Actors no longer have that familiar sense of playfulness and informality to tap into when they're playing their roles. They have to use what they have available in their psychology, and within the constraints of the general social mood, to the greatest effect. And since our social mood is marked more strongly by distance, isolation, alienation, and so on, it's only natural that their performances will have a more noirish feel to them.
During the previous "age of anxiety," alienation, and cocooning -- the mid-century -- Sunset Boulevard reminded any middle-aged viewers longing for the good old days that it wasn't the Roaring Twenties anymore. Time to accept the same for the '60s, '70s, and '80s. However much you may like the culture from back then, it's impossible to recreate it today, even in spirit, because our mood has been running in the opposite direction for over 20 years now.
It's like expecting Expressionist paintings from a color-blind population, which would still not prevent it from producing its own masterworks, just taking a different approach that favored black and white contrasts or subtle shading or whatever else they thought of.
So I decided to see for myself tonight. I still stand by what I said earlier about its visuals, though it was a little better than I'd expected. It took me awhile to get back home after it was over, so I think I'll end this post with a little more on the visual style of the movie, and write up a separate post going into more detail about the plot, characterization, and themes that the critics don't seem to like so much, but which I thought were interesting. Just can't get it out before I go to sleep tonight, and this post is already long as it is.
As I'd expected, there's an overall lack of visual mystery that comes from not knowing how to get the most out of the anamorphic lens' shallow focus. There were two decent uses of it, though: when Lois Lane is reluctantly walking away from a vulnerable Superman, she's totally out of focus, and we only make out her head turning back -- with no resolution necessary to tell us what's on her face. And near the end when Superman and General Zod are about to show down on a city street, Zod is very out of focus some distance away, leaving us to imagine the determined and evil look on his face, and giving him a shadowy appearance.
There is also no pervasive atmosphere of foreboding that would've come from a strong chiaroscuro lighting scheme, as you see in Christopher Nolan's movies thanks to his cinematographer Wally Pfister. And the desaturated color palette kept the look too ordinary and familiar, where stronger colors would've made more of an impact. A striking plot and striking themes calls for striking visuals.
It doesn't have to be some sublime religious painting by Caravaggio for those qualities to be important. Go back to Nighthawks by Edward Hopper, where the bold colors and strong light-dark contrasts give what could've been an unremarkable, ordinary scene a rather disturbing charge. Through color and lighting alone, and not subject matter, we can tell that something is not as it should be in that world. Ditto for Jean-Leon Gerome's portrayals of the Near East -- they depict totally natural and largely secular subjects, but strong colors and chiaroscuro make us feel like we're not just observing any old ordinary scenes. It heightens their exotic appeal.
Both of those two painted in socially dull and inward periods -- the mid-century and the Victorian era -- so there's no reason that this approach couldn't work in our incarnation of the tame-and-kinda-lame society. Look how memorable the look of the Dark Knight movies and Inception is because of it. Or Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive before them.