Sunday, 14 February 2010

Self-Imposed Limitations

This a re-post of a list I published over at RowThree about a month ago.

A short while ago I was in my local Video rental outlet (the bountiful Videoflicks) and stumbled across an old 1952 film entitled The Thief. Not the most creative of titles, but it had Ray Milland's name splashed across the front and appeared that it might be a spiffy Noir. It was enough to make me pick up the case, but it was the description on the back that instantly sold me. Though it might be described as a gimmick, its main raison d'etre seemed to be that it contained not a single word of dialogue. The limitation of no spoken words that the filmmakers imposed on themselves made for a fast moving and lean thriller - there's few wasted scenes and a good solid build up of tension which made a pretty basic story all the more compelling. So it turns out it was indeed a pretty spiffy Noir.

It made me think (like Lars von Trier doling out assignments to Jorgen Leth in The Five Obstructions) of some other films that had limits or restrictions on how they were being made purposely placed on them. Sometimes as gimmicks, but also sometimes for a specific intent such as bringing focus to certain aspects of the story or simply as a challenge to the filmmakers. These limits can be restrictions on dialog, music or additional effects as well as constructs like a single point of view on the action or even a restriction on editing. Avoiding short films and obvious experimental efforts, here's a few examples that came to mind:


(1948 - Alfred Hitchcock)

One of Hitchock’s more experimental efforts, Rope tells the story of two young men who believe they can commit the perfect murder. The interesting aspect is that each of the 7-10 minute long scenes (about the length of a film magazine at that time) was done without an edit and many of the scenes were “seamlessly” merged with the next one so that it looked as if the take was even longer. Of course, the seamless quality is not quite there (it’s pretty obvious where some of the edits are – a zoom into someone’s back, cut and then pull out, etc.) and there’s actually a couple of normal edits in the film as well. It’s a great idea that occasionally works wonderfully well (some moments are particularly tense specifically because the camera doesn’t cut away), but it also becomes the reason why you’re watching at times and has a tendency to pull you out of the story.


(2000 - Mike Figgis)

Very much an experimental film, Mike Figgis’ 2000 effort takes the single take to almost ludicrous extremes – four simultaneous continuous unedited takes are filmed and shown at the same time in the four corners of the screen. Each of the four individual sections follows characters and story lines that intersect with each other (occasionally people “jump” from one corner of the screen to another by being followed by a different camera) and the ebb and flow of the different stories guides the viewer’s focus. I enjoyed it for what it was and liked thinking about the different complexities of the shoot, but if you’re looking for story this is not the place.


(2007 - Spiros Stathoulopoulos)

Filmed entirely in one single take, the events of this story are based on a real occurrence in South America (a piece of PVC tubing is used to hold a home made bomb and strapped around a female prisoner’s neck in order to extract ransom money). It begins with a home invasion by the masked criminals where they afix the bomb to the woman and then follows her for the rest of the movie as time starts to run out. Though the idea of a real-time experience sounds perfect for a situation like this in order to heighten the tension, it actually ends up slowing the story to a crawl at times. There’s some effective moments, but the single shot forces the need for several long stretches of simply nothing happening.

Russian Ark

(2002 - Aleksandr Sokurov)

Undoubtedly one of the most impressive technical achievements I’ve seen, this 90 minute single unedited take slowly walks through not only the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, but a huge portion of Russian history. Filmed 5 years before the above mentioned PVC-1, it necessitated a great deal more technical wizardry to allow for 90 minutes of continuous footage (of this quality) to be stored. Even with those additional requirements, the complexity of the shot is enormous – thousands of cast members, changes in lighting conditions, moving in and out of many different rooms, etc. I fully understand how the “story” might not engage everyone, but not only was I mesmerized by the beauty of the images floating by, but I actually became curious to learn more about the many, many areas of Russian history that were touched upon.

Nick Of Time

(1995 - John Badham)

A young accountant (Johnny Depp) finds himself in a desperate race against time – either he assassinates a famous politician within the next 75 minutes or kidnappers kill his daughter. It's a bit of a quandry to say the least. The film unspools in real time as we see Depp’s character try to figure out how to get himself, his daughter and the politician out of this situation - all while the kidnappers watch his every move. This is definitely a case where the constraint of showing things happen in actual time works to the advantage of the story by dumping us into the character’s situation with him. You can't help but think throughout the film as time keeps ticking away, "What would I do?" Al Pacino’s recent 88 Minutes is apparently along the same lines (racing against the clock in order to avoid his own death in this case), but I haven’t seen it and, truthfully, I don’t really want to.

The Celebration

(1998 - Thomas Vinterberg)

The Idiots

(1998 - Lars von Trier)

Whether you like the idea of the Dogme 95 manifesto and its rules for filmmaking or hate it, its films certainly belong on this list. The Celebration and The Idiots were the first two official Dogme 95 films, though apparently they both circumvented a rule or two. I loved Vinterberg's entry, but have less fondness for von Trier's - in both cases that's due to the story and characters created. I've always found the ideas of the movement interesting as long as the filmmakers were using these restrictions (location shooting only, no props, no additional music, hand held cameras, etc.) as ways to help them focus on other aspects. Unfortunately, some people look at it as an entire philosophy.

My Dinner With Andre

(1981 - Louis Malle)

Louis Malle's film is similarly set almost entirely in one location - the table at a restaurant where two good friends are having a meal. In this case, though, the film really lives and dies by the conversation itself. Malle lets the actors talk and talk and talk and is never obtrusive and allows for an easy, relaxed flow to the evening's discussion. Though Andre Gregory has a fascinating delivery, for me his philosophies on life fell flat and amounted to a lot of blather. Wallace Shawn is game to call him on much of it, but he can barely get a word in edgewise.

12 Angry Men

(1957 - Sidney Lumet)

Apart from a short opening courtroom scene and final epilogue outside the courthouse, the entirety of this classic (one of my all time favourites) takes place in a single room. All 12 members of an all-male, all-white jury deliberate the fate of a young Hispanic boy charged with murdering his father and it seems like a slam dunk – except for one single dissenting vote. The amazing cast (Henry Fonda, Martin Balsam, Lee J. Cobb, E. G. Marshall, Ed Begley, etc.) each get their moments as the discussion bounces around the details of the crime and questions start to mount. The script and the acting are good enough that it could’ve been filmed with a single static camera, but Lumet manages to shift perspectives and play with angles and light to add to your perceptions of the different characters.


(2001 - Richard Linklater)

Richard Linklater is no stranger to mixing in some experimental filmmaking in between his more commercial works. With Tape, he too jumps into the single location subgenre with this three character story based on a stage play. Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard and Uma Thurman talk about their pasts and debate sets of events that may or may not have occurred. Linklater keeps the tension mounting via his camera positioning, editing and visual style. This is a good thing since the story itself wasn’t as engaging as it might have been (it would be interesting to see the one room stage play version of this since I would think it would lose interest fairly quick).

The Disappearance Of Alice Creed

(2009 - J Blakeson)

Another three-hander (in this case, moving out of the single location restriction) is this recent thriller of a kidnapping that may not be what it seems. It has a great look to it (both in the “hideout” as well as during the external scenes) and involves numerous deceptions and surprises. The film manages easily to circumvent any issues with only having three speaking parts to it (it was nice not to have to cut back to police detectives, worried parents, etc.), but didn’t quite get around some of the holes in the plot (there were several – if memory serves – moments where one character could have easily resolved an issue, but didn’t). Still a pretty solid entry to the thriller genre and hopefully it will get a 2010 release. Both Andrew and I saw this at TIFF this past year and I believe he was a much stronger advocate for the film.


(1991 - Richard Linklater)

And back to Linklater for a moment…His first film is a prime example of low-budget filmmaking as it takes an interesting idea and runs with it straight through to the end (and a bit into the ground too). The camera follows one character until they meet another and after a “conversation”, the camera then follows the new person until they meet someone else new. It continues in that manner for the length of the film and though it’s a unique device that enables you to get an idea of the surroundings of Austin and a wide variety of characters, it also requires either interesting “conversations” or at least something visually diverting. Not much of the latter and you can probably guess how interesting I found the former from my repeated usage of quotation marks. Still, I do love the fact that Linklater made the attempt.

Umbrellas Of Cherbourg

(1964 - Jacques Demy)

A gorgeous and bittersweet story that rightly earns its place as one of the best musicals ever made. The difference here is that every line of dialog is sung – some of it in actual songs, but the rest in a sing-song-y style that is a bit reminiscent of stage musicals. There's a danger in having dialog done in that latter style since it can be difficult to make it actually sound musical, but everything works wonderfully here due to 1) Michel Legrand’s memorable score (if you’ve never seen the movie, I guarantee that you’ll still be familiar with many of the main themes), 2) Jacques Demy’s direction and 3) Catherine Deneuve. My goodness she's lovely here. Oh, and the best wallpaper ever seen in film.

The Blair Witch Project

(1999 - Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez)

Paranormal Activity

(2007 - Oren Peli)

There’s a wide swath of opinion regarding “found footage” horror films - in particular the low-budget variety that The Blair Witch Project essentially kicked off a decade ago. The possibilities are certainly huge for first time filmmakers and the single camera point of view enables them to bring the audience right into their spooky situations. Personally, I liked both of these films and appreciated whatever creepiness the filmmakers could conjure up, but I’m not sure there’s a huge re-watch co-efficient with either.


(2007 - Jaume Balaguero, Paco Plaza)

Probably my favourite of the numerous "found footage" horror films. One of the tricks of getting the audience to buy into the concept is to give them a good reason for the camera to actually be on and recording. It doesn't always work, but I thought [rec] did a fine job in convincing us that the video needed to be continuously rolling in order to document the happenings. It's when you can buy into that device and get sucked into the feeling of actually being there that these types of movies work best.


(2008 - Matt Reeves)

This should get lumped into the same category as the above, but it deserves special mention for: 1) being the least convincing of these films in its explanation as to why the camera was always rolling and 2) creating some pretty excellent effects within the frame of the cameraman. I didn’t buy many of the decisions of the main characters or believe the timelines, but some of the individual scenes were very well done and it made for a much more compelling and on the edge of your seat experience than if it had been a big budget Roland Emmerich production.

The Lady In The Lake

(1947 - Robert Montgomery)

In this Noir, the entire film is shot from the point of view of private eye Philip Marlowe, so there are lots of people talking to the camera and opportunities for Marlowe to walk in front of mirrors and other reflecting objects (so that actor Robert Montgomery - playing Marlowe – could be seen). It’s an interesting idea and contains a few clever shots, but completely fails at engaging the audience or conveying the story appropriately (it occasionally cuts back to Marlowe in his office giving further details directly to the camera). As well, the acting suffers a great deal as most of the reactions to Marlowe's dialog seemed overly forced.

Man Bites Dog

(1992 - Remy Belvaux, Andre Bonzel, Benoit Poelvoorde)

A documentary crew follows a serial killer through his paces (prep work, exercise, execution of plans, etc.) and slowly become involved with his crimes. This faux documentary is an odd beast, but for my money one of the better single-camera viewpoint films. Certainly not a mock-umentary as it really touches on some dark areas and manages to focus on an examination of the reality show concept while asking “Do cameras affect actions”?.

Songs From The Second Floor

(2000 - Roy Andersson)

Roy Andersson's beautifully framed look at a purgatory-like society is done completely (except for one single instance) with static shots. The lack of camera movement allows the eye to roam freely over every frame and take in all the details - the muted colours, the background events, the depth of field and the expressions of each person. Andersson's follow-up, the amazing You, The Living, uses an almost identical restriction (with a few additional camera movements) and is also incredibly effective - though in a very different way.


(2003 - Lars von Trier)

A different set of parameters for von Trier this time around as he begins the first part of his "USA - Land of Opportunities" trilogy (I've heard it called several different things). Who says you can't make a three hour movie without sets or scenery and just a limited amount of props? Why not use chalk outlines on the floor to represent walls and rooms? I mean, Les Nessman did it (pardon my unnecessary WKRP reference - can't be helped). I put off seeing this for along time as I expected it would get a bit dull if the story didn't engage me, however I shouldn't have feared that - it's actually remarkably cinematic and visually rich and inventive. There are certainly differing opinions as to whether these restrictions helped or hindered the film as a whole, but I can't help thinking it would have been far less effective had it been done in a straightforward manner. The director saves his biggest gotcha for the end credits though.

The Birds

(1963 - Alfred Hitchcock)

It's only proper that we finish with The Master after starting with him. Though composer Bernard Herrmann was a sound consultant for the project, there's not a single bit of musical score in the entire film. What’s even stranger is that you don’t really even notice its absence. Hitchcock manages to work all his magic, build all his tension and deliver all his scares without using a single shred of music to create his atmosphere.

Of course, there are plenty of others. What other films have had intentional limitations and restrictions put on them? I'd love to hear more suggestions...


James McNally said...

Just found a film I'm looking forward to watching called Dossier 51 (France, 1978, directed by Michel Deville). It's a kind of espionage tale told entirely by way of "secret films, tape recordings, written and oral reports of agents who write and talk in the jargon of their trade." (the quote is from the NYT review) Sounds fascinating.

Bob Turnbull said...

Thanks James! That does sound kind of intriguing. Let me know if you end up seeing it...

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