There is a lovely comment from the great French filmmaker Robert Bresson where he says in Notes on the Cinematographer that style is all that is not technique. When the French critics of the fifties wrote in the magazine Cahiers du Cinema that style was the essence of a director's work, they wanted to pinpoint what made a director distinctive, original. Now this didn't means necessarily that the filmmakers were 'stylish' - some were; some weren't. It had much more to do with a vision, a perspective, a way of doing things, so that style illustrated theme, brought it out.
In a lengthy shot from Martin Scorsese's GoodFellas, where the camera snakes through the Copacabana club as it follows the central character, we might ask is it just meretricious, is it no more than a glossy example of style rather than thematically illuminating? It is on one level a shot that is undeniably stylish - it is a directorially complex establishing shot that contains medium shots and close-ups all in the one take. As Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco's characters enter the club through the back door, Scorsese goes to great lengths to show the workings behind the scenes, as they pass through the kitchen, and the degree to which Liotta is welcome in this classy joint. It's as though the filmmaker wants us to take a sharp intake of a lifestyle, and uses a single-take shot to the tune of The Ronettes to bring out this entrance into another world. Scorsese's work often shows amoral characters - Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and Jake la Motta in Raging Bull - and then tries to illustrate through the presentation of the environment some justification for their behaviour. Here Scorsese would seem to want to show someone that can't get enough of the luxurious lifestyle without simply morally rejecting the character. We have to believe that this is an exciting world, we have to feel as tantalized as Lorraine Bracco, and as keen to impress as Ray Liotta.
Thus the style illustrates astutely the characters' feelings, as well as Scorsese's themes, and makes the scene much more than just 'stylish'. Nevertheless the use of very long takes has become something of a bravura stylistic device by a number of filmmakers since Orson Welles opened Touch of Evil with a wonderful scene-setting moment that culminated in an explosion. It has become almost a trope in itself, a stylistic touch that keen-eyed viewers will observe and admire: they will wonder about how the director achieved such a complex single shot. Other famous long-takes include the opening of Absolute Beginners, The Player, Mission to Mars, Boogie Nights and the Dunkirk evacuation sequence-shot inAtonement. Whether the filmmakers are simply offering an exercise in style, or developing theme, is a matter for the viewer to decide: this example from GoodFellas surely remains one of the most successfully rich, but some have viewed other scenes in the film as gratuitously stylised. Terry Gilliam in Gilliam on Gilliam gives as an example a shot in Good Fellas that he thinks is pointless, where Scorsese "does a track-zoom on Bobby De Niro and Ray Liotta in the diner. I don't know what he thought he was doing in that shot, but the camera wasn't making that moment stronger; it was a total mannerism." Even more mannerist, we think, is a scene from Brian De Palma's Blow Out. Here John Travolta is listening to two tape spools that we watch turning round and round as Travolta listens to them, and De Palma mimics the movement of the tapes with three hundred and sixty degree shots round the room. Would it not have been better to focus on Travolta's face as he listens, over a gimmicky replication of the tapes' movement? We will all have our examples of stylistic shots that seem pertinent or otherwise
The great French critic Andr Bazin reckoned in What is Cinema? Vol I that "depth of field is not just a stock in trade of the cameraman like the use of a series of filters or of such and such a style of lighting, it is a capital gain in the field of direction - a dialectical step forward in the history of film language." For Bazin deep focus scenes in Citizen Kane and Magnificent Ambersons weren't first and foremost exercises in style but a leap forward in the evolution of film, a move towards what Bazin most admired cinema for - its capacity for realism. Deep focus is the depth in the image, so that we can see the background just as clearly as we can see the foreground. When a filmmaker works in a shallow field, we will see, say, two characters talking, but we won't have a clear view of what is going on behind them. Bazin believed the viewer was more active in deep focus films, that he or she could decide what to concentrate on. Should we pay attention first and foremost to the adults in the foreground discussing Kane's life in a key scene in Citizen Kane, or concentrate instead on the boy in the background? Or move between the two?
Along with William Wyler and Jean Renoir, Welles opened up the possibility for a more realistic cinema, at least realistic from the point of view of viewer perception. Of course many people over the years have argued that Citizen Kane is a film of style more than realism, but that is only relevant if we go with clear dichotomies between the stylised and the realistic. If we take into account our comments on GoodFellas, what an auteur, a personal filmmaker, needs to do is offer a distinctive view of the world. Maybe in retrospect we can say that Welles' excesses in Bazin's view - his more stylistic touches - can be incorporated into his auteur style; that Welles is a strange combination of realist and expressionist, a filmmaker who wants depth of field, and thus offers the viewer 'realistic' choice in the frame, but also expressionist in that the world he shows often has a nightmarish quality than can better be captured using, say, canted camera-angles, shadows, and crane shots as it shows its debt to the great German Expressionists of the twenties: filmmakers like Fritz Lang(Dr Mabuse, the Gambler, Metropolis) , F. W. Murnau (Faust, Nosferatu) and Robert Wiene (The Cabinet of Dr Caligari). In The Magnificent Ambersons, Welles shows the central character and his mum going up to their bedrooms in the Amberson mansion. The lighting is initially low, the characters semi-silhouetted for much of the scene, and when the film does offer Bazinian deep-focus it is still very stylised. At one moment there is a shot of the mother in the foreground filmed from a low angle, and in the background of the shot we see and hear the aunt. There is nevertheless a compositional bias here, and David Bordwell usefully talks in Figures Traced in Light of "aggressive foregrounds" and "reticent depths" as he notes that such shots do use deep focus but with an emphasis on the action at the front of the shot, no matter the importance of what happens in the rear.
Maybe a more significant and useful division than realism versus style, is the one we broached talking about GoodFellas: is the filmmaker offering a vision or just showing off a style? If we can explore Scorsese's work and show how the stylish steadicam into the club is thematically relevant, can we do the same with Welles's work? We would have had a very different Orson Welles if after Citizen Kane the director had adhered to the principles proposed by Bazin. Perhaps we would have had no Lady from Shanghai, with its startlingly stylised mirror sequence at the end, no Touch of Evil with its elaborate long-take, crane-shot opening, and no The Trial, a film that utilises real locations (a disused train station in Paris) but in a very unreal, frighteningly dystopian way. And of course without these films - and with more 'realistic' films in their place - we would probably not have a strong Wellesian theme, or rather a different one. If we suggested Scorsese is finally fascinated by enchanting milieux, then Welles is a great director of self-destructing worlds, of characters who have a trait that leads them into labyrinthine, troubling, harmful environments often of their own creation (Citizen Kane), or sometimes those created by others (The Lady from Shanghai, Touch of Evil) or sometimes somewhere in-between (The Trial). Would a more conventionally realist style not have hampered this exploration into the labyrinth?
Let us propose that Sean Penn is one of the great contemporary actors; and that Eastwood is an average filmmaker - no matter the admiration of the French. Let us also suggest that Sean Penn is well capable of over-acting. As critic David Thomson reckoned: "Sean Penn demonstrates the virtues of making acting seem like an immense travail, like passing a very large kidney stone and doing something you really don't want to do." This is of course way too harsh, but looking at the elaborate overhead camerawork in a scene from Mystic River where Penn finds out his daughter has been murdered, and at Penn's emotionally wrought performance, there is a kind of emotional pleonasm at work. If we had the camera relatively still, or Penn's performance absorbing grief quietly, then we could respond to the performance or respond to the camera eliciting the emotion, without feeling it is being forced out of us. The sort of performance here relevant to Eastwood's emphatic camera technique is the subdued, tight-lipped display by Kevin Bacon. Now of course he hasn't suffered Penn's loss, though he is a childhood friend, but it is more than that: Eastwood seems to be directing Penn as if he were directing himself, for we all know just how monosyllabic and constrained an actor Eastwood usually is.
Can we make a loose generalisation here: the more exuberant the camera; the more constrained the performance ought to be? If we look back to the fifties, and the method acting of James Dean, Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift, there was more room for expressive work in the performance if the camera was less expressive, but if the camera was very stylised the performance required more containment. When Hitchcock reputedly said actors are like cattle, he was expressing this need for the emotional register to be directorially led rather than led by the actor. The great Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni thought similarly when directing David Hemmings in Blow Up. Hemmings said he wasn't expected to express an emotion: the camera would do it for him. When you have the two coming together - expressive acting and expressive camerawork - as we see in Eastwood's film, a very great actor can seem over the top, when in fact it is chiefly the juxtaposition of a strong performer and a directorial flourish.
Obviously this pleonastic aspect isn't always a problem. Sometimes a director will look for a very melodramatic performance within a very melodramatic style (as in Welles's role in his own Touch of Evil, or his Harry Lime in Carol Reed's The Third Man). It can create a deliberately overcooked, or very mysterious atmosphere. And of course there are occasions where a deadpan camera style and deadpan acting (as in Jim Jarmusch's films, in Aki Kaurismaki's work) can lead to an amusing sense of understatement. But in the scene from Eastwood's film a fine actor looks like he's overacting because Eastwood's camerawork (and let's say nothing of the music) too readily apes it. If we think about Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor's raw, melodramatic performances in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, or Gena Rowlands' great part in A Woman Under the Influence, we can see the directors allowing the performance to breathe cinematically. The camera, in each instance, though far from just workmanlike, nevertheless gives the actors the freedom to be emphatic without ever becoming hammy. If, as many people claim, Penn is the great actor of his generation, then should part of that greatness lie in working with directors who bring out the strengths and don't expose the potential weaknesses?
After watching a clip from Gertrud students often insist that of all the films shown in the class, this is one they have no interest in taking out on video or DVD. Ostensibly that would seem to make sense: the film is undeniably slow, the acting stilted and the theme strangely hard to grasp. When the film was released in 1964 it was slammed. Now, with time, and more readily contained within the director Carl Dreyer's oeuvre - a body of work that includes The Passion of Joan of Arc, Vampyr and Ordet - it's regarded as a great film and a key example of modern, 'spiritual' cinema. If we think about what has been called the Institutional Mode of Representation, we can help pinpoint its importance. A term offered by Noel Burch (who also wrote key articles on Dreyer's film), Burch uses it to describe, in Life to those Shadows, the cinematic conventions that were set in place by commercial cinema in the early years of the medium. These conventions would include many elements generally missing from Gertrud. As The Cinema Book describes Burch's term, it consists "basically of conventions of mise-en-scene, framing and, in particular, editing, by means of which coherent narrative space and time are set up and fictional characters individuated in ways which both engage, and are imperceptible to, the spectator." Gertrud pretty much 'fails' on all counts. After all, it has a very frontal style, with minimal depth in the shot so that the background and foreground of the image look almost on the same visual plane. It also has characters expressing themselves as if the words were only read off a page five minutes before shooting.
But let us propose that making a film realistic is all very well for psychological drama, but what if it wants to say something else, if the film wants to express the disillusionment with life as we usually live it? Frequently Dreyer has searched out an emotion that somehow seems other-worldly, whether that be the spiritual close ups of Falconetti in The Passsion of Joan of Arc, the half mad son in Ordet who wants to believe in miracles and finally has his beliefs confirmed, or the devilishness present in Day of Wrath.
Here the other-worldliness we see and hear come in eponymous character Gertrud's words that seem always to drift off into another dimension, and her look which seems to be following wistfully those words. By reducing social space, the sort of depth Bazin proposed would reveal the world in all its cruelty, Dreyer proposes a shallowness to the image that would do likewise. In Dreyer's work it would seem to be the cruelty of spiritual absence and of a lack of love in the world rather than economic iniquity, and his long-takes aren't the sort that would enquire into social problems, but muse over personal ones. When Gertrud offers her mantra, "Have I been young? No but I have loved. Have I been beautiful? No but I have loved. Have I been in life? No but I have loved", it is as though she is expressing her one-dimensionality. Yet it is a profound dimension, a dimension that does not judge, does not live for success (though she was a very impressive and successful singer in the past), does not demand children, but wants simply to love. If we can enter the rhythm of the film on its own terms, on its one-dimensional terms and resist insisting on the Institutional Mode of Representation, then the film offers a curious, indeterminate sense of meaningfulness.
Indeed Burch himself has written about the ways in which Gertrud breaks with this mode in Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, suggesting a very thought through parti-pris on Dreyer's part, a fixed aesthetic idea to allow freedom from convention on an aesthetic level, that can allow for freedom of convention on another level, that of the spirit. One of the questions many filmmakers have asked is how do we release the spiritual side if film is a medium that lends itself, as Bazin would insist, to realism? Bresson, Dreyer, Ozu, Mizoguchi and Tarkovsky are some of the filmmakers who have tried to release the spirit through an original aesthetics. If Dreyer's work was seen generally within this type of context (if most films released dealt with a spiritual rather than social self) then Dreyer's film wouldn't look so odd. Maybe, and consequently, films like Tom Cruise's obsessively goal-oriented, ego-driven outings, where he never seems to sit still for a moment, would seem very strange indeed.
A film like Three Colours Blue is the sort of very impressive, well-made and thought-provoking arthouse film critics occasionally loathe. Let's take Gilbert Adair as an example. In an essay on the art movie written for the Sunday Times a few years back, he said that Blue, Les amants du pont neuf, Wild at Heart, Europa and others, they all "bully the viewer into submission." Adair returns us to our original questioning of style for style's sake. He reckons in The Piano that Jane Campion "was petrified by the thought that, were she to relax for even an instant, she might compromise the dourly unremitting wizardry of her mise-en-scene by selecting a camera angle that failed to impress even the doziest spectator." If we look at the way director Krzysztof Kieslowski uses sudden fades to black, the equally sudden presence of portentous music, and an intense close-up of a crucifix, yes Three Colours Blue seems to share Campion's need for a self-conscious style.
Certainly in this film about a woman getting over the death of her husband and child there is no sense of the specific spiritual one-dimensionality we proposed was central to Gertrud. But can we credit the director with a spiritual three-dimensionality - that he wants to make a spiritual film that still just about works within the conventions of the Institutional Mode of Representation? Sure, Kieslowski's spirituality is extravagant, but maybe that is partly the difference between an austere Protestant tradition relevant to Dreyer (and also of course Ingmar Bergman), and a more Catholic style we see here and also in a film like Carlos Reygadas's recent Battle in Heaven. It is a three dimensional, spiritually ornate style that wants exuberant camerawork, symbolic use of colour (the blue of calm), and that moves basically between objective and subjective sound. That is, the filmmaker can move between sounds that are clearly realistic, and more amplified sounds that suggest the central character's subjectivity. If Dreyer seems almost to want to strip the medium bare, and turn it into a chilly, Scandinavian church, for Kieslowski the cinema increasingly seemed to become an ever more cluttered Catholic cathedral: a cinema that was genuinely catholic in its lower case sense, in the way it cheerfully absorbed the full history of cinematic technique to push its narrative.
Thus while Adair lumps together an array of early nineties film as a jeremiad on the collapse of a really thought-through art cinema, given over he believed to stylistic flourishes, let us propose that we need to see whether the style is pertinent to its subject. Now Three Colours Blue isn't first and foremost a Catholic film; it is probably closer to an existential film about grieving, but the Catholicism hangs around its edges and contributes to its aesthetic. This returns us to our original point of what is the style serving. It would be unfair to hit the film over the head just because it isn't Protestant enough, because it doesn't fit with the rigorous aesthetic of a Dreyer. After all some people like to practise their faith with minimal accoutrements and in the barest of settings; others like clutter and a grandiose setting. If loving cinema is itself a bit like an act of faith, we might ask in what sort of style do we like our faith to manifest itself in: Ornate or simple; grandiloquent or hushed?
© Tony McKibbin