Friday, May 18, 2007

Four Atmospheric Films

I love movies. I'm open to enjoying a wide variety of film styles and genres. I am not a high-culture film snob; I enjoy exploitative trash and sophomoric humor as much as the next guy. But the movies that really come home to stay in my heart and mind, the movies I live in as it were, are ones with a distinct, creative atmosphere. Here are four examples off the top of my head. It isn't an exhaustive list.

High Noon (1952) is a great, great movie. It earned Gary Cooper his second Oscar, and it furnished Grace Kelly with her first starring role. The Academy recognized it for Best Editing, Best Musical Score, and Best Song ("Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darlin'," a country ballad sung by Tex Ritter). The AFI rates it as the 33rd greatest movie ever made.

It is a western movie in which all the "action" takes place in the last handful of minutes. It is a suspense film in which the story actually unfolds in real time, punctuated by an obsessive motif of ticking clocks inching toward the fateful hour of noon. It is left-wing allegory about Hollywood's collective loss of nerve in the face of McCarthyism, which has been embraced by the right-wing as a morality play about the courage of a man standing alone.

Its cast includes Thomas Mitchell (Gone with the Wind), Harry Morgan (TV's M*A*S*H), an elderly Lon Cheney, a youthful Lloyd Bridges, and Katy Jurado (who won a Golden Globe for the role). It was written by Carl Foreman (The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Guns of Navarone) and directed by Fred Zinneman (From Here to Eternity, A Man for All Seasons). And it is finally to Zinneman that the movie owes much of its atmosphere.

An Austrian Jew, Zinneman's only western-related background came from reading the wild west adventures of German author Karl May as a child. Zinneman creates an increasingly oppressive atmosphere of dread and desperation as he shoots Gary Cooper walking up and down the dusty streets of the town where he is officially no longer the marshall. Cooper is vainly looking for someone to stand up with him against a gang of outlaws whose ringleader has just gotten out of jail, swearing vengeance on the lawman who put him away. Nobody wants anything to do with his trouble, and he could just walk away and leave the town to the baddies - he is, after all, retired, and his Quaker bride abhors violence - but his sense of honor and duty won't let him back down. So, as the clocks of the town inch toward 12 o'clock, as all eyes dart more and more frequently toward the nearest clock and all ears remain perked up for the sound of a train whistle, Cooper prepares for his last stand.

Meanwhile, the arid silence seems intensified rather than broken by the soundtrack's repeated refrain of "Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darlin'." And the black-and-white cinematography, deliberately overexposed in order to create the look of Civil War-era photographs, emphasizes the stillness, flatness, dryness, and above all loneliness of the landscape surrounding Cooper's character. Just when you can't stand another moment of it, the film builds to a climax as the train arrives, followed by a spasm of savage violence and the main character's final, grim, disillusioned departure from the town he had faithfully watched over. And you applaud wildly, even though you're watching it on DVD, because this is a film with a distinctive look, a powerful atmosphere, and a moving message.

The Red Violin is another film with a remarkable atmosphere. It is a film that envelops you in its sensuous embrace. Realistically capturing a variety of historical periods and settings, from Renaissance Italy to China's Cultural Revolution, it speaks many tongues (with subtitles), explores strange and exotic lifestyles, and links together people of widely disparate time, place, and character through a shared mystery, a shared beauty, and as it were, a shared fate.

The Red Violin has an international, multilingual cast. Parts of it are spoken in Italian, French, German, English, and Chinese - the title is shown in all 5 languages. It is essentially the biography of a single, enigmatic, musical instrument that went around the world, changed hands many times, and played a part in the remarkable fortunes (or misfortunes) of its many owners. Its history begins in an atmosphere where artistry, heartbreak, and magic are strangely mixed; this mixture remains a keynote in the lives of the passionate, beautiful, brave, selfish, lonely, and often tragic people who bring out the exquisite beauty of the violin's tone over the years.

The violin, as a character, is "played" by heartthrob virtuoso Joshua Bell (only briefly seen in the film), and by the enthralling (and Oscar-winning) musical score by American composer John Corigliano. Filmed in Canada by director Fran├žois Girard, it features performances by Jason Flemyng, Greta Scacchi, Samuel L. Jackson, and Colm Feore, plus a lot of other gifted actors I didn't recognize. The music, the acting (with its record number of spoken languages), the haunting story, the gorgeous and convincing sets and costumes and cinematography, all join together to make this a movie you in which you feel you have lived, and could live indefinitely.

Unbreakable is another visually captivating film. Writer-Director M. Night Shyamalan's first follow-up to the celebrated Sixth Sense, the movie takes a (perhaps absurdly) serious look at what it might be like if comic-book superheroes existed in the real world. Bruce Willis delivers a slow-burning, understated performance as the college football stadium security guard, and unhappily-married father of one, who gradually learns that his life is one of the "grains of truth" that comic-book folklore is based on. Guided by a graphic-art enthusiast with a bone-density disorder (played by, well, Samuel L. Jackson), Willis discovers that he is enormously strong, virtually invulnerable, and even mildly psychic. As he grows to accept his "secret identity," and the responsibility that goes with it, some things in Willis' private life take a turn for the better...but then there's the inevitable Shyamalan "twist" at the end!

When I saw this movie in theatres, I sensed that a key ingredient in the audience's reaction was disappointment. However, I think the reason for this is the very thing that makes this such a powerful movie, one that I have watched repeatedly with increasing admiration. Shyamalan worked with a clear vision of this film, story-boarding virtually every shot, and dressing his sets and his actors in a very selective pallette of colors (to say nothing of the varying ways their clothes draped over them in different scenes) that very powerfully suggested mood and emphasis, carefully guided the eye across the frame, and even sometimes carried part of the storytelling in a symbolic way. Above all, these color choices, together with the lighting and the minimalistic music of James Newton Howard, establish a strong atmosphere reflecting, first, Willis' brooding depression, and later his self-doubt and perplexity as the mystery comes into focus around him.

Finally, The Illusionist creates a potent and distinctive atmosphere through its idiosyncratic editing, cinematography, and sound. Of course, like The Red Violin, this atmosphere is helped along by a strong cast (with one quibble - Edward Norton seems a bit out of his depth here), gorgeous costumes and scenery, magnificent locations evoking circa-1900 Vienna, and a twisty-turny story combining tantalizing hints of real history with something fanciful, eerie, and strange. Directed by Neil Burger, it has excellent performances by Jessica Biel, Rufus Sewell, and especially Paul Giamatti, who looks and sounds like someone out of a very early sound picture. This marvelous effect is augmented by the old-fashioned sounding, Romantic music of Philip Glass (which, while beautiful and clear, nevertheless sounds like something played on a gramophone), and by the iris fades, filters, and lighting that give the movie somewhat of the look of footage shot in the early twentieth century.

It's weird and paradoxical, but very atmospheric: the music is absolutely clear and yet, at the same time, sounds like it came out of a Victrola; the film is crisp and clean and in full color and yet, at the same time, looks antique and even sepia-toned. This magical look and sound nearly upstage all the magic and illusions depicted in the movie. But only nearly so. All this atmosphere gives you a strong sense of the time and place in which the story is set, a sense of its cultural richness as well as its corruption. It makes you long to enter that time and, simultaneously, glad that you don't have to. The longing and revulsion are actually part of the atmosphere, and they both intensify toward the movie's climax in which all is revealed.

These four movies bowled me over for many reasons, but the one that clinches them all is: "atmosphere." And clearly, this is done through a combination of many factors, including artistic design, lighting, editing, music, and sound engineering. Keep special effects and give me atmosphere any day!

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