To dash or to die

In a recent post on our latest blockbuster serial, David Bordwell writes:

The Bourne Ultimatum belongs to a trend of rough-edged stylization sometimes called run-and-gun. The film has been described as bare-bones but it’s actually quite flashy. All the crashing zooms (accompanied by whams on the soundtrack), jittery shots, drifting framings, uncompleted pans, freeze-frame flashbacks, and other extroverted devices call attention to themselves.

I couldn’t agree more. And I remember, when I came out of the theater several weeks ago, I was almost certain that most people got the message.

How to interpret it, however, is a different story.

There are still many people don’t like it; they are the mainstay that adamantly object to The Dancer in the Dark and Breaking the Waves, despite the splendid narrative.

There is a lesser part of the audience which regard themselves as more “educated”. These people are more open to aesthetic manifestations and highbrow ideas—they probably even attend film school at a certain point in their life. These people, including some of the local newspaper columnists, rotten tomatoes contributors, find reason to praise this stylization as a welcomed addition to the action genre: it is a cinema-vérité popcorn! (According to Bordwell, the director, Greengrass, even mentioned The Battle of Algiers)

There is yet another part of the audience, even lesser in percentage, that is suspicious of this stylization and afterwards inquire about its aesthetic validity. Bordwell is one among them.

Bordwell is a brilliant scholar. He takes everything seriously. You can disagree with him, but most of the time you just don’t have the range of evidence he has. For this case, he points out, the Bourne Ultimatum consists of approximately 3200 shots. How the hell does he get to know that?

But the gist of the post is that Bordwell points out, as he was told in Hong Kong, “The handheld camera covers three mistakes: Bad acting, bad set design, and bad directing.”

Again, I couldn’t agree more. And I want to add, there is one more thing that the handheld camera covers: the camera movement itself.

But then an idea occurred to me: if handheld camera does indeed cover bad things (there is practically nothing left, except the story itself), would it also cover the good things, i.e., good acting, good directing? Take Breaking the Waves, does the hazardous camera movement covers everything that is good in this film (I personally believe that everything else in this film is good)? I mean, if I were the cameraman of Breaking the Waves, would the film still be that amazing? Probably. But certainly not the Element of Crime.

So how can the handheld camera reveal the good and cover the bad? This apparently doesn’t make sense, which reminds me of another story:

Years ago, when Zhang Yimou’s first city film, Keep Cool (1997) came out, it was criticized of bad handheld technique. And I remember people compared it (the DOP is Lü Yue) to what Christopher Doyle did for Wang Kawai, and to find that the latter is obviously superior. I personally believe it is impossible to tell one handheld camera from another. Therefore I was surprised to learn that some people actually claim they can. But honestly, isn’t this a typical impressionistic observation where the evaluation of subject matter contaminates that of the technique? Where would these people say to Doyle’s own film, Away with Words (1999), which is packed with flashy camera techniques?

In the end my perspective can be resumed as this:

  1. The handheld camera is in itself neutral. Although it is flashy, calling attention to itself, this does necessarily signify an artistic failure or success.
  2. Handheld is a style, yet it is not a personal style. If it does require some expertise, it is not the usual expertise we attribute to a cinematographer.
  3. Handheld certainly covers the mise en scène. With the use of handheld, mise en scène is less needed. But I would be cautious to say that it also covers acting.


No comments:

Popular Posts

Blog Archive