Archive for January 22nd, 2013

The Zoom in Winter

Recently I watched The Lion in Winter (1968) for the first time in a long while. Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn’s performances are fabulous, of course, and a very young and very sexy Timothy Dalton enlivens the scene no end, but the film is an interesting historical document, in at least three ways.

First, real-world history. We had to pause the DVD several times during the early going to revisit our memories of the historical characters and situation. Were the princes Richard and John the same as Richard the Lionheart and Robin Hood’s King John respectively? How does this Henry connect with the Henry V we saw in Ashland last summer? Though I haven’t looked into it, I’m sure most of the intrigue in the film is entirely historical… but I doubt it all came to a head in one long weekend in real life.

Second, theatre history. This film was a Broadway hit first, and it’s a very theatrical film — the dialogue is delicious and eminently quotable — and, considered as a play, it’s a marvel of concise character development and wickedly twisted power games. But the dialogue is a bit stilted by modern standards; it’s brilliant, yes, but people don’t really talk that way in real life, and I don’t think they talk quite that way on stage any more.

Third, film history, and this is the bit I really wanted to blog about. Although the film is justifiably praised — it won three Oscars and a pile of other awards — and very enjoyable, in some ways it has dated badly.

The problems, to the modern eye, begin in the opening credits, superimposed over shots of gargoyles, where the occasional cobweb drifts in a corner. These cobwebs are not deliberate, not atmospheric. There are only one or two of them in the whole sequence and their appearance and motion are nothing but distracting. These are the opening shots of a major motion picture and whatever second unit head shot them couldn’t be bothered to use a feather duster.

There are many other such glitches, which would never be accepted today in any film from a major studio. In significant scenes, Hepburn’s shadow falls on O’Toole’s face for long stretches of his dialog. There’s one picturesque stairway which appears again and again, nominally in different parts of the castle. And then there’s the zoom.

In many occurrences — I counted at least five — there’s a shot in which a main character or an important bit of scenery rests at the center of the frame while the camera slowly zooms in (or, in one memorable instance, out) for dramatic effect. These zooms are just a little uneven; you can practically feel the cameraman’s hand rotating the lens housing. And I realized that you never see zooms like this in film any more.

I know that when I was an amateur filmmaker in high school (not all that long after The Lion in Winter was released), my camera had a zoom lens and I did sometimes use it while the camera was running. Of course, there was a time before this camera effect was technically possible. But apparently, at some time between then and now, it fell out of favor.

Since watching Lion in Winter, I’ve been looking carefully for examples of zoom in more recent films. You do occasionally see it, but it is usually much more subtle and/or combined with a pan, a dolly, a change in focus, or some other effect so that the zoom is only part of the camera move and not the dominant note. But, in general, zoom seems to have fallen out of the cinematographer’s vocabulary.

If you listen to the later Beatles with headphones, you’ll hear numerous examples of stereo being used overtly (e.g. all the guitars in one ear, all the vocals in the other) and it’s really distracting. It was early days and they were still figuring out how to use the technology. We’re still using stereo today, of course, but it’s much more subtle and much more integrated with the other tools in the audio engineer’s toolbox. The same seems to have happened with zoom.

I’ll be looking out for more examples of this.