Tuesday, November 27, 2012

My Dark Sense of Cinematic Beauty

- I think it is safe to say that beauty is important to the human race. While a certain number of people probably exist who do not care about beauty, I am sure they are the exception that proves the rule. People all around the world wake up hours before going to work to make sure that their appearance is in order, whether it is regarding hygiene or clothing; people choose mates based on beauty, or at least partly based on beauty; people take time off from their normal lives to enjoy the beauty that nature has to offer – and these are just a few examples. Of course, people want to experience beauty in a film as well; visual beauty of a movie is part of the magic, escapism, and fun of the movies. But what is beauty? Specifically, what is beauty in film? Because film is such a subjective art form, beauty can only be defined in terms that pertain to an individual.

If the old adage “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” applies to anything, it applies to film. Beauty certainly exists within film and, just like the many ways that a film can be analyzed; beauty is seen and understood in ways that differ from person to person. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word “beauty” as “the quality or aggregate of qualities in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit.” Two important things are said about beauty in this definition: one is that the amount of beauty, or general pleasure, that someone or something gives to someone else depends on the person experiencing that someone or something; the second is that beauty is more than simple aesthetics. Beauty is subjective, pure and simple. Ludwig von Mises correctly notes that, "the judgment about the merits of a work of art is entirely subjective. Some people praise what others disdain. There is no yardstick to measure the aesthetic worth of a poem or of a building."

Although definitely differing from person to person, society does seem to hold some commonly held definitions as to what makes something beautiful. Clean and picturesque natural scenery, such as the South American rainforest or Yosemite National Park, come to mind right away as something that most people would find beautiful. Natural scenery complete with lush coloring, a big bright sun, a majestic mountain background, and a quiet flowing body of water would only enhance the beauty of an area. A great example of this type of conventional beauty in a film is the opening to the 1965 musical The Sound Of Music, in which Julie Andrews belts out the title song on top of a rolling sea of green Austrian hilltops.

But pretty scenery is only one example of something that most people would find to have beauty, a similar commonly held definition of beauty could simply be something that gives a person a warm feeling inside. People like it when they get to experience a warm sunny day, rather than a cold cloud-filled rainy day, for example – it is not often that you hear one say “boy oh boy, what a beautiful day it is this morning: nothing but clouds in the sky, rain everywhere, and how about that tint of grey in everything you see!”

I have come to discover however that my definition of beauty is a little bit different than what beauty means to many other people – I might even be inclined to even find a rainy day beautiful. While beauty, for me, can certainly be something that is traditionally pretty or is something that gives me a warm happy feeling but more often than not, especially in regards to film, the chilling feeling of awe, tension, or tragedy is what I find beautiful.

A great example of not only my perhaps unconventional sense of film beauty but also the different ways that beauty is perceived in film can be seen in the differences between how my wife and I reacted to a certain scene in the Martin Scorsese-directed film The Departed (2006). The later half of film features a scene in which Martin Sheen’s character, Cpt. Queenan, has been pushed out of a multistory building and is falling in semi-slow motion down to the pavement below. It lasts only for a few seconds and is book-ended by two other very violent scenes but I find the way that Queenan falls to his death has a certain visual beauty to it. Queenan’s death is still shocking and ultimately unwanted because the character is so likable but the very operatic death scene holds some real cinematic beauty for me. During my wife and my viewing of the film I said, “wow, what a cool scene” out loud during Queenan’s fall. My wife was appalled. “How can you say that?!” she exclaimed, “He’s dead! What’s wrong with you?” Here we have two very different ideas of what beauty is. I tried to explain how the way Queenan’s body falls and how the camera moves makes the scene visually pleasing to me but she was not in agreement. There exists no clear cut definition of what cinematic beauty is: my wife finds cinematic beauty to be more in line with what The Sound Of Music (1965) has to offer - my opinions on the greatest cinematic beauty are a bit different.

No better light can be shone upon my dark sense of cinematic beauty than the minimalist light that can be seen in film noir. No other genre of film offers up the same kind of beauty that film noir does for me. The greatest films noir have brilliant, beautiful photography; having a deep black-and-white picture that captures the undesirable reality of a cruel world while incorporating a surreal escapism is something that I find truly captivating. Rolling hills and Austrian castles can be beautiful indeed but I will take the dark and smoky grit of film noir over any scene in nature any day. Give me the scratchy silhouette of Robert Mitchum leaning up with his back against the wall, still as a mouse, listening in on an enlightening phone conversation in Out Of The Past (1947). Look towards the exhausting fight scene between Robert Ryan and Hal Baylor in the dirty smoke-filled snake pit of a boxing arena in The Set-Up (1949) or check out the bold textures and cascading shadows of Harry J. Wild’s cinematography in the Philip Marlowe detective story Murder, My Sweet (1944).

Simply put: there is no way to define cinematic beauty in black-and-white terms (excuse the pun). A kind of personal criteria for film beauty differs from person to person – even fans of film noir might not agree with me that the high-contract lighting on the deep shadowing in Out Of The Past is particularly beautiful, they might find it more jarring or tense than beautiful. I, on the other hand, would agree with them while still finding the film to be beautiful. But, then again, while I find the more traditional examples of cinematic beauty to be beautiful much of the time, I tend to see cinematic beauty in more unconventional forms.

Cinematography makes all the difference much of the time for me, a film can be slightly low-budget and therefore not have top-notch art direction, costumes, or set designs but still have striking picture thanks to the featured lighting, coloring, and framing – this is seen in many films noir, much of which were made on a lower budget. However, I will even go as far as saying that cinematic beauty transcends the visuals – it is the feeling and atmosphere that specific visuals give off that makes a specific film beautiful. The cinematography, art direction, and other visuals often receive help from other elements that make a scene even more beautiful.

Music contributes greatly to cinematic beauty as it heightens the viewer’s overall film experience. If the images on-screen are beautiful, beautiful music will make the film even more beautiful. Take The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King (2003) for example: the scene in which all of the mountaintop towers are lit for the first time in centuries, marking a reuniting of the human race in the mythical Middle Earth, would not be nearly as beautiful and stirring as it is without Howard Shore’s powerful score to accompany the incredible aerial shots of the New Zealand landscape. Another example can be found in film noir, yet again, with the children’s fearful ride down the starlit river in The Night Of The Hunter (1955) – a scene in which would not be nearly as moving without the eerie lullabies.

Other factors can contribute to the beauty in film as well. Sometimes simply knowing what is at stake in the story can heighten the beauty of a particular scene. Other times the way a scene builds up and finishes, both visually and emotionally, create cinematic beauty. Good acting can even heighten the beauty of a certain scene, whether it is the way an actor moves within a frame or a well-timed and well-delivered piece of dialogue. A great example of all of these elements at working with the bare visuals to create cinematic beauty can be seen in Star Trek: Generations (1994). In a very exciting and beautiful scene, a sun explodes it creates a giant shock wave that begins to head straight for the starship Enterprise as well as a starbase with two Enterprise crewmen aboard trying to get to another crewman who is in danger. The two crewmen rescue the one in danger and are transported back aboard the Enterprise, immediately continuing with a tense and powerful Patrick Stewart jumping out of his chair and giving a golden delivery of the lines “Warp one! Engage!” as the Enterprise makes a just-in-time escape as the shock wave destroys the star base. The lives of the entire film’s cast are at stake, the film’s special effects visuals are striking, John A. Alonzo’s spot-on cinematography colors each frame, and Patrick Stewart’s acting and line delivery act almost as lyrics to Dennis McCarthy’s stirring score playing throughout the scene – this scene in Star Trek: Generations exciting and fun but it is also very beautiful in my opinion, with every detail inside the scene folding together in perfect rhythm to create a powerful sense cinematic beauty.

Everyone has their own ideas of what makes a film beautiful or not. While traditional ideas of beauty do strike an emotional chord with me, I tend to define cinematic beauty more unconventionally and in more ways than just visuals. My perhaps darker sense of cinematic beauty is my own and is one of the many things that define me and how I watch movies and every individual has their own sense of cinematic beauty that does the same thing for them. Cinematic beauty, just like every form that beauty takes in the world, certainly resides in the eye of the beholder.

A Sense of Authorship: Joel and Ethan Coen

- Although not particularly cemented in film history yet (as their careers are still unfolding before us) my favorite filmmaker is the cinematic two-headed monster of Joel and Ethan Coen. I have enjoyed literally every single film the Coen Brothers have produced (to varying degrees, naturally) and they have yet to let me down, a trend that continues through my viewing of their latest film True Grit (2010). A sense of authorship can be clearly seen in all of the Coen Brothers’ films but I will specifically address this regarding three specific films that the Brothers have created.

One of the many great things about the never disappointing Coen Brothers is that they simply leave little room for disappointment. It might sound a bit trivial, but I have had my experience of viewing other films ruined by the hype and/or my own personal expectations that surround them for a variety of reasons. This never happens with the Coen Brothers however. One never knows what a Coen Brothers film will deliver as seen through the way that audiences often laugh out loud during one of their most suspenseful thrillers or are frozen in suspense during one of their most laugh-out-loud comedies. Also, whether or not one particularly enjoys every film that Joel and Ethan Coen have produced, great credit must be granted to the Brothers for the way they continuously create very original films. Even their screen adaptations of unoriginal work have more of a Coen Brothers signature than the signature of the original author, such as their adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey: O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000).

Despite the consistent uniqueness of every Coen Brothers film, a thread entwines throughout each Coen Brothers film that binds their filmography together. Some directors make one film after the other that differs from their past films in almost every way. Ron Howard and Sydney Pollack come to mind right away as directors whose new releases were 180 degrees different from their past work (tell me that Willow (1988), Ransom (1996), and Cinderella Man (2005) or They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), The Yakuza (1974), and Tootsie (1982) have anything in common). The Coen Brothers, while delivering one unique film year after year, do have many similarities stylistically and content-wise that tie them all together despite many differences. This factor plays into why the Coen Brothers are so revered and popular: no one else makes films like Joel and Ethan Coen and no one else can. One could argue that other directors make better or worse films but the fact remains that Joel and Ethan Coen are one-of-a-kind pair of filmmakers.

Perhaps no better example of this Coen trend of filmmaking can be seen outside of the Coen Brothers’ works from 2007-2009. If the Coen Brothers can claim O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Intolerable Cruelty (2003) and Burn After Reading (2008) - related only by the presence of actor George Clooney - as their unofficial “Idiot Trilogy” then I will claim No Country For Old Men (2007), 
Burn After Reading and A Serious Man (2009) as their unofficial “Life Sucks Trilogy.” These films are very different from one another but they also have a lot of similarities; presenting related messages that link them together while also remaining unique stand-alone Coen Brothers films.

This unofficial Coen Brothers trilogy does have some fundamental differences between them. For starters, No Country For Old Men is an adaptation of a novel by Cormac McCarthy, unlike Burn After Reading and A Serious Man which are original stories written directly for the screen. Another obvious difference rings loud and clear: the three films are a part of different genres. No Country For Old Men is a straight-up thriller with the Coen Brothers flare; a lot like the Brothers' first film, Blood Simple (1984), in that each nook and cranny of every scene is not drenched in the Coen Brothers visual and emotional atmosphere but is driven by their great talent of creating an eerie sense of suspense. Burn After Reading is a deliberate attempt to make the audience laugh, presented in a spoof-like manner (in this case, it is shot as a serious espionage thriller, except the main characters are generally clueless). Unlike No Country For Old Men, gravely serious content with a few laughs peppered throughout the film, Burn After Reading is a no-holds-barred comedy but with a few dramatic gasps peppered throughout the film.

A Serious Man is different from both films entirely and is actually very difficult to categorize. The film is neither completely dramatic nor completely comedic, some scenes are as shocking as No Country For Old Men and other scenes are as hilarious as Burn After Reading but the entire film never really takes a particular path to walk. Also, A Serious Man has more Biblical parallels in its story - not only is the story almost a direct adaptation of Book of Job, other Biblical scenes are transferred from scroll to film (such as main character Larry’s (Michael Stuhlbarg) rooftop glancing at the naked Mrs. Samsky (Amy Landecker) being similar to King David’s rooftop noticing of the bathing Bathsheba).

However, in a typical Coen Brothers fashion, their Oscar-winning no-nonsense thriller No Country For Old Men, ensemble oddball comedy Burn After Reading and humorously tragic moral tale A Serious Man have some major similarities even though they fit into three completely different genres. Stylistically speaking, all three films are very similar. Both No Country For Old Men and A Serious Man were shot by the same director of photography, Roger Deakins (a frequent collaborator of Joel & Ethan’s), and all three of the films in question have a similar lighting scheme of high contrast within a more mellow-colored palette. Also, the Coen Brothers employ a similar wide-use of camera angles for each scene (never staying with flat-angled shots for very long) and all three films feature what I like to call the Coen Camera Creep. The Coen Camera Creep is quite simply a shot in which the camera, ever so slightly, creeps up to confront a character/object or follows a character/object from behind. Now, other filmmakers use and have used a slow-moving close up or follow-along technique in many films but the Coen Brothers add a unique touch to make a technique all their own.

The role of money in the plot as a catalyst for catastrophe is seen in No Country For Old Men (money being the reason why Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is chasing Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin)), Burn After Reading (in hopes to fund her plastic surgeries, Linda (Frances McDormand) unwittingly sends two men to their death looking for information to sell to the Russians) and A Serious Man (moments after accepting a bribe and changing his student’s grade, Larry gets a bad phone call about his health and the tornado forms outside of his son’s school). This goes for much of films that are a part of the Coen Brothers filmography – the best example of which is Fargo (1996) and The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001). The old film noir adage that money can take an average person down into a dangerous situation permeates throughout the work of the Coen Brothers and is particularly evident here in the Coens’ “Life Sucks” trilogy.

Other similarities, ones that I would say are the greatest similarities between the three films, can be found in the film’s themes. The main underlying theme found in each film can be applied to either film: What is the point? My unofficial Coen Brothers “Life Sucks Trilogy” beings in 2007 with No Country For Old Men and I wonder if the Coen Brothers got to thinking long-term about the unexplainable nature and randomness of life after working on No Country For Old Men as their next two films, Burn After Reading and A Serious Man, also explore such themes. The Coen Brothers address three oddities of life: violence in No Country For Old Men, chaos in Burn After Reading and uncertainty in A Serious Man. At one point or another, some or all of the characters in the films cannot understand these oddities that life offers. In No Country For Old Men, Sherriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) cannot understand the intense series of violent acts he has witnessed – and neither can Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) and Carla Jean Moss (Kelly MacDonald), who expressively say as much, ending up victims of such violence. The CIA supervisor (J.K. Simmons) in Burn After Reading cannot fathom the bizarre chaotic events propelled by vanity, paranoia and stupidity; and, in A Serious Man, Larry Gopnick cannot come to terms with why all of these bad things are happening in his life. All of these subjects point to a randomness of life that the Coen Brothers expose – seen best in Anton Chigurh’s coin tossing in No Country For Old Men and in A Serious Man when Larry Gopnick says that the uncertainty principle means “we don’t really know what is going on.”

The main point that each film makes can be interchangeable: Ed Tom Bell could have said “what did we learn?” in No Country For Old Men when reflecting on the unexplainable violence he has witnessed, rather than the CIA Chief saying it in Burn After Reading in response to the chaotic set of events he experienced. The other CIA officer
(David Rasche) could have responded to the Chief’s question with the line spoken in A Serious Man: “accept the mystery.” Who can honestly explain the oddities that occur in life? Also, the bluntly honest line from No Country For Old Men, “you can’t stop what’s coming,” might as well have been said at the end of A Serious Man as the tornado materialized in front of Larry’s son’s eyes. There is truth to the stories that the Coen Brothers tell: inconceivable violence is nothing new to society; stupidity, paranoia, and vanity go hand in hand to a chaotic end; and sometimes bad things just happen in life for unknown reasons. The themes that are shared by No Country For Old Men, Burn After Reading and A Serious Man show a distinct sense of authorship from Joel and Ethan Coen.

Authorship: some filmmakers have it and others do not; but the Coen Brothers definitely own a unique signature style and theme. Take a look at any one of the current Coen Brothers films and you will find something to compare, Joel and Ethan present original works that always contain their own style of filmmaking. No Country For Old Men, Burn After Reading, and A Serious Man carry the distinguishable Coen Brothers style with them, finding creative ways to ask life’s big question: What’s the point?