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"Figures Traced in Light"- an excellent book!

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PostPosted: 03.22.2005 1:41 pm    Post subject: "Figures Traced in Light"- an excellent book! Reply with quote

A couple of days ago i finally received David Bordwell's book on cinematic staging and 4 (still relatively neglected) masters of the art from different periods of film history- Feuillade, Mizoguchi, Angelopoulos and Hou. What i've read so far, even setting aside our shared admiration for Mizo, is among the most important and impressive critical work i've had the pleasure to read. This is a writer who really understands and has studied in detail an overlooked subject, and the book is a much-needed corrective to current trends and values.

I could not agree more with his central point, set out in chapter 1, about the lack of study and appreciation of the expertise involved in complex and carefully shot + choreographed staging, in comparison with the praise and attention given to overblown yet often shallow + pointless editing and camerawork exemplified by today's dominant "intensified continuity" that's aimed mainly at enlivening dialogue and pace. Today, the average shot length has been considerably reduced, while Hollywood in particular relies on standard norms described by Bordwell as "stand and deliver" and (mobile camera) "walk and talk": more close ups on face and eyes, routine eyeline-matched reverse shots with no subtlety or originality, and more cuts, meaning "real climaxes must be treated with ever more outr? effects".

Techniques have become absurdly pumped up, attention spans are shorter, flashy effects given more credit than quieter meaningful mise-en-scene that allows for contemplation and minute observation. Film studies too have focused more on STYLE (strident techniques) than genuine style and skilful depth of framing.

Apart from the 4 directors given a chapter each, Bordwell also admires Ozu and Renoir (has written books on Eisenstein and Dreyer too), while of contemporary directors, Iosseliani, Oliveira, Tarr, Feher and Sokurov are credited with "creative revisions of staging". I'm not familiar with Feher but it's noticeable the others are no spring chickens.

Oh and in the last chapter, concentrating on competing theories and criticisms of his own approach, Bordwell is clearly no fan of a current rising film critic/ philosopher the Slovenian Slavoj Zizek, who at least is brave (or arrogant?) enough to have included The Sound of Music in his top 10 for Sight + Sound i noticed.

Anyway, do get this book which is surely essential for any serious lover or student of films. I only hope it will get wide distribution and proper attention on film courses so its lessons can filter down to prospective filmmakers as well as students, and even in time the wider public.

I can't resist quoting at length a Bordwell section on Mizoguchi that's music to my ears:

"Let every young film-maker take any late Mizoguchi film and watch. Let the student see how what is most significant can arrive effortlessly before us, often by the smallest resettling of figures or the simplest panning movement. Let the student observe how what is most dramatically important can shrink or hide itself- sometimes unobtrusively, sometimes in full view. Let the student plot how earlier phases of the action leave their traces in pathways and pigeonholes, to be reactivated when needed (often when least expected). If the student wants the camera to move (as all do), let him or her observe the timing by which a simple tracking shot permits figures, setting and framing to align, swerve apart, and reconverge; a compact choreography of delicate changes, with no pictorial dead spots and none of that hurly-burly of today's walks and talks. And above all let the student consider how almost every image grasps our attention as a splendid composition (which you want to explore in fine detail), a vessel of dramatic conflict (which you can scan for glances, facial expressions, compositional confrontations, imminent arrivals) and a tensely contained emotional field (which may erupt into violence or crumple into a zone of private feeling). The "enormous suggestive intensity" that Mizoguchi admired in Japanese art lies coiled and waiting for us in scene after scene of his late films. In an era when "visual literacy" means taking for granted those bursts of pointless cutting that purportedly energise a scene, Mizoguchi (like Ozu, but in a different way) gives us time to see everything. We could do worse than treat this oeuvre as an Academy for the Study of Staging".
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