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3D or Not 3D, That is the Question – Part II

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

 

Two late releases of 2012 were both touted as making great use of 3D.  The first was The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the last hugely anticipated and hyped film of the year.  Not only would this be a 3D release, Peter Jackson had filmed his return to Middle Earth in 48 frames per second, which would (apparently) create a more vivid, living image.  In an interview, Jackson explained that 48 FPS turned the cinema screen into a window, through which one could look into the other world of the film, feeling oneself there in the vividness of the image.  By contrast, one review of An Unexpected Journey described it as like looking at an HD television, which rather diminished the cinema experience.

To save money, I saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in 2D, at 24 FPS.  My simple response: we’re back!  I loved it – the level of detail applied to every aspect of Middle Earth was superb.  The Hobbit is a more homely tale than The Lord of the Rings, and more time is spent in Bag End, with the young Bilbo (Martin Freeman) bustling about with his crockery and preparing supper.  Once Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and the dwarves arrive, the party is a prolonged affair that feels hectic yet comfortable and homely.  This was a group of people I’d be happy to sit down to dinner with.

Despite the length of the scene, and the film as a whole, Jackson paces the action well, moving smoothly from set piece to set piece.  An Unexpected Journey could be criticised for having a plot that consists entirely of set pieces, but when that it is the plot of the novel it is hard to see the film being different.  And what set pieces, from the prologue featuring the coming of Smaug and the exodus of the Dwarves, to a dangerous walk along narrow mountains paths as living mountains batter each other to pieces; from the desperate dash and spell-casting of Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) in Mirkwood to the helter-skelter running battle through the halls of the Goblin King; and the climatic battle with the Orcs of Azog the Defiler (Man Bennett) aboard their Wargs at the edge of a precipice, on a toppling tree, which is on fire.  The one scene I could have done without featured the three trolls, but since they are referenced and even appear in The Fellowship of the Ring, I understand why it had to be included.

Perhaps the most effective set piece, however, is a battle of wits rather than swords, in the form of Bilbo’s game of riddles with Gollum (Andy Serkis).  Gollum’s first appearance acknowledges the viewer’s familiarity with what has previously been seen in The Lord of the Rings, as he is heard before he appears, muttering and hacking, and it takes time before he is revealed in his entirety.  The game of riddles is a smooth, engaging sequence, allowing both performers space to express their situations – in Bilbo’s case fear and increasing desperation; for Gollum, eagerness and increasing frustration.  The scene segues perfectly into a chase, and despite the relative unimportance of the Ring to the overall plot of The Hobbit, it still receives emphasis befitting the viewer’s familiarity with the magical object, as well as Bilbo’s important choice when he has Gollum at his mercy.

The best element of An Unexpected Journey is its eponymous character, as Martin Freeman delivers one of the most engaging performances of the year.  More varied than Gandalf, less doom-laden than Frodo, Bilbo stands out from the other characters of the Tolkien-verse by the possession of a sense of humour.  The Lord of the Rings can be criticised for being rather dour, but The Hobbit had several moments that were laugh out loud funny (personal favourite: comedy faint).  Similarly, whereas the Fellowship was quickly assembled and the drama focused upon it falling apart, much of the drama in An Unexpected Journey is concerned with Bilbo proving himself to his travelling companions, especially Thorin (Richard Armitage).  Described as an amalgamation of Aragorn and Boromir, Thorin is the grim-faced and troubled hero, and the antagonistic development of his relationship with Bilbo gives the film real heart.  The moment at which the reluctant hobbit and the obsessed dwarf reconcile is moving and heart-warming, and helps to set up what is to come.  For The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, we can expect a united company encountering further dangers.

Everything that worked about An Unexpected Journey worked because of an intelligent script by Jackson and his co-writers Phyllida Boyens, Fran Walsh and Guillermo Del Toro, Weta’s superb production design, bravura performances from all concerned, and Jackson’s fluid direction that easily slips between different plot points and gives attention to different characters, drawing the viewer into this magical world.  There were a couple of points when I wondered how it would look in 3D, and whether 48 FPS would add anything to the experience.  Perhaps it would, but that enhancement would not be integral to what was on screen.  The high definition digital filming does make a different, as that itself creates a more detailed image than film can provide.  Digital film has been growing ever more prevalent, especially since Michael Mann gave LA a digital noir look in Collateral.  Mann’s own Miami Vice and Public Enemies made further use of HD digital film, and more recently Roger Deakins’ digital cinematography was one of the most striking elements of Sam Mendes’ SkyfallThe Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey looks gorgeous in HD, as we see the fine lines of the actors’ features, the individual blades of grass in the Shire, the leaves of Mirkwood and the intricate details of Elvish architecture in Rivendell.  Digital film adds a vibrancy and immediacy to the cinema image, which we can have at home as well thanks to Blu-Ray and HD TV, so I am all for this particular development in the cinematic art form.  3D would be fine if it didn’t cost extra, but without it, I don’t think I’m missing much.

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Frightful Five No. 2. “The Silence of the Lambs” (Jonathan Demme, 1991) [SPOILER WARNING]

 

I rate this as one of my favourite films ever, although it is not quite the scariest.  I have also seen it many times and performed some detailed analysis of the narrative, mise-en-scene, cinematography and editing.  This much analysis could lessen its impact, but The Silence of the Lambs never fails to draw me in, particularly in its most chilling moments.  Both Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) and Jame Gumb/Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) are terrifying creations that could so easily have been crass and lurid, but director Jonathan Demme uses a strikingly sparse approach, both narratively and stylistically.  This sparseness has the effect of focusing the viewer’s attention on the events unfolding, and the focus exacerbates the fear.

Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) provides a viewer’s surrogate.  For much of the film we are aligned with her, learning more about Buffalo Bill through her conversations with Dr. Lecter as well as autopsies and other parts of her investigation.  Jodie Foster has been rightly praised as giving one of the great screen performances, and on my first viewing I was struck by the film being very much about her.  Not only do we experience her intellectual investigation, but her compassion, discomfort and eventual fear are all beautifully expressed, both by Foster’s performance and Demme’s direction.  A particular technique used is subjective camera angles, with conversations shot face-on rather than a more typical over-the-shoulder shot.  When Starling and Dr. Lecter converse, the shot/reverse-shot pattern fills the frame with their faces, which is especially unnerving when Dr. Lecter is staring out at you.  Anthony Hopkins uses a simple technique of not blinking, making his stare all the more unsettling.

Hopkins is sometimes criticised for being something of a ham, and in Hannibal (Ridley Scott, 2001) and (to a lesser extent) Red Dragon (Brett Ratner, 2002) there are grounds for that.  But in The Silence of the Lambs he is perfectly restrained, as part of Demme’s sparse approach.  Impressions often misrepresent the famous “FFFFFF” over the census taker’s liver, hamming it up beyond what Hopkins does.  Like the film as a whole, his performance is tightly wound and precisely focused.

The film’s precision and sparseness make the moments of violence all the more shocking and frightening.  Dr. Lecter’s escape from his elaborate cage is ghastly in its unrestrained savagery, and the baroque display he leaves behind expresses the monstrous intelligence behind such brutality.  But his most frightening moments are psychological, his psyche boring into Starling’s to expose her vulnerabilities and leave her open to a disturbingly invasive interrogation.

Invasion is a key theme throughout The Silence of the Lambs.  Gumb’s attempt to transform into a female is an invasion of his own identity and, more disturbingly, that of his victims.  The women slain and skinned by Gumb not only have their bodies invaded, but their minds as well with the psychological torture inflicted in his well, demonstrated through the suffering of Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith).  Furthermore, Gumb invades their very identity by appropriating them for his own purposes.  In her meetings with Dr. Lecter, Starling’s mind is invaded as he identifies her concerns and forces her to confront her central fear, manifested by the screaming of the lambs.  In conversations, I have heard criticisms of Starling’s central fear, questioning the credibility of such an event being so traumatic.  To me, it does not matter whether I or anyone else would find a particular event upsetting or traumatising – this is Starling’s fear and it matters to her, and I have always found her sufficiently engaging to accept her position.  The point is not what her trauma is, but that she has one, which Dr. Lecter identifies and forces her to confront.  Call it fear therapy.

The invasions work on a wider scale as well, as the genre of The Silence of the Lambs is a source for debate.  Narratively, it is a detective thriller, but a detective story invaded by tropes and elements of horror.  Horror moments abound: the storage unit Starling explores; the Gothic-esque halls of the Smithsonian where she meets the etymologists; the death’s head moth itself.  The climactic sequence in Gumb’s cellar is both an invasion of his space by Starling, and an invasion into her security as she is viewed through Gumb’s night vision goggles.  Starling’s final victory over Gumb breaks the window of his cellar, allowing sunlight to invade this dark recess, but the bright, sunlit places are themselves invaded, as the final scene features Dr. Lecter at an island resort, watching Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald) whom, he indicates, will shortly be on the menu.  Buffalo Bill is disposed of, but there are still monsters out there, stalking.

A key component of horror cinema is cruelty, the continued depiction of people being hurt or persecuted.  Action cinema focuses on the hero fighting back and demonstrating their ability to take control of their situation.  Horror continues the subjugation, cruelly prolonging the plight of its characters.  Even when Starling should have Gumb cornered, the film’s cruelty continues as we watch her plight in POV shots from Gumb’s perspective.  Horror cinema compels us to watch the disturbing and horrific events through long takes, static camera and subjective shots.  If we are to maintain our engagement in the film, we must continue to endure this cruelty.  The end credits of The Silence of the Lambs perpetuates the film’s cruelty by not fading to black as a long take continues over the street, people walking about their daily lives, with Dr. Lecter having disappeared into the distance.  We want him to reappear, perhaps even to be caught, but the film tantalises us with this possibility, perhaps inducing us to check the front door is locked.

I first saw The Silence of the Lambs on a very small TV, with a single speaker, in black and white.  Despite the basic viewing conditions, I was utterly hooked and thoroughly petrified.  I have subsequently seen it many times, on DVD and in colour, on a much larger TV, and it still grips and chills me in equal measure.  Other Thomas Harris adaptations have varied in quality – Hannibal is operatic but rather silly; Red Dragon is taught but fairly ordinary (I am yet to see or read Hannibal Rising [Peter Webber, 2007]).  Before all of these came Manhunter (Michael Mann, 1986), which I have a close relationship with.  Manhunter is a fascinating film, operating on a number of stylistic, narratological, psychological and philosophical levels.  It is striking, compelling and at times disturbing, but I would not call it frightening.  The Silence of the Lambs, however, remains both shocking and disturbing in equal measure, and one of the scariest films I have seen.  Not quite the scariest though.