Monday, 4 April 2016

Down These Mean Streets, A Camera Rolls

There’s some buzz surrounding the gimmick for Hardcore Henry, an action flick that captures the first person chaos of the video game experience. But it’s not the first movie to make a go of what the kids call “subjective camera.” It’s generally agreed on that there were two major moments for the technique in American film, and both of them happened in those heady days of black and white.

In 1931, director Rouben Mamoulian experimented with first person during the opening sequence for his remake of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Mamoulian was something of a genius, and fond of pushing the limits. (It worked out great until his career ended with back-to-back firings off of Porgy and Bess and then Cleopatra. Being a genius is a messy business.)

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde starts with leading man Fredric March’s shadow cast on sheet music as we watch his hands play the organ. When the doctor’s butler enters, the camera-as-your-eyes swerves to look at him, then quickly returns to the hands. This swerving motion doesn’t have anything in common with how a human head turns, so it’s a really disorienting sequence.

Dr. Jekyll moves to the hallway mirror next, where we first see him through his own eyes as he looks at his reflection and puts on his hat and cloak. We stay in his perspective for a few minutes, but not the whole movie. That’s a relief, because there’s a sluggishness to the forward motion of the camera. Dr. Jekyll seems to be taking very careful steps as he slowly, slowly makes his way out of the house.

(Jsyk, the rest of the movie is fantastic. Once you get to feast your eyes on March’s performance, it’s one for the ages.)

The decision to use first person does add an intriguing element to the story of Dr. Jekyll. Are we, the audience, supposed to feel as vulnerable as he is to his darker nature? Or are we trapped in Jekyll’s vision of the world – that there is bad within everyone – whether we think it’s true or not?

For me, as somebody who doesn’t see anything like Fredric March when I look in my hallway mirror, it makes the character curiously hollow. There isn’t anything inside Jekyll. It’s almost as though Hyde becomes inevitable, potion or not, simply because he’s the one who desires existence.

Henry Jekyll isn’t a relatable man, he’s a man eager to be possessed by anything that’s willing to take up residence behind his eyes.

It makes the film more eerie than tragic, and even though it’s a bumpy start, it sets the audience thinking about what they know about the story they’re about to see and what they might not have thought of. For an adaptation of a book that had already been successfully brought to the screen once before, it’s a refreshing idea.

By the by, the earlier version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was made in 1920, starred John Barrymore, was directed by John S. Roberston, and features its own quick moment of subjective camera in its opening sequence. Dr. Jekyll is at his microscope, and as he looks through we’re treated to an image of what he’s looking at on his slide. Nowadays, that’s not such a big deal, but for 1920, that was some ingenious filmmaking.

Rouben Mamoulian said many times that his interest wasn’t in creating realism in his films, but what he called “visual poetry.” In that sense, the ominous strangeness of his opening sequence is a success. It really does feel like the personal, mysterious pull of a poem with no particular meaning.

From Robert Louis Stevenson to Raymond Chandler and 1947’s The Lady in the Lake, and the first full-length film done in subjective camera. And it was directed by none other than the father of Elizabeth “Samantha Stephens” Montgomery! He wasn’t trying for poetry, though. He was trying to capture the experience of sharing a narrator’s memories – which is a substantially more elusive goal, and sounds kind of bonkers.

Robert Montgomery had been a cheerful rom-com star in the 30’s, had gone to war, and come home wanting to make a shift in his career. In 1945, he gave a haunting turn as a PT boat commander in John Ford’s They Were Expendable. During the shoot, Ford broke his leg, and asked Montgomery to take over while he was recovering. It went extremely well, and led to Montgomery’s brief career as a director.

He started with an adaptation of The Lady in the Lake, the fourth of Chandler’s novels featuring private detective Philip Marlowe. Marlowe had made it to the screen before, in The Big Sleep with Humphrey Bogart, and again in Farewell, My Lovely with Dick Powell. General consensus was that while the films were satisfying in their own right, they were disappointing adaptations. They lacked the feeling of the novels.

Montgomery’s solution was daring, and also a total mess. Marlowe’s strength as a first person narrator, he thought, could be captured with a film from his perspective. Like his physical perspective. Unfortunately, this totally misses the mark, because the best part about being in Marlowe’s head was his wry observations and insightful descriptions, which is why previous films had leaned heavily on narration.

Just prior to release, two breaks were inserted into Lady in the Lake where Montgomery-as-Marlowe sat at his desk and explained pieces of the story that couldn’t be captured with the limitations on the camera. This was a major warning sign that the film wasn’t going to work.

But, of course, that didn’t stop MGM hyping the crap out of it as the first movie starring… YOU! Like it was some choose your own adventure book where you got to solve a really boring murder.

There are a lot of unique choices in The Lady in the Lake, including eschewing conventional orchestration for a choir (the movie takes place at Christmas, and employs something between a Greek chorus and office carollers), and attempting long, hyper-real sequences. It’s these unblinking shots that create the most problems. They force you to notice the theatricality of leading lady Audrey Totter, who can’t really get up close and personal with Marlowe if he’s a camera that’s far away enough to capture her costume and all the nifty lighting tricks that are setting the noir mood.

Totter, along with Leon Ames and Dick Simmons, is stuck as a talking head with limited range of motion and emotion. Instead of being visually interesting, it makes the scenes with other characters dull and repetitive. And it's not like these were bad actors who weren't trying. The deck was really stacked against them.

The sluggishness that plagued Mamoulian wasn’t solved by Montgomery, either. Marlowe lumbers, vision too high, hands out of place, until it becomes a way better movie if you just imagine that you’re not a private detective at all, you’re Lurch from The Addams Family, and that’s why everyone is standing so far away from you.

When Marlowe stands by mirrors – three times to let us get a look at our leading man – it feels like his eyes are in the wrong spot. Less like the fascinating twist of character we suddenly experience with Dr. Jekyll, and more like the audience is actually his invisible best friend. Or possibly an imp riding on his shoulder.

There’s one sequence that works wonderfully, though.

Marlowe is making his second visit to a gigolo named Chris Lavery when he finds the front door unlocked. The steady, careful motions that make the camera’s view unnatural in other moments gives us a chance to notice all the little things that are strange and wrong.

Lampshades askew. Two empty glasses on a living room table. An unmade bed late in the day. The choir starts to vocalize softly. Ominously. Somewhere, a faucet is running. Marlowe finds that the tap is turned on in the upstairs bathroom. He swings the door open wider, and there are cracks and holes in the glass of the shower. Five of them.

Two bullets are lodged in the tiles.

The rest are lodged in Chris Lavery.

The predictability of the discovery is what creates the suspense. We – the audience, Marlowe, anybody tuning in by chance – all know that Lavery is dead. We know it as soon as the camera takes us into the house. But we all have to look at him, to confirm his death, in order to proceed.

There’s no watching someone’s horrified expression, there’s no hearing it from a secondary character. There’s just the dead man, and our obligation to the story to see him.

Ultimately, in both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Lady in the Lake, it’s the unnaturalness that does the most harm. Everybody watching a movie knows how it feels to be behind a set of eyeballs, even if we don’t consciously think of it. So all the little falsehoods that don’t seem wrong or out of place when we’re thinking of the movie as a movie are glaringly weird when we’re thinking of the movie as the physical view of a single character.

Since Lady in the Lake, FPS games and RPGs like Skyrim and Fallout have ironed out a good deal of how we expect first person to be blocked. Hardcore Henry will no doubt be benefitting from this progress more than it’ll owe any debt to Robert Montgomery. But games have something that films lack – the anticipation of a choice. You choose to how respond in the dialogue wheel or whether or not you want to cast a spell or hide from that attacking dragon. That’s what makes them immersive.

So while Hardcore Henry has probably overcome the Lurch-cam and the Zoolanderesque inability of its predecessors to turn left, it has a whole new stack of problems to contend with. Mainly a target audience that’s going to get bored with someone else calling all the shots.

One day, subjective camera might be legitimized the way 3D has. But until then, it’s just the latest Smell-O-Vision.

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