Width and without, part two; or, freedom is slavery? | Bleader

Width and without, part two; or, freedom is slavery?


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From Miklos Janscos wide-screen masterpiece The Red and the White
  • From Miklos Jansco's wide-screen masterpiece The Red and the White
In the comments section of my post from last Monday about wide-screen cinematography, someone who signed off as "JM" opined that "the idea of perceptual freedom due to wide-screen/depth-of-field seems sort-of misapplied to [The Vikings] and a lot of other films (even [Otto Preminger's] Bonjour Tristesse).I think that observation has become cliche in film criticism, not there isn't ever any truth to it." I'm glad to have read that comment; on numerous occasions I've fallen back on the cliche in question, and it was high time I examined my instincts.

If we're getting technical, there's no such thing as spectatorial freedom in movies. Even those shots containing multiple and/or contradictory pieces of visual information have been selected by the filmmakers; the same goes for any "spontaneous" behavior we may see on-screen. The great critic Robin Wood—who approached movies much like literary texts—once wrote something to the effect that a film was put together before he ever saw it, and thus he wasn't responsible for any of its content. That's a valid point, but it's hard to overcome the appeal of saying you have some input into your entertainment. It makes you feel more like a grown-up and less like a passive consumer of sounds and images.

Conversely, it's a little embarrassing to say that the complex mise-en-scene of a Richard Fleischer or an Otto Preminger or even a Miklos Jansco actually draws you deeper into a movie instead of encouraging critical distance. The more a movie gives you to look at, the more immersed you're likely to be in its environment. This isn't the opposite of escapist fantasy—it's a supremely effective escapist fantasy. But is that such a bad thing? Let's look again at that still from The Vikings I posted last week:


Tony Curtis and Kirk Douglas are poised for battle at opposite ends of the frame, but not the very ends. To the left of Curtis, we can still see another level of the castle where the scene takes place and some of the hilly topography beyond that. To the right of Douglas, we can see a stone arch, reminding us of the castle's extraordinary architecture. And in between them, we see the rocky coast of northern England, which seems to extend for miles past the top of the shot. This shot inspires you to appreciate geography, architecture, and the pictorial arrangement of extras along with the foreground action, but as an entire unit that compromises the world of the film.

When I wrote a post about Fleischer on Tuesday, I made a point of describing his wide-screen compositions in terms of "ornamentation," as opposed to whatever privilege they bestow upon the spectator. After all, people praise Louis Sullivan's buildings for their ornamentation—and I'm not familiar with anyone putting them down as "escapist architecture."

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.

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