Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Little Foxes

The Little Foxes does for depth of field what Birth of a Nation did for cross-cutting.

I suppose this was supposed to be a liberal film. Lillian Hellman wrote the screenplay from her own play, and there’s no doubt that it’s a bitter satire of rapacious industrial capitalism. The new class of merchants, personified by the Giddens clan (L to R below: Oscar, Regina, Ben) is accused of exploiting the poor (and black) for their own depraved ends. So far so good. But what alternative does the film offer? The late lamented southern aristocracy, represented here by Aunt Birdie (that’s her in the background, drunk and ignored.) That’s right, we’re supposed to believe that industrial capitalism is more exploitative than SLAVERY. If this weren’t racist enough, the portrayal of blacks in the film is, well, let’s just say problematic.

But no one watches The Little Foxes for its insights into the shift from agricultural to industrial capitalism. We watch it to see Bette Davis be eeevil, and for cinematographer Greg Tolland’s depth of field. In this shot you have the whole movie, basically: Aunt Birdie gets pushed to the background, Bette Davis sits in the middle, scheming with/against her brothers, and this is all conveyed through staging in depth. And the stairs in the background, which I’ll come back to in a bit.

AndrĂ© Bazin’s big point about staging in depth was that it is more democratic because the audience, when given the opportunity to scan the image at its own leisure, was more involved in constructing the meaning of each shot for itself. Compare this to continuity editing, where the audience is led step by step to the only possible reading of each scene. Ideally, for Bazin, you’d have a lot of shots like the following, where Xan and her father Horace enter the hotel in the background while David scans the newspaper in the foreground. This is one of the more natural looking, least choreographed stagings in the film, and it gives a sense that these characters inhabit a more complex but freer social space.

Compared to this, the schemers are often squeezed tightly into the frame, even though the house is certainly large enough to give them some space.

This works very well to convey information about character and story--their world is menacing and claustrophobic. One other nice example: here various characters are gathered around Horace on his deathbed. We get a shot of (L to R) the doctor, Xan, and the nanny Addie. (Yeah, Addie is shoved to the back. See what I mean by problematic?) The three are united in the frame, just as they are united in their concern for Horace.

Then the camera pans to the left to reveal Regina, isolated and uncaring.

The lesson from this is that depth of staging is what you make of it. It’s not necessarily democratic, and it’s not even necessarily less theatrical. Apart from Bette Davis, the most important character in the film is the stairway. It’s a good way to show the hierarchical nature of southern society, and it makes for some dramatic framings.

But compared to the way Renoir can use the camera to show social relations between characters in any setting, inside or out, it seems like a weakness that Wyler has to rely so much on such a heavy-handed symbol. But I guess that fits the film's fuzzy-headed politics.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Face of Garbo

In Mythologies, Roland Barthes says that Garbo in Queen Christina "represents this fragile moment when cinema is about to draw an existential from an essential beauty, when the archetype leans towards the fascination of mortal faces."

That may be. But the film feels more like a defense of the star system as monarchy.

"The people follow blindly the generals who lead them to destruction. Will they not follow us, who lead them beyond themselves where there is grace and beauty, gaiety and freedom?"

"Europe is an armed camp, your majesty."

Well yes, in 1933 it was headed in that direction. But I hardly think monarchy was the solution.

"Must I smile for the masses, chancellor?"

No, Greta, you can just sit there and look gauzy and ethereal.


Yeah, we get it--she's an icon.

But uh oh! She falls in love with the Spanish ambassador. Forbidden fruit, y'know.

And because the Swedish people love her too much to allow her to pollute her pure Aryan blood by marrying a filthy spick, they storm the palace.

This is the part that I think is interesting. She stops them with the power of her gaze, in extreme close-up. This is the tightest shot in the film.

"No petition? No speech? You come then just for a glimpse at me?" Well actually, that's what monarchs are for. It's all a performance.

Her argument here is this: "I don't come down to the smithy to tell you how to be a blacksmith, so don't come here to the palace to tell me how to rule. My father was good at it, so therefore I'm good at it too." And they accept this. No matter that it's already been established that the peasants don't particularly LIKE being sent off to Germany to fight in a pointless war, all for the glory of the monarchy and the church. They are a mob, and so they have no political will. They are ultimately insubstantial and indistinguishable, just like their shadows:

Crisis averted! Whew, that was a close one. Good thing they don't know about democracy. Don't question your rightful leaders! And don't stop worshiping your movie stars! Only problem is it turns out she doesn't actually WANT to be queen.

"I'm tired of being a symbol, chancellor. I long to be a human being."

See, stars deserve their privacy too. She abdicates.

And rides off into the sunset.

But does that look like a "mortal face?" Not really--the director had to create a special filter to get the most flattering shot possible.

One interesting note: the famous scene when she walks around the room in which she's trysted (as they say) with the Spanish ambassador--the scene Bertolucci quotes in The Dreamers--was so strictly planned that she did it to a metronome. (This is according to IMDB.) So at precisely the point when the character has escaped most thoroughly and feels most free, the actress is most strictly controlled.