Sonnets on Cinema
CIRCLE AND WEDGE
Battleship Potemkin, 1925
The climax of the film is, strictly speaking, geometric. A cannon lowers,
lowers, lowers, until like those scrambling sailors aboard the Potemkin,
we gaze straight into its round maw. But to appreciate the radicalness of
the switch Eisenstein pulls here, we must visit those fateful Odessa Steps
one more time. The circle motif, seen in the faces of the peasants, and
in their scarves, glasses, belt buckles, twirling parasols, and open mouths
(not to mention, the wheels of that baby carriage!), is multiplied so often
it creates a grim force field: martyrdom gives birth to terrible symmetry.
Yeats once used the word "beauty", but I choose not to. Simultaneously,
the negative valence of the Tsarist troops' bayonets, boots, and shadows—
dangerous, powerful wedges—gets transferred to the foreshortened prow
of the Potemkin, suggesting power-to-the-proles. So the significance of the
cannon mouth? Unity. And the ship's prow? Unstoppable resistance. If
you missed this, it's O.K. It's a sprint through a museum of modern art.
M, Fritz Lang, 1931
Please understand, little Elsie Beckmann doesn't die for the sake of
narrative exposition. Yes—the killer's shadow has crossed her path.
And yes—we're readily able to gather from the lateness of the hour,
her mother's frantic worry, and her abandoned ball and balloon that
Elsie isn't ever coming home. But Fritz Lang was an Expressionist:
he didn't just seek to furnish cinemagoers with clues. And in this case,
because the unspeakable crime is a given, he adapts Eliot's principle of
the objective correlative. Sometimes a stairwell holds more than steps—
it's a chamber that should normally echo with Elsie's voice after school.
Sometimes a table setting does more than mark a place—it completes a
family circle. Elsie's hanging clothes are much more than laundry—
they retain her physical form and scent. And if poor Frau Beckmann
can manage to pull them down from the line and lock them in a drawer,
there's one thing we now know for certain: her heart is broken forever.
Citizen Kane, 1941
Charlie has been throwing snowballs yelling "The Union forever!"
as if putting up a symbolic battle to keep the family unit together.
But from a tactical standpoint, it's a losing battle. His childhood
is about to end, and he has no say. He's relegated to the third plane
of the shot, caught in deep focus, trapped within a window frame.
Mr. Kane has made a yeoman effort to close that window to shield
his only son from the transaction taking place inside. He occupies
the middle plane, Welles' purgatory, a no-man's land of irrelevance.
His back-and-forth pacing only demonstrates how ineffectual he is.
In the foreground, Mrs. Kane is signing the guardianship of her son
over to Mr. Thatcher. She's in control, cutting her husband off and
even getting up to re-open that window. "Charles!" she yells, and
in that instant, he's no longer a Colorado kid out playing in the snow
with his sled. He has become a personage: Charles Foster Kane.
The Bicycle Thieves, 1948
Never cut when you can pan. It's a Neo-Realist dictum that doesn't
quite work for the climax of this film because it isn't one single take.
The sequence just feels unrelenting. We know what Ricci's thinking,
but this recognition brings no comfort, only a steadily building dread.
He sees the row of bicycles outside the Stadio Nationale. The piazza
fills quickly with fans starting to leave. He sees an unattended bicycle
parked in a nearby street. And he's desperate: by this point, we know
precisely how much of a difference in his life the presence or absence
of a bicycle makes. He gets up from the curb where he's been sitting
with his son Bruno. He removes his hat, wipes sweat from his neck.
He sends Bruno off to catch a streetcar, not realizing it will be too late
for the boy to beat the crowd. And now we realize Ricci's next move.
For De Sica's film isn't about a fruitless chase through Rome for a thief.
It's about what will drive an ordinary, out-of-luck man to become one.
SHE'S NOT DEAD
Wild Strawberries, 1957
Dr. Isak Borg, an emotional Scrooge, muddles his way through another
dream sequence. He's asked by an Examiner to read characters written
on a blackboard and protests that they're gibberish, only to be told he's
forgotten his Hippocrates: Do No Harm. He's then required to identify
a specimen under a microscope and complains that he can't see anything.
But the Examiner checks the instrument—nothing wrong with the lens.
Next Isak is asked to examine a female patient who appears unconscious.
Not finding a pulse, he hastily pronounces her dead. She raises her head
and laughs. That laughter is key—it provides us with a sound match to the
next sequence, in which the Examiner takes Isak on a tour of his past.
They come to a meadow where a lonely woman sits, reduced to hysterics.
She's Isak's late wife, so heartbroken from neglect that she's had an affair.
While he, in his detached manner, pronounced her "dead to him" for good.
But she's not dead. It's Isak who has killed off all compassion for others.
A LEADING ROLE
Patricia has her fantasies, Michel his. She's been pursuing a rather stale
American-in-Paris dream featuring concerts, art shows, egotistic authors,
and—I'm sorry to say—an abusive French boyfriend. Michel has his most
self-reflective moment in the film, ironically, while he's gazing at
Humphrey Bogart's face on a movie poster. It's for The Harder They Fall,
and it raises the question of how Michel will prove he's bigger and badder
than others, unless it's in a shoot-out with the police. He offers Patricia the
role of gangster's moll. It's not much of a part, really, not even when he
throws in a trip to Italy. She asks: could they be like Romeo and Juliet?
But no, it's not a romantic getaway he has in mind—just the literal kind. So
Patricia thinks, and demurs, until finally she discovers a part for herself in
his kind of drama. It's a classic role not only equal to his, but calculated to
give her the upper hand as they act closing scenes of love and betrayal (and
note: they are acting). She won't be his moll. She's the femme fatale.
TWO SHEETS OF PAPER
Akira Kurosawa, 1936-1993 (Active)
To understand why Kurosawa is the father of the war film,
take out two sheets of paper. Fold one sheet into a smaller,
TV-size square. Fold in again at the top to form a trapezoid.
This is conventional Western framing: the dramatic action
usually takes place along orthogonal lines. We may observe
a few lonely soldiers marching at the vanguard of an army,
but they partially obstruct our view of the background.
Hold the second sheet lengthwise. Trace transversals along
each horizontal edge. Two field generals might stand there,
calling to each other across the prospect of an epic battlefield.
Armies may mass along the hypotenuse of a triangle spanning
the greatest distance across frame. And widescreen expands
the scope further, creating extra white space to be filled with
more bodies, more action, more bandits, more samurai.