Do we really know why certain films move us to excess, unaccountably so? Marnie is the Hitchcock film I’ve seen most often, and my every encounter with it has been convulsive, scary, tearful, deeply painful and deeply pleasurable. (May art never cease trying to destroy us with its intensities!)
But this post is not about why Marnie has a primal hold on me; I’ll save that for another time. Instead, let’s talk a bit about rear projections.
One of the few moments of serenity in this deeply unhappy film comes about eight minutes in, when Marnie takes her horse, Forio, for a ride. (Immediately before, she says, "Oh Forio, if you want to bite somebody, bite me,” probably her only unqualifiedly tender and affectionate words in the film.)
But Marnie’s ride, her moment of relief and release, is strangely muted. As the trees drift by indistinctly on the rear projection, Marnie herself hardly seems to move. Even this moment of stasis when there should be energy—atop a galloping horse—ends too quickly (like another scene of momentary happiness with an animal, the children’s play ceremony with Balthazar, also just a few minutes into that film). We cut to another shot of slow movement as Marnie’s taxi pulls up to her mother’s house in Baltimore, dwarfed by the wonderfully fake and ominous painted backdrop of a ship in the harbor. It is Marnie's return, without knowing, to the origin of her trauma and sorrow.
A couple of more examples that come to mind:
In Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Dorothy (Jane Russell) and Lorelei (Marilyn Monroe) go shopping in Paris. We see the city in rear projection through the window of the taxicab. Paris seen this way is distant and dull. But the contents of the cab are shiny and reflective: Dorothy and Lorelei’s bright dresses, their gold-wrapped clothes and jewelry, their gleaming lipstick, even the cab driver’s glowing cheeks!
The Hindi film Bombay to Goa (S. Ramanathan, 1972) takes place mostly on a bus. When we’re inside the bus, we see first Bombay and then, rural India, go by in a blurry, faded-blue rear projection. The emphasis in these interior scenes is on dialogue, character development and verbal comedy; the characters are mostly immobile and in their seats. But, frequently along the way, the bus stops to pick up passengers, and the action shifts outside for slapstick comedy and fight scenes (scenes of physical spectacle) in green fields and highway-side villages, captured on location. Thus, rear projections are used here not only as a substitute for location shooting, as they were in studio-era Hollywood, but as a supplement to it.
Finally, check out this this striking shot, from Straub/Huillet’s The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, of the composer playing standing up, with a torch burning on the left and a bizarrely angled rear projection of a building providing the backdrop. There are no other uses of rear projection in this film (as I can recall), which particularly draws attention to this overt marker of ‘artifice’.
Were Hollywood filmmakers fully aware of—or perhaps even willing to build upon and further—the artifice that was signaled by their use of rear projections? Robert Kapsis reports in his book that Hitchcock’s production designer and cinematographer suggested to him that he reshoot the riding sequences in Marnie because they didn’t appear technically convincing but Hitchcock apparently saw no reason to.
Laura Mulvey has a brief but good piece on rear projections from a year ago in Film Quarterly (spring '07). It's called "A Clumsy Sublime." She writes:
Rear projection represented an attempt to reconcile the conflicting demands of star performances and action sequences: the stars' close ups and dialogue could not necessarily be recorded during scenes involving dramatic action (or even driving a car). So landscape or cityscape footage, often filmed by a second unit or extracted from the studio library, would be projected in a specialized studio onto a screen; then as the stars played their scene (with as little extra movement as possible), screen and studio would be filmed together. [...]
[T]wo diverse registration times are "montaged" into a single image. While this is true of any photographic superimposition, the dramatic contrast between the "document"-like nature of the projected images and the artificiality of the studio scene heightens the sense of temporal dislocation. Although, in principle, the studio element should seem to encapsulate fiction as opposed to the documentary cityscape or landscape, the studio shots often have the reverse effect. As the stars have to stay on an exact, given spot, their space is constricted and—often facing artificial wind, water, or vertiginous height—they make the required gestures as though in a mime. Performances, even in the easier setting of a car or a train, tend to become selfconscious, vulnerable, transparent. The actors can seem almost immobilized, as if they are in a tableau vivant, paradoxically at the very moment in the film when there is a fictional high point of speed, mobility, or dramatic incident.
I'm wondering: Are there aesthetically interesting examples of the use of rear projections in cinema? Also, any thoughts you may have on this technique and its effects?
Mulvey mentions a "beautiful article" by Dominique Paini called "The Wandering Gaze: Hitchcock's Use of Transparencies," but her piece does not provide a reference and I haven't been able to track it down. Any idea where it can be found?
-- Great posts on Jia Zhang-ke's Still Life by Dan and Zach. Also: posts about, among other things, Slava Tsukerman's Liquid Sky at Kino-Fist by Zach and Owen Hatherley. And also, more Dan: "Michael Clayton; or, Why Do We Even Bother Trying to Communicate about Movies?"
-- Jim Emerson on Pauline Kael and "Are Movies Going to Pieces?"
-- David Bordwell on analytical editing, constructive editing, and Godard.
-- Acquarello posts the schedule for Rendez-vous with French Cinema and a list of upcoming DVD releases.
-- Dave Kehr in the NYT on Sergei Paradjanov's Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors and John M. Stahl's Imitation of Life.
-- David Hudson's summary post of the new issue of Bright Lights Film Journal.
-- Cinebeats has a post and vigorous discussion on Cloverfield.
-- Shahn at Six Martinis and the Seventh Art: "I'm in awe of films from Eastern Europe shot around this time [late '50s or so]. I don't know if it is the film stock they had access to, or the cameras or the cinematographers or the light in that part of the world, but there's a certain radiance I could label the "Eastern European Glow.""
-- My Gleanings has a letter by F. Hoda (a.k.a. Feyedoun Hoveyda), a response to Truffaut's article on Positif.
pic: Aruna Irani on a bus in Bombay to Goa with a blue, blurry Bombay in the back projection.