Monday, September 21, 2009

Who first experimented with camera angles?

Something I noticed about Scarface (1932) that made it tiresome is that the camera angles were so tame. It was like watching a play except on film. The camera was almost always 10-20 feet away, putting all of the characters in a predictable "box" and me, the viewer, provided the fourth wall to that box so to speak. Hitchcock's movies break out of that box . . . was he the first?

Scarface (1932) and what makes art timeless

From the title of this post, you're probably expecting me to herald Scarface as a classic. But it's just the opposite. This seminal gangster flick is, in my opinion, now only relevant to film connoisseurs and history buffs. Why is it, then, that Alfred Hitchcock movies from the same era have aged so much better?

If a work of art is valuable only for its technical innovations, then that work of art will captivate the public imagination so long as its technical achievements go unsurpassed. For artists with the technique of Beethoven or Shakespeare, their art will have extraordinary staying power . . . but few are in their league. Scarface was in the category of only being exciting to viewers in 1930. Cinematography has come such a long way that it really doesn't have a fighting chance on technique alone.

Timelessness comes down to content and ideas. The more mind-bending and revolutionary the ideas involved, the longer it will last. Scarface fails yet again. Heck, it was a gangster movie. I know I'm expecting way too much from it. But the truth is that the simplistically good and bad characters in this movie bored me to tears. And sentimentality will doom any work of art to the trash bin.

Up until this point, I've just been stating the obvious. But what makes this line of questioning fascinating is when you compare Scarface to an Alfred Hitchcock move from the same era. And Hitchcock's movies, at a surface level at least, were often no "deeper" then the next who-done-it.

Where do the charisma of Hitchcock movies come from? They give me a lot to think about at a subconscious level; they stick with me and unsettle me long after I click the TV off. This many years later, their power is extraordinary. Vertigo may be my favorite movie of all time. I can watch that movie over and over and never get tired of it. Why? If timelessness is all about ideas, then why is that that most powerful works of art are the ones you walk away from understanding the least?