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Name: Dan Sallitt
Location: New York, New York, United States

Thursday, August 9, 2007

A Double Life: Post-War Cukor

A Double Life, the first film George Cukor directed after WWII, seems to signal a change in Cukor's ideas about the plastic aspects of filmmaking. Here are a few of the devices I notice in the film that might be new for Cukor:

  • An interest in long-shot urban compositions that emphazise open space in front of the camera that extends in one or more directions into the urban environment. There is a certain documentary quality to these images, possibly because of the use of natural sound;

  • Art direction for interiors that emphasizes clutter, or a profusion of objects, kept in focus along with the actors;

  • Some rather long takes, sometimes with pans or tracks across a space;

  • An occasional use of extreme long shot in a dramatic scene where one might expect closer shots by default. I don't recall Cukor doing this when the plot is fully engaged, but it happens once or twice early in the film;

  • Lights shining into the camera, producing halation. Here, and also in A Star Is Born, the effect is associated with the experience of being on stage.

One could think of many of these effects as being related to various "realist" influences that were operating at the time. For instance, the increased presence of newsreel footage might have something to do with the acceptability of natural sound, or of technical "imperfections" like lights shining at the camera; neorealist films from Italy may have suggested the more general use of long shots; the deep-focus photography associated with Toland seems to be influencing Cukor's decor decisions. If Cukor is indeed borrowing realist style elements, though, he is determined to make them look very nice. No jittery newsreel-style camera or hurried compositions will be found in his films - all the effects I mention are aestheticized and pleasing to the eye.

Because one tends to think of Cukor as an actor-centered director, it's interesting to contemplate this shift in his style toward a greater exploitation of the spatial properties of the image. His work in the 30s was not at all visually clumsy, but my impression is that he was principally interested at that time in varying shot length for dramatic purposes, to shift our attention between a theater-like sense of ensemble and the interior state of individual performers. But his visuals in the late 40s and early 50s become more evocative of space and time, even as he retains his primary interest in emotional revelation.

The acting style that Cukor encourages uses realist gestures in order to trick us, so to speak, into accepting extreme emotionality as naturalistic. For instance, an actor might interrupt a rapturous moment with a nervous giggle or a quick, embarrassed look at the character he or she is talking to. My sense is that Cukor likes to be big and over the top, and that realism for him is simply a tool to integrate wildness into an ostensibly natural dramatic context.

Do the realist visual gestures of the 40s and 50s serve the same effect, somehow? It's something to think about.

As for A Double Life itself, I can't say I enjoyed it much. I'm always tempted to lay blame at the feet of screenwriters Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon, who generally bother me; and the script does occasionally seem to me ham-handed in laying out the interrelations of the characters. But I suspect that the real problem is that Cukor isn't the right director for this kind of material. The story (famous actor Ronald Colman identifies too much with whatever part he's playing, and therefore becomes a menace to womankind when he plays Othello) is potentially silly, and probably needed a cool-headed, analytic, distanced depiction of the theater world, so that the insanity of the protagonist could appear to be nurtured and disguised by his environment. But Cukor characteristically is fascinated by Colman's grandiose inner life, and the social context recedes behind his ecstatic self-projection.

(There were two scenes in A Double Life where I thought Kanin and Gordon wrote some really sharp, knowing dialogue. Maybe I need to make a fairer appraisal of their virtues and vices.)



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