AGAINST BOKEH

In the new issue of Film Comment, Violet Lucca writes about the narrative fiction films at SXSW: “Over and over, the same tired visual aesthetics – endless two shots, extreme closeups, identical color palettes, soft focus, and bokeh effects — were competently deployed…”

The same week I read that a New York Times critic was complaining about the paper’s policy of reviewing every feature which plays theatrically in that city. Apparently – while there is comparatively little theatrical market for independent films – the appearance of a theatrical life is crucial in order to  differentiate one’s indy New-Yorkers-on-a-caper movie from all the other indy New-Yorkers-on-a-caper movies vying for … for …

Vying for what, exactly? A couple of decades ago I and other filmmakers would occasionally “four wall” a film in the cinema. I did it with DEATH & THE COMPASS. We didn’t make any money doing this: but – like screening the film in festivals – it raised the profile of the picture and counted towards better television and video or DVD sales. Since 2008 DVD and TV revenues have tanked (at least in this producer’s experience); meanwhile, who has seen substantial revenue, or any revenue, from streams or downloads?

One of the producers of SLACKER 2011 told me he didn’t think independent film should necessarily be “monetizable” any more. He felt that films would continue to be made for their own sake, as art, and – presumably – made available for free. With a crowd-funded budget, a filmmaker doesn’t have to worry about “the back end”, nor can she be judged by how much money her last picture made, so cutting the toxic bonds of owing money from the process should result in better, freer art.

But will it? Violet Lucca’s list of repetitive visual aesthetics is shocking. I plead guilty to the two-shot crime (I would always prefer to see two actors in the frame than be subjected to the more-tedious and predictable “exchange of close-ups”). But I agree with her about the rest. Leone and Peckinpah made high art from extreme closeups, but they were working with interesting faces (Lee Van Cleef! Gian Maria Volonte! Emilio Fernandez! Warren Oates!) rather than the current crop of fetus-pups. The problem of identical color palettes is serious and extends beyond indy movies. Consider the trailers for the superhero and action fare: all cool-blue office suites, followed by warm-orange diesel explosions. What weirdo market research / psy-op dictated these arbitrary color palettes to a generation of gaffers and art departments?

And thence to soft focus, a.k.a. bokeh. “Bokeh” is a word invented by the Japanese, I think, to describe the quality of an out-of-focus background. Somehow, a “film look” – meaning something shot on video which manages to look like film – has been conflated, by photography magazines and certain filmmakers, with “bokeh”. According to this theory, all you need do is open up the lens and throw the background out of focus, and your Red epic will look like it was shot on 35mm film!

This is wrong. Also, it is a courts martial offence, punishable by death. When we talk film, we are talking narrative storytelling. An out-of-focus background is an out-of-focus background, a technical matter of no concern to anyone but the cameraperson and her focus puller. It says something about their unique and detail-oriented culture that the Japanese could come up with the concept of “bokeh”, develop it, and rate lenses on the basis of it. But it has nothing to do with film per se. Here are two images, one with bokeh, one without.

Bokeh_Lizardfig. 1Al_Mulockfig.2

Both, I think, are good. Bokeh is inevitable when one’s subject is very tiny and some
distance away, as in fig. 1; but when working with an experienced actor like Al Mulock and a great set by Giancarlo Simi (fig. 2), the filmmaker can celebrate his visage and  the location simultaneously. One might argue that the latter – a wide-lens image with everything in focus – is more cinematic. I would argue that. Certainly it is harder to do.

CITIZEN KANE, still regarded by one or two old fuddy-duddies as the greatest motion picture of all time, is a triumph of wide-lens, everything-in-focus cinematography. Bokeh defenders will perhaps riposte, no, but, the out-of-focus background shows that character’s alienation from their environment, and… I get it. But it’s also possible to show their alienation, on location, through framing, or through acting, or afterwards, through editing or sound design.  But this is harder work, because you must deal with the environment, rather than throw it out of focus to hide the stuff that doesn’t look right.

Meanwhile, Mick LaSalle complains in the San Francisco Chronicle that it’s impossible to review GODZILLA or the bulk of the crop of visual effects films because the human element is so diminished: the actors are reduced to minor players who flee while dinosaurs fight and things explode. I know what he means, because in the ideal world  I too would rather see a movie in which Al Mulock got to act, rather than a CGI version of Stumpy in fig. 1 destroy Las Vegas. On the other hand, Mulock is dead (he died, sadly and bizarrely, before the above scene was complete) and only CGI can bring him back, as it’s done with Hepburn and McQueen. And on the other, other hand, I still enjoy seeing giant reptiles destroy cities.

Lucca and the Times critic and LaSalle are all addressing the problem that the current model isn’t working. “Indy” films are stuck in a rut as deep as that of the giant-monster, super-hero, talking-animal Hollywood model. Both are cautious and technology-dependent. Both are relying on formulae – the rom-com, humans versus giant monsters flee! flee! – which were out-dated in the 1950s.

This cinema must change. When good films get made, they stand out. For me, HOLY MOTORS and A FIELD IN ENGLAND are very encouraging signs. But there must be many more films and filmmakers willing to break with the conventions of their world, giant or small, and to escape the genre traps they’ve dug themselves into, like the hole-diggers of A FIELD IN ENGLAND.

If you’re going to go to all the trouble of filming an indy film, why the heck don’t you do something with it? Make something that amazes people, or f##ing well freaks them out? Show us something we haven’t seen before – not something that disgusts us necessarily, but certainly something that challenges our expectations and surprises us.

And if you’re in the business of throwing away hundreds of millions of corporate dollars on mindless entertainment, why not really go for it and dispense with actors and plot entirely? There is no dignity in running back and forth in front of a green screen pointing at where the giant monster will be, nor in writing scripts in which such scenes unfold. Get rid of the humans, the scientists, the soldiers, the love interest, the minority children, and the screenwriters, and give us ninety minutes of solid monsters fighting.

Phil Tippett is heading in an original direction with MAD GOD, an unconventional sf-horror tale without protagonist or traditional narrative. Right now it’s 20 crowdfunded minutes long, but why not 90? Or 120? He cannot be alone in this. King Harvest must surely come!

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