***This post contains spoilers, but only of the first third of the film.***
Thank God for Movie Bloggers. If there's one thing you can count on with Movie Bloggers it's screengrabs. Lots of 'em! And I don't mean that flippantly, I'm being perfectly serious. Before we bloggers came along you got the same old pics from the same old movies all the time. There was Gone With The Wind. You know, the double profile pic of Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh. There was Casablanca. Again with the double profile pic. There was Citizen Kane, one of the most abundant sources for jaw dropping stills in the history of film and what would you get, again and again? Kane in front of his huge campaign poster at the political rally. Every time.
Then we bloggers came into the picture and changed all that. Do a search on a classic film now and you're likely to strike gold with different shots and vantage points and if you click on a pic, chances are it will be located at an address supported by Blogger, Wordpress, Blogsome or some other blogging server.
In fact, this blog wouldn't have the look it has without them. If I couldn't pop in a DVD to get just the right screengrab for a new banner design or find a great screengrab on the net then, well, I wouldn't be changing my banners every other day. And dammit, I like changing my banners every other day. I'm too much of a photoshop geek and a bad pun addict to ever stop. I've done so many of them that if I didn't change them every other day I'd never get them all up in ten years. I put up one the other day which can be seen at the top of this post. It's a screengrab from Amarcord, watercolored in Photoshop and subtitled "Some artists paint with film."
After I put it up I started thinking about that very idea, the fact that many great directors and cinematographers really do create beautiful art on film. My wife is an artist* and has even done a series of drawings based on John Huston's opening shots of the poor and downtrodden in Fat City. There they are, in a desolate urban environment, hunched over in doorways and cradled against chainlink fences. Most people see this as a series of establishing shots (although they probably wouldn't think about it that specifically) but cinephiles and artists see the beauty that a great director and cinematographer (Conrad Hall was DP on Fat City) bring to every frame of a well thought out film.
Many film bloggers have used screengrabs for shot by shot posts as well as for a variety of other purposes (like my banners for instance) and I'm no exception. One of the first posts I ever did here at Cinema Styles was a shot by shot look at Sol Nazerman's (Rod Steiger) first substantial Holocaust flashback in The Pawnbroker. Without screengrabs I wouldn't have been able to relate the feeling of that scene nearly as well.
I haven't done much with screengrabs since doing those posts months ago but I'd like to start it up again, and for me, there's no one better to start with than Michael Powell.
Of course, I could do all the big, colorful beautiful Powell's; The Red Shoes, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Black Narcissus, Peeping Tom. But instead I'd like to highlight an earlier black and white Powell, The Edge of the World, made in 1937. His cinematographers were Monty Berman, Skeets Kelly and Ernest Palmer. Each had different jobs on the film operating cameras in different locations whether it be cliffside, ocean or interior. Powell himself set up the shots.
Unlike later Powell efforts, in which artificiality is part of the storytelling template, The Edge of the World employs realism in it's settings (almost everything is filmed outside and on location) but true to Powell the manipulation of those settings photographically foreshadows his later efforts in which the placement of the camera and the choice of lenses used give the story new meaning.
As an example of this I'd like to use three pivotal scenes early in the film that set the story for the final clash of families and island tragedy in motion.
On a tiny Shetland island the fishing community there is threatened by the trawlers and commercialized fishing of the mainland taking away their livlihood. Two men, Robbie Manson and Andrew Gray argue over evacuating the island or staying on. Their argument, before the village's fisherman, takes place outside on of the grand sloping cliffsides.
The shifting perspectives mirror the shifting attitudes and arguments of the group. Like a classical actor using mannerism and inflection to help the audience understand the Elizabethan dialect, Powell uses his camera to make visual the debate at hand.
Once the race to the top of the cliff has begun Powell again shifts perspectives throughout. Two men race up opposite sides of a cliff. The outcome to determine an either/or situation. The perspectives shift from left to right to illustrate this.
This scene is followed by one of the most beautiful and moving funeral scenes ever shot. Despite the crisp and natual outdoor photography of the rest of the film, the funeral scene is shot in the style of silent films. It employs irises and gels on the lens to create a surreal look and mood as Robbie Manson is laid to rest. In keeping with the silent movie device, no dialogue is heard, simply a plaintiff and beautiful hymn, heard over the action. Watch the clip of the funeral below to see how an artist truly can paint with film. Watch the whole movie to see a filmmaking genius early in his career showing the first signs of greatness that would later define him as an artist.
*In case anyone's wondering, the oil painting on the sidebar, "Blue Lady on the Sea," is one of my favorites of her works.