suffocated his wife with jealousy and prevented her from seeing her son) takes place through a progressive change of attitude towards the mirror. At first he hides behind his privileged position of “bearer of the gaze” by looking at the woman in silence and eventually leaving.
The next day Travis decides to return and reveal his identity. During his narrative, he decides to turn away from the “window,” in an attempt to neutralize the gaze privilege that such device provides him with.
When Jane replies with her own narrative, Travis annuls the power granted to him by the one-way mirror, by facing the piece of glass that separates him from his wife and pointing a desk lamp towards his face, so that she can look at him while telling her own story.
While this situation allows for interesting combinations of camera looks/point-of-view shots that deconstruct the classical issues of voyeurism and objectification described by Laura Mulvey, I would argue that it is in the objective shots showing the characters facing each other through the looking glass that the main discourse on gaze and communication takes place. In such shots, in fact, both the work of mise-en-scène, and the placement of the camera (alternatively on one or the other side of the mirror) play a crucial role in terms of spectator’s identification, as they allow the viewer to switch sides (literally and metaphorically) between the two characters, depending on which direction the light and the mirror allow us to look.
Only at this point, when Travis (and the spectator) have accepted to dismiss the voyeuristic privilege granted by the screen, Jane can watch, observe, and try to understand her husband. The spectator is now able to fully embrace this new perspective by looking at his former self (Travis) from a detached perspective, like in front of a TV set—since the glass through which Travis appears in Jane’s room is symbolically framed by a metal structure that turns the mirror-window into a flat-screen TV.
Unfortunately none of the few films originally shot with this innovative system stands out for aesthetic or narrative qualities. However, I encourage those of you who have never seen a Cinerama film to take advantage of this rare opportunity and flock to the intersection of Sunset and Vine (that’s where the line is probably going to start) to view at least one of these oddities. My recommendation comes with a warning. As Samuel Goldwin once said: “A wide screen just makes a bad film twice as bad.” Since the Cinerama system triplicates the aspect ratio of the frame, you do the math…
Click here for an informative article including hi-res publicity material about This is Cinerama.
Click here for an extensive online archive dedicated to 70mm films.
Note that 2001: A Space Odyssey was not photographed in 3-film-strip Cinerama but in Super Panavision 70 and then “rectified” to simulate the Cinerama format. Click here for more information.
The “Post-Production” section [of the DVD/BD extras] is very informative and interesting. “In the Cutting Room” is fairly technical but makes some fascinating points. I particularly liked the description of how Fincher eliminates reframings and unsteady shots by using the extra image space allowed by newer capture media. (Earlier digital film frames allowed no extra image area outside what would show up on the screen; as the image below indicates, the final frame can be selected from a larger picture.) This desire for a stable image in an era where the “queasi-cam” so often rules points to one distinctive trait in Fincher’s style. It indicates a willingness to actually think through the framing of each individual shot and the purpose for choosing that framing. Steven Spielberg does the same thing. Many don’t.
Editor Angus Wall talks about this advantage of the extra size of the image and how Fincher uses it to stabilize unsteady images. It’s worth quoting at length, and it demonstrates the thoughtful commentary in this particular supplement:
I’ve never seen a movie that was sort of “re-operated” to the extent that this one was. Which I think has an effect on the viewing of the movie. David is really type-A in terms of making the shots very specific. They start in a certain way, they end in a certain way. And the framing, he’s very precise in terms of his composition. He doesn’t like a lot of what you see in 99% of movies, which is very subtle moves where the operator will actually reframe according to how the actor’s moving. David doesn’t like that. Even if there were a lot of those in this film, and before, some of those takes we would have thrown out, because we just wouldn’t have been able to stabilize them to the degree that he likes it. With this, because you have this full raster, this big area around the image, you can take those images and stabilize them, really lock them down. So the movie is really locked down in terms of camera operating. More than any other movie that I can think of.
The smooth glide as the car initially approaches the country house is one example of that utter stability, used to ominous effect in that particular scene.
The Sound of Silence, my Summer class dedicated to the lesson of silent cinema and its influence on sound movies ended last Friday, and I was really surprised to receive so many enthusiastic emails about the films we watched. Most students mentioned that they were pleasantly surprised by the unexpected narrative complexity of silent cinema. Our last screening (Ernst Lubitsch’s silent adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan) perfectly exemplifies the creative work behind such complexity, as Wilde’s verbal text is turned into a visual performance where off-screen space, indirect narration, and other sophisticated narrative techniques make up for the lack of dialogue. Since the original trailer of Lady Windermere’s Fan doesn’t exist anymore, here’s the trailer for another favorite film of the series (F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise) as a Thank You note for sharing your thoughts with me. It was a real pleasure sharing my passion with you.
Here’s a clip from the first season.
Suits (2001, Aaron Kirsh, Season 1)
Szél (1996), 35mm, 6', b/n
However, there is one film that I like to recommend to everyone who’s looking to experience an original cinematic approach to storytelling. I’m talking about Mr. Nobody (2009), one of the most fascinating, intelligent, and underestimated films of the previous decade (1). Poorly marketed in Europe and ignored by every distributor in the U.S., this spectacular $47 million dollar Belgian-French-German-Canadian co-production in English language is a rich and complex tale of parallel narratives that springs from the mind of the main character, Mr. Nemo Nobody (Jared Leto), a 118-year-old man who recounts the story of his life in form of three possible existences that he might have lived.
One could argue that similar experiments in parallel narratives had been conducted prior to (and even more successfully than) the aforementioned Sliding Doors and Run Lola Run. In 1948, for example, Preston Sturges had brought to the screen Unfaithfully Yours, a sophisticated comedy of hypothetical narratives based on a screenplay he had been working on since the early 1930s (see my analysis of the film in this book); and in 1993 Alain Resnais turned Alan Ayckbourn’s epic "what if" play(s) Intimate Exchanges into two films (Smoking/No Smoking), which are the results of the possible permutations that originate from the protagonists' choices.
Broadly speaking, already in the 1950s and 1960s, the literary experiments of Alain-Robbe Grillet and the French Nouveau Roman, as well as the works of the Oulipo group (see Raymond Queneau and his Exercises de Style) seemed to have exhausted the possibilities of parallel storytelling and hypothetical narratives. However, not only the narrative structure devised by Jaco van Dormael is infinitely more complex and better laid out than most of the aforementioned works, but he also succeeds where many of his predecessors have failed, since the final result is not a a self-conscious exercise in meta-narrative, but it’s primarily a fascinating and highly entertaining film that grabs the viewer’s attentions from its opening montage of possible stories to the final narrative twist(s) that unveil the mystery behind Nemo’s recollections.
(1) The film is now available on Amazon on DVD.
(2) Errera, Isabelle (Documentalist) (August 2009). "Mr. Nobody, a film by Jaco Van Dormael". Pan-Européenne (PDF). Unifrance. Retrieved June 7, 2012, pp. 5-6
Then David Lynch came forward, with a very simple idea: why not exploiting the possibilities offered by the medium (serialization) in order to create an organic, lengthy film, structured in chapters? After all the idea had proved to be successful long before television was even conceived, when writers of the caliber of Charles Dickens, Henry James, Gustave Flaubert, Leo Tolstoy, or Fyodor Dostoevsky had published their complex and organic works in installments for newspapers and periodicals. Cinema too had known a fortunate season of serials in the silent period. Twin Peaks (created by David Lynch and David Frost) was an immediate success, but the execution proved to be less fascinating than the original idea, as it became clear that the undefined and obscure storylines that had captivated the audience in the first episodes remained mysterious to the shows’ creators themselves, who had no clue what to make of the possible stories that Lynch had barely drafted.
True, differently from the classic literary serials, some of these productions tend to drop their creators after 1 or 2 seasons, quickly turning from gold to dust during the summer hiatus--I think of a brilliant dramedy such as Brothers and Sisters which, by the end of the third season, had become the equivalent of an 18th century feuilleton). As a consequence, some seasons turn out better than others (see the wonderful second season of Diablo Cody’s United States of Tara or the first one of Lie To Me, a fascinating adaptation of Paul Ekman’s scientific studies on facial expressions into a series of moral tales on deception); some mediocre shows are kept alive for 3 or 4 seasons, while far more promising works are cancelled mid-season or even just after a couple of episodes, depending on the audience’s reception (and I would trade the entire Lost saga to find out what Lone Star could have been).
The death of Andrew Sarris last week isn’t just a saddening moment for those of us who admire exhilarating film criticism. It also reminds us how much American culture can owe to a single person.
Everyone who writes about Sarris writes about how they came to know his work. It was that powerful, and if it hit you young, you were never the same. (You never hear about the sixty-year-old who suddenly becomes an auteurist.) The period of his greatest impact was the 1960s-1970s when, to borrow a phrase from Dave Kehr, movies mattered. But his influence has lingered, powerfully, a lot longer.
I think that the best way to honor Sarris is to take his ideas–not just his opinions, but his ideas–seriously, so that’s what I’ve tried to do in this tribute. First, though, some comments that are obligatory in any discussion of Sarris.