Style in Film
If we have have looked at time and indicated that narrative falls into it, then what about space in cinema? To understand how film uses what is called mise-en-scene (the staging of the scene) we can look at three elements: space, colour and lighting. Space incorporates time (as we will show), but colour and lighting are more clearly issues that film shares with painting. Many fine filmmakers and their cinematographers have drawn on the painterly to understand how cinema can be much more than a recording device when it comes to capturing images on film. Cinematographer Jack Cardiff discusses in his autobiography Magic Hour that when he first started out he had no technical experience in film, but had spent years studying art history. Scorsese cameraman Michael Chapman when talking about experimenting in film would say "I think I'd try doing things like shoot Super 8 and then blow it up to 35mm, so it would look like Seurat" This is not about making the image pretty or making it resemble art. As Chapman says of Ridley Scott's period movie The Duellists. "it is like Vermeer; everything is shot from the side. And for the first half hour, you think it's really wonderful but after you get further into the movie you say, 'If I see one more side-lit shot, I'm going to scream it is so boring.'" (Masters of Light)
It is all very well then to draw upon painting, but it can become counter-productive if the filmmaker tries to emulate it. Cinema is a moving image, a painting a still one. To focus too much on recreating the painterly in film form is to endanger the freedom cinema has to liberate movement from stillness. While Andre Bazin in the' 'Ontology of the Film Image' notes that film cannot compete with painting when it comes to the depiction of colour, he nevertheless concludes his article by saying that "film is also a language." In other words, film is a specific medium, no matter if on the one hand it can utilise painting, and on the other, most importantly for Bazin, can take from life, it is an art form in itself. Cinema that is aware of painting can improve its relationship with recorded images; cinema too aware of the fine arts turns film into an extended temporal painting that would lead to the boredom Chapman mentions.
Thus we are more inclined to talk about great use of colour in film, not brilliant use of paintings per se. Colour, like sound, though rather more so, was seen by many as an additional element of cinema, not a core aspect of the medium. and for some cameramen in the sixties and seventies they had problems working in colour film. Director of photography, Conrad Hall reckoned "colour produces such inaccuracies. We are dealing in a realistic medium and whenever it's inaccurate, it's offensive" as he talks about how getting involved in lab work was to try and make sure the colours came out right. But this would mean going to work with lab technicians long after the film was shot; a process of course different now that most films are digitally made, and where the filmmaker can be involved him or herself in colour grading. For Hall this lab work "wasn't an artistic decision, it was a mechanical thing," thus speaking practically about why a filmmaker might think that black and white is more artistic than colour. But he also insists "I don't dislike color as a means of telling a story." (Masters of Light)
While there are now almost no films that are silent (not even The Artist, finally), there have been quite a few recent ones in black and white: Ida, Jealousy, Hard to be a God, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, A Useful Life. It is still an option as films move away from the painterly use of colour towards the pencil of the sketchpad. But while most films are made in colour, how many take full advantage of their colour potential, either, narratively, symbolically or perplexingly? Films that do so narratively include The Wizard of Oz, A Matter of Life and Death and Pleasantville, creating distinct colour and black and white worlds that convey aspects of the story. In The Wizard of Oz, drab Kansas is in black and white; Oz in colour. In A Matter of Life and Death, life on earth is in colour, the halfway house to heaven in black and white. Pleasantville shows the townsfolk in the film become literally more colourful as they register bursts of passion and enthusiasm. "I don't understand people who dream in black and white," the writer-director Gary Ross admitted. "I just don't get it. My dreams have always been vivid color." (CNN.Com). Symbolically, we can think of the little girl in red in Schindler's List, the fish in Rumblefish, even the painted red flag in Battleship Potemkin. In all six examples, however, we are not perplexed, but in Tarkovsky's Stalker, Oshima's The Diary of a Shinjuku Thief and Anderson's If.... the shift from black and white is harder to discern. Very often filmmakers use colour connotatively, staying within colour rather than shifting back and forth from colour to monochrome, but still achieving a meaningful and not simply realistic use of colour nevertheless. Antonioni in Red Desert famously painted the fruit grey and in Blow Up the blocks of colour create a very aloof London. In Don't Look Now, Nic Roeg uses the colour red to generate an intense feeling of doom through foreshadowing the colour at numerous stages in the film. Scott Higgins discusses the use of orange in Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven and believes "early on the colour is associated with [central character] Cathy's desire for [the gardener] Raymond." (The Cinema of Todd Haynes)
Classic Hollywood worked with what was called three-point lighting. In David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson's words, this was a "common arrangement using three directions of light on a scene: from behind the subjects (backlighting), from one bright source (key light), and from a less bright source balancing the key light, fill light" (Introduction to Film Art). This gives many Hollywood productions their smooth transparency, but many films in Hollywood and elsewhere sought very different approaches to lighting. Bergman would often play up the spiritually bereft through light and shadow. In Winter Light he conveys Liv Ullmann's despair in a moment where she sits on a bench and we see the light from the window while the interior is much darker. In Apocalypse Now, Coppola keeps Brando out of full light all the better to play up the mysteriousness of this enigmatic figure. In The Godfather Coppola sometimes frames Michael Corleone as a solitary man as the lighting reflects his increasing alienation from others. Such lighting emphasises the chiaroscuro -a term from painting that emphasizes the combination of light and shadow.
Central to filmmaking is how one films space. Some believe the important thing is to break it down into small units of information. Since film is not reality, why try to imitate it? Better to cut the scenes into small segments that convey the meaning clearly and simply. In the forties, fifties and sixties, many filmmakers and numerous critics believed that cinema was such an important art form not because of editing but because of mise-en-scene - for the way it explored screen space with the minimum amount of cutting. Some saw this as part of the pursuit of realism, As Bazin insisted: "take a close look at the world, keep on doing so and it will lay bare for you all its cruelty and ugliness." Bazin was talking specifically about von Stroheim, but central to many of the films Bazin admired was the ability to lay bare: to use cinema to explore reality, and to use the long take to do so. He sees this at work especially in neo-realism, in films like Bicycle Thieves and Germany Year Zero, even if the shots themselves were not always so long. "The camera cannot see everything at once but it makes sure not to lose any part of what it chooses to see." ('The Evolution of the Language of Cinema')
Others interested in the long take would perhaps simplify Bazin's position all the better to express their own. Brian Henderson believed the long take could be far more expressive a device than he believed Bazin would allow for. Henderson sees this at work in Orson Welles films. "The angles of the film and specifically the patterning of angles through the film [Chimes at Midnight] are also extremely important...there is an intricate grading of angles." (Movies and Methods) Welles's takes might be much longer than Eisenstein's but they were both interested in very deliberate framing that could underscore meaning. Indeed Welles has been a very important filmmaker within the context of what we might call the virtuoso style: the long take that doesn't so much emphasise the realistic, as play up the brilliance of the craft. Famous examples would include Welles' own opening sequence in Touch of Evil, but we could also include the opening of The Player, Snake Eyes and Boogie Nights. The realistic long take of course still has its place: evident in the lengthy dinner sequence early on in Ceylan's Climates, the long sequences of tree cutting in Alonso's La libertad, or the car journeys we often see in Abbas Kiarostami films, including Close-Up, A Taste of Cherry and The Wind Will Carry Us. There is nothing naive about the realism here, but the long take functions very differently than in the virtuoso examples.
A variation on the virtuoso approach in Hollywood is the European insistence on the long take that emphasises the filmic rhythm rather than the spatial ingenuity, a point explored well by Tarkovsky in Sculpting in Time. "Time is necessary to man, so that, made flesh, he may be able to realise himself as a personality. But I am not thinking of linear time, meaning the possibility of getting something done, performing some action. The action is a result, and what I am considering is the cause which makes man incarnate in a moral sense." In Tarkovsky's Mirror, in Angelopoulos's Ulysses' Gaze, or Bela Tar's The Turin Horse, the rhythm of the shot takes us out of our standard notion of clock time, creating if not necessarily a spiritual relationship with the image, at least a distinctly different approach to time than we usually expect from life and from film.
When Robert Bresson said "style is all that is not technique", (Notes on the Cinematograph) he did so aware that film is not a pragmatic means to tell a story, but an aesthetic means to explore what it is to be in the world. Cinema has the advantage over most of the other arts of resembling reality without copying it, managing to record the world without reducing itself to no more than that recording. As we will explore in editing, many directors believed that the purpose of cinema was to escape from that recording into montage. Many of the filmmakers we have explored today insist that the best way to make films is to acknowledge that the film is of the world but can be respectfully altered by means other than montage, whether through colour, lighting or making the shot lengthy rather than brief.
© Tony McKibbin