Thursday, March 31, 2011

THAS: The Film Grammar I

Hooper has often used the phrase "film grammar" to describe what he admires in the film-making craft. This is, of course, at some level, the analogizing of cinema with prose and speech, those particular expressive means that have since their inception doubled in function as, one, scientific system and utility, and, two, as aesthetic form (and which of these it actually arose as remains the center of many a philosopher and rhetorician's debate). Meanwhile, the field of film theory has spent plenty of its time on this notion of "film language," or particularly, the new language of the celluloid (or future digital), in which cinema embodies magic and manipulation, smoke and mirrors, limitlessness and the endless provocation of the non-linear.

But I'll go ahead and make my claim that Hooper's angle is that hardly is he out to revolutionize or remake anything, whether ideas of cinema or humans' very cognitive perceptions. When he says "film language" or "film grammar," I think he truly means grammar, i.e. that which is linear - so without the implications of resounding the new camera overlords and their new vocabulary, or visual recording as this revolutionary advancement of somehow both the vérité and the propagandist (definitely a conflict of ideology there... no wonder film has proven so abusable!). Instead, what Hooper is implying is that, really, it is the grammars of yore - those of languages, the literal spoken and written ones - that are truly the best fount upon which to yield pure beauty in cinema art. As what is purer and more noble than the purely scientific, such as is linguistic grammar? Who doesn't feel enlightened at the receiving end of a perfectly wrought and perfectly correct sentence (with the given its content is not odious)? Of course, not so much is it the case that Hooper is scientific (clearly, as art is the opposite of scientific) as it is that he is simply aware of the beauty of order, fluency, and eloquence found in language (again, prose and speech in their wholly literal definition, not any vague film analogy of it), showing all the devotion to expression and truth - at their most formal and intelligible - as the masters of literature.

Linguistics is the scientific study of human language.[1][2][3][4] Linguistics can be broadly broken into three categories or subfields: the study of language form, of language meaning, and of language in context.

The first is the study of language structure, or grammar
. This focuses on the system of rules followed by the speakers (or hearers) of a language. It encompasses morphology (the formation and composition of words), syntax (the formation and composition of phrases and sentences from these words),and phonology (sound systems). Phonetics is a related branch of linguistics concerned with the actual properties of speech sounds, nonspeech sounds, and how they are produced and perceived.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ - Courtesy of Wikipedia

Definition of linguistics. Syntax will be the primary concern of this particular post.

And so, Hooper's chosen film language is not, as it may often be asserted, "garishly-lighted horror phantasmagoria." Nor is it the patriotic film, or the counter-cultural film. His language is not notable for being "clinical," or "animated," or "naturalistic." He does not make a trade of frenetic action, nor kitchen-sink realism, nor art-house experimentalism. Nor is his film language the whimsical romance, or action smorgasbord, or any genre at all, really, as far as I see it. It's neither genre, nor it's political weaponry, nor a chic tonal approach or stylistic coating. His cinema's great personal language is found in his genuine sort of fervent scholasticism (for lack of a better word) towards the cinema form at its most syntactic. And this is seen in how upholding he is of language itself, the ultimate form, i.e. intelligibility found in the order and structure of his sequences and the observance of the lived world's linearity - as linear as grammar and syntax is. Meanwhile, his voice strikes me as, to put it simply, one of poetry, or prosody - film language as emotional and visuo-poetic expression, not just narrative formulation. And again, his film grammar, the nitty-gritty of his language and voice, is one at its most syntactic-minded, silver-tongued, and, do I dare say it (or "dare I do say it," or "dare I say it do"?), "civilized."

#2 - Grammar - "Genie???" "Beth!!!"

- Part I -

As awkward and ridiculous as Night Terrors is, it nevertheless joins Lifeforce and perhaps The Funhouse in, how to put it, "blowing the top off" Hooper's rather unexpected thematic interest in dryly teasing at palpable, faintly absurd currents of subterranean, unchecked - or, more progressively, simply unconfronted - sexuality.

This scene from Night Terrors joins Joey's shower violation in The Funhouse and Lifeforce's yonic Carlsen introduction as early-on-in-their-respective-films, highly precision, imperceptibly grinning (but never outwardly farcical, never slapstick or caricaturist of its characters) primer scenes that set off each film's further canny looks at characters' transformative misadventures in biological fulfillment.

It finds much to make out of a freshly-returned-home daughter in loose-hanging t-shirt and undies humoring a father (in the film, a cheerful but highly patronizing Christian, who is undermined with the film's hints at his secret kinky predilections) peeking in obliviously at the unashamedly sexy act of morning waking (and going on to overstay his welcome).

It finds much to make out of this scenario through its precision - the crisp, thought-out, clearly premeditated structure found within the sequence.

It begins with a simple exchange of shots between that of Genie (Zoe Trilling) in bed [as seen above] and her father (William Finlay) speaking to her at the door [stills below]. Their exchange is immediately trite - he asks sweetly, "Are you awake?"; she replies with unabashed kittenishness a teasing, "No" - and this triteness is only heightened when he reveals the visit of her friend Beth with cloying, babying aplomb, swinging wide Door #2 for Beth to pop her head in like a jack-in-the-box... unwittingly letting loose at his daughter her equally mature girlfriend, without a doubt in his head that these girls will talk about everything but sex once he closes the door behind him.

Irony pervades as Genie's reaction shot consists of the kicking up of her scantily-covered legs with no regards to modesty (only her father's persistent obliviousness), while her father and Beth's uncontrolled cackling are, on the surface, similarly carefree and gay, but underneath, one is thinking, "Oh, these two sweet girls!" while the other is thinking, "Time to dish dish dish! You are looking hawt, girl!"

"Genie... look who's here to see you!"



The cacklers in arrangement; Beth starts.1

1 The scene's first breakthrough: the shot exchange between the Father and Daughter is suddenly flung off for the introduction of the friend (Genie's real reason to party), breaking in with the scene's first wide and also dynamic shot. The Cackling (and Cognitively Dissonant) Duo of father and gal pal begin the shot, before it whip-pans left with Beth as she rushes to Genie. A graceful pull backwards from the sight of the two friends' embrace culminates this building sequence, ending it with the camera at its widest.

After the punctuational "." that is the sustained beat on the two friends' hug, the next sentence (to be looked at, in Part II later in this post) furthers the scene with the reinstatement of tight facial shots and coordinated POVs.

"Civilized," rightly so, because, in spite of everything (such as Hooper's most non-existent movie-making instincts), Hooper embodies an ultimate grammarian restraint, a camera mannerism, an application to film of the structures and restrictions of langue (the system of a language) if there ever is one in film. His work is not mannered due to excesses of tone or style, or due to unrestrained pronouncements of cinema's singular wizardry and sweep, but instead due to the opposite of those inclinations of cinema "seduction." This "opposite" is the rejection of simple visual saturation or emotional manipulation, and the embrace of whatever is the film equivalent to the careful sculpting (in syntax) of sentences, where grammatical restrictions and formal distance are the key and way to clarity and grace.

(If criticisms are leveled at Hooper for lack of a directorial stamp, it is either the viewer's inattentiveness or Hooper's hewing so constantly to the form of discipline - more subdued, delicate, and rhetorical than it's ever equivocal, overt, or sentimental - that the perception of his work is of "flavorlessness," for its lack of gimmick or dysfunction*.)

* The cinema scene often latch onto auteurs for their psychological demons, but
with Hooper, it is merely the idea of his gentility and compassion that shines
through in his films.

His mannerism harkens to the very word-- that is, the one such derivation
manners," meaning "social deportment," meaning that way of which one
exhibits courtesy and respect. And it is this, Hooper's "
artistic deport-
ment" -
which, with true consistency, holds first and foremost in
importance the exhibiting of courtesy and respect to those seek-
ing grace and not bombast in visual storytelling - that is so
detected in his

- Part II -

A return to solo or two-shots, oppositions made the very point of the scene.

The exchange of looks between the friends Genie and Beth, in which Hooper switches to glittering, more-intimate-than-ever portraiture of pretty faces, is used to signal the occurrence of a convergence between the two girls, at opposition with Finlay's Dad. Beth's shot seems a normal POV, but Hooper takes into consideration the triangulation that occurs with Finlay being also a part of the scene here, and so replies with a starker straight-on shot of Zoe, in which her eyes glance the one way, towards Beth, while her head must stay oriented straight, flush with the camera, and towards dear Father.

This sparkling transaction of looks also proves Hooper's blocking absolutely essential, as Genie's sliding herself back and against the wall leads directly into the girls' conspiracy of eye-line.

And the ensuing conversation between the girls never strays away from these established angles. It doesn't strike me as roteness at all, only assurance about the clarity of these shots: Beth the friend, leaning in askew, while Genie, our ingenue, whose likeness framed like a marble bust is practically a motif through the film, captivates her negative-space filled frame like a beacon.

Hooper's visual eloquence, then, is characterized by a stringency of near-scholastic discipline on his part, located in his observance of systems of precise, grammarist prosody instilled in the cinematic telling. Hooper seems acutely aware that every moment of a film is a continuity of a piece, in its structure, ordering, and order of the unitary statement - that order being the one of grammar, in which all is bound by the cohesion of the closed sentence, period to period (which, to my purposes, is essentially analogous to the metrical line of a poem and the shot flow of a film sequence). The closed sentence is a system that does not allow for excess. Its beauty lies in its order within the boundary of the periods. What is created in language, then, is a continuum of sentences, and so a continuum of lucid grammar and its precise and pristine order.

Hooper, in his work, pays attention to the absolute continuum of shot flow with the sense of the lyric writer. Moving even further than intelligibility and the refinements of grammar, and crossing into the field of lingual poetry, is rhyme and rhythm: along with Hooper's sophisticated sense of the syntactical is his sense of lyricism, which involves the organization of stress, intonation, and syllabism; this step further is metrical poetry, which analogizes to a film's rhythm (while rhyme can possibly be analogized to mise-en-scene and the resonances of the visual aesthetic).

Grammar is expressive at a continuum, and its function is subliminal and connective. With every article and every conjunction impart a sentence, as they are scientific units of formal communication, of a technical system of coherence, of expression bound by rules of its existence as text and imbued with the differential system of language. Even non-traditional prose is bounded by the written word as a medium of rules and an ageless traditionalism (that of symbols, upon the papyrus, informed by fluency)... but it is one that is not limiting, and so is beautiful (as any appreciator of the art of writing should rest assured it is) - for example, a Gertrude Stein poem or William Burroughs cut-up is indeed still bound, happily, by these rules (and aesthetics) of their native language, for grammar deformed is grammar still formed. Poetry and prose - written language - will always be the most ascetic art form, for it has little frills and gimmicks to raise it above the genuine substance and purity of its material (language and grammar). Hooper, although it may not seem like it as a maker of horror product, is in many ways an ascetic filmmaker, in that he bypasses the grandeur of many great filmmakers but achieves his own great graces with smaller, gentler ways and motives.

For Hooper and similar filmmakers (as I've before often asserted, one of those being Ingmar Bergman), cinema is not a foundation unto itself, but one that is most beautiful when aware of its own ink and papyrus, syntagm and grammar, coherence system and functional continuum. In the case of film, film's papyrus (or paper, or canvas) is the textures of space and time.

This rawness of unmodified, unheightened life(-as-the-canvas) is what we get in the theater, for the reality of space and time are inescapable on the stage. This is why cinema directors committed to the textures of theater, and the theatrical instinct transposed to a cinematic instinct, so often strikes me as an exemplar of sublime cinematic craft. This instinct is widely known as very Bergmanian instinct, and is what I claim is also Hooperian instinct. Unlike many other notable directors, he doesn't just pull out all the stops cinema has to offer. It is simply his very careful, complex accents in meter and syntax, using the calligraphic script that is real life and intricate space, that strike such powerful chords.

In linguistics, prosody (pronounced /ˈprɒsədi/, PROSS-ə-dee) is the rhythm, stress, and intonation of speech. Prosody may reflect various features of the speaker or the utterance: the emotional state of the speaker; the form of the utterance (statement, question, or command); the presence of irony or sarcasm; emphasis, contrast, and focus; or other elements of language that may not be encoded by grammar or choice of vocabulary.
In poetry, metre (or meter in American use of the English Language) is the basic rhythmic structure of a verse or lines in verse. Many traditional verse forms prescribe a specific verse metre, or a certain set of metres alternating in a particular order. The study of metres and forms of versification is known as prosody. (Within linguistics, "prosody" is used in a more general sense that includes not only poetical meter but also the rhythmic aspects of prose, whether formal or informal, which vary from language to language, and sometimes between poetic traditions.)
In linguistics, syntax (from Ancient Greek σύνταξις "arrangement" from σύν syn, "together", and τάξις táxis, "an ordering") is the study of the principles and rules for constructing sentences in natural languages.

- Part III -

And with a peal of laughter from the girls bringing the segment of Part II to a close, Part III begins with a maybe-ellipse in time: we suddenly cut outside as a car, driven by Beth's boyfriend, impatiently beeps its horn. Very quickly, too quickly, is Beth at a window, pulling at a curtain and yelling back.

"I'm coming!"

She twirls around and we are suddenly at a completely unfamiliar corner of the room.
Yet it's natural as can be to Beth, who, unlike the viewing audience, isn't seeing an environment in only the 2nd dimension.

We were never introduced to this window.
Yet suddenly we are forced to orient ourselves to this new wall, and this new configuration between the two girls.
The new configuration is all but appropriate, for now, Beth is the one giving the scoop, telling the rapt Genie of where she's going to take her out the next day.
More striking use of wide, empty frames. Beth's wall vs.
Genie's corner

And the remarkable close of the scene: Beth breaks out of her frame.
We the viewer still have been given no greater look at the room; the two girls' spatial relationship to each other is still rather vague.

Yet, realizing she needs to leave, before we know it off right she goes, and suddenly she's gliding into Genie's frame:

Contained in this single moment - Beth's swift and faceless exit - is a concatenation of visceral tonal suggestions: the notion of Beth's merely transitory role in Genie's story, alongside a clear focus on Genie's glowing face, and then soon her thoughtful demeanor after Beth's left the scene (this last beat serving effectively as the formal period to the filmic sentence).

The moment is authentically textured and effortlessly breezy, tonally clear-viewed and wistful. The craft is artful, flowing, structural, confident, lingual cinematic form - patterned and purposeful cinematic meter.

Hooper's sequences move
forward through phrases and completed sentences, the effort to communicate within that structural, grammatical order never dropped. Instead of stutters dictated by narrative and expository beats, Hooper, by composing above those things (and instead in the grammatical order), is then instinctively crafting always in devotion to rich character observation and emotional beats, inextricably tied to the stylistic decisions he makes, making them even when they carry no practical necessity to the screenplay and to overt narrative development.

The richness of prosody is self-substantiating, and so is great literature, as it is motivated by a mastery of the expressive form of language and less the narrative and the execution of narrative effects. Literature, as opposed to film, is inherently pure from being corroded by add-ons. When a work of prose is crummily written, that's likely to be agreed upon, even by defenders of the book and its story/content. Not so with film, where the language is so "limitless," a work can be artful to some and vulgar to others, or the vice versa of rightness to wrongness. When a work of literature is stylized, or non-traditional, it is still in a way unified and cohesive, for prose is forever tied to the base standard of the langue system of beautiful comprehensibility. There is no base standard of proper grammar and beautiful phonetics in film, where, for instance, technical advancement is still always expected to take the medium to some "next level," or incomprehensibility can be, and is, often praised. With literature, there is little above the root of writing with which to sublimate formal inadequacies. With film, adequacy and inadequacy is here or there and all mixed-up: production values to art design to writing, to the directing.

Point being, Hooper's work finds its artfulness heavily in the lone efforts of his directing, which derives its effort in a way very unique in filmmaking: closely tied to the idea of channeling the "basics" of language - structure, pattern, metrics, and a grammatical order, which (contrary to being "the basics") requires a truer effort to channel.

Phonetics (from the Greek: φωνή, phōnē, "sound, voice") is a branch of
that comprises the study of the sounds of human speech.[1] It is
concerned with the physical properties of speech sounds (phones): their
physiological production, acoustic properties, auditory perception, and
neurophysiological status. Phonology, on the other hand, is concerned with
abstract, grammatical characterization of systems of sounds.

I mention phonetics. This post had mostly to do with grammar and meter, which involve structure and rhythm, which was, then, not to get much into rhyme and the "sound" of visuals ringing off one another. (It's probably the far less rich of the two topics.) To touch on it, the exchanging shots of Beth and Genie when in conversation I would deem images of wonderful rhyme, and the way the scene is made up of effervescent movement breaking off to shot-reverse shots, which then break off back to movement, is a prime example of Hooper's films moving along sudden bouts of pure (and inter-rhyming) scheme and stanza (in genera;, basic structure).

But to close, I'll return to grammar: if I'd in a previous post compare Hooper's structural instinct to a conveyance display of rarefied Ming vases, in this post it would be to sentences making up a rarefied text. Nary a run-on sentence, and simply no system allowing for random verbiage. Just clean-and-clear as shined glass, crisp as leaves, and soft as chalk syntax. His carefully chosen shots interlock in patterns (syntax) of ambitious refinement, in expressiveness that seems the absolute opposite of vulgar simply due to just how much thought it seems he must put into such subtle and restrained, yet still astoundingly articulate, renderings of space, movement, and feeling. It's proof of a wholly genuine artistic presence of mind and artistic soul. It aims not for manipulation or the most blatant and arched for effect on the viewer, but only the personal realization of articulacy, the grace of such, and film perfection.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Favorite Films of 2010

1. The Social Network
"I don't hate anybody. The 'Winklevii' aren't suing me for intellectual property theft. They're suing me because for the first time in their lives, things didn't go exactly the way they were supposed to for them."

Sorkin rips up myths of status and advantage, happiness, masculine measuring sticks, and general braggadocio, while Fincher may be a bit on autopilot, but his control of tone and pacing remains sharp.
Highlights: Crisp structure ~ Four character arcs weaved together: Zuckerberg, Saverin, Parker, Winklevoss twins ~ Rooney Mara's Erica Albright appears all but three times, and all three times she's ready to kiss off immediately from this story fueled by male egos ~ the finality of her final scene and non-recurrence soak deeply through the film.

2. Wild Grass
The most idiosyncratic story of just-some-people you can think to come from a radical Lefty art savant's head, filtered through a sense of public illumination that comes with a narrator/storyteller who knows characters are characters to represent all of us. A film that renders personal lives as monumental to our story as a species so far as any political tectonics and shifts of epoch - the multitudes of lives like wild grass, the ones it chooses for its narrative (one with a frizzy head of neon-red crabgrass, another perennially withering with a face full of age-lines) particularly notable weeds, but weeds nonetheless. Behaviors and personalities of all sorts pervade - invasive and ruderal, benign and toxic - but with no agenda for or against any of them. The film only encourages the limitlessness and possibilities of their commingling.
Highlights: "After the cinema, nothing surprises you. Everything is possible." Perhaps not the cinema worship many have read it as being, this quote follows the moment when the narrator explicates the entire plot of an American war film, in all its formula and obvious sentiment, all in a breathless spiel while Resnais executes a by-all-accounts shabby zoom-in to the movie theater's flickering neon sign reading "CINEMA." It's not that cinema's as wondrous as life, it's that, if everything is possible, why aren't things more surprising?

3. Everyone Else

If I were to attribute a running motif that seems to pervade through the films of 2010, it would be the rise of the truly liberal film. In Wild Grass, The Social Network, Black Swan, Greenberg, I Am Love, we get a handful of films centered around validating the modern liberal sensibility, encouraging us to identify with an array of alternative-living, outsider protagonists: keenly sensitive neurotics, vulnerable aesthetes, deniers of patriarchy, the alienatingly high-functioning and high-comprehending, and even the jerkishly high-functioning and high-comprehending. The ostensible critiques served on some of these characters do not disguise the identification and siding we are expected to have with these transgressors of the competent and powerful and dull, and the spiritual advantage (effectual or not) of their specialness. [Greenberg has the most surprises to offer, actually asserting its asshole protagonist's odd sensitivity, and even the idea that he has been right all along.]
Everyone Else looks at the special relationship, between two people attempting to salvage their unique union in the face of all its burdens - outwardly battling souring conventionalities like their respective masculine and feminine inadequacy, maddening socialization with the "regular," always-nagging career pressures, etcetera.
Highlights: A knife pulled on a perfectly unoffending, fully poised and understandably baffled woman becomes the clearest, most cathartic action to take for a character who isn't retaliating against anything but the toxic everyday.
4. I Am Love
Altman's A Wedding inverted, a global message film a la Tokyo Sonata, with all its vistas of symbolic cityscapes. Moneyed Italian veneration is now the oppressor (the exact flip of Altman's American-set film) of enlightened feelings, and archetypal imagery of the corporate world's skyscraping glass towers lends it its social angst. It gets ragged on for being artsy; I kind of agree, its artfulness is a bit overly chic and flashy, but most of the time its roaming camera, particularly when exploring the recesses of the film's wealthy manse (inhabited by the family dynasty, the humble employees, and always a gaggle of guests, mostly haute society, sometimes a lowly friend invited in... to cook for them), is infused with a true aesthete's inquisitiveness and sensitivity. Love scene in the grass is a bit of a misstep, though, as many make the point of singling out.

And the rest:

5. Vincere
6. The Ghost Writer

7. A Prophet


The Oath

10. Alamar