Tag Archives: 3D

Gravity: and you think you’ve had some bad days at work

GravityYesterday I spent much of the day unsuccessfully trying to fix a dripping tap. It was awful. The fittings were corroded, it took me ages to get the stopcock to turn, the screw-thread on the cylinder of the thing was shot and no matter how many times I tried different washers the problem just kept getting worse. I was a jangled wreck by the time the decision was taken to give up on it and call the plumber in.

Later on though I went out to see the much-heralded Gravity, which turned out to be a big help in putting my problems with hardware, and indeed everything else, in perspective. This movie, in which Sandra Bullock and George Clooney play space-walking astronauts whose mission to repair components on the Hubble Space Telescope is seriously disrupted by a random fly-past of Russian space debris, is right and properly awesome in a way that I can’t remember seeing on screen since HAL 9000 refused to open the pod bay doors way back in the day. It takes place in a vast and implacably indifferent environment that’s rendered so well you’re made to feel as insignificant and vulnerable as one of the little nuts or bolts you occasionally glimpse drifting off into the infinite blackness and much of it plays out in daring near-silence and in unbroken and fiendishly complicated takes lasting minutes on end. It is however despite all the extraordinarily well designed and realised space stations and equipment and detailed views of the Earth not really a science fiction film. It’s more like the worst day at work ever, which just happens to have taken place in space as opposed to on an oil rig or at an airport or in an installation at the bottom of the sea.

I’m not going to go into much detail about what happens in this film because the thing is so immersive and gripping and thrilling and vivid that it would be like trying to describe a bungee jump or a rollercoaster ride that somehow managed to include sections in zero gravity. I will say that at ninety minutes it’s admirably streamlined and focused, with Clooney’s tiresome know-it-all wisecracking and an overly contrived tragic backstory for Bullock the only minor elements to distract you from the extreme and gruelling peril you find themselves in the midst of. There are sequences that are stunning for the degree with which you find yourself identifying with the astronauts’ fear and disorientation and there are moments that are still and quiet and beautiful. I’m not sure if it adds up to anything profound or revealing about the human spirit but the ingenuity, care and skill with which it’s been executed means that anyone planning a movie set in space is going to have aim high or risk looking hopelessly outmoded. Director Alfonso Cuarón is some kind of visionary, with an enormous facility for overcoming technical challenges (this is, apart from anything else, the first film I’ve seen since Avatar that really demands to be seen in 3D, and I can imagine it being absolutely overwhelming in an IMAX cinema). I wonder if he’s good with bathroom taps?


Pina: dancing about architecture and so on

I’d better fess up before going any further with this – I don’t know much about dance, and usually find watching it either unbearably tedious or hilariously pretentious. Better choose my steps carefully. Writing about dancing is like singing about architecture, or something like that.

Pina was conceived as a joint project between film-maker Wim Wenders and the highly regarded experimental choreographer Pina Bausch, but Bausch’s death in 2009 just before filming was due to start meant that the film has ended up as a tribute to her, and to her work. It’s by no means a traditional documentary. There’s pretty much nothing in the way of biography or history, and the only thoughts we hear about Bausch are those of her dancers, and these tend to be either testimonials to her genius, and pretty subjective ones at that. There are a few archive clips of Bausch dancing and workshopping, but these aren’t given much context. I knew nothing about her before seeing the film, and I could tell you barely anything now.

This doesn’t really matter though, because the bulk of the film is made up of extracts from some very well staged and shot performances of dance pieces worked out by Bausch and her regular dancers, and these are more than enough to hold the attention of even a philistine like me. These works are miles away from formal ballet: they’re physical, sensual, sometimes potentially quite dangerous, often exposing human fragility. A dancer may fall to the ground, only to be caught in the nick of time, or may execute rapid movements across a floor filled with wooden chairs, which are whipped out of the way and then stacked precariously for someone else to dive through. The women are made to seem particularly vulnerable: in the opening interpretation of The Rite Of Spring there’s an almost palpable threat as an alpha male demands a sacrifice from a terrified female group, and in another piece a woman is beset and rudely handled by a clutch of over a dozen men. Bausch seemed to be fascinated by the elements and primal forces, and some of the pieces use fine soil or water to stunning effect. In one piece the dancers are hurling themselves around on a stage sloshing with water that is being poured down on them in a simulation of a rainstorm. God knows what the Health and Safety officers thought.

There’s also a fair amount of deadpan humour on display, particularly when the dances move out of the big warehouse-like settings and into the real world. There are a couple of absurdist moments on an urban commuter train, and there’s the strange juxtaposition of a dancer performing an intense routine at a busy traffic junction. The film is being presented in 3D at cinemas and, as in Werner Herzog’s recent Cave Of Forgotten Dreams, the technique here seems artistically justified as it does help you pick out and differentiate foreground and background dancers in the more complicated pieces.

So in the end, rather surprisingly for me, I found Pina funny, affecting and sometimes quite spectacular, with only the non-dancey talky bits letting it down. Definitely worth seeing on a big screen, and paying extra for the funny glasses.

Cave Of Forgotten Dreams: Werner Herzog drops into the abyss of time

The Chauvet cave system in the south of France was first explored in 1994 and was found to contain the earliest, and arguably most accomplished, prehistoric rock art ever discovered. This was a major find – the famous cave paintings at Lascaux are around 13,000 years old whereas some of those at Chauvet have been in existence for at least 30,000 years, making them the oldest surviving evidence of human culture by a margin of thousands of years. In addition, the caves are littered with unique geological formations and priceless remains of long-extinct animal species. The French government immediately took all the necessary steps to protect and preserve the site, which is highly vulnerable to the effects of human investigation. Even the breath of visitors is potentially dangerous as it would encourage mould to form and could disperse the fragments of charcoal from where the cave artists did their work, and treading on the soft floors could destroy evidence of animal tracks. A few narrow metal walkways have been lowered into position, but it’s still not possible to get within three metres or so from any of the artwork.

Until recently, only a handful of archaeologists, anthropologists and scientists have been allowed access to the caves. A couple of years ago, however, the French ministry of culture did grant permission for a small film crew to enter in order for a visual record of the cave system to be captured. Happily (for me at least), the film-maker granted this honour was the legendary maverick Werner Herzog, who is no stranger to operating in extreme environments and recording unique and often perilous human experience. The decision was also made to film the caves in 3D, on the face of it a bizarre choice for a documentary, particularly one made by a director as famously dismissive of the gimmickry of modern culture as this one. Cave Of Forgotten Dreams is the result of the somewhat restricted shooting time and conditions that Herzog had to operate under.

Given the cramped conditions, the fact that the film crew was limited to four people and the total lack of natural light down there, the sequences of this film shot in the caves look extraordinary. The chambers are sprawling, irregularly shaped and packed with visual wonders: protruding stalagmites as smooth as porcelain, delicate rippled curtains of rock, skeletons of animals that haven’t existed for millennia. The cave art is amazingly accomplished and elegant, often reminiscent of the work of early twentieth century artists exploring the possibility of depicting motion. Animals are typically rendered via clear, uncomplicated single strokes, with detail being reserved for the heads. They seem unfeasibly accurate once you start to think about the conditions they were drawn in, but dating of the silicate that has built up on them has established that they really do pre-date all other known human art. The walls of the chambers rarely present a flat surface, but the artists have used this to their advantage by wrapping depictions around protrusions of rock, and it’s here that the decision to film in 3D really pays off: Herzog lets his cameras pan gently across the rock formations and often holds for several seconds on particular images, and the technique really does finally deliver on its promise of putting you in a virtual reality. The director narrates the film in his idiosyncratically dry, yet hypnotic, monotone and uses choral and chamber music to heighten the mood, but never in a crass fashion, and sometimes he just lets the cameras slowly move in silence.

Herzog intercuts the cave sequences with interviews with the scientists working on the site and experts in the field of prehistoric art, and while the use of 3D here becomes distracting and irrelevant these conversations do allow his deadpan sense of humour to assert itself. You get the feeling he’s sometimes chosen his interview subjects for their arresting physical appearance or behavioural tics as much as their knowledge and expertise, and relishes opportunities to play up their personal quirks – he’s delighted when he discovers that one young scientists used to work in a circus, and he’s happy to include a somewhat gratuitous clip of a master perfumer sniffing a rockface in the hope of detecting air currents from an undiscovered cavern. You wouldn’t have got this if the film had been made by the BBC or National Geographic.

We were lucky enough to go to a screening of the film at the Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge that was followed by a brief Q and A session with Herzog himself, and the great man was on form. He declared himself unconvinced by the value of 3D, at least not until film-makers had worked out how to edit it correctly, and talked about his sadness that the three discovers of the caves had become embroiled in a legal case concerning their claim over intellectual property rights which meant that they didn’t feel able to appear in the film. He also delivered a typically blackly funny anecdote about his archaeologist grandfather’s descent into senility which featured the classic Herzogian phrase “deep in the darkness of insanity”. A true one-off, and long may he continue.