Sunday, October 23, 2005

Filming (with three cursory cases)

OK, so I want to try to unpack the idea of form as "rhetoric" that I mentioned in my last post a week ago. Lately I've started thinking (navel-gazing?) about the possibilities of referring to cinema as an action, or as a verb: that is, to talk about "filming" and "filmers" rather than "film." It's an action, it's a practice, 'it is done' instead of 'it is.' This starts to synthesize a lot of the ways I've come to look at, and think about, the cinema. It recognizes the presence of authors, it recognizes that cinema works in a myriad of social ways, it foregrounds the reasons for studying form (because we can better understand rhetoric). There are long chains and webs of practicioners who influence each other materially and otherwise. The act of filming, itself, is a communication--saying, at the very least, that something deserves to be filmed. Cinema practices can be corporate, individualized, impersonal, intimate, local, global. They can be communication between cultures, or from one culture to itself, or from on individual to another. Maybe all of these things at once.

In the photographs in Blow-Up we have a dramatization of Antonioni's ethical and philosophical concerns. What might an image capture by accident? How can we tell what is there? What obligations does the photographer have to such images? Antonioni ruminates on his own role by proxy, which is a major through-line of his film. ("We have to take a picture of that corpse!" David Hemmings insists to his friend. "I'm not a photographer," comes the reply. Dismayed, Hemmings says: "I am.") Eight years later Francis Ford Coppola does much the same thing (albeit with a sound-image); his restatement shifts the technology away from photography and into audio and acoustics. The redefined premise ratchets up the pure suspense quotient of The Conversation because the mystery qualities say what they say less reflexively than they do in Blow-Up. They are about (a) smart plotting and (b) oblique social criticism. Coppola made a choice to code his examination into modernity's loneliness and alienation in this way--pushing off self-examination as an image-maker in the process. (I'm not criticizing him for this.) I think this is indicative of a lot of the 1970s Hollywood movie brats, pulling what they could from European models and turning them outward into stylistic entertainment-expressions of society.

Not De Palma, who among his crowd probably took the European model mostly strongly to heart. Blow Out (which synthesizes audio and photo dilemmas) tries to turn around against the cultural current and corral in as much of it as it can. I'd really like to watch these three films in close succession and see how they play off of each other. But when thinking about them together I'm struck that their differences are attributable to different choices of rhetoric--different ways of speaking out from where they are (culturally, geographically, historically) to where they want to be. And the choices have to do as much with what kind of technology they deal with as with the way they shoot their characters and locations. (Antonioni likes to play with scale and large swaths of color in isolated compositions linked by travelling characters. Coppola takes some of this and fuses it with a gritty, propulsive Hollywood idiom borne of genre cinema and concurrently worked out by, say, Friedkin. De Palma as usual applies powerful doses of Hitchcock and Powell to any and all problems.) In other words, the best way to answer the questions raised by these serious feature films is to first figure out 'the forms of their questions.'

Hopefully more on this before long.

6 comments:

Filipe said...

You should add Argento's Deep Red which is also a rework of Blow Up, but from the perspective of someone far less fond of Antonioni's film.

Jaime said...

You know, Zach, you should really try and film something on your own. I don't mean to suggest that you lack any qualifications in talking about the subject (in fact, you're one of the few around who can), but it'll definitely give you a big change in perspective: make some things concrete that were previously abstract, etc.

Zach Campbell said...

I forgot about Deep Red--haven't seen that in ages, in fact I saw it well before I saw the other three films I mentioned. Consequently I barely remember it.

As for filming, Jaime, you're right. What kind of film would I make? It'd be very bizarre. Maybe the day will come, though.

Jaime said...

They taught us in the greenhorn level of NYU film school: your first film work (if you take the plunge) should be rough, silly, unprepared, and full of mistakes. I'm working on my sixth and seventh film right now, and with any luck they'll be the first that I'd rather show than burn.

Hope you do it sooner instead of later, if you intend to do anything at all.

Brian said...

I actually finally watched Blow Out for the first time last week. I now feel the need to revisit Blow Up. (I've seen the Conversation enough times that it's become one of those films I carry with me in my memory almost in its entirety, it seems. Though I still like to watch it whenever there's an excuse.)

I think it's interesting how both the Conversation and Blow Out seemingly attempt to strip all pretense of artistry out of the "filming" (recording) urge of the protagonists. These guys are just looking for technical precision and utilize their creativity to achieve it, but they ply their trade in decidedly unartistic sectors. Yet the opening shot of Blow Out argues that a B-grade horror film can display artistry, and the entire plot of the film serves as Jack Terry's punishment for wasting his talent with a bored attitude. By the end of the film he's gone through a personal hell and finally is able to bring inspiration and passion to his work. Whereas the Conversation's finale leaves Harry Caul still in the midst of his personal hell. Art is not a way out; even an improv session on the saxophone comes back to bite him.

Jaime said...

Awesome post, Brian! Retracing the necessary steps back to BLOW-UP, Hemmings' photographer's amalgam of professional and personal traits stands at the end of several spectrums from Travolta/Hackman... he's detached from everything except his work, but it's a cool, dandyish detachment rather than a nerdy one. His Vanessa Redgrade is worlds apart from a Nancy Allen in terms of personal significance. And although his space is violated, he goes and watches mime tennis. Far from the shell-of-a-man fates that befall Travolta and Hackman.