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February 03, 2006

No vista, no vision

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I've been thinking about a recent posting in Cinematical. Specifically, the comments by Todd McCarthy about "visually clueless" filmmakers. Unlike McCarthy, I do not believe that the problem is limited to young filmmakers working usually with limited finances and video. My own feeling is that there really aren't too many Anglo-American filmmakers who really care about the concept of having a visual style.

A book that articulates much of this problem is Susan Sontag's On Photography. My own experience as a photographer supports Sontag's main argument. For most people, a "good" photograph is one that essential documents whatever the subject is, and is clearly lit and in focus. Especially with the advent of digital photography, simply getting the shot trumps concerns about composition, or zones of light. For most people viewing film, the concern is whether the cinematography is functional rather than expressive.

It would be too easy to simply blame television, but the fact is that the smaller screen that many of us grew up with was not conducive to visual subtlety. Now that home screens have gotten bigger, perhaps that will change, but I am not optimistic. The directors McCarthy cites generally grew up watching movies in large "palaces" with big screens. The younger filmmakers film going experience is now more likely to be at a multiplex. Budgets and resources also mean nothing. Orson Welles is proof that all you need is a camera and an artistic sensbility.

The documentary It's All True follows the making and unmaking of Welles' South American film. Welles is filmed, camera in hand, shooting a group of fishermen rowing their boat. The shot is to appear as if the camera was pointing up from the water, with the fishermen seen against the sky. A crew of men lift the boat along the beach with the fishermen inside the boat while Welles moves along side them with his camera. The edited shots of the fishermen are unmistakebly as Wellsian as anything in Citizen Kane or The Magnificent Ambersons. My own conclusion was that given a Super 8 camera, Orson Welles couldn't help but create a film that would display his particular visual style.

I have seen some good films that were shot on video, such as the Dogme 95 films The King is Alive and Italian for Beginners, and Rebecca Miller's Personal Velocity. Can one have the same kind of "visual adventurousness" with video that Scorsese, Malick, etc., have been able to create on film? Maybe. But I can't just blame the filmmakers. There needs to be more visually educated film critics as well as a more discerning audience. And if, as McCarthy has said, the films at Sundance were made by filmmakers who are "visually clueless", then it would seem that also in need of a clue would be the Sundance programmers.

Posted by peter at February 3, 2006 01:55 AM