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by D.W. Lundberg

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

... FOR "CINEMA STAPLES AND THE OMNISCIENT FIRST-PERSON CAMERA"

The Truman Show (1998)


Continuity errors. Recycled camera shots. The Wilhelm Scream. So far, we've taken look at some of the more common cinema staples used to "cover up" gaps in editing or shave a few extra dollars off production costs. Nitpicking or no, these are all part of the cinematic language and must be addressed, if only to enrich our understanding of the filmmaking process as a whole. But what about those film flubs or lapses in logic directors purposely try to sneak into their films, in order to make specific dramatic points?

Re-watching Bolt the other week, I was struck again by the propulsiveness of its 11-minute opening sequence, which packs twice the fun of the average Michael Bay action blockbuster and three times the clarity. It also has us believing, for a while at least, that the movie will follow the adventures of 13-year old "Penny," her super-powered pet pooch, and their attempt to rescue Penny's scientist father from the clutches of evil-doers. Then, at the climax ("Bolt, speak!"), the rug is pulled out from under us: What we've been watching isn't an actual adventure at all, but the latest episode of a weekly television series, also called Bolt, with a budget roughly the size of the U.S. deficit. The joke, of course, is that Bolt himself has little idea that everything around him is a great big fake. The makers of the TV show have gone to great lengths to hide the truth from their canine co- star, strategically placing their cameras and sneaking around set. But like a doggie variation on The Truman Show, the facade can only last so long.

Now here's the thing: I am more than willing to accept that a dog can be suckered into thinking he's constantly under threat from marauding helicopters, masked men on motorcycles, and a green-eyed criminal mastermind named after a type of cat. But I have a harder time accepting the logistics of the show itself, namely the fact that the camera seems to be everywhere at once: up and over bridges, mounted on the roofs of cars, hidden in alleyways and dodging through traffic. Or that the bad guys' magnetic metal bomb thingy would affix itself to the back of a passing tanker truck, and wait there patiently for Bolt to come and pick it up?


Come to think of it, just how "hidden" are those hidden cameras anyway? How are they able to get so many closeups without being spotted? The footage certainly looks like it's happening right now, this instant - does that mean Bolt performs all his own stunts live, on camera, without wires or special effects? Wouldn't that count as animal cruelty of some sort? Does anyone ever yell "Cut!", or would that spoil the illusion?

You could argue, of course, that it's only a cartoon - with a talking dog, a heroic hamster in a plastic ball, and aspiring screenwriter pigeons as characters, of all things. Logic need not apply. Then again, everything that happens afterward - Bolt's "accidental" shipping to New York, his cross-country trip by train, truck and traveling model home, the climactic studio fire that reunites him and Penny - could conceivably take place on the real world as we know it. (Remember, too, that the animals, when they speak, can only be heard by other animals.) The point is that, for the sake of entertainment, the filmmakers cheated by sticking their "camera" in places it could not possibly be. And our brains accept this because it's all part of the language of film.

This "magic security cam," or Omniscient First-Person Camera as I like to call it, is no stranger to animated television either. One famous example comes from Warner Bros' Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995), in particular the Emmy-winning episode "Heart Of Ice," which revamps and revitalizes the origins of Mr. Freeze (voice of Michael Ansara). Here, the Caped Crusader (Kevin Conroy) uncovers top secret surveillance footage hidden deep within GothCorp's security offices:

video

Chilling, no? And to think they caught it all on multiple cameras! The implications of this are mind-boggling. Forget, for a moment, that the camera seems to have a mind all its own, panning slowly to the left, say, to view CEO Ferris Boyle (Mark Hamill) as he enters the room. Now consider the many "shots" which make up the rest of the clip: high angles, low angles, over-the-shoulder shots, closeups... just how many cameras do they have in there anyway? While we're at it, who went and edited the footage together - in sequential order, no less - and stuck it on videotape for anyone to find? It's no wonder the company gets caught. They can't even bury their own incriminating evidence!


(To be fair, episode director Bruce W. Timm cops to this fact on the DVD commentary, saying, "So if I was doing this today, I would try to do this in as few camera angles as possible. I would like to have done it all in one shot, but... it seemed to work and I pushed it through, and it wasn't until I got the show in the editing room that I went, 'Oh, dear.'")

Lest you think the Omniscient First-Person Camera is limited only to cartoons, take a look at the following clip from Garry Marshall's Runaway Bride (1999), starring Richard Gere, Joan Cusack and Julia Roberts. Gere, a columnist for USA Today, has come to small town Hale, MD, to get the scoop on a local celebrity (Roberts) notorious for leaving a long line of fiancees at the altar. Here, he watches home movies of the negated nuptials:

video

Just your average, everyday wedding reception as imagined by Hollywood producers - complete with synchronized sound, endless extras, and a cluster of cameras aimed in every conceivable direction. I count no less than 24 cuts during the clip itself (excluding the shots where we cut away from the television), which seems a bit, uh, excessive for a 70-second video. Let's assume, though, that six or seven cameramen were there to document the event, and that they behave much like the rest of us would, darting about and panning from subject to subject with their camcorders at will. Then everyone's footage was combined for dramatic effect. For example, we can assume the following series of shots was initially one long, unbroken take, from its slightly upward angle pointed at the bridesmaids and groom:



A second shot, beginning at 0:09, shows Julia's exit from the house, and tracks with her as she steps past the camera and up onto the trampoline:



Here, however, we run into several instances of our Magical Security Cam. At 0:35, the clip cuts to a reverse angle of Julia jumping on the tramp, and then to another, closer shot at 0:36 (a stuntwoman, perhaps?), which suggests two different cameraman standing together in roughly the same spot:


Now we cut to a third angle, from underneath the trampoline, of Julia leaping into the waiting arms of the crowd. The filmmakers' foresight here is astounding - as if someone purposely stuck a camera there with the sole intention of filming up everyone's dresses. Did some of the party guests have camcorders strapped to their feet?

Once Julia is carried by the teeming masses and lifted to the stage, we cut to a standard over-the-shoulder shot/reverse shot of the bride and her impending groom. Because even in small-town America, it seems, the same Hollywood rules still apply:


Finally, the coup de grâce. Having survived the courtship, engagement, and party-planning stages of their relationship, Julia now seizes the moment and ditches her man, bolting off the back of the stage and hitching a ride on the closest vehicle she can find:


My question here: They've got cameras in the crowd, pointed at the house, under the tramp... how did they also know to prop a camera behind the stage, the better to capture Julia's escape? Did someone decide to stand there, just in case? This was her first wedding after all - was this person psychic? More importantly, why does Julia's voice sound so sharp and clear amidst all the chaos, as if someone went and looped in her dialogue afterwards? (Look close enough, in fact, and you can see that see her words don't match her lips when she says, "Go!")

I know, I know: It's only a Romantic Comedy. Why should we be expected to take anything in it so seriously when its creators clearly did not? Then again, is there really a difference? Cartoon, comedy or no, does that mean it should automatically be held to a lower standard? Are directors given carte blanche to bend the rules of reality dependent on the genres they choose? Whatever happened to a little imagination on the filmmakers' part, rather than blatantly trying to insult the audience's intelligence?

With The Truman Show, at least, we get a First-Person Camera premise that actually sustains itself from beginning to end. Now here is a lovingly crafted, eerily prophetic Hollywood satire on the very nature of hidden cameras, with literally thousands of separate setups (disguised as buttons, clock radios, pencil sharpeners and the like) on hand to capture every facet of its leading character's life. Keep in mind, the makers of the show within The Truman Show have had over 30 years to perfect their craft, and the director, Peter Weir, shows every effort to prove it, giving each in-studio shot a simple irised-out effect, as if looking through the lens of a camera. You look at a movie like that, and you think, What a concept!





For previous articles highlighting other films flubs and movie maxims (or, as we like to call them, Staples of the Cinema), head on over here, here, here and also here.

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