Posted by Susan Doll on February 4, 2013
Over the years, I have listened to many cinematographers speak about film. Whether describing their role in the making of a specific movie or talking about classics from previous eras, I have never been disappointed. Cinematographers are the best source for explaining how a film imparts meaning through its visual language.
Last week cinematographer Steven Fierberg (Love and Other Drugs; Secretary; Entourage) visited Ringling College of Art and Design to offer his insight and expertise to students. Part of his visit included a presentation to Ringling students and faculty on the art of visual storytelling. My History of Film students attended, and several wrote about the positive impression that Fierberg made on them for a class assignment. Instead of lecturing, Fierberg offered his ideas through a series of clips from well-known films, which made for a dynamic demonstration. I learned so much from his presentation that I wanted to share some of his comments and insights. The films that Fierberg used as examples should be familiar to most TCM viewers; looking at them again from a different perspective reveals their craftsmanship and artistry.
Fierberg showed the openings of three separate films and before each clip, he asked audience members, “What is this movie about?” And when I say openings, I mean the very first images in the films, not the first dialogue scenes. According to Fierberg, the theme is often apparent in the first few minutes of a well-crafted film through visual techniques. The first clip of the evening was the opening to A Place in the Sun, directed by George Stevens and shot by William Mellor. Under the credits, Montgomery Clift is seen in a long shot with his back to the camera as he hitchhikes along a busy highway. He slowly walks backward until only his head is in frame—just as the credits end. Clift turns around as the camera tracks in for an extreme close-up on his handsome face. He looks at something offscreen, which triggers a point of view shot of a huge billboard of a beautiful woman in a bathing suit under the tagline, “It’s an Eastman.” At this point, Elizabeth Taylor races by her in her expensive white car, but she doesn’t even consider picking up Clift. However, a beat-up truck with a grizzled driver stops to pick him up, and the young man seems comfortable chatting with the old man as they ride into town.
Most of the Ringling students in the audience had never seen A Place in the Sun, but they were observant and insightful with their comments. They knew immediately that Clift and the woman in the car (Taylor) would become romantically involved. But Fierberg pushed them to interpret further. They surmised that the woman on the billboard represented the woman in the white car, and both were symbols of opportunity or ambition. Based on his costume of a black leather jacket and the fact that he was hitchhiking, the students assumed a class difference between Clift and the woman, noting that though he wanted the woman in the white car and what she represented, he was relaxed and happy with the man in the old truck.
Fierberg pushed our powers of observation further to help the audience notice other details. For example, Clift’s lack of funds is further indicated by his costume. In close-up, the jacket looks well-worn and is missing a patch, which was likely the name tag of the former owner or another type of insignia . In other words, the jacket may be second-hand. A bus passes Clift as he eagerly looks for a ride, but he does not flag it down: He is so broke he can’t afford to ride the bus. And, yet he doesn’t stick out his thumb for just any car. He waits for those cars that are shiny, new status symbols—like the convertible Taylor is driving. The old man in the broken down truck stops for him while he is distracted by Taylor’s car. He has to convince the young man to get in, and Clift relents because this ride is better than no ride.
The visual cues reinforced the idea of social class, particularly the differences between the classes, and the difficulties of upward mobility. As my student Jessica P. wrote, “It’s subtle choices like this at the beginning of the film that can set up the rest of the story.” When Fierberg asked the audience to surmise whether Clift’s ambitions were worthy, and whether the film would end happily or unhappily, it was easy to speculate that the protagonist’s dogged pursuit of the American Dream would not lead to his happiness. Thus, the theme is a criticism of social mobility, rendering it as merely propaganda, because the Dream is just out of the reach of so many.
While I have seen A Place in the Sun several times, I would not have recalled its exact opening if someone had asked me prior to this exercise. Afterward, I was impressed that so much visual information was suggested in the film’s first few minutes. The film’s central conflict and theme are telegraphed to viewers, and I am convinced that most people pick up on it as they watch—much like the students did—even if they can’t articulate it later. That is the subtly beauty of the cinematic language, which never ceases to amaze me. George Stevens, the director of A Place in the Sun, does not have the reputation of other Golden Age directors, such as Ford, Hawks, Hitchcock, Huston, and Wilder, but his eye for composition and visual storytelling are clearly evident in the opening of the film. Most interesting was the blocking of Montgomery Clift in the first shot. Instead of moving the camera toward Clift as the shot progressed, Stevens had Clift walk backwards toward the camera and viewer. It has a different connotation or impact on the viewer—as though the character is pressing himself into the viewer’s space.
Fierberg reinforced the effectiveness of actors and blocking actors in a scene from On the Waterfront, revealing that extensive camera movement is not necessary for an effective scene. In the scene on the docks when Joey’s jacket is given to Dugan by Joey’s father, and the waterfront commission first approaches Terry Malloy (Brando’s character), characters move in and out of frame, turn around, or shift to the side to accommodate other characters, depending on who is the focus of the conversation. Their movements look natural, and the excellent actors never miss a beat of their dialogue. Elia Kazan and his excellent cinematographer Boris Kaufman use the grouping and re-grouping of characters to reinforce the power dynamics on the docks. I would not have pegged Kazan for this kind of intricate blocking and framing. As my student Leila B. noted, “If you asked me what was unique about Kazan’s directing style before now, I would have said something different. Now I know to look for these staging techniques . . . .”
Fierberg showed the opening scenes of two other films in which a theme is encapsulated in the first few minutes. Shot simply with one lens, Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard, Balthazar is very obvious in its theme in its opening scene, though this clip was by far the most gut-wrenching. The title character—a donkey—is yanked from his mother’s side in the first shot to become the pet of a trio of children. Next, he is baptized by the children with salt (which means wisdom), but he is left behind when the children return to their home in the city. In the last shot of the opening sequence, he is beaten after he is forced into hard labor. The donkey’s baptism with salt to gain “wisdom” becomes a symbolic gesture for his loss of innocence. His evolution from innocent creature to pet to beast of burden because of his contact with humans is a slide into hell that sets up the rest of the film.
The opening montage of images of predators, decay, and death in Natural Born Killers is more complex thematically. It sets up the predatory nature of the two main characters, Mickey and Mallory, who are on the prowl in an isolated diner in what’s left of the American West. But, because this series of images is followed by a shot of a television screen showing Leave It to Beaver, then Richard Nixon, and then a shot of a monster from a horror film, it also alludes to a theme. The shot of the Cleavers—everyone’s all-American family—clues us to the fact that the theme is related to the American Dream, but the montage of decay and death suggests the Dream has been destroyed, or has rotted. The reason? According to director Oliver Stone via this montage, it was Nixon.
Hearing someone like Fierberg analyze familiar films is a terrific experience for life-long movie-lovers like myself, but as an instructor, it is heartening to witness the impact on my students. In writing about the presentation, the students seemed most impressed by Fierberg’s basic premise that it is “important for directors to set up the story with visual hints or clues in the first few minutes of the film,” according to my student Evan G., who “found this to be fascinating.” Others related to the bigger picture, such as Thomas P.: “[Cinematography is] not just a job where you figure out what shot looks best ; it’s also about . . . what is trying to be communicated in the shot.”
If any of TCM readers have any suggestions for openings of films—especially classic ones—that visually reinforce the theme, please let me know and I will consider incorporating them into an assignment for my students.
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