March 12, 2013

The Parallax View and the Sublime visual style

Finally tracked down a copy of this '70s paranoia thriller from the local used record store. It was available on Netflix Streaming a couple years ago, and was the very reason I signed up for it, as the DVD was/is out of print. And goddamn if the very next day its expiration date had passed!

Movie-watching was so much more satisfying when we had the neighborhood video rental store that stocked a library/archive of classics as well as cult classics. On Netflix Streaming, the classics are absent ("too expensive to license"), and the cult classics fade in for a couple months and then expire for good. And forget about renting anything from Redbox that's older than a few years. But moving on...

Striking art relies on strong contrasts or juxtapositions, firing the opposite ends of some spectrum in our brain at the same time. Hot and cool colors, for example. Done right, the combination produces a heady effect in the viewer. When the creators are no longer capable of, or the audience becomes uninterested in such striking visuals, the balance is thrown in either of two directions -- toward washed-out, slurry homogeneity (The Matrix) or toward collage-like information overload (Requiem for a Dream).

So, even if you find yourself unable to resonate with the plotlines, dialogue, or characterization of older movies (and they did those things better too), you should at least be able to enjoy their visual awesomeness. And The Parallax View is no exception, thanks largely to the cinematography of the legendary Gordon Willis (The Godfather series, All the President's Men, Manhattan). Movies have to be seen to be believed, but for this one still images give a very good idea since the camera doesn't move around very much and there is generally not a lot of fast-paced action.

What follows is a review of the major contrasts employed throughout the movie. Perhaps later in the week I'll follow up with a short discussion of what larger artistic traditions it is a part of, and why certain styles achieve greater success in some periods rather than others.

First, and most memorably, the contrast in size between tiny human-scale figures vs. gigantic architecture. Whether it's a scuffle on top of the Seattle Space Needle or strolling below your corporate skyscraper, taking a quiet ride up the escalator or standing trapped below a dam whose gates have just opened up, the helplessness of the characters is made palpable. (Click any image to enlarge.)

However, the aesthetic of powerlessness is not used for voyeuristic, masochistic effect -- whereas contemporary audiences seem to get off on futility porn -- but to serve as a rude awakening. Sometimes all that happens is the guy reaches the top of the escalator, but then other times the guy plummets off the roof to his death. It humbles the audience, awakening a feeling of dread about the uncertainty and topsy-turviness that human beings experience in such over-powering environments.

Next is the contrast between dark and bright lighting. Natural lighting conditions tend to produce more uniform levels -- brighter when the sun's out, darker when it's gone. Seeing both vivid brightness and saturated darkness at the same time provides a powerful yet unconscious appreciation for how unusual, even unsettling, the circumstances are. And because the brightness comes from human ingenuity (fires, lamps, lightbulbs), it also subtly massages the parts of our brain that respond to the natural vs. the artificial at the same time.

Bright vs. dark for lighting leads into sharp vs. blurry for focus. As I discussed here, this is so much more striking when the movie is shot with an anamorphic lens. The shallow focus makes the object we're supposed to be looking at very crisp, and everything else in front of or behind it more blurry. That stylizes the mise-en-scene so that we don't have to explore every little detail and ask "Is this important?" as we would in real life. Giving too much freedom to the audience takes us out of the experience, which should be more like going on a ride and getting lost in the moment.

Shallow focus also allows the movie to tease us with only hazy hints of what's going on in the background as we attend to the main action in the foreground. We may be able to see the rough forms of human faces, but what exact expressions are they making -- what are their plans for those in the foreground? Or maybe the foreground face looks clearly upbeat, while the background faces -- we can't quite tell -- look a little nervous. Why?

This is one of the most effective techniques for building tension that will be resolved once the figures move to occupy space at the same distance from the camera, allowing us at last to see clearly how they'll interact. Details that are crisp at too many distances = giving away all information up front, no suspense.

Finally, and related to the focus contrast, is the contrast between open vs. occluded space. Both prevent a deep 3-D depth perspective from forming. Instead of -- or in addition to -- making certain things more salient by making them sharp and the rest blurry, the artist can also place those things so that they're transparent to our line of sight, and just shove huge opaque objects in the way to block out the rest. But in order for it to not look so ham-fisted, they can't look like stage props that were dumped right into the foreground; they have to be jutting in from the edges of the frame.

This technique produces a similar tension in the audience that shallow focus does. When the background is blurry, we want to squint a little bit and make out some important details better -- not all, but at least something like facial expressions. We feel slightly frustrated and anxious. When those details are instead occluded by large planes, we want to crane our neck or walk over to take a different viewpoint, one that'll allow more to come into view. It's like, "if only that damn camera would move, we'd get a better angle!" Though again, giving the audience too much freedom would rob them of the thrill of feeling suspense.

Along with the tiny vs. gigantic size contrast, the open vs. occluded space contrast gives the film its signature look. It appears constantly throughout the movie, so any single image may not do justice to the feeling you pick up over the course of watching it. It's used to greatest effect in exterior scenes, where occlusions that take up two-thirds of the frame create a sense of claustrophobia in what should be the wide-open outdoors. So fucking awesome-looking.

Below I've included a three-frame sequence of a plane heading for the runway, that's just had a bomb planted inside it. We want to know what's going on in there, yet that damn building is standing right in our way! This occluded shot goes on for what seems like forever, and by the end the suspense is killing us.

Sometimes the effect is not so strong, as when it's the walls of a building that blocks our sight, with only a small window for transparency (see below). I think this fails to produce tension in the viewer because we know that no matter where we placed the camera, and no matter what angle we looked at, we could never get around the mighty enclosing walls of that building. So we don't sweat it and accept the limited view with little anxiety. Only if we could switch to a more open view, yet are frustrated in that by the placement and angle of the camera, do we start to feel nervous.

The only major contrast that they didn't exploit is hot vs. cool colors, for example contrasting reds and oranges with blues and greens. Come to think of it, most of the otherwise sublime-looking movies of the '70s don't go there either, such as Chinatown or Three Days of the Condor. Color contrast had to wait for the decade of neon blue and neon pink. Throughout the '80s, the earlier contrasts were still being used, but now also the full wild rainbow of color. Blade Runner, Manhunter, and Black Rain hypnotized audiences with color contrast not seen since Art Deco architecture, Empire/Regency design, or the painting of El Greco and Rubens.

In fairness, The Parallax View is meant to be more naturalistic than supernaturalistic in its atmosphere of menace and paranoia, and a kaleidoscope of colors would have detracted from that. Still, although that choice is the best suited to the larger goals of the film, it does leave the viewer wanting something on a purely visual level. Again, it doesn't matter what you think about the plotlines, dialogue, and characterization of the '80s movies mentioned above -- their other-worldly narratives open up an even greater range of sublime images.


  1. Blade Runner, Manhunter, and Black Rain hypnotized audiences with color contrast not seen since Art Deco architecture, Empire/Regency design, or the painting of El Greco and Rubens.

    What about giallo films. Mario Bava, Dario Argento? They hypnotised audiences with wild splashes of colour long before Blade Runner.

  2. Movies today are grotesquely in your face. While there are cases of nice panoramic shots, the producers cant help but smear digital effects lipstick all over the canvas-.

    I think women viewers care more about a face expressing pleasure than the object that evokes the pleasure. Hence the shots like picking boogers out of jack and rose flying on the titanic, edward and bella in a constant three way with the camera, and every fucking show on TV.

    And the 3D? Who the hell wants shit right up in front distracting you.

  3. "What about giallo films."

    I give the award to who did it the best, rather than who did it first. There was a rebirth of color contrasts during the 1960s (not only in movies). But a major cultural change does not reach its peak at the beginning. It takes time to mature.

    In the same way, Duran Duran made greater music than The Beatles, Talk Talk was greater than The Animals, Bryan Ferry was greater than Elvis, Bananarama was greater than The Supremes, and Judas Priest in the late '70s - mid '80s was greater than Black Sabbath in the early '70s.

  4. "And the 3D? Who the hell wants shit right up in front distracting you."

    IMAX too. I'm not sure exactly how it interferes with the experience -- but it puts a little strain on my eyes. I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark in IMAX last summer, and it felt a little bit off -- nothing as bad as releasing it in 3-D, but it didn't feel right.

    Maybe it was depth perception or resolution of detail (focus/blur), I couldn't tell because I tried to just ignore it and enjoy the movie.

    I do know that movies shot for IMAX don't give the shallow focus that anamorphic lenses do. That came out obviously during The Dark Knight Rises, where those crowd melee scenes in front of the bank (or city hall or whatever) were shot in IMAX, whereas the majority was shot in Panavision.

    Those scenes had much greater depth of field, and distracted me with fights clearly in focus at all kinds of distances from the camera.

  5. "In the same way, Duran Duran made greater music than The Beatles, Talk Talk was greater than The Animals, Bryan Ferry was greater than Elvis, Bananarama was greater than The Supremes, and Judas Priest in the late '70s - mid '80s was greater than Black Sabbath in the early '70s."
    What? If you hadn't already made some other bizarre claims I'd assume you were taking the piss. I don't even think the bands you mention would agree. I could understand a claim like "Pete Townsend was better than Link Wray", but let's not get ridiculous.

  6. Well you haven't heard many songs by any of those groups, from the '60s or especially the '80s. Sometime in the last couple years you admitted that you'd never heard a song by Prince, which didn't stop you from passing judgement.

    By transitivity, you've heard little or nothing from the other '80s groups I mentioned.

    Duran Duran vs. the Beatles is not very debatable, although that's the best match between a '60s group and their "spiritual successor" in the '80s. The rest of the contests are slam dunks.

    Go listen to Talk Talk's first two albums. Their more developed style of angry outsider rock blows the balls of the Animals, who aren't a bad band. Mark Hollis, the singer, got his start in the punk scene. But like Billy Idol he decided to go for greater musicianship and emotional range in the '80s, instead of the stripped-down aesthetic of punk, which left it with nothing to run on but pure attitude -- hence uninteresting as music.

  7. And tell me what songs you know fairly well already -- without YouTube-ing their Wikipedia discography article -- by the Supremes and by Bananarama.

    BTW, for other readers, check out Bananarama's self-titled album from 1984. It's catchy and bouncy like their later songs, but a shade more dark/ominous, and more new wave / synth-pop stylistically. Probably the best "girl group" album, song for song.

  8. Or since you Millennials are so lazy, try out "Riding on the Wind" vs. "Paranoid". Similar intentions for both songs, but Priest have a far richer sound, greater skills at both composing and performing / improvising, and don't just get you up out of your seat but kick your ass out the window.

    Ha, just remembered this post by a classically trained voice teacher, her take on 5 heavy metal singers:

    She really digs the octave range, expressiveness, and overall technique of Bruce Dickinson, Ronnie James Dio, and Rob Halford (and she's only hearing a '76 recording, not their peak). Thinks that King Diamond is all talent but no substance -- also correct. And what about Ozzy Osbourne?

    " command of vocal technique... his throat is so tight that there is no flow or resonance. His rhythmic punctuation of the lyrics is very distracting... I was tempted to ask Cosmo how long his career lasted before he either washed out or needed surgery. The entire range of his singing is contained within a single octave..."

  9. Did I say I never heard a song by Prince? When I was in high school I was stuck in a room with "Purple Rain" on a loop, which certainly didn't endear me to him. It is true that I haven't heard much from him.

    I tried listening to a mix of Talk Talk, but have to admit I couldn't sit through more than five songs. Ugh. I don't consider them or the Animals to sound angry. The Animals sound bluesy (downright happy in their live performance of "Nobody But You" with Sonny Boy Williamson), Talk Talk sounds gay, presumably why Gwen Stefani covered them. The best of the bad bunch was their eponymous song, which I'd be much more averse to listening to again than the worst I've heard from the Animals.

    I do quite like Judas Priest's "Tyrant", though I'm not so keen on "Victim of Changes" which is supposed to be the standout track from that album. "Hell Bent For Leather" is perfectly serviceable stupid metal, but nothing special. "Green Manalishi" can't compare with Peter Green's extended jamming, but neither can Green's original studio version.

    For Priest's genre, I greatly prefer Iron Maiden, who had a more consistent output. If I had to choose between Maiden vs Sabbath, it's tough but I'm going with Sabbath. And I even agree that Ozzie is not a very good singer! Dio is clearly a better singer (I think Ozzy might have said as much), but the original incarnation of Sabbath is better than the one with Dio (better than Rainbow as well). It's a matter of more than one member's virtuoso performance, but coming together as more than a sum of their parts. Similarly, Bruce Dickinson is a better songer than Paul Di'anno, but I think the previous incarnation was better (on this I'll admit I'm likely in the minority). With Paul you can believe you're hearing former skinheads injecting a new vitality into the genre. Despite a fantastic debut with Dickinson I think they degraded into making bloated "epics", whereas even an extended Di'Anno track like "Phantom of the Opera" still fits in well beside their punk-tinged shorter numbers.

    Billy Idol is a joke. Admittedly, I've only heard his solo stuff rather than Generation X, but I haven't heard anyone say they were a particularly good band in their own right. I'm not as big a fan of the Clash as many others, but there's a reason the Ramones said that by Give 'Em Enough Rope they had been outdone. Billy Idol hasn't outdone anybody worth a damn.


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