Friday, September 30, 2011

The Indelible Scenes, #1

The Indelible Scenes, a series of film scenes that have had the greatest impact on me.

If there is one thing that separates modern film-making from classical film-making, it is the formulas of style that have inundated modern film (there's a bit of the paradoxical in that statement, formula not being homogeneous and conforming, but proliferate, differentiating, "entrepreneurial") and so often distract film artists from the virtues of that which does not manipulate and overexcite, that which does not seem to have at their disposal the complete catalog of styles and techniques, formulas and niche sensibilities, stockpiled over history. The genres and sub-genres and stylistic (or marketable) trends resulting from this do not necessarily need be a bad thing, and can indeed result in great pictures, but the negative consequence is the calcification and loss of skills and assiduity, and the cultivation of superficiality and mediocrity.

Somehow, it is the simpler, more limited and thus more present camera, and basic sense of film grammar, that most effectively bypasses lacking, placating sensory/emotional appeals, and goes straight to the meaty heart of visual story-telling - that underlying alighting of this medium of visual parable-making, of writing with an eye, of making brush strokes with visually-recorded space. It trumps the acrobatics of style - the bastardized, shallowed rhetoric that film-making often comes to rely on now - in its confidence in the simple.

The great magic of black & white films were that they were essentially exercises in contrast, of 50%/50% fields of understanding. Never was there too much visual information or stylistic noise, for only was there the alternation of blacks and grays and the visibility of these black and grays across fields of white. There was the clarity and purpose known of by filmmakers free of the distraction of the extra cinematographic possibilities brought about by color and advanced camera technology. How well scenes back then could direct your attention, and graphically depict the darks from the lights, the backgrounds from the foregrounds, the sparkling of those lights against the celluloid firmament, and be simply, philosophically contented with the observant beauty found in simply that.

Aesthetic-critical angling aside, the following scene will always remain one of the most beautiful and beguiling, strange and wonderful scenes I will surely see, in an entire film that probably fits those same superlatives... The physical presence the phantom Irena holds by means of her singing, which is treated with such tactile sense by the shots chosen and the accompanying sound design... the wide shot of Irena in the garden, and the beauty of the camera's pull-ins closer to her... the brilliance of the musical conceit, a symbolic/inadvertent musical counterpoint occurring between the two carols being sung in subtly implied opposition...

#1 - THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE - Christmas Visitations

Merry carolers.

(Another Anglo carol.)

A child's watching morphs into ignoring, at the sound of another singing voice coming from outside.

Irena (Simone Simon), outside, sings in brilliantly arranged counterpoint the French carol 'Il est ne, le divin enfant,' that, while yet a Christian tune, still serves as a tingly, foreign subversion and opposition to the bland singing inside.

The sound design is actually a great part of what makes this scene so wonderful. As Amy, the little girl, goes back to the living room to pick up her gift for Irena from near the Christmas tree, Irena's voice is lost and the carolers' singing is predominant again.

A conspiratorial glance at those gathered around the piano, and at us. After all, we, the audience, may be against her, too.

And then, as Amy steps outside, Irena's singing becomes the foreground sound and the voices inside effectively become the counterpart to Irena.

Une etable est son logement,
Un peu de paille, sa couchette,

Une etable est son logement,
Pour un Dieu, quel abaissement.

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