Saturday, September 15, 2007

Criterion vs. Bordwell - Time and a Frame of Film

There is a fascinating post up ("Reality at 25/24 Frames per Second") on the Criterion Collection's blog "On Five," in which Peter Becker discusses a problem with transferring Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980, Rainer Werner Fassbinder) because Fassbinder shot it at 25 frames per second for easier transfer to the European "PAL" television standard, which has a frame rate of 25 frames per second (instead of the theatrical standard 24 frames per second).

What would David Bordwell say, I wonder? Bordwell has written a fascinating article ("My name is David and I'm a frame-counter") about the care that some directors put into the exact timing of certain scenes, and how that pacing can be changed by the various home video transfer processes.

Criterion's concern is over DVD image quality, and I concur that I would not want to see the blurred frames or the unnatural movement that attempting to preserve the correct pacing would produce. However, I'm also a big fan of silent films, and I cannot stand when silent films are transferred at an improper frame rate, resulting in sometimes ridiculously faster movements, completely undermining the performances of the actors.

Not being technically informed enough to wade into this discussion, I'll give the benefit of the doubt to the decision Criterion is making here, because it is a single frame per second of difference, unlike when a silent film shot at 16 frames per second is outrageously presented at 22 or 24 frames per second.

But I really want to hear what David Bordwell might have to say about this perplexing conundrum (and enact the matchup promised in this blog entry's title!). I certainly know he'd like to see the correct pacing of the film footage at its originally intended projection speed, but would he give them a pass on this? Would he prefer some interpolated frames and blurring?! I can only guess that interpolated frames might be a higher crime, and that a 1-frame-per-second adjustment is probably a forgivable misdemeanor in David's book.

(Note: In David Bordwell's article, he mentions that this 25-frames-per-second film shooting rate is not uncommon in European productions because of the television transfer considerations. So this is not a unique problem. It just becomes more noticeable with especially long films like Berlin Alexanderplatz (15 1/2 hours), or Sátántangó (1994, Béla Tarr) that Bordwell mentions in his article (7 1/2 hours).)

David Bordwell, along with Kristin Thompson, writes an excellent blog here. Together they are also the co-authors of my indispensable film school book Film History: An Introduction as well as Film Art: An Introduction. A personal favorite blog entry by David Bordwell is "Shot-consciousness", in which he encourages everyone to look at how the shots in a film are framed, and how to appreciate shot composition as an integral part of the art of cinema.
(Since they are usually long, I recommend printing out Bordwell's articles for more leisurely reading and less online distractions.)

James M. Cain Tells It Like It Is

Perhaps James M. Cain's words below can serve as a partial answer to why the hope of the previous post is such a tall order. This feisty, fun quote is from the novel Serenade (1937) by James M. Cain (which, incidentally, is a fantastic book).

I didn't like Hollywood. I didn't like it partly because of the way they treated a singer, and partly because of the way they treated her. To them, singing is just something you buy, for whatever you have to pay, and so is acting, and so is writing, and so is music, and anything else they use. That it might be good for its own sake is something that hasn't occurred to them yet. The only thing they think is good for its own sake is a producer that couldn't tell Brahms from Irving Berlin on a bet, that wouldn't know a singer from a crooner until he heard twenty thousand people yelling for him one night, that can't read a book until the scenario department has had a synopsis made, that can't even speak English, but that is a self-elected expert on music, singing, literature, dialogue, and photography, and generally has a hit because somebody lent him Clark Gable to play in it.

Since we're having fun with quotes, here are two more, which are not about film, but espouse philosophies on art or literature that can be applied equally as well to any art:

Literature, as I see it, is good to the extent that it is art, and bad to the extent that it isn't, and I know of no other standard by which it may be judged.
- Dashiell Hammett, 1924, quoted in the introduction (by Robert Polito) of the Everyman's Library edition of The Maltese Falcon/The Thin Man/Red Harvest.

By the way, in addition to the various film adaptations of his novels, Hammett wrote one original screenplay in Hollywood (I intend to check this out at some point): City Streets (1931, Rouben Mamoulian) starring Gary Cooper and Sylvia Sidney. (The IMDB gives Hammett a lesser credit than "original screenplay," so I'm not sure if the introduction that mentioned this is correct or not.)

If the poet is pure in his habits, he will be pure in his verses as well; the pen is the tongue of the soul, and his writings will be as are the concepts engendered in his soul;
- Don Quixote
(1605, Cervantes) Part II, Ch. XVI, pg. 589
(Just combine that with Alexandre Astruc's caméra-stylo theory and you get the idea.)

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Zabriskie Point—When Will New Wave Cinema Live Again?

Zabriskie Point
(1970, Michelangelo Antonioni, USA)

This is what it's all about. This is one of those rare trailers that captures the magic of the incredible film itself. It's unfortunate that this film isn't available on DVD yet. Very occasionally it has played on the big screen here in L.A., which is how I was fortunate enough to see it (twice). (Thank you to the American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre and to the LACMA film department.) If you're desperate to see it, there is a VHS version, but it's panned & scanned, which is of course a horrible injustice to the widescreen 2.35 image, but hey, at least the amazing film can be seen.

When considering the gap in quality between filmmaking today and the filmmaking of other decades, this one film starkly illustrates the gaping chasm. I think you can tell even just by the trailer. It's firstly a work by one of the great European filmmakers, but, having been made in America, it also represents the era of late '60s, '70s American filmmaking—the belated New Wave that hit these shores long after the New Waves of France, Japan and other countries—that is conveniently summarized for the uninitiated in Peter Biskind's book, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (although start by watching the films themselves, many of which are listed at the back of the book).

American films of the '70s seemed to be elevated almost wholesale by the heady atmosphere of creativity and the freshness of these "New Wave" approaches, all tied to and amplified by the zeitgeist of the times. Even filmmakers with less than stunning talent glommed on to the movement and produced pretty interesting films, while the truly great filmmakers thrived (Robert Altman being perhaps the most prodigious example). The lesser filmmakers become easier to spot (if you couldn't tell that something was lacking in their '70s films) by their swift adoption of the conventions and tendencies of the subsequent decades.

It's already obvious why this blog is called Cahiers2Cinéma: it's a vain hope that something approaching what was started in the original Cahiers du Cinéma magazine (the breeding ground of the French New Wave) could ever occur again. Has anyone read Eisenstein's incredible Film Form? Since it won't do to attempt a filmic revolution by too specifically attempting to repeat the past, perhaps starting fresh with some of the deepest thinking on film will point a new way. Maybe the New Waves of the '60s and '70s didn't go far enough.

Of course, there are great films being made even now, and there are master filmmakers working, as always, but it is undeniable that a movement akin to these New Waves is not remotely in existence, nor is there a widespread awareness of and engagement with overtly artistic films by audiences. The arthouse film circuit (and the arthouse crowds themselves), which should be where this is all happening, especially at times when it doesn't ooze into the mainstream, is itself bereft, and with few exceptions wallows in an unambitious Sundance-poisoned mediocrity.