Thinking inside the box; or, Academy fight song

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Gabe Nevins in Gus Van Sants Paranoid Park
  • Gabe Nevins in Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park
Last night the folks at Northwest Chicago Film Society proudly asserted that they were projecting Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park in its correct aspect ratio of 1.37:1 for the first time in Chicago. I hadn't seen the film since it played at the Landmark Century in 2008, where it was projected in the less boxy—and far more common—ratio of 1.85:1. My memories of the film weren't all that vivid, and I didn't recall responding strongly to it one way or the other. Revisiting Paranoid as an experiment in Academy ratio framing turned it into a new experience, and a pretty satisfying one at that. Van Sant's bisected compositions (like the early, Rothko-esque shots of the young hero walking across a field toward the Pacific Ocean, the bottom half of the screen all green-brown grass and the upper half all blue-gray water and sky) felt especially impactful in the more squarish frame, as did the close-up shots, which presented entire faces with barely any negative space around them.

The screening made me realize that, in the more rectangular ratios of much post-1950s cinema, close-ups tend to cut off the tops and bottoms of faces or else pad them with unnecessary visual information. Is this why many of my favorite close-ups in movie history are in the Academy ratio? The Tramp's tearful smile at the end of City Lights; the powerful, dangerous hands of Fritz Lang's silent films; the glowing faces of Frank Borzage's lovers, who seem to be lit from within; the extended shot of Ingrid Thulin reading her painful confession to Gunnar Björnstrand in Bergman's Winter Light, the great cinematographer Sven Nykvist capturing a lifetime of experience in her expressions: all were designed for a 1.37:1 frame.

Ingrid Thulin in Winter Light
  • Ingrid Thulin in Winter Light
From 1932 to 1952, every Hollywood studio film was shot in this ratio. I have no way of proving it, but I suspect that this contributed to the almost mythic status that Hollywood stars occupied in this era. When people saw their faces (or, in the case of Lang's films, their hands) on a big screen, they saw almost nothing else. The various wide-screen formats developed in the 1950s transformed movie spectacle into something more experiential and interactive. Now films encouraged a spectator to wander around in the image; he was no longer commanded by it.

One of the fruitful results of Van Sant's recent experiments—as well as The Artist, Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff, and the Uruguayan comedy A Useful Life, which also were shot in Academy ratio—is that they make a viewer more aware of how he looks at faces on film. These are all very different movies, of course. Only The Artist takes full advantage of the ratio's star-making power; the others use the frame to evoke an ineffable, timeless feeling. The Artist was a popular success and an award winner to boot. It would be nice if it inspires more filmmakers to think inside the box.

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.

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