The Tyranny of Continuity

December 11, 2007 § Leave a comment


By Lars Trodson

I was watching Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof” the other day, and he certainly nailed the look and feel and dynamic of those old movies that I have now come to know as “grindhouse” pictures – those earnest, if not completely competent, cinematic endeavors made by people who may have loved the movies but didn’t necessarily have the craft to make them with the spit and polish we have come to expect out of Hollywood.

There are certain examples of these movies, such as “Death Race 2000” and “Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry” and even an old Nick Adams movie about drag racing in the south that I had seen as a kid but can’t remember the name of, that completely captivated me because they were insanely entertaining. I didn’t care then and I don’t care now that they were, as one would say, poorly made. That isn’t the right definition. I liked them, and I didn’t care if they had mistakes in what we now so imperiously call “continuity.”

Somewhere, some time ago, someone had the bright idea that they would begin to catalogue the “mistakes” that we can see in films. You know, “continuity” is whether one of the extras in ‘Spartacus’ is wearing a watch. Why does George Bailey have a wreath over his arm when, in the scene before, he had placed all the wreathes on the counter of the old Building and Loan. Why does the level of liquid in the glasses fluctuate in the glasses on the table during a conversation in…well…any number of movies? That’s why I guess you see so many actors drinking out of empty paper coffee cups now. You don’t have to worry about those liquid levels from shot to shot.

But the truth of the matter is, some of our most beloved movies are a nightmare of continuity. On a purely technical level, “The Wizard of Oz” is a mess. So is “The Departed.” In one scene Jack Nicholson is walking toward the actor playing the young Matt Damon and in the shot from behind he’s smoking a cigarette and when it reverses to the front of Nicholson the cigarette is gone. There’s a bunch of that kind of thing in the movie and nobody cares. I don’t care. That movie is hands down one great achievement.

I couldn’t tell you one mistake in continuity in “American Gangster”, especially in the fact that it didn’t fail to bore me from beginning to end. What can I say?

There is a certain craft, of course, to getting details right. You don’t want some nightmare of continuity to so throw off the audience that they disregard the story. But do I care that the dove that Roy Batty releases at the end of “Blade Runner” flaps up into a clear blue sky when the scene when he releases it in takes place at night in the rain? I do not. I guess this has been fixed in the latest reincarnation of that picture, but even so it was a masterpiece before the amendment.

When we have made our own little pictures here in New Hampshire, the filmmakers I worked with were obsessed with continuity, and I could not have cared less about it. My feeling was if that these little details are noticed, then we lost the audience any way. I thought sometimes it was easier for us to fixate on those problems, the technical ones, that were approachable, rather than concentrating on the hardest part, which is the performances and nuance.

But to say that we will have lost the audience is not so true today. The film geeks out there will kill you if you screw up your continuity — look at those dumb idiots, they’ll say — while at the same time, I would imagine, some of them revere the same European and American classics that all filmmakers do, despite the multitude of technical glitches seen so obviously within the frame.

Even “Citizen Kane”, if you look closely enough, has a few glaring sound synchronization problems that would drive you crazy if you actually cared about them. So the armies of bloggers and writers and film pundits decided some time ago to focus on what they could understand — the “continuity” of a picture. As a result, we have a cascade of sleekly made Hollywood product made by hordes of script supervisors who have made sure the scarves are on exactly right from frame to frame, without caring that the actors wearing those scarves are delivering the most mundane dialogue in wooden positions.

If we didn’t care so much about this, we would be able to concentrate on what we most remember from movies, which is the story and the words and the acting, and if we love a movie, then we will forgive its little idiocyncracies.

Tarantino was right to blow through these petty expectations in his recent “Grindhouse” movie. I only saw the “Death Proof” half, and he caught the continuity problems that were a hallmark of those old cheap pictures perfectly.

But it isn’t Tarantino’s particular form of craftsmanship that we should take away from that movie. It’s rather that he understood such glitches should never, ever get in the way of enjoying a movie. More often than not, we remember and embrace the wildness and rawness of these films, because they were made by enthusiastic people hellbent on doing their own thing, hoping that in the end we would enjoy it.

One thing I think is true, despite what you may think of his own movies, is that Tarantino loves movies, loves people who make them, and loves the idea that you can bring to an audience a kind of entertainment even if you do not have all your gaffing and continuity ducks in a row.

The lesson from “Grindhouse” is to embrace the exuberance of moviemaking, the pure adrenalin joy of it, and forget about worrying whether the cigarette ash is the same length from one shot to the next.

The Internet Will Be The Death Of Cinema. Not.

September 9, 2007 § 3 Comments


By Gina Carbone

Remember when video “killed” the radio star? Well, Ridley Scott thinks the Web is killing movies. He’s wrong, too, and doesn’t even have a catchy song to back him up.

“People sit there watching a movie on a tiny screen,” Scott said during the Venice Film Festival, where he showed off a remastered version of “Blade Runner.” “You can’t beat it, you’ve got to join it and deal with it and also get competitive with it. But we try to do films which are in support of cinema, in a large room with good sound and a big picture. … I’m sure we’re on a losing wicket, but we’re fighting technology. While it has been wonderful in many aspects, it also has some big negative downsides.”

Every so often Chicken Little takes spirit form and enters the brain of a public figure. From talking pictures to Technicolor to television to home video to the Internet, cinema should’ve croaked 10-times over by now. But, to paraphrase “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” not only is it not dead yet, it might even feel happy.

The summer of 2007 had the highest box office take ever — around $4.15 billion — topping 2004’s record of $3.95 billion and rising from the ashes of 2005 and 2006 when everyone and his cousin said movies were all but dead.

Considering 2004 was the summer of sequels (“Spider-Man 2,” “Shrek 2,” “The Bourne Supremacy”) and 2007 was the summer of threequels (“Spider-Man 3,” “The Bourne Ultimatum,” “Shrek the Third,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End“) it speaks to the unoriginality of Hollywood, the low expectations of the public and our bovine acceptance of rising ticket prices. People will stand in line for hours and pay through the nose to see good movies — or ones they hope to be good — in a theater, surrounded by fellow fans. Turn your nose up, cine-snobs, but the nerds who flocked to “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” are going to help fund Warner Independent’s more artsy fare, like “December Boys” (which also stars Daniel Radcliffe).

This summer may not have had a slew of original films, but word-of-mouth prom queen “Knocked Up” showed big names, big money and big branding aren’t necessary to pry Average Viewer off the couch. No one wants to be left out of the conversation — watercolor gossip won’t wait for Netflix. Look what happened in 2004 with “Napoleon Dynamite.” Seems like everyone under 35 somehow found it, watched it, quoted it, memorized it and threw themselves at whatever merchandise marketers could create in time to capture the zeitgeist. (Do you have anything with “Vote for Pedro” on it? Own up!) By the time it came out on DVD it was almost passé. Its moment had come and gone.

But viewing habits are changing. No question. Ridley Scott’s comments on the Internet and movie-going ran in The Scotsman, and reader comments gave some reasons for the change:

“I think you’ll find that the cost of the cinema is killing off the big screen experience,” writes Dave from Barra. “Few weeks ago, took the family to an Odeon cinema (we were on the mainland). I was flabergasted at the price I paid (not wanting to dissapoint the kids, I paid). Basically, it was enough to rent several films, put part payment toward a dvd player and home cinema system and enough left over for a bag of popcorn or two.”

Writes Silence of the Yamz, “There is no doubt that downloading and illegal copying is denting the trade, but that doesnt change the fact that the Hollywood product is mostly rehashed remakes and pointless sequels.”

Adds TimW1234, “The movies I will see on the big screen are the IMAX 3D ones, especially the latest Harry Potter movie. You cannot get that experience at home. More and more movies are being re-released in IMAX and modern digital technology has really given a second-life to some of the classics from the 70s, 80s, and 90s.”

Says David Burness, “I adore the cinema experience. I attend frequently. But over the past couple of years I’ve had Moulin Rouge with crap sound – a musical really aught to have good sound: Birth projected at the ceiling and not at the screen: The Departed at the wrong aspect ratio – and after the third complaint I had to leave. The modern multiplex is not a nice place to see films. The death of cinema is often predicted, but its the incompetence of projectionists which is a threat. And rubbishy stories. And films being exhibited by companies who clearly don’t love the medium but just see a way of hawking popcorn and nachos at top dollar.”

According to tapper, the reason to stay home is much simpler. “no for me its ignorant folk behind you sticking their feet up on the back of your seat or the one next to you. I got sick of it and dont go now.”

Netflix is often cited as a prime cinema-slayer, as well as Blockbuster and the “on demand” features that let you watch any number of titles at the click of a remote. But one of the more hidden dangers to the movie-going experience is the quality of modern television. It’s trite, but true: We are in another golden age and you don’t have to subscribe to HBO to enjoy it (of course, you should rent all the HBO and Showtime shows later). If the networks could get their acts together enough to stop the repeats, long hiatuses and trigger-happy cancellations, they might be a real threat to big-screen cinema. But TV can’t get out of its own way.

For new media, the issue is presentation: Tiny screens (compared to film and TV, anyway) on computers, cell phones and other wireless devices make for poor viewing. Are you really going to watch “Schindler’s List” on your phone?

Right now original Internet content is hardly a threat to cinema. I don’t know that anyone has turned to his or her spouse with “Honey, let’s stay home and watch YouTube tonight.” We like our Web clips fast and fun. We’ll watch Miss South Carolina Teen USA flub her answer over and over — we’re mean-spirited by nature — but only in soundbite gasps. We’re game for that and TV and cinemas and video games and more. That’s the beauty of this entertain-me culture — we’ll make time for all of our distractions.

But the Web, like all smart technology, will adapt. At some point our computers are going to speak to our TVs. Between that and the idea of simultaneous film/DVD releases, Ridley Scott might have a point. (If I could log on to Netflix right now, click on “The Brave One” and have it immediately beam down cable lines to my television, I’d probably go to the local theaters three or four times a year, max, just for the epics.)

I just spent a week visiting my father and two brothers. They were tethered to their souped-up cell phones and palm pilots and Xbox. When a special sports game wasn’t being shown on one of the five million channels on my dad’s flat-screen TV, he set up his laptop and they hovered around the computer screen. They looked silly and maybe lost some eyesight, but they got to watch their game. Instant gratification.

Still, we’re a family of pop culture junkies, and when “The Blues Brothers” isn’t playing on TV — like it was during my visit — we get off our tushes and head to the theater. My brothers have taken their sons to almost every kids’ movie. When it’s too hot or too cold to do things outside, we go to the movies. When we have no idea what to do after a meal, we go to the movies. When there’s actually something decent to see, we go to the movies.

During this vacation I had the ultimate cinematic experience: IMAX. My father, stepmother and I saw three IMAX films in a row: “Coral Reef Adventure“, “Dinosaurs Alive” and “The Alps.” Breathtaking. And scary as hell. I winced and gasped watching John Harlin slip and slide down the impossibly steep north face of Eiger. I wouldn’t have been awed watching that on the screen I’m looking at now. I wouldn’t have felt anything. I want to feel something and I’ll chase that feeling anywhere. Until a medium is invented to match the emotional ride of cinema, Ridley Scott can sleep easy.

Gina Carbone is the features editor for Seacoast Media Group and film critic for Spotlight magazine in Portsmouth, NH.

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