Width and without; or, American wide-screen cinema past and present

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A typical dialogue scene in Bonjour Tristesse
  • A typical dialogue scene in Bonjour Tristesse
Regardless of their overall merit, the recent Northwest Chicago Film Society selections Sometimes a Great Notion, Bonjour Tristesse, and The Vikings (the last of which screens this Wednesday at the Patio Theater) are all stunning examples of wide-screen cinematography. It's not just that the films use wide-screen to emphasize the epic grandeur of their locations; it's that they employ it as an effect that constantly shapes our view of the action, much like other films employ 3-D. In dialogue scenes, the camera tends to be a little removed from the action; we see the characters from about the waist up and often dispersed across the entire frame. This compositional approach encourages the spectator to consider characters in relation to their environment and to consider the drama as an intricate web of people, objects, and locations. The effect is strongest in Tristesse, as it's the least action driven of the three films. Otto Preminger deploys the frame to weigh power dynamics between characters while giving equal dramatic weight to each one. Before interpreting the scene, the viewer must first wander around within it—a most pleasurable task.

Watching Notion, Tristesse, and Vikings so close together has spoiled me. In the last few weeks I've entered every new wide-screen movie I've seen with outsize expectations, only to be severely disappointed by those that take the format for granted. I'm still stewing over the lack of visual sophistication in two upcoming studio releases I previewed last week, The Conjuring and We're the Millers. One was a horror film and the other was a comedy, yet they were very much alike in their abuse of the format—at one time the most exciting new innovation in movies. Whenever there was a dialogue scene in either one, the filmmakers seemed unsure of what to do with all the space. As opposed to the older films I mentioned above, Conjuring and Millers presented most of their conversations in close-up or medium close-up, rarely considering the characters much lower than the shoulders or within a playing space of more than a few feet.

During the medium close-ups, these films feel like nothing more than wide TV shows; during the extreme close-ups, they look even worse. Since nobody's face is that much broader than it is tall, close-ups in wide-screen result in lots of empty space. The problem tends to be augmented by digital cinematography (both Conjuring and Millers were shot digitally). In that medium, backgrounds appear as undefined blobs of color in shallow depth-of-field shots, which means the images don't give your eyes very much to do.

The Vikings
  • The Vikings
The Conjuring
  • The Conjuring

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.

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