Thursday 31 October 2013

The deep focus conundrum

I have posted several times about conventional film history and the many issues I have with it (links are at the end of this post). One such issue concerns deep focus and its history.

At a lecture about Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game (1939) at Stockholm University in the 1990s the lecturer was talking, among other things, about Renoir's "revolutionary" use of deep focus. The lecturer was bad, confused deep focus with deep space, and the central argument was very weak. Yet as I soon discovered this is how historians and scholars in general view deep focus, or depth of field. Here is typical quote taken from a standard textbook, David A. Cook's A History of Narrative Film (4th edition, 2004): "Renoir was the first major director of the sound film to compose his shots in depth." (p. 322)

Today almost all writing on deep focus is about Orson Welles, the cinematographer Gregg Toland and their work on Citizen Kane (1941). Here are some more quotes from textbooks that are often required readings for university students:

In the third edition of The Cinema Book (2007) it says: "Deep-focus cinematography, in which objects in several planes of depth are kept in equally sharp focus, is commonly associated with certain Hollywood films of the 1940s. Patrick Ogle dates its emergence at around 1941." (p. 149. Although the phrasing in the quote make it sound ambiguous there is no effort to question that association or Ogle.)

The above quoted Cook also writes that "the creative genius of Orson Welles and Gregg Toland, restored the cinema's physical capacity for deep focus". (p. 322)

In The Story of Film (2004, the book from which the series springs), Mark Cousins writes that in the 1940s "[t]he visual ideas of Welles and Toland started to influence John Huston and William Wyler" (p. 179).

Understanding Film Theory (2011) add this caveat to the section about deep focus in Citizen Kane: "This technique was not new and had been practised in France by Jean Renoir." (p. 47)

These quotes are just a few examples. A person who is reading a book or essay that mentions deep focus would almost certainly conclude that it was something that appeared in the 1930s in the films of Jean Renoir and then became common in the 1940s thanks to the innovations in Citizen Kane. What is puzzling is that this is transparently wrong. Despite these claims many major filmmakers such as Kenji Mizoguchi, Frank Borzage, Howard Hawks, Sadao Yamanaka, Alfred Hitchcock, Henry Hathaway, William Wyler and John Ford used deep focus all through the 1930s, and earlier. Another key player was cinematographer James Wong Howe. Contra Cousins's statement it should be said that Wyler's films in the 1940s look rather like the films he made in the 1930s, deep focus and all, but not really like Welles's films. Generally Welles is more baroque and expressionistic whereas Wyler is more calm and naturalistic. An exception perhaps is Wyler's Dead End (1937), which Toland shot, and which is rather expressionistic, both in its use of depth and lighting, more so than usual for Wyler. But that was of course several years before Citizen Kane. If anybody influenced anybody it was Wyler who influenced Welles.

Dead End

But it is not just certain major directors that were using deep focus, all kinds of films by all kinds of filmmakers from all over the world used deep focus, from random B-movies to the Art Deco glory of Fred and Ginger musicals. It should further be noted that deep focus did not appear suddenly in the 1930s either, it was always there. To take one magnificent example among many; in Ingeborg Holm (Victor Sjöström 1913) there is a sequence where a man (husband and father) is dying in the bedroom, succumbing to an illness, while in the next room, in the back, his children are playing and through the doorway we see them, oblivious of their father's death struggle. Instead of cutting back and forth, Sjöström shows both rooms at the same time, in the same shot, and this requires depth.

This is just after the wife has discovered that he has died.

F.W. Murnau was another master of deep focus compositions. Here is an example from The Last Laugh (1924).

So there is nothing new or special about Renoir's and Welles's use of deep focus. Actually, in itself deep focus is not particularly special at all. It is how you use it that matters, not that you use it. Here is an image from Make Way For Tomorrow (Leo McCarey, 1937), with a lot of depth, but the depth has a different meaning than in the examples above. Here it is to emphasis her solitude, like if she was modelling for an Edward Hopper painting.

On the right in the frame there is a poster for another film from 1937, Souls at Sea, by Henry Hathaway. That is a film that has a more expressionistic visual style, and often dazzling use of depth, and perhaps an influence, among many others, for Welles and Toland when they made Citizen Kane, not least its use of cramped sets with visible inner ceilings and canted angles. Another master of deep focus was Raoul Walsh, all through his career, from 1915 and onwards. His use of it is a visual expression of his ideas, and remarkable both in its depth and in its meanings. One day, hopefully, it will seem as strange to write about deep focus without mentioning Walsh, and James Wong Howe, as it would be to write about post-war Swedish cinema without mentioning Ingmar Bergman.

Where these mistaken ideas come from is not clear, possibly with André Bazin's writings on deep focus in the late 1940s and early 1950s, for example the essay "The evolution of the language of cinema". It seems film scholars are more keen on reading books than watching films, and since most books write the same things the mistakes and errors continues. But by looking at films from the 1920s and 1930s it is easy to see how prevalent deep focus was, and in how many different ways it was being used. A film like Ford's Stagecoach (1939), that used expressive deep focus before Citizen Kane, is usually described as a rare precursor. Instead it should be seen as a good example of a rather common form of filmmaking. Often when film history gets distorted it is in order to simplify but that is not the case with the history of deep focus. It is not less simple to rightfully say "Deep focus has been a tool used by many filmmakers since the dawn of cinema." instead of wrongfully claim "Deep focus tentatively appeared in the 1930s and then became common after 1941."

Here, finally, is another marvellous Wyler shot. This is from Dodsworth (1936):

Another thing to keep in mind is that what appears to be deep focus is sometimes an illusion, through matte paintings, set design or trick filming (such as splicing two different shots together through an optical printer), and not technically deep focus at all. This is the case with some of the most famous shots from Citizen Kane. Special effects has been used ever since the dawn of cinema, and that includes faking deep focus.

The eagerness to equate deep focus with Gregg Toland becomes comical in The Film Experience - An Introduction (2009). There his work on Wyler's The Heiress (1949) is mentioned (p. 102) which is peculiar because it was made after Toland's death. Leo Tover was its cinematographer.

Three earlier posts on problems with conventional film history:

Tuesday 22 October 2013

David Attenborough

I have written before about my debt to filmmakers like Hitchcock, Ford, Truffaut, Hawks, Kurosawa, Bergman, Ekman and others for making me first a film enthusiast and then a film scholar. But David Attenborough also deserves to be mentioned among them because he has had an equally large impact upon me since at least 1984, when The Living Planet came out both as a TV-series and a book. I was actually using him even as an inspiration for the structure of my thesis. For its narrative drive to be more specific. Many filmmakers could learn a thing or two from him about structure and pacing, and so could scholars. This is not something I was conscious of back then as a precocious pre-teen, when it was the images and the fun of learning new things about animals and plants and Earth itself that were the reasons I was hooked. They contain enough thrills, sadness, humour and beauty to last a lifetime, and they are more satisfying than much of fictive narrative art. But later on, when re-watching for example Life on Earth (1979) and The Living Planet as an adult, I was struck by how carefully and skilfully they were told. The individual episodes in themselves and also how all of the episodes together form a whole, that they are not freestanding but intricately linked. The episodes tell a story that has a beginning and an end, and the sum total of each series becomes bigger than the individual episodes. So I had that in the back of my head when writing the thesis. (I should probably have mentioned him on the acknowledgement page.) Watching several series in a row is also a special experience, not least to see how the things one can do, both ethically and technically, change rapidly over the years.

Attenborough was (still is) a major player at BBC not least since he combined an academic and scientific foundation with a background as network controller and manager at BBC. He more or less created BBC Two, and among other things he brought colour, snooker and Monty Python's Flying Circus to British television. But as important as all of that was, it is in bringing the wildlife and the science of it into the homes and offices of people all over the world that is his unique importance in the history of television. Of course Attenborough was not alone in making these films and series; there were producers, directors and camera men, as well as the BBC. You need to distinguish between the series which he just narrated and the ones that were his own projects. Those are the ones that really matters, the Life series. All of those series mentioned in this post are part of that major undertaking, which has now been going on for some 35 years. 

The series teach the viewers many things, such as how evolution works, the mating habits of crickets or the survival tactics of a giant bush in the desert. They also teach us how fragile the world is, how humans are threatening it through poaching, waste-dumping, deforestation and simply be becoming more and more plentiful for every year. They also remind us that we are one species among many, just another animal. We should not sentimentalize other animals, humans are not alone in our capacity for warfare and cruelty, but neither are we alone in being capable of feelings such as sorrow, affection, curiosity and joy. That is not a question of anthropomorphism, I would rather suggest that it is arrogant to assume that such feelings are uniquely human. But that is another discussion.

Attenborough is now 87 years old but he is still hard at work, and I am looking forward to his next series. Here are some clips from earlier years. The first one is from The Trials of Life (1990).

Here are some sea cows, from The Life of Mammals (2002):

And this extraordinary sequence with Attenborough and mountain gorillas from Life on Earth (1979):

These scenes emphasis the everyday life of animals, and Attenborough himself. The many wordless sequences of astonishing beauty and awe (or horror) you will have to find for yourself. 

Thursday 17 October 2013

Favourite films #2 (2013 version)

Last year Sight & Sound published their decennial list of "the best films" ever made. I published my top ten too. Since it was a pain to choose ten films I have now allowed myself to make a new list with films that might as well have ended up on last year's list. Here they are, in chronological order. I still enforce the rule that any director gets only one film. 15 films was the target this time but I failed...

Sherlock Jr. (Buster Keaton 1924, US)
Sunrise (F.W. Murnau 1927, US)
La grande illusion (Jean Renoir 1937, France)
The Shop Around the Corner (Ernst Lubitsch 1940, US)
They Were Expendable (John Ford 1945, US)
Letter From an Unknown Woman (Max Ophüls 1948, US)
The Red Shoes (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger 1948, UK)
Casque d'or (Jacques Becker 1952, France)
A Star is Born (George Cukor 1954, US)
Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks 1959, US)
The Apartment (Billy Wilder 1960, US)
Le doulos (Jean-Pierre Melville 1962, France)
Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean 1962, UK)
The Leopard (Luchino Visconti 1963, Italy)
Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese 1976, US)
After Life (Hirokazu Koreeda 1998, Japan)

Here are the ten films that were on the previous list:

Holiday (George Cukor 1938, US)
The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir 1939, France)
Laura (Otto Preminger 1944, US)
A Matter of Life and Death (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger 1946, UK)
My Darling Clementine (John Ford 1946, US)
The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks 1946, US)
Force of Evil (Abraham Polonsky 1948, US)
Journey to Italy (Viaggio in Italia, Roberto Rossellini 1954, Italy)
Le samouraï (Jean-Pierre Melville 1967, France)
The Day of the Jackal (Fred Zinnemann 1973, UK/France)