Charlie Kaufman films and digital video

I’ve been to a lot of films recently, and I don’t have the time, I’m afraid,

to write about them all. But I would like to try to correct what seems to be

a general misconception that the cool new film to see is the one written by

Charlie Kaufman – Adapatation.

The fact is, Charlie Kaufman did write the cool new film to see, and it is an

adaptation of a popular book. But the book isn’t The Orchid Thief,

it’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.

Let’s get Adaptation out of the way first. Every columnist, it is

said, is allowed precisely one column about how hard it is to write the column,

how he has nothing to say in his column, how he needs to turn in something but

can’t think of anything to write, that sort of thing. Even when it’s done well,

it reeks of desperation. Adaptation is the filmic equivalent of that

one column. Charlie Kaufman has got away with it, mainly because he’s Charlie

Kaufman, and in the wake of the success of Being John Malkovich, he

and Spike Jonze could do pretty much anything they wanted. But insofar as Adaptation

represents a whole new genre in filmmaking, it only does so because it’s a genre

which shouldn’t exist, and which should never be repeated.

Tortured-writer films, of course, are nothing new: think Barton Fink.

But the idea of writing yourself into your movie, as well as the author of the

book you’re adapting, doesn’t raise interesting questions about the difference

between fiction and reality: it’s really just a po-mo pain in the arse. And

it doesn’t help that Kaufman turns out to be not so good at writing writers:

of the four leads (counting Nicolas Cage twice), three are writers, and only

the fourth (John Laroche, played wonderfully by Chris Cooper) is either sympathetic

or believable.

To see what a good adaptation should be like, one only needs to go see Confessions

of a Dangerous Mind instead. It’s a rollicking yarn, which purports

to be the true story of Chuck Barris, a man responsible for many game shows

on the telly. Barris wrote a memoir in which he claimed to have led a secret

life as a CIA hitman, and the film, ingeniously, is completely faithful to the

book: nowhere does it indicate that Barris made the whole thing up.

At the same time, the director, George Clooney (!) has saturated virtually

every frame of the film with various cinematographic effects: the real-life

interviews are blown out, with a few high-impact colours, while the scenes set

in the golden era of network television are as stylised and appealingly artificial

as anything in Catch

Me If You Can. Clooney hired Newton Thomas Sigel as his cinematographer

after working with him on Three Kings, but this time brought a much

more coherent directorial vision to Sigel’s tricked-out talents.

Clooney loves his virtuoso shots: my favourite was one set in the lobby of

NBC, when Barris (Sam Rockwell) joins an official tour of the building, peels

off to ask where he can get a job, is pointed off screen, and then is next seen

in the very same shot leading a tour himself. It goes on: the camera zooms in

on a conversation between two employees, one of whom is the girl we first saw

leading the origional tour, and then zooms out to include Barris in his third

incarnation, listening to them swoon over the prospect of meeting a man in middle

management. I’m not sure why it made me think of Alfred Hitchcock, but it’s

certainly look-at-me filmmaking, and Clooney pulls it off with aplomb.

Clooney stars, as well (natch: when was the last time you saw an actor making

a directorial debut in which he didn’t star?) as deadpan CIA agent Jim Byrd.

As Ricky Jay says in Heist, this motherfucker is so cool, when he goes

to bed, sheep count him. In fact, Clooney is almost too cool for his own film:

his still, central presence is so magnetic that our supposed hero seems little

more than a flailing doofus by comparison, even when he’s sparring with his

cold war femme fatale, Patricia (Julia Roberts). They quote Nabokov

at each other: "All the information I have about myself is from forged

documents". It’s a quotation I haven’t been able to verify, although it

sounds plausible enough – maybe Pale Fire? – and it’s about

as close as the film comes to admitting the rocky basis of its own foundation.

The other major character in the film is Penny, in a performance of beautiful

openness and freshness by the underrated Drew Barrymore. It’s very rare for

the women in biopics of men to be fully-rounded characters, but here we feel

if anything that we understand Barris’s girlfriend more than we understand him.

In a world where even biopics about women directed by women (Frida)

end up with the guy getting all the glory and the interesting exposition, it’s

very good to see Clooney and Barrymore creating a strong, memorable female character.

One alternative to strong, memorable female characters, of course, is weak,

memorable female characters. Rebecca Miller has created three of these, in Personal

Velocity, a film subtitled "Three Portraits".

The three women – Delia (Kyra Sedgwick), Greta (Parker Posey) and Paula

(Fairuza Balk) are not actually weak, although one could be forgiven for getting

that impression from the omniscient male narrator who irritatingly insists on

telling us what’s going on in each of the three episodes.

The first episode, Delia’s, is by far the weakest. Sedgwick plays a battered

wife who gathers up her kids and runs away from her husband to try to find a

new life for herself upstate. Um, that’s it, really. It’s worthy, and artfully

allusive, but I couldn’t really fault the man who walked out of the movie theatre

after it was over, thereby missing a wonderful performance by the always-excellent

Posey.

My problem with Posey’s story is not that it is badly told, but that it carries

with it the vaguest smell of anti-semitism. Posey plays a content downtown bohemian

book editor, toiling away on cookbooks while her boss (Wallace Shawn) ignores

her. She’s estranged from her father, a successful Jewish lawyer, and very close

to her husband, an unsuccessful WASP. Over the course of the film, she starts

turning those two relationships around, renewing her relationship with her dad

while drifting apart from her husband.

The problem is that the catalyst for this change in her life is when she suddenly

gets a high-profile editing job, out of the blue, on the recommendation of the

latest hot author’s ex-girlfriend, who knew her at Harvard. (If you’re not following,

don’t worry, it’s not important.) Before you know it, she’s consumed with ambition,

jumping ship to other publishing houses, thinking of hitting up her father’s

friends to start up an imprint of her own, that sort of thing. At the same time,

she’s rediscovering her Jewish roots, with a digression about a rabbinical student

she had an affair with shortly before her marriage, who complained that her

fiancé wasn’t even Jewish. It’s hard to see why Miller makes such a big

deal of the religious aspects to the affair, unless it’s to somehow imply that

a Jewish husband might somehow have been more in tune with the avaricious monster

that Posey eventually turns into.

In the final story, Balk plays a confused former runaway who, after a nasty

accident in downtown New York, heads upstate in her car for no particular reason

that she can think of. On the way, she picks up a kid who’s standing in the

rain by the side of the road. There are lots of big issues here: abuse, pregnancy,

runaways, and again none of them are addressed face-on: you just watch the film,

see Balk struggling with her issues, and then, as in the previous two stories,

see everything end on a grace note which doesn’t really tie anything up but

at least gives the impression that our protagonist has reached some kind of

self-realisation.

It would all make for a vaguely good film, if it wasn’t for the fact that it

was shot on digital video (DV), and is therefore nigh-on unwatchable. Much has

been made over the past few years of the way in which DV lowers the costs of

making films, thereby removing the monopoly which Hollywood has over what we

see in theatres.

The fact is, however, that DV is still a very, very long way from producing

pictures of the sort of quality which would be even halfways acceptable to Hollywood.

The magic of the movies – the reason why so many people love them so much

– is up there on the screen somewhere, in that cone of projected light.

At any point in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, it is possible to

just forget everything about the structure of the film, and simply bask in the

images, in a pure This Is Cinema kind of way.

With films shot on DV, however, the opposite is true. You constantly have to

try to stop yourself from being distracted and irritated by digital artifacts

in the image, by nastily pixellated light sources, by supposedly straight diagonal

lines which look more like jagged ladders. Flesh tones are appalling, as a rule,

and there’s no sensuousness on screen, even in the most high-budget of DV features,

like The Anniversary Party or Dancer in the Dark.

DV isn’t even up to television quality yet. Or rather, if you watch a DV-shot

film on DVD, it’s obvious that it was shot on DV, even when you’re watching

it on a perfectly ordinary television. I’m not all that surprised, if you compare

the size and sophistication of the average television studio’s cameras with

the cheap hand-held numbers that are used by most people shooting films on DV.

I’ve found that most of the time, reviewers and festivalgoers deliberately

overlook the weakness of the medium when they’re rating movies. That’s how films

like Tadpole

come to get big theatrical releases: they’re a huge success at Sundance, where

everybody’s well versed in ignoring the elephant in the room.

When I spend my $10 to go see a movie, however, I’m looking forward to the

full cinematic experience. However touching a story might be, a film shot on

DV is never going to give me that. (With the possible exception of Dancer

in the Dark.) I think that it could be for that reason alone that I

much preferred Igby Goes Down and 13 Conversations About One Thing

to Tadpole and Personal Velocity. So if you want to make a

movie that people will really love, make it on film. Whatever the extra expense

is, it’s worth it.

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15 Responses to Charlie Kaufman films and digital video

  1. Matt says:

    Nice reviews. As it happens I was discussing digital vs. analogue photography/cinematography with a friend (who happens to be a professional photographer) just the other day, and we realised that perhaps the most important difference is in the depth of field.

    Any sub $3000 digital camera and all handheld DV cameras have a much smaller sensor, and therefore much greater depth of field than their analogue equivalents. See for more info.

    I reckon this is one of the major reasons for the perceived difference in ‘feel’ between the two media – everything shot digitally looks like traditional film shot through a telephoto lens, with practically the entire scene in focus.

  2. Great posting, Felix, and very a propos Matt comment, thanks to both. Small, annoying, picky correction to Matt’s comment? Matt’s absolutely right that DV cameras do have tons of depth of field (as do HDTV cameras, I’m told). And he’s right that that means that nearly everything shot on DV is in focus. He goofed (mistyped, I suspect) on what that means their images look like: not (as he suggests) like film’s telephoto shots (which actually have a very tiny depth of field), but like film’s wide-angle shots.

  3. eric says:

    Very nice review Felix. Here’s some notes on the whole messy HiDef vs. DV vs. Film situation, from the perspective of someone who wrestles with this nonsense on a semi-regular basis – and, I should add, for whom film will always win out astheticly, but not neccessarily economicly. First, some basic facts:

    Film cameras generally run at a standard sync speed of 24 frames per second.

    Video runs at 30 fps, but uses two ‘fields’ for each frame= 60 fields per sec.

    HiDef is generally shot on a ’24P’ camera, which uses computer trickery to mimic the 24fps look of standard motion picture film speed. (or to be more exact, it mimics the trickery known as ‘film look’, when video is transfered to look like film by dropping every third set of fields)

    Many pro-sumer DV cameras have a simulated ‘film’ feature, which usually amounts to a matte that makes the picture look like wide-screen cinema. (black bars, top and bottom)

    So, on to the mess.

    Film has Depth Of Field, because the combination of the exposure, shutter speed and lens size render only a selected part of the frame in focus, as determined by the person looking through the lens.

    Video, esp. DV, sees virtually everything in frame at the same focus. the lenses do not have the same variations in spped and exposure. It’s not so much that it has greater DOF, it doesn’t really have any ability to control DOF at all. (I’m simplifying like mad here).

    HiDef cameras use modified film camera lenses, which have variable exposure and allow control over depth of field.

    The catch is, if you are shooting on HiDef, with it’s super expensive cameras and fancypants technotrickery, and then edit on normal video editing equipment, you’ve lost most of the advantages of HiDef. Further, even if you did edit on HD gear, and the film is being shown on regular TV, the advantage is nil. (my opinion – some engineer or videophile will tell you different)

    As for the economic equasion, video, even DV, has a negative side. Yes, if you are shooting say, a documentary with many interviews, video, and esp. DV, is far more economical in terms of raw materials. You can shoot hours of tape for the cost of a few minutes of film. Film needs to be transfered to tape for editing, which adds cost and time to the process. DV tapes go from camera to computer in real time, and save costs. However; when a director shoots a ton of DV footage, with several cameras, the editorial logistics become nightmarish in proportion. When all of this shooting is done without any understanding of the post-process needed to identify, organize and edit the material, that nightmare is reality, and the cost goes beyond what it would have been had the shoot been well planned and on film in the first place.

    Ultimately, all of these formats have a purpose and a value in film making. Just because the technology is cheap and available, a DV camera and FinalCut enabled laptop do not render instant auteurs, though many are trying. The market will be glutted with these ‘films’ of dubious quality, to be hailed by critics of dubious quality as the dawn of a new technolgical era in cinema. bollocks. Film rules, always will. Video will find it’s place, and find it faster when everyone aggrees to let it be video, and stop trying to make it look like film.

  4. Matt says:

    Thanks to Eric for the serious info. To elaborate on the DOF/tele/wide question: Assuming the same aperture you can get precisely the same shot using a 50mm lens at 10m from the subject, or a 100mm lens at 20m from the subject, but the latter will have greater DOF *measured in metres*.

    As a proportion of the in-focus subject distance the DOF is the same (or indeed slightly worse in the typical case where a larger aperture is used with a longer lens), but in metres it is much less using a shorter lens.

    You can see this very neatly on-line at http://www.dof.pcraft.com/dof.cgi

    So when I say ‘like using a telephoto’ I mean ‘like using a telephoto and standing a long way from the subject’.

    I’m not sure this has really helped ;-)

    M

  5. Matt says:

    Oh, and when I say ‘aperture’ I mean real physical aperture, not f-stop.

    So a 2 x blow-up of a 100mm shot has the same DOF as a 200mm shot of the same scene taken without adjusting any other of the camera settings.

    Damn this stuff’s complex.

  6. Chase Heinrich says:

    You were aware that Charlie Kaufman was the screenwriter for “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” right? I was not sure, it was unclear from your article that you were aware. It seemed as though you were panning Adaptation for weakness that you admired in Confessions, i was kind of confused as to what your criticism was about. Both the “orchid theif” and “confessions…” are wonderful NOVELS, but that is all. Charlie Kaufman adated them marvelously for the screen by centering in on certain aspects that were central but not explict in each individual novel. I felt that both adaptations were tributes to writers and storytellers. Kaufman’s style does not represent a new genre it is just reflective of a new generation of filmmakers who grew up on Altman, Allen and Coen brother films.

  7. Bran says:

    ok so yea video and film are different… we know this, cool down…. but dont be too quick to bash it. Anyway… one who wants to learn film direction or make their first feature is able to do it for a few thousand dollars… to then make attempts at immulating film makes perfect since… its the ultimate goel for most filmmakers. To say digital will never look like film is ridiculas. Star Wars Episode II, yea its a shitty movie, yea it looks fake and cheesy at parts, but it looks pretty damn close to film. Yea those cams are very expensive. the point is, dare i say it, digital will replace film one day in popular cinema! Nikon and Canon have determined to stop making 35mm analog cams in 5 short years… its coming, sorry, sorry, cry bitch…

  8. bafc23 says:

    hey Bran, I’ll say it again. Video is video, film is film. Video can look really good, great even, but digital will never look like film. I’ve got twenty plus years in the business of movie making (film AND video) to stake my claim on.

    There is a huge difference between still camera technology and motion picture camera technology. The fact that Nikon and Canon are possibly phasing out film is not relevant to the discussion at hand.

    In the future, your arguments might carry more weight if you attempt to spell and grammar check your posts.

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