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Monday, January 21, 2013

Les Miserables: Group f/64 & Pictorialism

If you haven't seen Les Miserables yet, go see it. You may have some trouble adjusting to a head-to-toe, front-to-back musical. You certainly may cry. You also, if you're like me, may notice how seldom the gorgeous sets and blocking are delivered to us in wide shots.

The wide shots are there, all of them very memorable and most of them in the trailers, but they're cut short and really only used at the beginning and end of scenes or during the ensemble songs; they're really almost never used in the midst of a solo or duet.

If you've had any friends gushing to you about the movie, I'm sure you've heard about Anne Hathaway's riveting performance. It's chilling and enthralling, and wonderfully delivered almost entirely in a single handheld closeup; the effect is to trap the audience and force them to face the character in that moment, without escape, in the way that she feels she's trapped with herself and with her life, without escape. You live every moment with the character as she's forced to live every moment in that anguish; it's a very accurate reproduction of what informs her emotional state at the time. Tom Hooper suggested as much in an interview for Reuters:
"I thought the great weapon in my arsenal was the close up, because the one thing on stage that you can't enjoy is the detail of what is going on in people's faces as they are singing," Hooper said. "I felt (that) having to do a meditation on the human face was by far the best way to bring out the emotion of the songs."
The suggestion is really at the root of the project's philosophy: what's unique to motion picture that will deliver Les Miserables (or any story) in a way that isn't possible in any other medium?

This is of course a very interesting question to me. It actually reminds me of the anti-Pictorialist movement headed by Group f/64 back in the early days of photography. Near the dawn of professional photography, (as opposed to the developmental age of photography, when only inventors and scientists had cameras) a movement was started by a handful of Impressionist photographers called Pictorialism: darkroom manipulations, filters, silver halide tampering, and orchestrated blocking of the scene resulted in emotional and imaginative imagery.

It also resulted in a lot of largely muddy and obscured imagery: soft-focus was a quintessential hallmark of Pictorialism. Silver halide tampering created the effect that a photographed portrait might have the textural quality of a painting.

In 1932 Group f/64 was formed of a gathering of photographers who had had enough of Pictorialism, including the young Ansel Adams. In its manifesto Group f/64 challenges us to define the medium of photography: what are the fundamental properties of photography which no other medium offers?
Group f/64 limits its members and invitational names to those workers who are striving to define photography as an art form by simple and direct presentation through purely photographic methods. The Group will show no work at any time that does not conform to its standards of pure photography. Pure photography is defined as possessing no qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other art form. The production of the "Pictorialist," on the other hand, indicates a devotion to principles of art which are directly related to painting and the graphic arts.
The result is the distinct reproductive realism we all recognize in Ansel Adam's photography.

Group f/64 presented the argument that photography has the unique capability to present its audience with unrivaled immediate accuracy to the visual form of the subject and although their efforts did find the uniquely enrapturing effect of the precise reproduction of a human face to be a pillar of the photographic medium as Tom Hooper suggests, they also found that the immediate, accurate representation of a location creates an emotional aesthetic effect unique to photography. In any other medium the depiction of an environment as an emotional presence is fanciful or at best a caricature of the location's qualifies.

Although the environment depicted certainly has emotional weight and presence, Group f/64 found that a photographed location could access a whole set of visceral parts of the mind: the quiet reptilian parts of the brain that figure out how to navigate a space, make quick assumptions about the texture of different surfaces or where potential dangers might be while the cognitive brain is busy with other things. There's a factual quality to the photographed image that tricks even the unimaginative parts of the mind to get involved.

Willard Van Dyke, one of the Group f/64 founders, expressed the location quality in motion picture; his location photography in The City (1939) defines the spaces with a factual realism which lends sequences like the industry montage at 07:43 a power of panicky immediacy. The sequence uses music and camera movement to heighten what the panic created when the factual quality of the image convinces the reptilian brain that it might be in the presence of suffocating, dirty soot.

So back to Les Miserables.

At the time, watching the movie, I was a little disappointed that I didn't feel the presence of the environment more (minus the opening; that boat!). Even in Javert's critical bridge scene, the major emotional element of the scene which should loom over him constantly throughout the song is only shown in cutaways once he's started singing. Group f/64 suggests that it's a primary quality of photography to be able to provide a factual sense of location: persistent, existential, present whether it's paid attention or not; the maw of the river might be depicted to that effect for Javert's state of mind, but is instead is treated as a tool: a set piece put in the same space as Javert in order for the plot to move along.

Which gets me to the funny feeling I got watching Les Miserables. Although the motion picture did put me right there, face to face with the characters in a way the stage performance never could, the way Hooper maximized that specific effect made the whole assembly feel more like a stage performance than a movie. Here's my rationale: if you took Group f/64's approach and asked what  the fundamental properties of theatre performance are, those properties which no other medium offers, I'd suggest for one that the way a stage production depicts location effectively amplifies the presence of the performers. Even the most elaborate theatre productions manipulate scale and rely on symbols to deliver the pertinent information; the audience's reptilian brain isn't fooled, no matter how enthralled the intellect is, and it can be coaxed into forgetting about that environment so the whole mind can engage with the actor on stage. The fact is that although the only look an audience member gets during a stage performance is the "wide shot," a fantastic performance and contoured lighting can make the setting recede entirely, focusing the audience's attention solely on the performing actor. The minimalist theatre trend is almost the Group f/64 for theatre: the character alone is present for the audience's full attention.

When I watch the new Les Miserables I have such little sense of the true geography of locations; fantastic curvilinear lensing on the few wides that flit across the screen give me the sense that the few well covered locations might be dishonest in their proportions: skewed and warped from reality for emotional effect. I don't trust the locations I do see as factual and at some point I even forget that there's a location or really anything at all to populate the world other than Anne Hathaway's face.

I think Group f/64 might have grouped Tom Hooper in with the Pictorialists. Group f/64 might even recommend the 1998 Les Miserables; watching the clarity of geography in the clip below I could probably draw a map and make a decently detailed report of who was where and when.

Difference being that with this version I don't particularly care, certainly not in the way I cared about the characters in the new Les Miserables. As irked as I may have been every time the movie cut away prematurely from a gorgeous, rich wide shot to get back to its mediums and close shots, the final product is a unique entity that has all the intimacy and actor-centrism of a black-box theatre performance while still standing 30 feet tall and booming through Dolby Atmos. (another must, by the way)

So the conclusion that surprises me: is this close-up work a unique quality of motion picture bringing a new vibrance to a story from traditional theatre or is this a traditional theatre philosophy (the locations are set pieces, not factual presences) lending its unique emotional power to a motion picture?

Entirely academic and profoundly moot, of course, but it's nice to be made to think.

-Boa Simon

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