Penetrating vision of life, complexity of plot, depth of characterization — or whatever it is that the movie critics who get quoted in newspaper ads demand for a movie to reach the statue of fiction by Joyce Carol Oates — actually consumes a mere fraction of any movie's time. Play It As It Lays is undoubtedly "existential," but this fact is not what occupies the screen every second. What any spectator is aware of constantly, is the movie's stunningly clean, tidy, pastel image of placid faces, and placid freeway, poolside. beach. Sounder demonstrates that a poor, rural. black family can have as much stickiness (stick-togetherness, stick-to-itiveness, and stick-to-your-teeth-ness) as the Partridge Family. Despite the sincerity, however, the images, starting with a falsely lit night-time coon hunt and continuing through numberless awkward, static shots of rural living that come from the Life Magazine school of photojournalism, usually appeal to the viewer's skepticism — about the film-maker's ability as well as their familiarity with the subject. On the other hand, Avanti makes little claim to contact with the real world, but the stable, opulent images of roomy, airy, expensive hotel rooms and terraces have a seductive pressure of their own.
Liv Ullmann in The Emigrants
The one constant fact in any movie is how it looks, not what it's about and certainly not what it means. Whatever a movie has to "say" must come through its "looks." As if this were just a movie's vanity, comparable to clothing or cosmetics, attention is rarely lavished on a movie's looks. The quality of a movie's looks — the quality of its image — can be assessed, and reacted to, in under ten minutes generally, in ten blinks, often. It does not mutter whether you happen into the movie somewhere in the middle or whether you wander out of the movie an hour and a half before the finish. And if the reaction to the image is strongly negative (as mine invariably is, for instance, to the sickly bloodlessness and spasmic squalor of any Ken Russell extravaganza), then the movie will be a sour experience, constantly, no matter what fascination, occasionally, there is in the language, the narrative structure, this or that actor's big effort. Turning hostile, instantly, on a movie's appearance is no different — and no less legitimate — than opening a John D. Macdonald novel while browsing amid the paperbacks, sampling a random paragraph, and deciding that Ross must be the Macdonald who is said to be good. An analogy to the independent effect of the movie image, taken from an aural plane. might be the way the sound of a voice smooths or scrapes on sensibilities, regardless of the ideas or syntax it is delivering. A movie's image is its skin, its body, and sets its climate.
The saga of a mountain man, salted with uncomfortable, self-conscious "legendary" qualities — ballads, hammily colloquial narration, quaint dialogue. With the actors (especially golden-haired Robert Redford) trying to be lovable, and with Pollack's direction trying for aloof, expensive pictorializing, any sense of frontier hardship is blockaded from the screen.
The preferred vantage point for movie evaluation — the position of authority — is the overview, hindsight. (Thus, the number of movies that are scolded because the ending is a "letdown" or because they do not "lead anywhere.") Camp is set up at the site where The End appears on screen. And from that elevated position, the movie is surveyed from end to end, and the long-range issues can be hashed over. Is the leading lady's interpretation consistently developed and deeper than skin? Is the theme the inexorable synthesis of the director's last eight projects? Does the movie have the power, the progressiveness to raise consciousness, or eyebrows? Such questions are' certainly bulky enough to keep anyone engaged all through lunch hour, but they are not always required. It is merely out of good manners, or habit, or desperation to fill space that a reviewer will discuss a movie's sociological reverberations, when in fact the movie ceased to interest him twenty-eight seconds after termination of the credits. Jeremiah Johnson can be excusably given up for lost in the opening scene of Redford embarking, hopeful-eyed. on his adventurous frontier career. The decisive moment is when the camera takes up a position right behind Redford's ear (the cameraman is crouched inside Redford's duffel bag, presumably) and gets a seasickly, swaying impression of walking up Main Street. For a cameraman to take this improbable point of view would not be unforgivable by itself, but it's a reliable omen that later on the cameraman will curl up in a foxhole, staring up at the sky, in order for Redford to hurdle spectacularly over.
The quality of an image can be accurately gauged, usually, in any instant. It will not vary in an important way throughout the film. The character of an image has nothing to do, necessarily, with a picture's potential to tell a story visually. to expose a character, to materialize a state of mind. or such things. The basic properties are purely physical, sensible, and they are felt immediately, instantaneously. Feeling an image is done with the imagination. obviously. It is comparable to peering through the window pane and thinking that it "looks chilly" outside, or to studying a chair that you are supposed to transport to the dinner table and thinking that it "looks heavy." The quality of an image can be influenced by a number of things, some carefully controlled by the film-maker and some possibly not — how the shots are lit, how the film is processed, what film stock or camera lens is used, so on. In any case, it takes no great technical knowledge to see, and feel, the image. Its volume — shallow or deep, flat or roomy - and its density — vacant, crammed, spare, intricate _ and its surface — hard, soft, rough, smooth, gritty, clean — and its stability — heavy, light, solid, shaky — and its complexion — dark, light, muted, luminous — and its freshness — moist, dry, bright, faded.
Rather too dreamily photographed; but this little parable about four Atlanta businessmen out of their element on a canoe trip in uncivilized hillbilly country is very intensely acted, especially by Burt Reynolds and Ned Beatty in very tricky roles. Manliness is the issue at nearly every turn, and the varying responses in tense facing-ups and facing-downs pretty much cover the alternatives. Directed by John Boorman from a script by James Dickey of his own best-seller.
The positive or negative reaction to an image may seem as if it is largely swayed by personal taste. Like some people cannot tolerate the sound of a piano, or some cannot abide lettuce. So, some perhaps cannot stand Eastmancolor, or throw fits at Panavisian, or bridle at tight close-ups. But the question is not really all that beyond reason. Deliverance, for example, is a movie in which the image oddly works to deny the movie's point. For the boldness of Reynolds' acting and for the pull of the events, Deliverance should be seen, but its image seems to me a liability. First, the almost monochromatic greenish image is overly, repetitively attuned to the visual cliche of Man's minuteness in Nature's vastness. But a greater annoyance is that the camera, probably by necessity of the location shooting, views the action — especially the business of getting over the river's rapids — through the sort of long lens that tends to flatten the image. So that in these scenes. the men appear to have the musculature of decals as they slide across a depth less illusory field. It is a recurrent irony of the latest film fashions that at the same time movies are conspicuously moving into open country and real locales, the stylish photography — telefoto and wide-angle lenses, monochromatic coloring — squashes the territory into a flat, gelatinous appearance.
The importance of an image to a movie's effect could be suggested by a survey of the joint efforts of Godard and his longtime cinematographer, Coutard, who must be one or two of the smartest movie people. Run your hand across their works. reach in and feel around inside, heft them in your arms. The scuffed, lightweight, arid Carbiniers, the languorous, voluptuous Contempt: the flat, stickily moist Chinoise. Something essential would be missing from discussion of these movies which did not pay attention to their appearances — the variance of sensual effect they purposely achieve. Of course, the look of the image is not all that matters in movies. But the emphasis. or the value, usually placed on it is wrong. Attention to the image is usually confined, in reviews, to a vague parenthetical aside ("exquisite color photography"), alongside a reference ti the musical score and the elegant lettering of the credits. Probably the chief barrier to greater attention would have to bring description into their writing where they are accustomed to getting along on urbanity. a superior education in the liberal arts. or their position of authority, as they judge whether or not a movie has staggering impact. makes an honest try, or is utterly pointless.