Friday, September 23, 2016
In The Light Of Truth
Dani Michaeli, but it’s so long ago now that who knows. It was a simple statement once while watching a film: “Pans suck.” That’s all it was, probably spoken during a film which contained a camera pan that most likely sucked. And I’ve always remembered that brief utterance, making me think of every bad pan I’ve ever seen, maybe some of them in the context of clunky student films and how false they were. Sure, you could bring up a million examples of good pans by Scorsese or whoever and, really, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to this sort of thing. But maybe there’s some truth to it, that the falseness of a pan is something to avoid and you should find some other way to frame your shot until you’ve figured it out. The reason I’m saying all this is that recently I was watching THE LETTER, a William Wyler-directed Bette Davis vehicle released in 1940, one of those goddamn Warner Brothers epics that opens with the familiar Max Steiner fanfare and everything about it speaks to the quality you’d get from films that were churned out by the studio system. As I get older there’s something about those goddamn Warner Brothers epics that stands out—yes, the familiar actors, but also that studio’s particular type of storytelling, a stylishness which sets it apart from the silvery aura of Paramount or the glistening perfection of MGM. It’s an extremely well-made film, heightened by performances which match the story and tone perfectly. At one point I found myself drawn in and fascinated by the direction, the way Wyler was staging a certain key moment and how the impeccable camerawork added to the way the story was being told. There was an undeniable elegance to every single moment in the deliberateness of the framing that Wyler was bringing to this particular shot. What I’m trying to say, and maybe it says something about the film as a whole, is that THE LETTER has some really good pans. George Stevens, documented in Mark Harris’ book Five Came Back) he returned home and took many of his feelings about the experience coming back from the war to make 1946’s THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES. That film won the Best Picture Oscar and is a confirmed classic by now but still feels underappreciated, its post-war context forgotten as other films, possibly made by more esteemed auteurs, have continued to be lionized. That one’s his masterpiece, not so much THE LETTER which may not even be the greatest film made by Warner Brothers during this period but of course they can’t all be CASABLANCA or TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT. But I’ve been watching THE LETTER multiple times over the past few weeks getting lost in its sumptuous atmosphere and found myself with a growing “damn, this really is good” appreciation for what it does, weaving its story through a tight running time of around 95 minutes without an ounce of fat and yet infinitely complex on a thematic and visual level. Frankly, you’d think that’s what more films should be. It’s one of the best examples of this sort of filmmaking that doesn’t get talked about much anymore as the past recedes further into the distance. It’s a great film regardless of when it was made.