@Greg ….that Wood quote particularly inspires me as it is too vague…
Having just seen Tokyo Twilight he was trying to regain equilibrium.
What Wood is saying is very similar to Carney-speak (pragmatic aestehtics). Tokyo Twilight snaps into sharp focus when one approaches it from the Carney-speak as a visionary/ideal/symbolic work.
For example, symbolic to narrative:
Image: whiskey decanter foreshortening in lower right quadrant of frame
Image:Ryû/Hara shot in profile parallel to each other
Wood:Notes toward a Reading of Tokyo Twilight
Carney-speak:Tokyo Twilight: centripetal, accumulative, and progressive—spiraling inward from unimportant characters to important ones, from the unknown to the known, progressing from the partial to the complete view, from a provisional understanding to a final one, ever more tightly and revealingly focusing on a central figure, event, or object Tokyo Story: centrifugal, sequential, and digressive—moving away from past positions, abandoning previously gained ground, spinning off in new directions. Its law is not ever-tighter focus, but ever-expanding circulation.
Ah, thanks for the link Robert. The further context does help make better sense of what Wood was getting at. His more specific points seem much more in line with the way I think of Ozu and Tokyo Twilight, although it did take me a while to get there myself since it had been a while since I had seen a mid to late Ozu film when I first watched it and Ozu’s “system”, as Wood puts it, is somewhat offputting when viewed without reference to his larger body of work.
As Wu’s mention of variation suggests, it is in seeing larger patterns either in Ozu’s body of work or when contrasted to other films that his films really gain their fuller power. Viewed in isolation, any one of his later films can seem more confusing since it can be hard to find the base or ground on which they were built. Over time, that very difficulty becomes a plus as increasing familiarity lends the more unusual aspects of his films an increased air of import. It’s true one could suggest this would also be the case on a first viewing, as one should seek some reason or find some feeling in the unusual nature of Ozu’s system, but some of his methods can work against the first time viewer, or perhaps not work against, but create a sense of disorientation that someone who knew more about Ozu’s films wouldn’t feel in the same way.
From other discussion we’ve had here on the site, one thing I’ve noticed which seems to create the greatest sense of discomfort isn’t his framing, minimal camera movement, or other compositional concerns, it’s the way he handles his actors, or their minimal affect style of delivery and expression. The, often, pared down nature of gestures and facial expressions alters the relationship to the characters as it minimizes, eliminates, or renders incongruous the sorts of physical inflection to emotion or thought we take for granted in our normal dealings with people or movies. We get so much information from facial expressions and body language, even when the variations are so quick as to be almost invisible. We expect the face and body to register a sort of meaning or mood, and for that to cue us in on what the person may mean beyond what they say. To alter that relationship can be very disconcerting as it might appear that the character is expressing an emotion which seems to be at odds with what they say, or that doesn’t have the weight we might expect to associate with it. In a sense, it is almost the opposite of what one would think of as a poetic effect as it removes definition rather than adding it. This can force the viewer to focus their attentions elsewhere, and to adjust their expectations and eventually see emotions in Ozu’s films as being different than our own, but equally valid and powerful and clearly related to ours in a way that creates a sort of distance without complete alienation. That can take some time though, and it does have some effects on what we can understand about the characters and their situations I think.
Greg, you’re preaching to the choir on understanding a body of work – I watch films by oeuvre.The dif is I focus more on style than anything else.
What is fascinating about the Wood work, is that one can see him struggle from the memory of one theatrical showing. He got some things correct, but didn’t trust what he was seeing vs what had come before.
Honestly, I didn’t have that problem adjusting to Tokyo Twilight – the change was vivid.
Yes, and I tend not to watch that way, although I will binge on certain director’s films from time to time, I mostly just rely on my memory of my feelings for other films in the larger body of work when I watch any given one, and then look to what the specific one is saying to me. This does lead to something of the problem Wood may have had if his other Ozu viewings weren’t recent and he was having to trust memory to connect the feelings of difference to those of similarity. If something strikes your attention in a new way in one film it may be hard to tie that back to others as you weren’t looking for it before.
Actually, I think I tend towards a similar sort of attitude to Wood overall, which is one reason why I’ve always held him in high regard even when I disagree with some specific things he says. I certainly do not have any problem with looking at a body of work, as much as I might find it more satisfying personally to look at specifics given my approach, I am, however, always a little leery of generalizations, even while I can see their use, as they can mislead if they are not used carefully. In the same way, of course, using the specific to somehow speak to the whole could also be misleading. All of this is part of the reason why I use so damn many qualifiers when I write.
Anyway, one of the reasons I brought up the way Ozu uses actors is to give some example of how that contrasts with Boetticher, as Budd seems to get/ a lot of mileage out of non-verbal communication, and noticing that contrast can be illuminating for how we might perceive movies overall I think.
Yeah, it would be good to bounce this back to Budd.
Here’s some still from a great scene in Seven Men from Now that will maybe show more of what I mean.
The immediate situation is that Ben Stride, the Randolph Scott character, is sitting in the covered wagon of Annie and John Greer, to get out of the rain and have some conversation. Ben was sort of dragooned into helping Annie and John make it to California as he was headed in the same direction and they clearly needed the assistance. Ben is searching for some men who killed his wife during a holdup, and didn’t seem to want to ride along with them at first for reasons that weren’t entirely clear, even though we could see he had a visible emotional reaction on seeing Annie for the first time. Along the way, they ran into a couple of other men from Ben’s hometown, one of them, Bill Masters has a history with Ben and knows his story, which Ben himself has not disclosed.
First Boetticher sets the scene inside the wagon with Ben, John and Annie already comfortably situated inside. Bill is entering the scene to join the group and get out of the rain, He also might be looking to stir up some trouble as he doesn’t like Ben and seems to fancy Annie.
Even before Bill fully enters we can note that Ben and Annie are situated close to the camera, linked in a spatial plane, while John is seated further back, less prominent in view. Once Bill enters, they have some general conversation to set the dynamics and to provide us a sense of familiarity with the space.
When Bill speaks of Annie, we can see Ben is looking to Annie, while John is looking to Bill since he is the one speaking. We can also see that while the four of them are situated in something of a square or a slight z-shape, relatively balanced against each other if viewed from above, the image is suggesting a power relationship at work as well as a sort of interest relationship, Bill is seated higher than anyone else, suggesting that he is going to control the scene, while John is seated lower than Bill in the frame suggesting a more vulnerable state. I’ve already mentioned the sort of spatial link between Ben and Annie, and this will also come into play as Bill seems as cognizant of that connection as we should be.
At first the conversation is relatively innocent, so to keep our interest in the frame, Boetticher uses eyelines to make the frame seem more dynamic than the spatial configurations might otherwise suggest. In the previous frame, Bill looks towards Annie, and his eyeline draws our attention to Ben’s and John’s as it intersects theirs in the frame pushing everything down towards Annie, who is looking down towards something offscreen. This suggests the individual concerns of the characters and the direction of the conversation. Annie’s relationship to each of them will be the point of contention, but in a way that is outside of her control. In the above frame, John is speaking, but the movement in the frame, the composition of the elements, and the eyelines help render him somewhat inconsquential comparatively. When Bill spoke he drew our attention due to his speaking, his higher position in the frame, and his look towards “us”, John doesn’t draw the same sort of interest when he speaks. He is looking down towards the coffee cup, is blocked by Annie, and is in a weaker compositional position than Ben and Bill and even the lantern as Annie’s gaze draws our attention away from her husband.
As the conversation continues, John is still placed outside of the central dynamic of the group, almost seeming on a different wavelength than the rest of them. The conversation, at this point, has takne a more personal turn as Bill’s seemingly innocent compliments towards Annie become more directed as he starts to bring up increasingly personal observations. We now shift away from the larger group shots to more tightly framed two-shots and, eventually some individual close-ups.
Through all of these cuts, Bill has been the predominant speaker, but there has been some exchanges as well as Bill’s general drift has started to make people uncomfortable, but that discomfort is balanced by what is likely curiosity about his story from Annie and John, and Ben’s reticence to give away his own emotions on the story as it has know shifted to being about a man very much like him and his relationship to a woman who looked a lot like Annie, and how that man won the woman away from her husband.
Through all of this, it’s primarily eyelines that show the “meaning” of Bill’s story as the looks of the characters are reflecting their thoughts or interests even while they aren’t speaking, and Bill’s look is directing our attention to who the various parts of the story are meant to particularly speak to, or, in effect, hurt, as this is a sort of combat. The earlier group shots are important because they’ve laid out the setting so well for us, so now the direction a given character is looking at corresponds to a person, and those looks then act as a form of conversation on their own. The close-ups act as a sort of punch to the two shots, emphasizing the more effective blows thrown or received.
The purpose becomes clear, both through dialogue and editing and eyelines. The initial composition has been made transparent as Bill’s dialogue has sought to undermine the cohesion of the group and bring underlying tensions, known by Ben and Annie to some degree individually, to the surface where all know about all. This has a particularly strong effect on John as he is the one excluded from the allusions in Bill’s story, but he is also the one to whom they would hold the greatest potential relevance as they would effect him more forcefully if they were to be duplicated, as he is the only one of them without any power in the group. He can only be acted upon, not act himself according to the dynamic Bill is setting forth.
Finally, Bill’s story done, he checks each of the others for damage inflicted, and is satisfied by a job well done and shortly leaves the scene.
All told an excellent scene in a confined space that has a more visceral feel than many directors action scenes.
By the way, it was somewhat pleasing to note that the mention of this thread in Daniel’s recent Mubi digest did seem to result in some bump in views judging from the stats on my Photobucket account. I say somewhat pleasing in that those extra views didn’t result in any extra people joining in the conversation, so that part is disappointing.
Damn, I don’t know how that one still of the larger group got in there twice, it should have been this one the second time:
Heh. Anyway, thanks for the arrows Jerry, I dig ’em.
Oh, and by the way, that isn’t every shot from the scene, I didn’t want to include them all since that would have further overburdened the post. There were additional shots of Ben looking towards Bill, and then John, and John looking towards Ben and then Annie as he put the pieces together among some others, but hopefully you’ll get the general drift of how the scene worked anyway.
Just to add to Greg’s analysis: there’s a scene before this one with everybody drinking coffee in an enclosed space, out of the rain, and Scott shoots all the coffee drinkers. Adds extra tension to this scene.
Budd did seem to have a thing for coffee.
But then again Ozu had his damn teapots, so it all works out…
And Greg claims he’s not a Boetticherite. Pshaw.
Actually, that reminds me of how much attention Boetticher pays to the little things in a scene, adding meaning or purpose to them even if that meaning isn’t clear until much later on. For example;
This scene is the first one in the film. We don’t know who Ben is or who the two men are, and we come to find the two men don’t know who Ben is either, but Ben does seem to know something about them.
There is a tension to the scene as the men seem suspicious of Ben and Ben seems to have some unknown purpose in showing up as his seemingly random encounter with them may be anything but random. The men, who are holed up in the cave to get out of the rain, offer Ben some coffee when he wanders in, possibly simply seeking shelter. At first that indeed does seem to be the case, but as Ben converses with the man on the far right, it becomes clear that something else is afoot.
The conversation takes up our attention as we too want to know what the story is. Ben eventually comes to mention a town and then adds there was a recent robbery there and we start to put the pieces together just as the two men do. While our attention is on the story, Ben subtly changes the way he is drinking his coffee.
No close up to highlight the switching of the cup from one hand to the other, it just occurs while he is talking, so we can potentially see it, but it doesn’t hold any significance even if we do until he gets to the part about the robbery and knowing these two men were involved, and then we could understand that switch was freeing up his gun hand, but if we missed noticing it, which is an entirely likely possibility, then the inclusion of the action only serves to add to a sort of greater depth to the scene or the character actions, even if we aren’t totally aware of that as it occurs.
That’s a simple example where the action and the payoff of the action happen in close order, but there are other examples where a seemingly unimportant or decorative action in an early scene pays off much later, so connecting them on a single viewing is more tenuous. There is a general feeling of purpose to the film these actions help create as the characters seem more connected to the reality of the story and seem to have more individual identities than is often the case in less carefully constructed movies. Like Ozu, Boetticher doesn’t waste opportunities to add meaning or depth to his scenes. Unlike Ozu, Boetticher does this by addition rather than essentializing the action so very moment is more laden with import.
Greg claimed he wasn’t a Boetticherite, that’s past tense now that I’ve had a chance to rewatch 7 Men from Now and Ride Lonesome as well as some others.
A couple of other quick examples of how Boetticher adds depth to his characters, and therefore his scenes.
Shortly before this scene, Bill had informed Annie and John of who Ben really was, a former sheriff searching for men who robbed a Wells Fargo office. Since Ben hadn’t mentioned it on his own, it came as something of a shock. Annie seems to have put that aside while we see her attending to that precious coffee, but John still seems lost in thought over the news.
He even gets a close up when he is being spoken to but doesn’t seem to notice.
We have nothing to attribute his rather solemn contemplation to since there isn’t anything that we could connect it to other than his feeling somehow put off by Ben not telling them of his identity. We know John didn’t rob anyone as Bill knows the men who did, so John’s attitude just seems to be about Ben’s silence or his relationship with Bill, which is indeed somewhat troubling given Bill’s general demeanor and the fact he and Ben didn’t have a particularly hospitable relationship back in the town they came from. It’s only near the very end of the film where we will find out there was something else involved in John’s inattention, and that something is entirely unexpected, but the has been informed all along by the background knowledge John had which no one else shared, making it both seem richer in hindsight and giving an added kick to many of the interactions between the characters if you watch the movie after knowing the events.
One other scene that does something of the same sort occurs when Bill reaches town somewhat near the end of the film. We see him in a saloon where the barkeep is sleeping on a chair next to the bar and no one else is around. Bill’s buddy goes behind the bar to pour himself a drink while Bill goofs around with some quick draws. The scene is played for a sense of comic relief from the heavier moments preceding it and which we assume will come and Bill’s dialogue adds to that feeling of this being a relatively lighthearted moment, even though the quickdrawing itself does obviously suggest some potential for violence, which he knew of Bill all along.
It’s only at the end of the movie that the humor gets turned on its edge somewhat as we can see what Bill had in mind and can connect the two scenes.
We probably suspected there would be a showdown, and showdowns often involve quickdrawing, so it isn’t surprise that makes the scene pay off so well, it’s the emotional shift and the connection of consciousness between the two scenes in a way that doesn’t call attention to itself but let’s us discover it that really lends an added air of significance to them and to the movie as a whole. Boetticher’s movies simply feel more deeply inhabited than do those of most other directors. It’s a feeling that comes from the richness of the texture of the film and the constant awareness of each character having their own individual consciousness or point of view rather than simply serving as pawns used to move the story along. As Robert sort of said at the outset, in a Boetticher film people have plans, and it isn’t just the hero with one either.
My arrows are not a joke (though they are funny). Boetticher differentiates between evil and psychopaths. If evil is seductive in Boetticher (dude staring and aiming straight at Scott), it’s because insanity is spastic, aiming all over the place, sucking on a candy cane.
Beautiful, Greg, Job well done.
One of the things you gotta love about The Tall T is how the movie kinda takes to Richard Boone’s character even though he’s responsible for a kid getting killed and thrown down a well. (Or was it thrown down the well and killed?)
One other thing I like about this scene, which you can see even better in the mubi-still for it;
is how the sort of compositional weight of the bad guys in the image is balanced by Boetticher’s visual metaphor for Randolph Scott, a boulder, on his side of the frame. Scott alone has as much “weight” alone as all those he comes up against combined in the movies, and Boetticher shows that visually.
…compositional weight of the bad guys in the image is balanced by Boetticher’s visual metaphor for Randolph Scott, a boulder, on his side of the frame. Scott alone has as much “weight” alone as all those he comes up against combined in the movies, and Boetticher shows that visually.
Wow – visual power dynamics – Greg, you’re starting to sound like Arnheim !
If evil is seductive in Boetticher it’s because insanity is spastic, aiming all over the place, sucking on a candy cane.
Now that ^ is beautiful.
The Ranown cycle: centrifugal, sequential, and digressive—moving away from past positions, abandoning previously gained ground, spinning off in new directions. Its law is not ever-tighter focus, but ever-expanding circulation.
Not as individual films, but as a group – fuck yeah !
Even in the individual films, despite their resolutions, that is true. Boetticher, and/or Scott and Brown seem to have been drawn to stories where the narratives would often diverge from a simple straight line path as each character has their own sets of interests, which is a major reason why the films are so potent, even aside from Boetticher’s visual sense. I think anyone good at diagrams, could make some nifty illustrations of the converging and diverging lines of interest in these films which would be as compelling as laying out their visual strategies.
Even beyond that, the films feature a diversity of voices and ways of thinking which makes them stand out from others in the genre. The characters don’t sound alike and they don’t fit cleanly against each other nor act as simple poles of opposition either. Each character has their own set of quirks or traits that keeps them from being able to be pigeonholed into a simple moral position or to sort of act as a representative for some larger concept or drive making the films feel like a fable or allegory. Boetticher’s westerns don’t give the audience simple choices or monochromatic characters. There is no moral or larger lesson to the films as the situations and almost random collisions between characters determine the outcomes. To be sure, the characters have beliefs which act as guides to their actions, they aren’t characters of caprice, but those beliefs only set the end goal they want to reach, and act as sorts of limits on their options, they don’t render an ultimate verdict on their own.
Scott gets where he does by experience, smarts, and winning the respect of other characters, who end up saving his hide, often for no reason other than that respect and the desire to be gain something of the same in return. Scott’s beliefs are less conflicted than that of the other characters generally, and his needs are more clearly self-contained for the most part as well. I say for the most part since there is usually someone, a woman, who Scott holds in higher regard than himself. In the stories themselves, Scott’s motivating drive is generally “pure”, but it comes from a place that was less so, either from some conflicted behavior of his own or from some wider set of dreams or desires which have been laid waste leaving him a single goal in their place. His foreseeable future, unlike the other characters, tends to end at the completion of that goal, or in dying trying to achieve it.
The original post also has me thinking of the way the characters in different films relate to their environments, and what that might mean for the “feel” of each film.
In Boetticher, Scott’s characters are closely linked to the outdoors. The films seem to suggest something of a feeling of the characters adapting to their environments, of being suited to certain locales, but not of those locales bending to the characters or being their for the characters. The vistas or settings in Boetticher can be beautiful, but they can also be imposing for those who are out of place. In Seven Men from Now, for example, Scott’s character is only seen “indoors” once, and that is in the scene I laid out above set in the wagon when Scott’s character, Ben, is shown to be vulnerable. Other than that Ben is only shown in a natural environment, where he is clearly well suited to be. Bill, in contrast, is shown to be more imposing indoors. where he controls the limited space bending others to his will as much with words as physical action. Even in the moments where events are described rather than shown one can see something of this. As Ben’s great failing came when he lived in town and allowed his wife to work instead of accepting a position under another sheriff. At the end of the movie, interestingly, Ben is also in town, and he once again shows his more vulnerable side by suggesting to Annie that she might look him up sometime as he will be going back to the town he came from and taking that job he turned down. There is a suggestion there of a softening of character and, perhaps, of Ben allowing himself to be open to risk once again, This is one of a couple of more open ended films out of those I’ve seen, and as such it leaves the door open to additional failure as much as success.
The two films primarily set in towns, Buchanan Rides Alone and Decision at Sundown, don’t really reverse this idea as in Decision Scott’s character is shown to be deeply flawed and unable to control the situation, and in Buchanan, Scott’s character is at his greatest rick in town, and in control when taken outside its borders.
In this image: compositional weight of the bad guys in the image is balanced
Note how the bad guys are at or below the cloud line and Scott’s character is above the cloud line.
Stasis in Motion: Understanding Cinematic Space
Bordwell (1985), Chapter 7: Narration and Space
Can anyone find this on-line so I can read it?
I find this piece: a formalist assessment of narrative norms
Image I was looking for in the beginning of the thread:
Best Mubi thread ever. There was no better film criticism created on this day almost a year ago. Thanks, Robert, Greg, Matt, and Falderal.
…and thank you Jerry for introducing some us to Boetticher.
I wouldn’t mind more threads of this nature, by the way, something a little more specific, yet broad enough to go beyond who may have seen a given film.