Don’t You Go Anywhere: A Close Reading of my Favourite “Calvin and Hobbes” Strip

This time around, I decided I’d take a break from film criticism and turn to the second-most-influential visual medium in my life: the comic. Though in my preadolescence and early teens I was a keen True Believer, the one comic that has never failed to delight, entertain, engage, and move me is Bill Watterson’s daily Calvin and Hobbes. Continue reading

The Art of Not Being There: The Genius of John Hurt

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On returning home from watching an anniversary screening of David Lynch’s magnificent The Elephant Man, John Hurt’s status as my favourite film actor, and one of the finest actors in cinema history, was warmly reaffirmed; but I was also struck by what an enigma John Hurt was. Nominated only twice for an Academy Award (once for Alan Parker’s Midnight Express and again for The Elephant Man), Hurt consistently delivered magnificent performances for more than fifty years and remained a firm favourite amongst the filmgoing public, and yet received few leading roles and comparatively little attention from awards circles.

 It’s not as though Hurt couldn’t carry a film on his own, as his turns in films such as The Elephant Man had shown. In his youth, when he played roles such as Kane in Alien, he had a certain schoolboy charm and sharp handsomeness about him, and age only accentuated the character of his face while retaining the same handsomeness; and throughout his career his eyes always held the same potent combination of intensity, warmth and vulnerability that simply cries out “Film Star”.

Not to mention his distinctive voice. Airy, silken, full, rich… adjectives fail to encapsulate the sensation of Hurt’s voice, a voice that defied class, that gave the impression of both an ancient wisdom and youthful mischief, of a great strength and startling sensitivity, a voice so reedy it bordered on a whisper and yet spread like heat across a room…

However, as the years rolled by, Hollywood pushed Hurt further and further from centre stage and into supporting roles, despite Hurt’s ability to consistently deliver chameleonic performances and become one with the characters he played. An ability which, on one level, kept him out of the spotlight, but on another level, provides the key to his genius.

Unfortunately, what the Hollywood system deems to be good acting is not for an actor to become indistinguishable from the character, but rather for a star to be seen doing a good job as a character, never allowing the audience to forget that they are in fact watching the star. That is why Oscars are handed out to handsome men who aren’t afraid to cry, and to beautiful women who don ugly-make-up for a role, and to both for doing good impersonations of real persons. It’s a horrible, cynical system, but that’s how it works.

Hurt, on the other hand, gave himself completely to the character, losing himself in the process. Though handsome, his face was still normal enough that he could play a variety of characters with equal credibility. While in Hollywood films the tone of the film is often set by the character the lead actor is playing, Hurt instead played his characters so that they suited the tone and aesthetic of the film around him (often with a little bit of help from excellent make-up work), ensuring that his characters at once felt like people, but also products of the worlds they occupied. If the film was quirky and whimsical, he too was quirky and whimsical; if the film was gritty and realist, so was he (you can see this by comparing his two performances as Mr Ollivander in the Harry Potter films).

But of all the iconic roles Hurt has played, I personally feel the best performance of his career was his turn as Krapp in Atom Egoyan’s adaptation of Krapp’s Last Tape by Samuel Beckett, about an old man who listens back to a voice recording he made as a much more energetic, optimistic young man, and the tape he records about the way he lives now. Much like Hurt, Krapp is a character who doesn’t draw attention to himself. His clothes are as dusty as the furniture around him. With his spiky hair and wrinkled shirt, he looks like a schoolboy in a grown man’s body. Though the audience is focused on him, the setting is a quiet room separated from the activity of the outside world. He is at once there but not there. And, the character he is interacting with is his own voice, floating out of the tape player like a ghost. (Article continues after video. Please do yourself a favour and watch it.)

Though Hurt’s early life was marked with isolation and abuse, he managed to surpass his troubled childhood to become one of the greatest actors to have graced the silver screen, giving himself to his characters, and to us, the audience, with dedication, sincerity, humour and humility. John Hurt brought life to every role and every film he appeared in, and more than that, he filled all those films with the indescribable presence of genius. Film fans will delight in his creations for years to come. I know I personally am grateful for the generosity with which he dedicated himself to his craft, giving us all some of our most beloved movie moments and characters, and I feel I speak on behalf of film lovers everywhere when I say, “Rest in peace, Mr Hurt. Your talent and humility was a joy to behold, and every second watching you on screen was a blessing. Thank you for sharing your abilities, and yourself, with us over the years. May God bless you and your family. Farewell, and, once again, thank you.”

The Artistic Brilliance of Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible, 20 Years On

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The camera lies all the time… lies 24 times a second – Brian De Palma.

The highlight of the cinematic year 1996 was undoubtedly the Coen Brothers’ masterpiece Fargo, but 1996 also saw the release of one of the most intelligent, idiosyncratic, well-crafted blockbusters in years… Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible, starring Tom Cruise. Though I have already done an overview of the entire series so far, I felt that a few bullet points did not do De Palma’s film justice; so, I have written this article as a means of highlighting the elements of this tight-wire thriller that merits its naming, as, not just a great blockbuster, but a great film.

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Blade Runner: How Long Lenses Can be Used Cinematically

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Note: As I will be analysing several key shots from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, spoilers should be taken as a given.

Although the official definition of “cinematic” is

“1. relating to the cinema,

2. having qualities characteristic of films”,

I’m going to be bold and add in:

“3. adj. describing visual media that contains great contrast between movement and stillness, and elements of different scale”.

By this definition, films that employ wide lenses (32mm and below) are inherently more cinematic than films that employ long lenses (50mm and above), as wide lenses accentuate the distance between foreground and background elements, and emphasise motion. By contrast, long lenses compress space so that foreground and background elements appear to be more or less on the same plane, and motion is de-emphasised to the point that, on a long enough lens, an object can be moving but not actually change relative size to any other elements in the frame. As an example of the two types of lenses in action I’ve highlighted some clips from Martin Brest’s fantastic-but-rarely-seen Midnight Run.

1:07 is a good example of a wide lens in action. The foreground, middle ground and background are clearly distinguishable, there is a wide field of view, and the motion/progress of the characters is easily perceptible. 3:28 is a prime example of a long lens in action. The image feels flat, the background and foreground appear close to one another, and even though the characters are clearly moving, they don’t appear to be making progress.

Bearing this in made, I was very surprised when I saw that Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (lensed by legendary cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth) was filmed almost entirely on long lenses, as it is one of the most cinematic films ever made. In this article, I’m going to illustrate how Ridley Scott overcame the limitations of the long lens to make a dynamic movie of remarkable scale.

  • Massive Sets/Locations:

It doesn’t hurt that the sets of Blade Runner are among the largest and most detailed you are likely to see. By having large sets and shooting in grand locations, Scott could afford to use long lenses without risking his shots feeling cramped or cheap.

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An exterior shot of JF Sebastian’s apartment building (the Bradbury Building in real life). Although this shot was clearly done on a long lens (note the visual proximity between Deckard, the sign behind him, and the columns of the building), the sheer scale of the set compensates for the compression of the lens.

  • Light and Shadow

Part of the reason the Midnight Run example of the long lens feels flat is because the shot appears to have been taken about noon, so the lighting is completely consistent and no shadows are visible. Scott, however, favours deep shadows in his frame, and will often use shafts of hard light like spotlights, highlighting certain elements while obscuring others, and also as a means of splitting up the frame. This combination of strong light and deep shadows give his shots a strong internal energy, and a sense of depth that counteracts the long lens (his use of the same techniques in Alien earned Scott the nickname “Rembrandt of Light”).

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  • Objects Breaking Up the Frame

There are no empty shots in Blade Runner. Each plane has something in it, thus making it easier to distinguish one plane from another and creating a sense of volume, even if the planes are compressed by the long lens.

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In the first picture, the presence of the gun marks out the foreground, Deckard’s face the middleground, and neon lights the background.
In the second picture, the VK Machine establishes the foreground, Holden occupies the middleground, and the striped wall takes up the background.
Note that none of the three elements in either picture are of the same size or shape, allowing the eye to distinguish them more easily, and that overexposing one side of the actors’ faces/hair clearly separates them from the background. Also note that the sense of space is accentuated in the first picture by adding rain, and in the second by cigarette smoke. This filling of the frame, be it with rain, smoke, dust, or fog, is a trademark of Scott’s, and make his shots feel deep, tangible, and active.

But while all these techniques work just as well in photography, Scott exploits one more technique that is particular to the medium of cinema…

  • Movement Between Planes, Across the Frame, and Into the Frame

Movement is the one thing that separates film from all other visual arts, and Scott beautifully utilises movement to make his shots feel cinematic.

One of the advantages of the long lens is that, by reducing the field of view and compressing planes, it leaves plenty of “hiding spaces” within the frame from which objects can disappear into and appear from, and Scott uses these hiding places constantly, giving the image a sense of scale that extends beyond the frame itself.

Scott also juxtaposes movement with stillness within the frame, emphasising the moving object, and creating an internally dynamic image.

There are very few times in the film where objects move directly towards or away from the camera, as compression would de-emphasise their movement. Scott instead has objects move laterally, diagonally or vertically across the frame.

Also, to truly capture the scale of the frame, Scott employs a particular technique several times throughout the film: A character will enter frame in one visual plane, heading in one direction, and leave the frame heading in the same direction; they will then re-enter the frame, nearer or farther away from the camera, heading in the opposite direction. This beautifully simple piece of blocking makes the frame much larger than what is actually seen by the audience. All of Scott’s techniques of movement and blocking are on display in the two clips below (which are, without a doubt, two of the finest individual pieces of filmmaking in cinema history).

0:02 Rachael moves into frame from background to middleground from behind furniture, left to right. 2:15 Deckard moves into frame from middleground to foreground, out of frame, left to right. 2:24 Re-enters frame, foreground, right to left.

0:23, Batty leaps from foreground to background, right to left, and out of frame; 0:29 re-enters frame from background to middleground, left to right. 2:54 dove rises out of extreme foreground, and at 3:18, spinner rises out of previously hidden middleground , giving shot even more volume.

Though I have merely scratched the surface of Blade Runner with this analysis of its cinematography, it is testament to the quality of the film that it’s surface alone is so rich in detail and technique.

* * * * * (Great Movie)