Saturday, February 25, 2006

Depth of Field

I am putting this up as much as a bookmark for me to remember to write about my thoughts on what the digital technology is doing to our view of the world as anything. I found this thoughtful take on it from David Denby very interesting

From the New Yorker

“Bubble,” Issue of 2006-02-13 and 20
Posted 2006-02-06

Steven Soderbergh is one director who says out loud what other Hollywood directors may be saying under their breath—that the studio system of making movies is broken and should be rethought, that there has to be another business model for marketing culture than the one that has dominate big Hollywood for the past twenty years or so. Soderbergh’s apparent assumption is that the new technologies have, for the moment, outstrippe creativity but that the situation is remediable. He believes that exhibitors and distributors, in return for a greater percentage of the rewards, need t share more of the risk of production costs; and his own practice suggests that he thinks established directors, as well as young independen filmmakers, should be willing to work small. Soderbergh will continue to make big-budget movies, but he has also entered into an agreement wit Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban’s company, HDNet Films, to make six low-budget pictures in high-definition video and to release the film simultaneously in theatres, on cable TV, and on DVD. “Bubble,” which cost a million six hundred thousand dollars, is the first movie made unde this arrangement

“Bubble”—one might as well admit it immediately—is strange and off-putting, and hard-nosed types in the film business will no doubt dismiss it as a nothing. But, even if “Bubble” hasn’t brought down the Bastille, the movie is far from nothing. Based on a screenplay by Coleman Hough, “Bubble” is about work, jealousy, and murder in a depressed factory town—the kind of nowhere place in which the question “What are you doing?” is usually answered by something like “Not much. Just hanging out.” Misery gathers in the hollows of the demoralized talk. But the filmmakers’ story, which gains strength slowly, comes to a climax in an abrupt moment of violence, and, in the end, “Bubble” leaves one impressed by its crabby, unyielding vision of an America suffocating in banality. And that impression wouldn’t be nearly as substantial if it weren’t for a technological breakthrough that, in the future, and in a cheerier project, could prove to be momentous.

I saw “Bubble” in a theatre, and the first thing I noticed is how clear and sharply focussed the wide-screen image was. In this low-budget picture, Soderbergh used the same Sony digital cameras that George Lucas used when shooting the recent “Star Wars” films, and the registration of detail is astonishing. Digital imagery doesn’t breathe the way film imagery does: blocks of color feel a little congealed, the flesh tones almost too smooth. But it would be downright Ludditic to say that digital doesn’t possess special qualities of its own. The focus is not only sharp; it’s sharp deep into the shot, at distances of thirty feet or more from the camera, and under minimal light conditions. But there’s more at stake than technique. In the nineteen-fifties, the French film theorist and critic André Bazin wrote a series of influential articles on the history of film language in which the commonplace photographic measure of depth of field assumed an almost moral importance. In the Russian silent movies, and in the American cinema of the thirties, depth of field—the amount of the frame that was in sharp focus—was generally shallow, and filmmakers used lighting and editing to direct our attention to the most significant part of the action; the rest was blurry, mere background. As Bazin noted, however, such directors as Orson Welles, in “Citizen Kane,” and William Wyler, in “The Little Foxes,” both working with the cinematographer Gregg Toland, greatly expanded depth of field—expanded it so much that the audience was suddenly free to direct its gaze to the foreground or the middle distance. It could follow an actor as he moved through the set or not. Deep focus, Bazin said, liberated the spectator from the coercion of montage. What, then, would Bazin have made of Soderbergh’s use of high-definition digital, in which absolutely everything is in focus?

Working in Ohio, near the West Virginia border, Soderbergh cast local people—non-actors—in all the parts. Kyle (Dustin Ashley), a good-looking but nearly silent young man, works in a factory that makes spooky-looking baby dolls. Day after day, he pours flesh-toned liquids into molds, then pulls out hardened plastic limbs. At lunch hour, he sits in the canteen with his fellow-worker Martha (Debbie Doebereiner), a chubby fortyish redhead who is haplessly, mutely in love with him. Their uneventful friendship is interrupted by the arrival of Rose (Misty Wilkins), a slender and pretty girl but a user and a thief. At first, watching these non-actors is a little rough. A trained actor can perform in an affectless way that nevertheless holds our interest with small gestures and glances; a non-actor just goes flat, and in “Bubble,” in those lunchroom scenes, the conversation is so dreary you can almost hear the hum of the fluorescent lights. Yet Soderbergh’s use of the new technology makes this situation work. In many scenes, the characters stay planted in the middle distance surrounded by the things of their life—the chairs and tables in the canteen, the looming machinery, the cheap wood panelling at home that looks as if it had been laid on like wallpaper. When the material world has this kind of clarity and weight, the people trapped in it become more interesting and sympathetic: the mediocrity of their surroundings, we think, has taken their souls. No wonder they turn violent—violence is at least an act, a protest. This may be no more than a conceit—one happily opinionated character would break it up —but “Bubble,” as you’re watching it, makes a grim kind of sense. To use Bazin’s terms, deep focus gives us the freedom to observe the characters’ unfreedom. I can’t see any reason, however, that happier moods than Soderbergh’s can’t be wrung from high-definition digits. Soderbergh has begun the revolution, and it’s up to others to make the zeroes and ones sing like angels.


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