Saturday, January 20, 2007

Charles Adare arrives for dinner...

A horse-drawn carriage pulls up—it’s in a studio somewhere, some potted palm trees and a moody backdrop suggesting the Australian countryside, sometime in the evening. The lantern lights the coachman’s face moodily from underneath. There’s a shot of a sign, some dialogue, a zoom into an obvious matte painting—Under Capricorn’s greatest strength is how studio-bound it is, how obviously false. 19th century Australia is created not through location shooting, but through well-appointed room, long hallways with columns and occasional servants, gentlemen standing around in sparsely furnished estates made to look as opulent as possible with limited means. The unconvincing exteriors only add to a sense of Australia as a sort of mock England—by outside the landscape to a few establishing shots and an opening sequence that could be set anywhere, we are introduced to a world of people trying to create a society despite what might exist outside.

For all we know, Australia could be on the Moon--it's not as though Michael Wilding, playing the newly arrived Charles Adare, would ever notice. The matte painting is soon followed by one of the most beautiful of all long takes as we discover Australia with him—and it is not the Outback wilderness that we are seeing, but rather the house, its servants and masters. He sneaks around the garden, peeking in as Joseph Cotton scolds the help before intruding just in time to cover up for his spying. The truth of Australia, or at least the imaginary past Australia we are seeing here, has nothing to do with the potted palm trees and everything to do with the women fighting in the kitchen or the tiny chain of command established in Cotton’s household.

It's Hitchcock's greatest adventure film, and a reminder of what a great magic trick the moving long take is. And like a magic trick, we forget about its power—a magician never seems that exciting, just kids' stuff, until you happen to see one perform and, embarrassingly, you're a bit mesmerized. The roving camera is an astounding tool for evocation when exploring something unknown, or, even better, something you want discovered. Maybe it's more than a trick--it's a real incantation, a spell that can summon up not just a room, but the society the room is intended for in the space of a few lazy minutes.
Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men is Under Capricorn's direct descendant—but unlike its grandfather, the film's protagonist is no longer exploring, but interacting, living in the world of the film. The exploration is occurring on the part of the eyes and ears of the audience (the cameras and microphones). The very nature of the roving camera allows us to explore the world around him and the sound, like that in the second scene of Heaven's Gate, suggests an entire universe outside the characters not by merely commenting, but by downright interrupting.

Down with the awkwardness of forced introductions! Bits of newspaper, sound bites, and marks on the landscape do the talking, freeing up Clive Owen, Michael Caine, Julianne Moore and the rest of the cast to explore their own (and their characters') interactions with this imaginary future. We understand the cages cartoonishly stuffed with immigrants well enough on their own so that we can instead focus on Owen passing them by without looking; the world wasting away outside the bus Owen and Moore ride on tells us enough by itself—instead, we can explore how uneasily they sit next each other in the dirty seats of the bus's second deck. These scenes eclipse the film’s famous single-take action sequences—these are moments that recall Ernst Lubitsch in their casual ephemeralism; a Lubitsch dark and despairing, though just as reliant on the cult of the material, of the physical, in the conjuring of imaginary (though no longer glamorous) worlds to support the characters.

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