Late Spring

While I’m far from the first to draw attention to Ozu’s empty frames, I’m surprised not to have heard (or perhaps I’m surprised not to remember) Ozu referenced in criticism of Woody Allen’s work. I imagine a side-by-side comparison of their empty frames would enhance our understanding of the “technique” surrounding empty frames, and the contrasting meanings it can have. Perhaps this will be food for a future post, but I’ll allow myself a few quick thoughts in a general way now.

– Empty frames, as a technique, tend to only be found as bookends for scenes. Used as supplementary information to the traditional mastershot, they’re either strung together to display a wider environment for the viewer or they’re used as a wideshot into which the actors enter or exit. Rarely, if ever, does a scene have an empty frame at its center.

– In Annie Hall, the empty frame is used as a comedic gag when, during Allen and Keaton’s amicable breakup, both take turns entering and exiting a static frame, until they exit simultaneously, leaving the viewer with an empty view as the conversation continues.

– How possible would it be for a contemporary director / editor to utilize empty frames in a financed film? One imagines that an empty frame would be the first item sacrificed to the altar of modern pacing, of which their is one rule: frenzy.

– Haneke might be another director worth visiting for his empty frames. Funny Games is ostentatious with its use of empty frames, while Caché’s plot revolves around a video tape of a (largely) empty frame. Haneke has a skill at making empty frames transform, like a magic eye illustration, from impartial wideshots into frames imbued with meaning and character. The best example may be from The Piano Teacher, when from a tangle of hockey players, unknown and unimportant, Walter emerges to have a conversation with Erika (just off screen, if I recall). Haneke’s technique is not unlike Slavoj Žižek’s famous example from The Birds, in which Hitchcock transforms an impartial wideshot of the town into the birds’ subjective view.

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Chungking Express

In sports writing, star players are often evaluated in relation to their (perceived) individual impact on a team’s success. The arguments follow the logic of,  “______ is the reason his team has the number one seed. When he’s gone, the team breaks down completely.” or, alternately, “What you have to remember about ____’s injury is that he is a part of system that can function effectively, though not at as high a level, without him.”
In film criticism, professional and casual, auteur arguments often implicitly follow a similar reasoning. The quintessential auteur is the director without whom a film would collapse. The journeyman is the cog in an efficient system.
Adopting this definition for a moment, is there a more perfect superstar auteur than Wong Kar-Wai?
Or, to grab the analogy by its horns, is there a modern popular director whose films would break down more completely if he/she were not directing?
A few directors leap to mind: the Coen Brothers, Von Trier, Wes Anderson, among others.
Let’s take the cliché, “Give two directors the same script and they’ll shoot two different movies,” and run with it. Give a journeyman director the script for Dogville, the script for The Royal Tenenbaums, for the Big Lebowski. Granted, we would certainly see a lesser product for each of these films. Dogville would be shot on location, in traditional shot-countershot with a few unneccessary dollies. The Royal Tenenbaums would lose its tableau’s and be consumed with medium close ups. The Big Lebowski would… remain fairly intact.
Create a screenplay from Chungking Express and give it to a journeyman director. The movie falls apart. Sure, Faye Wong and Tony Leung and Brigitte Lin will still be at their best and it might save the film a little. But it becomes boring and slow and tedious. Why? Because as much as Faye Wong is fun (and she is fun), Christopher Doyle’s camera is having a lot of fun with her. Those reflection shots, the unconventional framing, the shots through glass, the way the camera dances with her as she mops the floor, that is what makes the movie fun, even for people who don’t care about cinematography. Chungking Express is a movie that lives and dies by how much fun you’re having. Watch it again, and mentally replace every shot with a medium close up shot-countershot. You have the weak first draft of a Hollywood romantic comedy. You would leave the theater blaming the script, “I could see where they were going, but they just didn’t capitalize on anything.” With Wong Kar-Wai, you leave with the best film of the 90’s.

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Les Enfants Terribles

enfant terrible, n.

Pronunciation:  /ɑ~fɑ~ tɛribl/

Etymology:  French, = terrible child.

A child who embarrasses his elders by untimely remarks; transf. a person who compromises his associates or his party by unorthodox or ill-considered speech or behaviour; loosely, one who acts unconventionally.

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The 400 Blows

The 400 Blows, Directed by François Truffaut.

The 400 Blows (a film whose very mention feels haunted by the phrase “the seminal work of the French New Wave”),  is one of cinema’s classic/best/effective uses of the first person (masculine) singular perspective. A coming of age film’s success seems to rest largely on the extent to which an audience shares in the feelings of coming of age, and a first person perspective naturally aligns the viewer to the perceptions of the protagonist.

In first person singular films, what tends to intrigue me are the scenes that deviate from the limited perspective. In 400 Blows there are a few: Antoine’s schoolmate ratting him out to his parents, Antione’s friend tricking his father in order to sneak Antoine food, Antoine’s mother talking with the judge, and the two brief dialogue-less scenes I have imbedded below.

What separates these two scenes from the other first person deviations is their unnecessariness with regard to plot. In the other scenes, we need to move away from Antoine in order to grasp what’s happening in the story; without them there will be plot holes (example: how did Antoine’s parents find out he was skipping school?). These two (Antoine’s father leaving, Antoine’s friend leaving) both depict permanent departures from Antoine’s life, but are permanent departures of which the audience is already aware. They are lingering shots, unnecessary to the plot, but rich with meaning and emotion. In a way, they are the dark side of the moon for Hitchcock’s famous lingering suspense moments. Both are superfluous slow actions that would be otherwise boring and meaningless, but, given context, have a powerful emotional resonance. Also worthy of note: Antoine’s mother is the only principal character to NOT receive one of these depature scenes. Her last appearance is in a shot-countershot conversation with Antoine, and the scene ends with a shot of him, not her.

A question for another day: Do coming of age movies require viewers who have already come of age? That is to say, is the pleasure/entertainment/value of a coming of age work dependent upon a viewer’s memories of having come of age? Would 11 year olds feel unmoved by the 400 Blows for reasons other than black-and-white and subtitles? The most obvious (but imperfect) comparison would be sexual scenes in film as their power and meaning exist almost exclusively for adolescents and adults. I can remember numerous examples from my childhood of being bewildered by the sexual motivations and actions of (generally foolish) onscreen adults. The cases that spring to mind most readily are Indiana Jones’s relationship with Elsa in the Last Crusade and Tom Cruise’s need to box in Far and Away.

Reading: A History of the French New Wave Cinema

Writing: The final drafts of short films for Analog Romance Vol. 1

Remembering: Barry Lyndon, Chungking Express

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