Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Rear Projections

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.


Blogger Ted said...

I've always found Kubrick's use of rear projection in Eyes Wide Shut to be rather interesting. I suppose he did it out of necessity so that the space of the film could be expanded a little bit beyond the set but it certainly helps to enhance the film's dreamlike qualities.

February 06, 2008 10:53 PM  
Blogger Peter said...

I like the gondola scene in Sam Fuller's The Naked Kiss. That it is not convincing actually works in a film that begins with the jarring image of the bald prostitute.

February 06, 2008 11:37 PM  
Anonymous davis said...

I haven't seen Marnie(!) but another example from Hitchcock comes to mind, from Vertigo. He uses rear projection a fair bit in that film, if I recall, while Scotty drives around San Francisco, but most of all I love that amazing moment when Judy's transformation into Madeleine is complete.

She emerges from the back room into a green glow (the neon sign outside her apartment is the excuse for that). They embrace and turn 360 degrees, as if standing on a lazy Susan, and the apartment behind them momentarily becomes the tower at San Juan Bautista before turning back into the apartment as the circle closes.

The rear projection is clearly artifice, since we know they haven't left the room. The rear projection is pure subjectivity, underscored by the music and Jimmy Stewart's disturbed look.

February 07, 2008 1:49 AM  
Blogger {H} said...

Hitchcock and Art: Fatal Coincidences. Dominique Paini and Guy Cogeval, eds. Mazzotta: Italy, 2000.

February 07, 2008 6:17 AM  
Blogger Hedwig said...

Oh, do write that post on Marnie soon! It's my favorite Hitchcock as well, and I'd love to hear your take on it

February 07, 2008 7:22 AM  
Blogger celinejulie said...

I apologize in advance if I remember anything wrongly.

Some interesting rear projections:

1.THE NASTY GIRL (1989, Michael Verhoeven, West Germany)

I think there are some scenes in this film in which we see rear projections of an image of the goddess of justice. The goddess of justice in the rear projection is sometimes sleeping, sometimes waking; it depends on what is happening in front of her. In the website of Harvard Film Archive, it is said that “Verhoeven’s clever use of visual techniques, such as rear-screen projection, provides an ironic commentary on the facade of normalcy projected by Germany at the end of the Cold War.”

2. BREMEN FREEDOM (1972, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, West Germany)

The true story of a female serial killer is played out in a bare set, nearly as bare as the set of DOGVILLE. But this film also uses rear projections. While we are watching the murderess doing some activities in her house, we can see images of some landscapes in the rear projection at the same time. But in some scenes the rear projection shows huge close-up images of the murderess’ face. And that really makes that scene much more intense. I like this kind of rear projection very much. We can see the character moving about in a medium shot, but in the background we can see huge close-up of her face. This kind of rear projection really heightens my emotions, and is one of the reasons why BREMEN FREEDOM is my most favorite Fassbinder’s film.

3. LUDWIG – REQUIEM FOR A VIRGIN KING (1972, Hans-Juergen Syberberg, West Germany)

4.HITLER: A FILM FROM GERMANY (1977, Hans-Juergen Syberberg, West Germany)

You can see some images of HITLER: A FILM FROM GERMANY at dvdbeaver’s website:

As for Syberberg’s films, Anton Kaes wrote a great article on them in the book FROM HITLER TO HEIMAT: THE RETURN OF HISTORY AS FILM (Harvard University Press, 1989). Here are some quotes from the book:


“Ludwig’s flight from the realpolitik of the Bismarck era into Wagner’s mythic world of art has itself become a myth, or more precisely, a myth that soon degenerated into fantastic triviality thanks to tourism and the souvenir industry. The trivial myths surrounding the mysterious king of the fairy-tale castles are mercilessly illustrated at the end of the film. A rear-projection of a documentary showing hordes of American tourists jostling their way through his Neuschawanstein castle on a guided tour is superimposed over Ludwig, who sits at a table, his head buried in grief. The tourists look like phantoms from a nightmare. The projection makes it clear to what extent the romantic myth of the solitary artist, bewitched by beauty, is currently marketed as kitsch. Syberberg’s LUDWIG sheds light on both the origin and the trivialization of the myth of the royal dreamer.”


“In HITLER we have the figure of Karl-Wilhelm Krause, Hitler’s valet from 1934 on. Helmut Lange plays Krause as the proverbial servant who is as conscientious as he is pedantic. His memories, recited dryly into the camera for an entire half-hour, give an unusual view of Hitler as private person….

The private, petit-bourgeois idyll of daily life described in detail in Krause’s monologue is counterpointed throughout the scene by huge background projections of Hitler’s two residences, the Reich Chancellery and the teahouse on Obersalzberg. These grainy films, mostly taken with a hand-held camera, create the impression of a simulated environment through which Krause wanders like a tourist. At times, especially when the film shows extreme close-ups of Hitler’s furniture, Krause appears dwarfed. The documentary film plays independently of the private story, as silent witness of a greater history. But while the valet loses himself further and further in a thicket of trivialities, something unexpected happens in the silent film behind him. First we see stills of Hitler’s office, then, shot from the same angle, its total destruction in 1945. This cut dramatizes the instantaneous reversal from pomp and glory to ashes and ruins, undermining the valet’s happy memories and silently contradicting his grotesquely limited view of history. A further layer of associations is added to this scene through a musical collage that combines march music and motifs from Wagner’s Rienzi.

The vertical structure of this scene is a product of the layering of various linguistic, musical, and visual codes. Its simultaneous effects can only be approximated in a nonspatial medium like writing. Private and political, fictional and authentic, trivial and world-historical matters are intertwined and evoked at the same time.”

February 07, 2008 8:02 AM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

Not rear projection, but the painted dock in Marnie made me think of the painted street scene backdrop in the dream described by the soldier to the three women in the restaurant in Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. It's a very simple image that Buñuel could have easily filmed with props or in an actual doorway. One of the few "fake" visuals in the film, it's used for a rare moment of one character's honest self-reflection.

February 07, 2008 8:20 AM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

A painted backdrop for Hitchcock’s Sabotage recently appeared at Cinema Styles.

February 07, 2008 8:31 AM  
Blogger Ed Howard said...

That's a great analysis of the rear projection in Marnie, Girish. I was troubled by those horse-riding scenes, which are so clumsy and disconnected -- even the editing abstracts things, as in the scene where the horse is supposed to jump over the wall and trip on it. Hitchcock conveys this action entirely in a series of very tight closeups against the patently fake background, and the result is a curious distance. Instead of getting a fluid motion conveying the horse's jump and fall, we get static snapshots of individual details within this tableau, and we have to guess the full picture from this.

I think watching this recently may have made me more sensitive to such things. When I watched George Cukor's Heller in Pink Tights last night, his use of rear projection in the wagon scenes really jumped out at me. One of the film's unspoken themes is the relationship between theater and cinema, and it's interesting that the rear projection shots here, projected into windows behind the characters as they ride in their wagons, are like little TV screens showing a Western film.

February 07, 2008 9:26 AM  
Blogger kenjfuj said...

Interesting topic! I remember my first time seeing The Birds years ago; I was watching it with a whole group of people, and many of them laughed at the rear projection used in the scenes early on when Tippi Hedren is driving---or "driving"---down to Bodega Bay. "Man, that looks so fake!" was the common criticism, usually made with an affectionate chuckle.

I admit, I chuckled a little with that particular horse-riding scene in Marnie, although, of course, its boosters say such instances of unreality are meant to be deliberate and dreamlike. (I've seen Marnie twice, and while I find it gripping and fascinating, I have to confess that none of its supposedly "dreamlike" qualities strike me with the same revelatory force as that moment davis mentions in Vertigo, one of the most sublime moments of cinema, imho.)

Anyway, to go lowbrow, my favorite instance of rear projection is actually a parody of rear projection in general---that scene in Airplane! where Robert Stack and his companion are trying to drive to the airport control tower and we're treated to hilariously unrealistic uses of rear projection: the rear projection moving wildly side-by-side to simulate twists and turns on the road; a biker who flies in the air and lands behind them, then gets up and angrily insults them; and a rear-projection shot of the car being followed by a whole group of horsemen. All the while, Robert Stack and his companion are talking as if they don't notice anything (except for the biker, if I recall correctly)---because, of course, it's all rear projection anyway.

There's also a use of black-and-white rear projection in Pulp Fiction as Bruce Willis is trying to make his getaway after beating (and killing) his boxing opponent. Not sure if Quentin Tarantino had a point by using B&W rear projection there except as a tribute to his favorite '40s noirs (like The Set-Up, which some of that middle section of Pulp Fiction recalls)---but it's still, I think, an interesting use of rear projection nonetheless. Maybe the retro-ness is exactly what Tarantino was going for.

February 07, 2008 11:00 AM  
Blogger ratzkywatzky said...

Pepe Le Moko has a great rear-projection sequence, as Jean Gabin walks to the docks from deep in the Casbah. I like the disconnect one gets from rear-projection--here (and in Marnie) it puts you in the head of the protagonist--nothing outside themselves really matters.

February 07, 2008 11:05 AM  
Anonymous visitor said...

Lars von Trier uses rear projection in very stylished and interesting way in 'Europa' (or 'Zentropa' in United States).

February 07, 2008 2:52 PM  
Blogger Russell Lucas said...

Far From Heaven. I suppose when it happened, I wasn't surprised by it, and sort of chuckled like it was a reference or shout-out, but it's actually quite thematically appropriate. In addition to everything else, she's even hemmed in by the prevailing film grammar.

February 07, 2008 3:00 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, everyone, for all these ideas!

Wow, I wish I could remember, with some exactness, the projections in Eyes Wide Shut, Naked Kiss, Discreet Charm, Heller in Pink Tights, Far from Heaven, Pepe le Moko, Pulp Fiction, Europa...

{H} -- Thanks much for the Paini reference! This is must surely the millionth-plus-one incentive for me to learn French...

CelineJulie -- Thanks for taking the time to reproduce those quotes. I need to put in a request for that Hitler/Heimat book. And I've been meaning to re-visit Lang's M and read the BFI Classics monograph by Anton Kaes. I hear it's one of the best in the series.

I also enjoyed your just-posted favorite films list.

Rob, Ed, Kenji, Hedwig, and all --

Like with so so many cinephiles, Vertigo is in my all-time fave shortlist. I deeply regret that I've never had the chance to see it in a theater. My connections to Marnie are strong but probably a bit personal and a bit idiosyncratic. (I'm still trying to figure out what some of them are!) It isn't Vertigo but it's still some kind of masterpiece.

One of my most memorable theatrical experiences was seeing a new print of Marnie during a limited Hitchcock retrospective, followed by a one-hour impromptu lecture/conversation by Robin Wood on the film. There were a couple of hundred people in the audience, and nearly all of them stayed for his Q&A. A great big spontaneous eruption of applause thanked him (and startled him) at the end. He wore a "Family Plot" T-shirt, in protest, he said, against the film having been left out of the retrospective.

February 07, 2008 8:51 PM  
Blogger girish said...

-- The results of the Senses of Cinema world poll 2007.
-- Darren prepares a list of to-see films from the above poll.
-- Cinebeats: "In Praise of Doris Day".
-- J.R. Jones in the Chicago Reader on Michael Powell's Bluebeard film.

February 08, 2008 9:14 AM  
Anonymous cinetrix said...

Girish: I just taught "Casablanca" this week. The flashback to Paris sequence that begins immediately after Bogie's "all the gin joints" line features wonderful rear projection not only behind Rick and Ilsa in an automobile but also when they're supposedly on a boat on the Seine. It's interesting that the love montage warrants all these sort-of-fake-looking process shots while there are far fewer in present-day Casablanca. Perhaps a subtle commentary on memory's relationship to verisimilitude?

And to bring it back to Hitch, I remember hearing/reading somewhere that the more resources became available to him to shoot on location, etc., the more he opted instead for the sort of effects one sees in "Vertigo." Perhaps they were easier for him to control?

February 08, 2008 9:38 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Cinetrix, that's a fascinating thought on "memory's relationship to verisimilitude."

Speaking of shots of Paris, in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, after the cabdriver agrees to drive Dorothy and Lorelei to a few swanky stores, we then get still (not moving picture) shots of a handful of store facades sans any people--Schiaparelli, Dior, etc. I'm still not sure if these were the actual store facades shot by a 2nd unit on location in Paris or studio recreations of them, but the fact that they're still (and depopulated) makes for a slightly eerie feel.

February 08, 2008 6:01 PM  
Blogger girish said...

While I'm here, let me recommend a very good book I'm in the middle of: Joe McElhaney's The Death of Classical Cinema: Hitchcock, Lang and Minnelli (SUNY Press), a full-length work that focuses mainly and intensively on just three films: The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, Marnie and Two Weeks in Another Town.

February 08, 2008 6:34 PM  
Blogger girish said...

I just now stumbled upon this passage (which made me chuckle) from the above book:

"Marnie is arguably the Hitchcock film that inspires the most feverishly intense cinephilic and cultlike devotion. Films such as Rear Window or Psycho are too popular and widely accepted as major Hitchcock works to achieve this status, whereas Vertigo has assumed such a canonical role within Hitchcock's corpus that it has long surpassed its original position as the director's major cult film. Much of the discourse surrounding Marnie, by contrast, is defensive in tone, alternately extolling the work's power and beauty while also feeling the need to construct a wall around the film, protecting it from any further hostile invasions. Robin Wood's proclamation on the making-of documentary on the DVD release of Marnie may serve as the ultimate statement in this regard: "If you don't like Marnie you don't really like Hitchcock. I would go further and say if you don't love Marnie, you don't love the cinema.""

I definitely see my own pre-emptive defensiveness about this film reflected in his statement.

February 08, 2008 6:50 PM  
Blogger girish said...

-- A thread at A_Film_By: "Is David Thomson-bashing a required ritual of the auterists?"
-- Chris Fujiwara on the films of Jose Luis Guerin.
-- Matt Zoller Seitz on watching 5 films with the sound turned off.
-- Interviewed at DVD Panache: Ryland Walker Knight.

February 09, 2008 8:07 AM  
Blogger andrew tracy said...

Speaking of Minnelli and rear projections, we should not forget the laughable/sublime (depending on your point of view) 360 degree spin around Kirk Douglas and a shrieking Cyd Charisse in Two Weeks in Another Town. That Minnelli was willing to highlight the artifice could be interpreted as a kind of Sirkian double game, undermining the fakery of his dreadful melodrama even while exulting in it - except that unlike Sirk, there's little evidence of a coherent critical project. Nevertheless, interesting to ponder.

February 09, 2008 11:36 AM  
Anonymous John Jack said...

More on Casablanca: there's a dissolve in the rear screen projection as they're driving. I'd seen the film several times before I noticed it, and only then because someone else pointed it out to me.

I can't think of any other film with a dissolve in the rear screen projection, though there are probably some more out there.

February 09, 2008 12:20 PM  
Anonymous Filipe said...

About the Rendez-vous with French Cinema series, Klotz' La Question Humaine is a must-see, one of last year very best.

February 09, 2008 1:18 PM  
Anonymous Anuj said...

I remember there being a rather good special feature on the Criterion release of Hitchcock's "Notorious" about the then-groundbreaking use of rear projection in that film...

February 09, 2008 9:54 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Andrew, John Jack, Filipe and Anuj.

Andrew, I'd like to see Two Weeks again (wish I could summon up the moment you mention--it's been too long). It's overdue on dvd (and so is Some Came Running).

February 10, 2008 12:57 PM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

Girish, I believe the Two Weeks scene he's referring to is when Kirk Douglas is driving drunk with Cyd Charisse freaking out in the passenger seat of the car. An amazing scene.

February 10, 2008 1:03 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Speaking of, new releases at Netflix this morning: Lubitsch musicals (One Hour with You, Monte Carlo, The Smiling Lieutenant, The Love Parade); '80s Resnais (Melo, Love Unto Death, Life is a Bed of Roses, I Want to Go Home>); Borzage's Strange Cargo; Curtiz's Flamingo Road; Alex Cox's Walker; Gone Baby Gone; and Romance & Cigarettes. Also discovered that Netflix carries (not sure when they sneaked it in) Borzage'sStreet Angel.

February 10, 2008 1:08 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Flickhead & Andrew -- Yes, it comes back to me. It's also on the cover of the Joe McElhaney book I mentioned above...

February 10, 2008 1:10 PM  
Anonymous cinebeats said...

Many thanks for the kind mention of two of my recent posts Girish! I'm glad you enjoyed them.

I completely agree with your thoughts on Marnie. I think it's easily one of Hitchcock's best films and often misunderstood. I've always felt that Hithcock wasn't very interested in "realism" in his films and that's one reason they often look so amazing. He played with color, light and obviously, rear projection in very smart ways.

Recently I caught Kubrick's Lolita again when it aired on TMC and in the film I thought the director made great use of rear projection in some of the car scenes with Humbert (James Mason).

February 10, 2008 2:49 PM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

Of course there's Cary Grant reacting in drunken slow motion to the rear-projected obstacles in North by Northwest. Actually, the timing is more interesting than that--we see the objects, turns, pedestrians in inserted footage, then Hitchcock cuts to Grant reacting to said objects, turns and pedestrians when they're already in rear-projection (when they've already passed, a second too late).

February 10, 2008 7:12 PM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

That, in effect, is rear projection used as a running (drunk driving?) gag. He'll repeat it to lesser (in my opine) effect in Family Plot.

February 10, 2008 7:15 PM  
Blogger shahn said...

Thank you so much, Girish, for the mention!
As for rear projection (which I always enjoy when watching films), my favorite story is from Peyton Reed. When he made "Down With Love", he specifically hunted down the rear projection footage from the Rock Hudson/Doris Day films to which he was paying homage.
I love that level of dedication.

February 11, 2008 12:00 AM  
Blogger Seeing_I said...

I always thought the rear-projection shots of Marnie riding horseback were used to emphasize that she retreats into herself in these moments - hence her dreamlike disconnect from the "world" around her.

February 11, 2008 11:46 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, Kimberly, Noel, Shahn and Seeing_I !

February 14, 2008 10:09 AM  

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