When actors study their craft, be it the method, the Miesner technique, Adler, or any other of the many forms taught around the globe, they are taught to use their entire body. Movement, often dance is taught to the students so they will understand how important the use of their entire being is in any performance.
When Hannibal Lector makes his first appearance in The Silence of the Lambs (1991) he is standing erect in the middle of his cell, as if at attention, his entire body taut, ready for the meeting he already knows is going to happen, like a predator patiently waiting for its prey. That was a decision made by actor and director, knowing already that the audience had heard so much about the character, they decided how best to allow that first visual. There are close ups in the film, several of Lector’s face, up close and personal, but the director, Jonathan Demme also knew when to pull back, when not to move in so tight.
In Stanley Kubrick’s mesmerizing A Clockwork Orange (1971) so much of Malcolm MacDowell’s character, of what we think of him, is decided upon how he moves. The actor moves throughout the film with a jaunty step, almost cocky, until beaten down at the end only to rise again at the end, going back to his violent ways. Sure we see him close up as he relishes the idea of going back to his life of crime, but Kubrick had the wisdom to allow the actor to create so much of his character with his body, therefore shot at a distance. Edwin S. Porter began moving the camera in 1902 with a simple pan, something DW Griffith built upon when he and cameraman Billy Blitzer created many of the shots that are used to this day. Though it might seem primitive to us today, they were actually creating a cinematic language way back in 1908-1915, culminating in Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915). The template they created for shots is the same used today with some small variations, and only the iris shot rarely used, though it is present in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1997) and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011).
Tom Hooper can direct. He proved this with his superb HBO mini-series “John Adams” in which Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney gave brilliant performances as the second President and his First Lady. Though I do not agree with the Oscar he won for The King’s Speech (2010), it was still a fine film, with excellent performances in which I would say he used a normal number of close ups. Some of the film’s best scenes were between Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush as they worked together in the good doctors “office” many of the shots long or medium, with a handful of close ups, when he knows what he is doing. Why then does the filmmaker nearly ruin Les Miserables with constant close ups? The songs have such emotion, he wanted to get every last ounce of it out of them, but actors can convey such emotions with their entire bodies, not just their faces. Watching the film sometimes was like watching a talking heads presentation of the film and how fast that became tiresome. Watching Anne Hathaway sing the works’ signature tune “I Dreamed a Dream” was deeply moving, but why not pull back and show the space around her? Show her isolation from the world, the fact she is utterly alone in her fight for what is right?
Alan J. Pakula presented audiences with a magnificent shot in his masterpiece All the President’s Men (1976), which documented how Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein broke open the Watergate case and brought down the Nixon presidency. They are alone in their quest, their own paper not even backing them some of the time, and the tension and despair is often registered on their faces. But no shot better suggests their battle for what is right than the one that takes place in Library where they are going through cards to find out who checked out certain books, (this being long before computers) and the camera moves up, up, ever higher to show them as tiny figures surrounded by history, by Washington, by politics which nearly swallows them whole.
Hooper’s constant use of close ups does more damage to Les Miserables than good, and the sad thing is it is such an easy fix. Just move the camera back. Or move the camera period. Watching the film I began to tune out of the songs and concentrate on the shape of the faces I was watching, seeing every pore they possess, every flaw, every hair, and I am supposed to be listening to the songs. There is much to admire in the film, the performances of Anne Hathaway, Samantha Barks (the film’s best kept secret) and Hugh Jackman, the startling production design and costuming, and of course that beautiful music, but the direction, sadly is lacking.
Why did he not trust his actors from a distance? Why did he feel the need to go close and make every number feel like a big Broadway tune, almost waiting for the applause when the actor was finished? On stage (SPOILER ALERT), that stunning moment when Fontine comes back at the end of the play and moves in slowly, dreamlike remains seared into my mind as one of the great moments in modern theater (END SPOILER). And the stark isolation Eponine feels when she belts out “On My Own” onstage, entirely by herself, the stage dwarfing the actress but capturing to perfection that sense of being alone, is weakened by Hooper’s directorial choices.
Too bad, could have been a masterpiece.
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