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Avatar, the French New Wave and themorality of deep-focus (in 3-D)

In 1959 Jean-Luc Godard famously proclaimed that tracking shots are a matter of morality -- an inversion of fellow Cahier du cinéma critic Luc Moullet's formulation that "morality is a matter of tracking shots" ("morale set affaire de travellings," sometimes translated as "morality is in the tracking shots"). The evangelical theorists behind what became known as the French New Wave had a tendency to ascribe moral values to cinematic style and technique.¹ André Bazin and the late Eric Rohmer, especially, championed the moral as well as aesthetic superiority of mise en scène over montage, of Hawksian "invisible cutting" over dictatorial Eisensteinian editing, and of deep-focus over a more selective, shallow depth-of-field. Bazin praised directors such as Orson Welles and William Wyler (in collaboration with cinematographer Gregg Toland) for staging shots so that "the viewer is at least given the opportunity to edit the scene himself, to select the aspects of it to which he will attend."

As David Bordwell summarized:

Their "deep-focus" style, he claimed, produced a more profound realism than had been seen before because they respected the integrity of physical space and time. According to Bazin, traditional cutting breaks the world into bits, a series of close-ups and long shots. But Welles and Wyler give us the world as a seamless whole. The scene unfolds in all its actual duration and depth. Moreover, their style captured the way we see the world; given deep compositions, we must choose what to look at, foreground or background, just as we must choose in reality. [...]

[Bazin wrote that deep-focus] "forces the spectator to participate in the meaning of the film by distinguishing the implicit relations" and creates "a psychological realism which brings the spectator back to the real conditions of perception."

In addition, Bazin pointed out, this sort of composition was artistically efficient. The deep shot could supply both a close-up and a long-shot in the same framing--a synthesis of what traditional editing had given in separate shots. Bazin wove all these ideas into a larger theory that cinema was inherently a realistic medium, bound to photographic recording, and Welles and Wyler had discovered one path to artistic expression without violating the medium's biases.

For Bazin and Rohmer, the highest purpose of cinema was to serve photographic realism -- which they saw not only in post-war Italian neo-realism (Rossellini, De Sica) but in the mise en scène of Murnau and Dreyer.²

I've never quite bought that argument, mainly because I don't believe in "realism." While I value the ways in which the greatest filmmakers (from Buster Keaton to Rohmer himself) show respect for the integrity of space and time in the ways they frame their shots, they still have to point a camera and put a frame around it like anyone else. Movies are illusions, plays of light and shadow, and photorealism in a frame is as illusory as any other -ism. Playfully overturning another famous Godardian aphorism ("The cinema is truth 24 frames per second"), Brian De Palma would later state the obvious: The camera lies all the time; lies 24 times per second."


I like Jonathan Rosenbaum's translation of something Moullet wrote (again in Cahiers, 1958) about Douglas Sirk's "The Tarnished Angels":

In art, there is only artifice. Let us therefore praise an artifice that is cultivated without remorse, which consequently acquires a greater sincerity rather than artifice masked by itself as by others under hypocritical pretexts. The true is as false as the false; only the archi-false becomes true.

All of which, at long last, brings me back to a health-related item that popped out at me in the New York Times this week, investigating the claim that 3-D movies like "Avatar" can induce "headaches, nausea, blurred vision and other symptoms of visually induced motion sickness." The finding: Yes, they most certainly can and do -- for perfectly sound physiological reasons. As I noted in December, I find current stereoscopic "3-D" processes distracting and artificial. Because they are.

The NYT's Really? columnist, Anahad O'Connor, writes:

The problem, studies indicate, is that the films often cause unnatural eye movements.

Normally, when an object approaches a person, the eyes respond in two ways. They converge, or rotate inward to follow it (as an example, extend an arm with your index finger pointed up, then slowly pull it toward your nose). At the same time, as the object approaches, the eyes focus and maintain a clear image of it by changing the shape of the lens, a process called visual accommodation.

But a 3-D object flying off the screen causes sensory conflict. The eyes rotate inward to follow it, but they must also maintain a fixed focus on the display surface. So they converge without accommodating, an uncoupling of two natural processes that -- over the course of a long movie -- can be stressful.


The column suggests that viewers should "avoid looking at unfocused parts of the scenes, which sounds a lot easier than it is." This was part of my original complaint about the movie. What if I wanted to check out that lei on the Na'vi to the left behind Neytiri, or see Grace's expression (is that Grace?) in that close-up of Jake? There are loci of interest back there, and if the movie is in 3-D, I ought to be able to look at them, to focus my eyes wherever I want.

James Cameron is a very smart and gifted director, so I don't understand why he would blunder so badly, using a shallow depth of field in which foreground and background are often shown out of focus -- in a 3-D movie, of all things! It is, I would argue, aesthetically and morally inexcusable. Cameron wasn't even constrained by the usual limitations forced on filmmakers by lenses, film speed and available light, since these scenes on Pandora were created entirely in CGI!

The blurry foreground-background technique is one that is usually employed to create an illusion of depth in a two-dimensional space. But if you're employing 3-D technology to stage in depth for the camera, enhancing your film-world's "immersive" qualities, why would you not allow the viewers' eyes to wander naturally around the frame, and from front to back within it? To force the 3-D camera lens to focus on some things and not others (rather than guiding the viewer's eye through mise en scène) defeats the purpose, and the proper perception, of that extra dimensionality. It does not respect, or take full advantage of, the medium's essential properties.³

This lapse alone should keep Cameron from receiving directorial honors from any group that knows anything about direction.

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See also: David Bordwell's blog entry, "Gradation of emphasis starring Glenn Ford for a discussion of staging and depth of focus in widescreen, and ways in which films create primary and secondary degrees of interest/emphasis within images:

In "On the History of Film Style," I suggested that many aspects of technique work to call attention to any element in the field. The filmmaker can put a something in motion, turn it to face us, light it more brightly, make it a vivid color, center it in the frame, have it advance to the foreground, have other characters look at it, and so on. These tactics can work together in a complex choreography. In "Figures Traced in Light," I argued that they depend on the fact that we scan the frame actively; the techniques guide our visual exploration. [...]

...To what extent do we find gradation of emphasis in current filmmaking? Today's American cinema relies heavily on editing, using a style I've called intensified continuity. Each shot tends to mean just one thing, and once we get it we're rushed on to the next. The unforced openness of the wide frame that Barr celebrated has been largely banned, in favor of tight singles--even in the 2.40 anamorphic format. It seems that most filmmakers are no longer concerned with gradation of emphasis within their shots.

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¹ I've never seen Gillo Pontecorvo's "Kapo" (1960), set in a Nazi concentration camp, but I love the way Jacques Rivette (later to become a famous director himself) writes about it, after referring to Moullet's phrase about the morality of tracking shots -- how the subject defeats "realism," and what makes one particular shot in the film morally reprehensible:

Look, however, in "Kapo," at the shot where [a character] kills herself by throwing herself on an electric barbed-wire fence; the man who decides, at that moment, to have a dolly in to tilt up at the body, while taking care to precisely note the hand raised in the angle of its final framing -- this man deserves nothing but the most profound contempt. For several months, people have been breaking our balls over false problems of form and content, of realism and fantasy, of script and mise en scène, of the free actor or the regulated actor, and other dichotomies; let us say that it is possible that all subjects are born free and equal by law; that [what] counts is tone, or emphasis, nuance, as one will call it -- that is to say, the point of view of a man, the auteur, badly needed, and the attitude that this man takes in relation to that which he films, and therefore in relation to the world and to everything: that which can be expressed by a choice in situations, in the construction of the storyline, in the dialogue, in the play of actors, or in the pure and simple technique... There are things that should not be addressed except in the throes of fear and trembling; death is one of them, without a doubt; and how, at the moment of filming something so mysterious, could one not feel like an impostor? It would be better in any case to ask oneself the question, and to include the interrogation, in some way, in what is being filmed; but doubt is surely that which Pontecorvo and his ilk lack most.

To make a film is to show certain things, that is at the same time, and by the same mechanism, to show them with a certain bias; these two acts being thoroughly bound together.

² UPDATE: Richard Brody points to Rohmer's 1948 article "Cinema, the Art of Space," in which he "praises expressionism and sees Welles as an heir of... Murnau and Eisenstein and considers the new techniques of realism as a new form of stylization."

I found this passage in "Cinema, the Art of Space" particularly interesting (written nine years before Rohmer and Claude Chabrol published the first book about Hitchcock):

The methods that the modern director uses for spatial expression are much less apparent than they were twenty years ago. As in the other arts, it is normal that the evolution of film lean toward greater economy in its means of expression. This simplification may lead toward greater realism: Rossellini's success in "Paisan" is to have relied as little as possible on the editing and to have avoided breaking up his work into too many shots -- though such fragmentation seems to impose itself when working with action scenes. Even in such a realistic art, simplification demands, as compensation, a certain richness in spacial expression -- one very different from the distortions of the plastic arts.... [...]

In a completely different sense, that of the search for stylization, Hitchcock's work is extremely rich in lessons, but his brilliant style is sometimes combined with an insufficiently rigorous concept of the relationship between content and expression. Bresson's art is undoubtedly purer. "Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne," so unjustly condemned, represents the attempt most worthy of being compared with German expressionism. The fact that stylization in the expression of time is given more attention than is spatial construction, is a measure of the distance separating modern cinema from that of the "grand époque" of silent films. In learning how to understand, the modern moviegoer forgot how to see, and if film has succeeded in educating us visually, it did not do so by making us more sensitive to the pure signification of certain forms or movements. To the extent that an art of seeing still exists, we are, quite simply, more likely to understand the intentions of a language that can have the nuance and subtlety of a spoken language, but that most often remains every bit as conventional.La Revue du cinema, June 1948

³ Further clarification, from a comment below. Cameron had many, many options available to him in composing some of these shots that hurt my eyeballs (look at the shots that accompany this post!) because he chose to put something interesting in the frame and then to hold it out of focus -- especially since there are so many other ways of focusing attention than, simply, focus (composition, movement, lighting, color, etc., etc.):

Not a very imaginative directorial choice. If Cameron (or any director) places something in the frame, he's making it available to be seen. He didn't have to put it there -- especially in this film, which is mostly CGI. Then he can choose which lenses, lighting, etc., to use, where to place the camera, how to focus -- or, in this case, how to build the shot basically pixel-by-pixel via software. I still haven't seen a good argument for using such a shallow depth of field AND crowded compositions when shooting in 3-D. Sure seems counter-intuitive to me. Again, others (Hitchcock, for example) have also used less-than-absolute deep focus in 3-D, but have displayed more care in how they composed their shots. It can take hours to set up, block and light a shot, even in the most conventional movie. Cameron took years to make this one, shooting on a vast, blank soundstage in Playa Vista and filling in the details later. So much time and effort went into creating every single image. What was he thinking?

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