David Fincher’s Obsession with Detail in Zodiac

There seems to be two fronts on which Fincher dished out his meticulous deditication to making everything perfectly the way he wanted in Zodiac (2007). The first being during the production phase. Fincher would be able to control the shots through mise-en-scene and cinematography. Getting the framing and the lighting just right, having the right depth of field, and getting the actors to do the right thing (1989). I found a great example that illustrates Fincher’s attention to detail during production by showing every insert shot in Zodiac:

The other way that Fincher controlled the small details of his film was through digital effects in post-production. Fincher strived to make his film look as realistic as possible. Ironically (and very much against the philosophy of Christopher Nolan), he chose to use digital effects over practical effects to accomplish that. I found some (unfortunately very low-res) special features that breaks down the use of digital effects in Zodiac:

These video show the surprising extent that digital effects were used in this film. They also, however, serve to justify this use for certain cases. For instance, the shooting of the couple at the beginning of the film. To do that as practically and realistically as possible, Fincher would have actually shoot people. No one, obviously, can do that. So to film that scene and have it look as realistic as possible, he had the blood resulting from the bullet wounds be inserted digitally. And not just the blood showing on the skin, but it splattering on the seats of the car. This was his way of making this scene look real, because it really did happen. These effects could easily, as in Speed Racer (2008), look fake. But the post-production team worked meticulously to make them look real. And they do. That’s why it is so surprising to see how much digital effects are used in Fincher’s films.

This makes me wonder through, which ideology is better? Fincher’s or Nolan’s? Maybe the perfect balance probably lies somewhere in between.

Identifying Bordwell’s Art Film Characteristics in Modern Film

The first characteristic of art film that Bordwell specifies in his essay is its departure from classical narrative mode. He gives the example of Bicycle Thieves where the future of the main characters is not revealed. I think this trait is also present in Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), which very much breaks from the classical narrative structure, never resolving Davis’ issues and not revealing his ultimate fate.

Another characteristic or art film that Bordwell asserts is a lack of defined desires and goals of the characters. The characters slide passively from one situation to another. I think a recent film that certainly has this characteristic is Paterson (2016). The main character, a poet, performs his job as a truck driver and writes poems. We see his relationship with his girlfriend and see him working, but he has no clear desire or goal. He just enjoys writing poetry.

Bordwell also writes that art films often lack the rigid temporal construction of non-art films. There may be a manipulation in the order that the story is told or an unpredictable or unclear time structure. A movie I saw, but did not enjoy, recently was Jackie (2016). In displaying Jackie Kennedy’s experience with the death of her husband, we are presented with many snapshots of her at many points in time and these points are often cut back and forth unpredictably.

And lastly, Bordwell proposes that art films prominently represent the filmmaker themselves. That the viewer watches the film to see the stylistic signature of the director more than the narrative of the film. I think that, quite obviously, Wes Anderson and his films embody that argument today. His distinct style of pans and zooms, insert shots, mise-en-scene, framing, etc. contribute largely to our expectations when watching the films, and satisfy our experience possibly more than the story itself.

I wonder of any other examples that may satisfy these characteristics that Bordwell proposes or any others that he specifies in his writings. I think it is cool how the art film traits that Bordwell examined still continue to show up in even the most recent movies. There is still a similar dichotomy between classical narrative cinema and art film. I wonder what, though, if in any way, that disparity has changed.

Retrospective on Dog Star Man Viewing

For the duration of watching Prelude: Dog Star Man, I tried to understand what I was seeing. I was taking notes just identifying objects, patterns, shot-types, technique, movement, structure, and themes. I was able to list that the film used primarily close-ups of the discernable objects like people and elements of nature. Some things seemed like they were ultra-close ups, like viewing something under a microscope because the images resembled close-up textures or bacteria. This made whatever what we were actually seeing undiscernable (also because of how quickly the images were shown). The textures themselves sometimes seemed like more of just textures themselves instead of an object viewed under a microscope. The texture of paint, like a Jackson Pollack painting, except viewed for a fraction of a second in a bombardment of many textures. These were all recurring, as well as the images of what appeared to be celestial being like a star or moon. I interpreted this as coming from the “Star” in Dog Star Man, with the imagery of humans being the “Man” part of the title. I’m unsure  about the “Dog” part. There might have been imagery of a dog, this connection I’m trying to make might also be a bit far-fetched. Another thing I noticed is that the images were often warped and stretched. There also never seemed to be just one layer of imagery. There was always a layer of texture or color on top or many of the two. I also noticed that, most of the time, there would be movement of something within the frame.

After having read some information on Stan Brakhage and his themes and practices, I understand what I was seeing (or more, the intent behind what I was seeing) more clearly now. The constant motion in the film aligns with the representation of “moving visual thinking”. Also that Brakhage did indeed hand-paint his films. The layers of colors and dots of stars/moons also make sense to me now as being an attempt of Brakhage to represent optical feedback.

This film was truly unlike anything I had ever seen. I want to know a bit more about the exact techniques that Brakhage used to make his films. Also, could the title be related to the imagery of the film?

The Perfect Villain

Above is a video essay detailing the many reasons what makes The Joker such a great antagonist in The Dark Knight. This video essay also includes some great comparisons to other movies to compare their stories and villains. It discusses how The Joker is designed as the perfect villain to accompany Batman. I think that this also extends to The Joker being the perfect villain for the city itself. Gotham’s greatest danger comes in the form of two ferry boats full of people in danger of dying. This scene goes in line with The Joker forcing Batman to make decisions and show his true self like when he forced Batman to choose between Harvey and Rachel. In the ferry sequence, The Joker does this to the people on these boats. He is forcing them to make a decision that will show who they truly are by blowing up the other boat and saving themselves. In the end, just like Batman, these people actually grow stronger and learn from the experience.

Another interesting point about this sequence at the end that this video essay brings up is how much is actually at stake. In movies like Man of Steel, Superman is fighting to stop destruction of the entire Planet Earth. However, we know as the audience that he will be successful in stopping that from happening because we know there will be a sequel. In The Dark Knight, the lives of a few hundred people on two ferry boats are at stake. We are allowed to grow attached to these characters, but none of them are Batman. They could very easily die and The Dark Knight still have a sequel, like The Empire Strikes Back. This adds much more weight to the sequence and suspense.

Jóhann Jóhannsson, Mother!, and Sound Over Score

One of my all-time favorite modern composers, Jóhann Jóhannsson, died this past Friday. I have been an admirer of his solo work for many years, and in 2013 he made his debut in the world of film with his score for the movie Prisoners (2013). He has since composed the score for two more Denis Villeneuve films (Sicario (2015) and Arrival (2016)) and won a golden globe for his music in The Theory of Everything (2014). Needless to say, this composer from Iceland excels at his craft. In 2016, Jóhann was commissioned to create the score for Darren Aronofsky’s very experimental film, Mother! (2017). It was a film that demanded an equally experimental approach to its music. Jóhann was no stranger to creating unorthodox pieces of music. His 2006 album, IBM 1401, A User’s Manual, features instructional tapes for performing maintenance on the IBM units of the 60s. It is also some of the most incredibly beautiful pieces of music I’ve ever heard. Anyway, Jóhann spent a year working on his score for Mother!. However, after viewing it alongside the final cut of the movie, he convinced Aronofsky to delete all of the music. Jóhann very selflessly realized that the film was better without a score.

Many films are more effective when they lack a traditional score. Andei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) is fantastic example of this. While it does have a score, it is very sparsely used. It is a movie that relies on its incredible sound design, and does so in a way that reflects the surreal, time-bending nature of the film. Tarkovsky paints with sound much like he does with visuals, using them to create an experience rather than concrete communication. Sound can diverge from the images, return back, linger, or come from nowhere at all, connecting our experience of the film with the experiences of the characters in it, with long gaps in between the uses of music.

The sound in Mother! would go on to be solely diegetic. No musical cues that most other horror movies include. Aronofsky explains that he “…wanted the audience to lean into that, to not give them any relief by allowing them to lean back on something that easily gives you emotion.”

Jóhann did not waste his year of composing, though. The score needed to be written first in order to realize it was redundant. So in a sense, Mother! still has a score by Jóhann. The score is just silence…deafening, genius silence.

Character Continuity Editing in Casablanca

I noticed a continuity that extended beyond the editing in Casablanca. As I was watching, paying attention to the continuity editing, I noticed one thing that seemed to stay the same. There were many establishing shots followed by shot/reverse shots. But within that spacial orientation, I found myself connecting characters in more than just the space of the single scene. I noticed that characters were continuously placed on a certain side of the frame. In particular, Rick on the left and Ilsa on the right.

      

The examples go on and on. Almost every time we see them on screen, Rick is on the right side and Ilsa is on the left side. I think this continuity is helpful for viewers to always know where we will find each character. It also, especially in the scenes in Casablanca, establishes two forces that are constantly at odds with one another, always occupying their own space. Those spaces never do truly merge, as Rick and Ilsa do not end up together in the end.

As the flashback to their time in Paris begins, we see a montage of shots all placing the two characters in this orientation. The first time we see them in different orientations is after they have recently been informed of the impending German invasion. This event has rocked their world and turned it 180 degrees to then show Ilsa on the left and Rick on the right for not just one but a series of shots.

 

Another time we see Rick on the right side of the screen is when he is shown conversing at a table with another woman. By placing the female on the left and Rick on the right, we get a subtle visual cue that this relationship is different. Rick has his heart fully set on Ilsa, paying a minimal amount of attention to this woman. He is forwardly emotionally invested, as he is the left-oriented character infatuated with the right-oriented character.

I know there are probably a few more shots with Rick on the right and Ilsa on the left, but they are certainly a small minority. This has got me thinking of other films I have seen and whether they have a continuous hemisphere in which a character will occupy and how the changes in that have been used to symbolize changes in the character or story. I’m also curious as to any other reasons why this orientation would be used continuously in Casablanca.

Set Design in The Grand Budapest Hotel

The sets in Wes Anderson’s films are meticulously crafted down to the finest detail. But I think that in no film of his is this taken to such a degree as in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Looking at the set of the hotel alone, I think there are many examples of very considerate design.

Not only is the hotel, for lack of a better term, grand in its size, variety of rooms, and decoration, it is displayed under three different ownerships across two different time periods. The first version we see is from 1968 under the ownership of Zero Mustafa with the concierge M. Jean.This iteration shows the hotel after World War II and fascism has run its course and the soviet economy has started to stagnate. The hotel in 1968 is very industrial with lots of grey and muted colors. The only kind of symbol associated with it being the initials “GB”.The interior of the hotel is almost unrecognizable from its earlier counterpart. What sticks out the most is the excessive amount of signs littered everywhere throughout the hotel.

The version from 1932 is much more colorful and fun. 

Under the ownership of Madam D. with the concierge M. Gustave, the hotel is devoid of the dreary signs it would eventually be littered with.

 More than just the presence of signs and additions intended to be functional rather than tasteful, the sets have been changed in a way to show the wear and aging effects of the hotel over 26 years.  Curtains have been taken away, a murky blue has replaced purple, signs (of course) have been added, and while the floor has the same pattern, it very much shows the signs of aging.

The third form of the hotel we see is after it is under military control and adorned with the fascist “ZZ” symbol. 

Because this is Wes Anderson, the new symbol of control must extend to the smallest details of the hotel, such as the keys: 

And even the drink garnishes: 

This absolute devotion to the smallest details of the mise-en-scène, especially the modifications made to sets of different time periods, gives the film a high level of scenic realism. The suggestion that time has past and historical events have taken place is very convincing. The carefully crafted sets also contribute to the cognitive engagement of the viewer as there is so much to identify in the background of shots. So much that I feel this blog post could go on forever. Anderson truly outdid himself.

One thing that this makes me want to know is how all of the sets were constructed and where. How many keys were made with the “ZZ” symbol? Can I get one? How far did Anderson’s obsession with detail go? But really, at what point does it become unnecessary?

Awhile ago I found the story of a movie that has been in the making for 10 years on a set the size of a small city. I highly recommend reading it to see just how out of control a set and production can get.