Saturday 19 November 2011

Film and Musicality : The Importance of Tempo, Rhythm, Length and Timing

Why we like or dislike a film may rarely be in step with our conscious rationale of why.

Art is an odd spell and few of us know which of its words make us fall into a slumber and which snap us back to reality. The tiniest things can make all the difference - even a pink sweater instead of red...

We talk about liking the plot, the ideas, the look, the atmosphere, the music, the characters, the acting and all the combinations of the above. It is easier to quantify, understand and communicate these bigger and more obvious components of a film, and much harder to pin down the smaller parts that give each film its unique fingerprint.

We must struggle, too, with the idea that films may be made out of different components but that they categorically do not work on us in that way. These components cannot be fully separated once they have been put together.

One of the elements least (consciously) acknowledged when we look over our experience of a film is what we could call the work's 'musicality'. Yes, we may talk about a film being too long or too short, or about it moving too slowly or too quickly, but little else besides.

So what are we discussing when it comes to tempo, rhythm, length and timing?

Shot length / Placement of Cut 

Is the shot too short or too long? In a film that sets its heartbeat at 40 a shot that lasts for a few minutes may be perfect.  One such is a mesmerising journey on a train at the beginning of Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks.

One shouldn't underestimate the difference that a fraction of a second can make. Intrigue can flip to boredom at a moment's notice.

Is the movement of the camera or movement within the frame demanding a cut? Is the action inappropriately truncated? Has an emotional arc, or a developing ambience been betrayed?

Scene length

Is the scene too short or too long? There will come a point where a scene will outstay its welcome or, on the other hand, stop when we wish it hadn't. This may only be felt as a barely perceptible twinge.

The pace/build of action and plot progression

Is the story being served properly? Is it being allowed to breathe the right air? Is it ahead of itself or behind? Is too much said too early or too late? Is there enough in the film to sustain the time given to it?

What is the mix of quickness and slowness? Is it too programmatic, episodic or set to one particular rhythm?

Time spent on each part of the story or each geographical location

Is too much emphasis placed on certain plot strands?

Let the Right One In, having established the core of the story as the relationship between the two youngsters and courted our interest with its flourishing, wastes a surfeit of time on Eli's quest for blood.

Timing of reactions to actions / Timing of Edits

We must bear in mind that actors aren't actually 'reacting' to what is news to the characters.
Let us take Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as an example. On multiple occasions people act and react a split second too early or too late, whether through the fault of the acting or of the editing. We are instinctively alarmed by the unnatural.

These are only brief thoughts, a polite pointing in the direction of something camouflaged. The right thing at the right time can produce magic; the right thing at the wrong time, discordance;  wrong thing at the wrong time, ruin.

All of these elements form part of an overarching mother rhythm and length. Have we spent enough time extracting the juice of the story - exploring implications, feeling emotions, sensing surroundings...?

It is a mistake to think of a film as having one body with one unchanging rhythm. It changes itself and it changes as we change in response. It is constantly adapting itself to serve the story. You cannot think of a film as being in four-four time or six-eight.

This is not pro the metrics of cinema, which are intriguing as tools to map cinema's mechanical evolution, but of limited use in explaining our idiosyncratic thoughts or sensations. Such-and-such a technique can never guarantee such-and-such an effect. We can say that something made us feel in a certain way but there are no universal conclusions to be drawn.

It is for each of us to feel and, in any way we can, explain our individual responses. 

It is useful, nevertheless, to be aware of what may have an influence on the viewer. We should try and engage with the musical in film, that which flits between the scientific, the personal and the philosophical

This musical nature will make or break a film in spite, often, of everything else within it.

Wednesday 9 November 2011

Forest of the Hanged (Pӑdurea Spânzuraţilor)

Forest of the Hanged opens on a dusty road. Hundreds of soldiers are marching. Suddenly one of them turns around and looks at us. Conscience, a challenge. He has turned against the tide and looked us in the eye, humanising in an instant the whole machine of war.

This 1964 Romanian film is an adaptation of a novel written in 1922 by Liviu Rebreanu. The novel was inspired by the fate of the writer's brother Emil, a soldier who was executed during the First World War for attempted desertion from the Austro-Hungarian army

In the story Emil is Apostol Bologa, a sub-lieutenant. We first meet him as he attends the hanging of a deserter; the look in the dying man's eyes as he swings from the noose will come to haunt Apostol, a man who prides himself on his acute sense of duty.

The Austro-Hungarian Army comprises many different nationalities. This means that, across Europe, from Italy to Russia to Romania, men are being asked to fight against their own people. The General is aware of these temptations and complications. Loyalties are tested : friends asked to condemn friends, countrymen to kill countrymen.  The man we saw hanged, Svoboda, was a Czech trying to cross to the Czech side. Now Apostol, a Romanian, has been transferred to the Romanian front.

What will Apostol choose, death for betrayal on one hand or moral death on the other?

Eventually, disgusted by the senseless carnage of war and by his part in the fate of his own kind, Apostol takes a stand and refuses to take part in the show trial of twelve Romanian farmers.

In the midst of his turmoil he had found love with a Romanian girl Ilona, the only purity still sparkling in the quagmire. Nonetheless, unable to live with himself, he chooses to die with his soul untouched : he is caught crossing to the Romanian side, an act for which he will pay with his life.

Apostol is taken off in a cart to be hanged. He is taken away smiling. They ride under the trees, from whose leafless branches hang dozens of men like strange fruit. Here is the forest of the hanged:

*        *        *

Forest of the Hanged, directed by Liviu Ciulei, is an especially evocative film. The characters not only debate their philosophical dilemmas but live them with every fibre of their beings. The world they inhabit is a dirty one in all senses of the word. It is hard to get out of the mud and find your way from darkness to light.

The black and white photography is wonderful and runs deep with rich shades. Two examples :  the carriage surrounded by a wall of old shoes in which Apostol's friend Muller has made a home is a fantastical creation. Even in a black and white film it looks golden; the beautiful embraces that Apostol and Ilona share are bathed in a stunningly clear, virginal, light. Images such as these recall those of Andrei Tarkovsky's Ivan's Childhood. Both films place particular emphasis on quality and tone of light.

In the opening scenes of the film the camera seems too near to, or too far from, the action as if trying to get its bearings. Throughout the film it glides (for example into and out of mirrors - symbolic of reflection and introspection) but also turns violently or even swoons...sometimes the director will leave a part of the image deliberately out of focus. What, I think, helps make Forest of the Hanged so involving is that the film has both rawness and elegance to it; visualising our worse and better natures.

We also come to find subtle religious allusions. The film makes an apostle of Emil by calling him Apostol. Furthermore, why, we may ask ourselves, are there twelve Romanian insubordinates?

Apostol, though, is no saint. He values some lives (Romanian), above others. Muller, on the other hand, finds all killing wrong and teases Apostol, who wants to be transferred away from his quandary to Italy, with biting sarcasm : “On the Italian front there are no brothers....only here there are brothers”.

With so much degradation and death around them, and when suffering reduces us to our basic, naked, human characteristics (those we all share), such discrimination on the basis of nationality suddenly seems ludicrous.

The film puts this across in quite brilliant fashion. At one point Apostol is asked to act as interpreter for three Romanian prisoners. All the characters in the film speak in Romanian. However, none of them, apart from Apostol (a Romanian), can understand the Romanian characters. In this way the director underlines the idea that the differences between sides and the reasons for lack of understanding (or indeed for war itself) might as well be imaginary (or at least are intentionally exaggerated). The distinctions between nations are confused and blurred again: Muller is heard musing to himself “Mozart...a great composer”, to which his companion responds: “Ah, one of your Germans”.

With Apostol's fate secured, Ilona comes to bring him his last meal. All dressed in black, she prepares the little table as if it were an altar or a grave. She is honouring and mourning him. They look at each other without saying a word and eat. What caring and dignity...

A soldier stands watch over them. He says that she begged him to let her see Apostol. He gave in. “We are people, aren't we?”, he explains. What beauty...

It is easy to see why Forest of the Hanged is considered one of Romanian Cinema's greatest achievements gained international renown in 1965 when Liviu Ciulei won the best director prize at Cannes.