Monday, August 16, 2004

The Bad and the Boom Shot

This is one of those posts that deals with a very minor topic, so beware. I've previously noted that the director Vincente Minnelli favored long takes throughout his long career. That is, instead of shooting a scene from different angles and then cutting from one character to another, he preferred to shoot as much as possible in long uninterrupted shots, creating different compositions and angles by moving the camera instead of cutting. (In this, as he mentioned in the above interview, he was influenced by the director Max Ophuls.) This is very different from the way most Hollywood movies are made today, and it's doubtful that a Hollywood director would be allowed to get away with doing a whole scene with no cuts, the way Minnelli often did and the way other directors sometimes did. Hollywood producers have always preferred that their directors shoot a lot of "coverage" (i.e. shooting a scene from different angles) so the producer will have more leeway to change things in the editing room, but in practice, a director could sometimes shoot a scene in one take and declare it complete if he liked what he had wrought. Now the demand for coverage, for more and more footage with which to edit, is much greater, and non-American directors who come to work in Hollywood sometimes note that they are expected to shoot a scene from more angles, and allow for more editing, than they're used to. (Then of course there's Woody Allen, who prefers to shoot most scenes without any cutting at all. But how long has it been since Woody Allen movies have been relevant to a discussion of, well, anything?)

Anyway, to give an idea of the way Minnelli worked, I thought I'd go through the DVD of his finest non-musical movie, The Bad and the Beautiful, and point out some of the spots where he goes longer without cutting than we'd nowadays expect. (The movie, one of my favorites, deserves a post on its themes, characters, writing, etc., but right now I'm in a nit-picking mood.)

The opening features a succession of scenes introducing each of the three people Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas) worked with and betrayed in some way. Each character's introductory scene is done in one uninterrupted take with no cuts. (The scene with Barry Sullivan, playing a director, features him doing an elaborate tracking shot in on a starlet -- Minnelli's little self-parody of his own penchant for elaborate camera movements.) The most elaborate of these shots is the one introducing Lana Turner's character: it starts with Turner's maid picking up the phone, and then the camera moves to show Turner in a mirror, then to Turner, seated in front of another mirror; then the camera follows Turner as she gets up and moves to another phone, and moves in for a close-up as she picks up the phone and listens in on the conversation that's taking place.

12 minutes and 30 seconds into the picture comes another elaborate long take (there are lots of other little scenes with no cuts or few cuts; I'm just picking out the highlights), at a Hollywood party. As the scene begins, a heavily-accented guy -- a producer or director -- is talking to someone about his latest picture. In the background, through a window, we see Douglas and his friends (this is a flashback, to when he still had friends) arrive to crash the party. They look through the window, point to the party, and walk out of the shot. The accented guy starts to walk as he talks, and the camera follows him through the crowded room. As he walks out of the shot, Douglas and his friends walk in through the front door, and the camera follows them sideways as they walk in and start to mingle. They walk past another guy talking excitedly. The camera moves past that guy. Douglas and friends start walking to the back of the room. The camera follows them to the back of the set, moving toward and then past a woman singing "Don't Blame Me" at the piano. (A woman who bears a suspicious resemblance to a young Judy Garland, by the way; make of that what you will.) The camera moves closer to Douglas and his friends, who are listening to an excitable blond starlet talking at a rapid pace. Finally Douglas and Barry Sullivan watch a waiter go into another room, and they follow him into that room and out of the shot... at which point we finally cut, to the other room. The amount of rehearsal this scene must have required, both for the actors and the cameraman, is probably staggering; what's more, it's not done without sound, the way an elaborate shot might have been done in a European movie; the sound is mostly recorded "live" and rehearsed just like the camera movements.

19:27 - The scene where Douglas and Barry Sullivan get the idea to do a horror picture ("Doom of the Cat Men") without showing the monsters. (This was of course inspired by the career of Val Lewton, producer of "Cat People," though almost everything else about Douglas's character is based on David O. Selznick.) Another scene done in only one take, with many camera movements -- the camera follows Douglas and Sullivan into the projection room and then follows Douglas as he gets up, walks around, dims the lights, etc -- and changes of lighting which have to be handled in the middle of the shot.

35:05 - The scene where Sullivan discovers that Douglas has taken his (Sullivan's) pet idea and given it to another director. The scene proceeds in yet another uninterrupted take (again, one of many) for about a minute, until Douglas mentions that he's given the project to the other director -- only then do we cut to a close-up of Sullivan, one of the first true close-ups in the whole movie. The confrontation between Sullivan and Douglas takes in a few more close-ups, a few of Sullivan, and a few of Douglas; then the confrontation ends and we go back to another long medium shot with a moving camera. For Minnelli, the close-up was a special effect, something to be used only at moments of maximum emotional voltage, when it would have a big impact. Cutting to a close-up was not something to be done casually; it was something to surprise you after all that time without any cuts. And by his avoidance of cutting and close-ups, he really gives those things an impact when he does them.

56:06 - The camera cuts to a close shot, over romantic music, of Douglas and Lana Turner sharing a drink. They drink -- and suddenly, without cutting, a door swings open in the background, the camera changes focus and pulls back, and several characters enter the room, including the director Henry Whitfield (Leo G. Carroll playing a parody of Alfred Hitchcock) and Douglas's right-hand man Harry (Walter Pidgeon). An argument ensues between the two of them, with Douglas listening; meanwhile, Turner leaves the room, and, after a while, Gaucho (Gilbert Roland) enters the room and takes Douglas aside. By the time there's another cut -- to Gaucho's car, parked outside -- another minute has gone without any cuts, and we've had several changes of mood and camera angle within that uninterrupted take.

1:19:57 - Turner's famous crying scene, in a car on a dark and stormy night (tm), consists of two longish takes separated by one insert of her foot on the brake. Minnelli had a mock-up of a car rigged up in the studio and moved the camera around inside the car while the car itself was being jerked around, creating a feeling that both Turner's emotions and the car are spinning out of control. How many movies do you see with elaborate camera movements inside a car? A car is usually the one place where even the most visually inventive directors give up trying to move the camera, but Minnelli found a way, and he found a way to make it technically and emotionally effective.

1:25:44 - The scene where the Faulkner-esque writer (Dick Powell) and his distracting, Zelda Fitzgerald-esque wife (Gloria Grahame) get a call from Douglas asking Powell to come to Hollywood. The shot starts on Powell, in the foreground (with the door to the room in the background), trying to work and, as usual, finding himself distracted by the Southern-belle antics of his wife. The maid comes in to bring him some food, and goes out again. He tries to work and can't. The phone rings, he picks it up, and Grahame comes rushing in through the door. As she joins Powell, the camera does a 90 degree turn and also moves in closer on the chair where Powell is sitting, becoming a two-shot of Powell on the phone and Grahame, by his side, listening (there's quite a bit in this movie about listening in on other people's phone conversations). The camera stays at this angle for the rest of the phone conversation; when Powell hangs up, the camera moves back a bit for the conversation between Powell and Grahame. Then the scene ends; two and a half minutes, several changes of situation, mood and angle, no cuts.

1:51:32 - The big final confrontation scene between Powell and Douglas is, again, one uninterrupted take, no cuts. I call attention to this one not because it has any huge technical challenges -- though, again, the amount of rehearsal it requires must be more than the average movie scene requires -- but just because there's traditionally been an idea that in movies, drama = cutting. (The old books on film technique and film "language" always used to be based on this idea, that comedy is about long takes and wide angles, but drama is about cutting and close-ups.) Minnelli doesn't accept this, obviously; here's one of the biggest dramatic scenes in the movie, and there are no cuts; the drama is created by the actors interacting, reacting to each other in real time and real space. That's the biggest advantage of the long-take technique: you get the sense that you're seeing actors together, meeting each other's eyes and reacting to one another's movements. A cut, cut, cut approach to a scene can be effective, but it isolates the actors, picking them out one at a time according to who's speaking. Minnelli's approach isn't any less manipulative than cutting (I think there used to be a theory in some circles that long takes are more "democratic" because they allow the audience to choose what to look at, but of course the director is always finding ways to call our attention to what he wants us to look at, even within a long shot), but it certainly is different, and in some ways -- especially when the actors work well together -- more satisfying.

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