Films in Review: Some New Uses of Technology in the History of Film as Art: Color and 3D

March 18th, 2012  |  Published in March 2012, Multimedia

Films in Review: Some New Uses of Technology in the History of Film as Art: Color and 3D – with recent examples: Pina (Wim Wenders); Hugo (Martin Scorsese); The Artist (Michel Hazavicous)

The use of color for serious artistic expression has a long history in film, with hand-tinting, (from the beginnings and into the late 1920’s), though the advent and rise of Technicolor in the 1930s. This use of color as an element of interest in itself flowered in John M. Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven and Michael Powell’s Black Narcissus (among others) in the 1940s, and continued in Powell’s Peeping Tom, and Age of Consent; Jean Renoir’s theatrical experiments in the early 1950s, culminating in Picnic on the Grass; and Alfred Hitchcock’s expressive uses of color in Vertigo, The Birds, Marnie, etc. At one time, color was primarily used for westerns and musicals in Hollywood, but after the rise of television, more and more films were made in color. By now, special provisions need to be made just for black and white processing, and color has been the general norm for some time. At one time, the non-naturalistic vividness of Technicolor lent itself to exaggerated effects, and the aesthetics of subtlety and nuance beyond melodramatics were usually ignored.

At some point, the new resource for expressive and subjective uses of color began to be explored by more serious directors. In the mid to late 1960’s some influential filmmakers began using color in “artistic” ways, e.g., Michaelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert, Blow Up, and Zabriskie Point; Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist; Alain Resnais’ Muriel; Agnes Varda’s Le Bonheur; Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt and Weekend; Claude Chabrol’s A Double Tour/Leda, and later, Les Biches, La Femme Infidele, Que le Bete Meure, Le Boucher and La Rupture, etc., in a long series. Eric Rohmer’s Claire’s Knee and Jacques Rivette’s La Religiouse, etc. were other color experiments of the French New Wave.

In a similar way, 3D, once used mainly for shock and overt effects in the horror and action genres,  more recently began to be considered for more serious uses. James Cameron’s success with Avatar was the breakthrough for this in America, and the films that followed capitalized on the profits to be made from the fad, and its surcharged ticket prices. Now, 3D has been put to more expressive tonal uses, establishing a “norm” of depth photography in the hands of master filmmakers like Martin Scorsese (Hugo) and Wim Wenders (Pina). And Werner Herzog used 3D for his photographing of the Lascaux caves for a recent documentary.

What was once a factor in 1940s and 1950s noir, the depth of focus photography of John Alton in the  intense black and white films of Anthony Mann, was first seen in Gregg Toland’s remarkable depth of focus work in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives. These films established a three-dimensionality of space in a sharp focus beyond what the eye would normally see: there are not planes of sharpness selected here over softer or out of focus planes—but everything is in focus, a kind of hyper-real space for the viewer to scan in a heightened sensation of super-reality, often surreality. Because it doesn’t correspond to the eye’s natural selectivity of focusing on an object’s plane, one at a time, it’s all in focus, and the simulacrum of Renaissance perspective is very deep. This creates, in this viewer, at least, a heightening sensation, a visual intensity that makes the images feel that much more vivid and “real,” something like certain Northern Renaissance art.

This same sense of an alternate reality can be created by the careful use of 3D, I think. So does Wim Wenders’ camera move in homage to the choreography of Pina Bausch and her company. The 3D here offers the layers and dimensions in which the symbolic artifices of her dances take place, as well as opening out the spaces of their worlds, on stages and in the open air in and around Wuppertal, Germany. High artifice mixes with an often naturalistic ground in an odd and often fecund contrast on screen. The depth of field is the arena for the multi-layered action and the multi-layered meanings of the “language” of the dances the dancers create with their bodies, seen in the roundedness of 3D’ snew three-dimensionality on screen. This artifice lends itself to this intensified visualization– and the appropriateness of the match of form and content is maintained throughout, often surprising in its unforeseeable appropriateness to the materials.

After a time, I became used to the various kinds of body-languages and the uses of props Pina creates. There are clear motifs and patterns of exploration: the interactive relations of men and women, often charged with sensuality and power relations and sometimes mutual support, as in a trust game, e.g., of falling helpless into someone else’s arms. Sometimes, there is whimsical charm in setting and movement, captured more “in the round.” The use of chairs as props in Muller’s Cafe, is especially noteworthy. There is a kind of repetition in the modes and obsessive themes, which might flatten out after awhile, but the sparse interviews in many different languages of the dancers indicate a spiritual quest for a precision that seems a way of life for this extended troupe. The range of ages and body types, the mix of sexes in the dances, show a unity of commitment to a higher vision of dancing as a way to wisdom through discipline of movement, a way of life found through the spiritual commitment to movement and connection, to Dance itself. This ideal vision is clearly implicit in the totality of the rhythmic movement of the film itself, the circularity of the precision group dance to the seasons in repeated gestures, in a line through a space, which opens and closes the film.

Likewise, after the incredible opening of Hugo–the camera moving from an aerial view of Paris seamlessly down into a rushing eye-level view down a crowded train platform and into the crowds in the grand station hall in which much of the action transpires, without a cut in its relentless sweeping into this world, which then remains casually three-dimensional throughout—we know we’re in for an extraordinary ride. For this viewer, what was remarkable was the constant later un-melodramatic use of 3D: turning it into a “given” for the viewer, an almost matter of fact visual expectation in this established space– not used for aggressive effects so much as to create a fully spatially deep, inhabited world as an arena for all the action. Even if it’s just people standing around in a small room—it’s verisimilitude through high artifice, self-consciously 3 D, and yet, not: one expects after awhile to have everything “in the round” as a matter of course—it’s all taking place in this alternate, inhabited space of machinery and crowds and Paris streets and rooms in houses… Seamlessly “real” and matter of fact: at last, 3D transcends the gimmicky to simply become a base for all the activities on screen.

Of course, this allows for a much more visceral engagement with the action, and creates its own spatial dramatics thereby. So, after awhile, we come to expect this natural depth of perception in all things–room interiors, pieces of machinery, tight spaces that have their own full dimensionality. In Scorsese’s careful, masterful hands, the blocking is constantly taking place in a depth of space, and the screen is a kind of simulacrum of the three-dimensional “real” world. Since it is an homage to Melies, the magical surrreal entertainer, the play of the images is constantly charged with visual “magic” as well, as is the attendant intensity of the viewer’s gaze into this field of action. The correlative world of Hugo is another loving recreation of a lost world, of silents and movie acting styles.

The three dimensional space Hugo exists in is comparable to the deep focus of Gregg Toland’s cinematography in Citizen Kane, after which many film noirs inhabited similar three-dimensional-seeming spaces. The range of Sasha Baron Cohen’s stylized acting, from melodramatic, to ‘proper,’ to physically comic, to poignantly emotional, was the most striking correlative for me to the historical era on display. After all, this is an “historical” fantasy, based, however, on some “fantastical” facts about the retrieval of Melies’ work, making this a pet project of Scorsese’s interests in general about the restoration of old films and the saving of otherwise lost film history…

The Artist, like Hugo, was a most pleasant surprise, a remarkably adept and clever exercise in style and period homage to late silent/early sound Hollywood films, yet with French lead actors and a French director. It might seem a gimmick to make a mostly silent (of dialogue) black and white film now, but this cleverly captures the visual quality and acting styles of the period with real affection and exactitude. The same loving care is brought to the visualization of The Artist’s silent world, mimicking the gestures and styles and, most of all, the visual textures of the studio cinematography of that era. The camera recreates the silvery grey tones and sharp focus of the originals—late silents and early talkies. The sets and street scenes are impeccably “true” to the times, the two leads mimicking with complete assurance the broad acting styles and gestures of their “originals.” The story is in the mode of A Star is Born, but the comic drama and filmmaking recreations and sets are labors of homage: both about silent film and celebration of it, staged song-and-dancing and all!

So, we’ve come full circle from dancing, to dancing on screens in homages—to Pina Bausch’s choreographies, the magical early cinema of Melies, and the historical tropes and styles of late silent/ early sound commercial filmmaking. All these artifices have their emotional truths: their commitments to style, as a means to evoke and get into deeper emotions, deeper expressiveness. The artifice of the contrivances of the cinematic art is like “poetic truth”–inventions in the service of generating feelings in the recipient, if the participating viewer will just suspend disbelief and enter into the fantasy created on the screen, which stands in for a focused entrance into our own deep inner emotional lives and meanings. Thus, cinema exerts its “art” to get at its created “reality” behind the screens we keep trying to peer more and more deeply into for entertainment, pleasure and, ultimately, ‘illumination.’

–David Schloss

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