Thursday, November 13, 2008

Analysing film

Cinema could be called the queen of the arts - if it actually managed to excel at all those arts it unites: story telling, acting, painting/photography, music/sound collage. Since no single person can be good at all of those, it is usually a collective art form under the dictatorship of a director, producer, accountants or the marketing department - in spite of the grand opinion Gore Vidal held of the author's role in this enterprise. In Hollywood, writers have been a particularly downtrodden caste, subject to constant rewrites by script doctors, directors, producers and even the actors: "I can't talk like that!" But I digress. My whole life is a digression, come to think of it...
A truly good film needs to shine in several if not all of the aspects listed above, although there are cases in which everything else has been subjugated to just one. Tarkovski's Nostalghia looks like a succession of unspeakably beautiful paintings, often reminiscent of Giorgone and other Venetian masters, but it is still mainly an illustrated poem about exile.
A less successful, and thus more instructive example is Bell, Book and Candle from 1958, which deservedly won a single Oscar for art direction. Ostensibly a light-hearted comedy about a coven of witches in beatnik era New York, it fell under the spell of an obsessive, classically trained artist. Every single picture is painstakingly divided by golden cuts, the actors arranged into set pieces copied from old masters and colour coordinated within an inch of their lives. Every character has its assigned shadings and props. Even when two people converse in the same room, they are shown against different walls, James Stewart with his books and warm browns, his fiancée with her paintings in light, cool blues, Kim Novak gets her mystic artefacts and dark shadows etc. If you want a simple introduction into static picture composition, watch this one with your finger on the pause button. You can see most of the actors squirming in their assigned triangles, marking appropriate verticals and diagonals, yearning to do some acting in addition to moving their mouths.

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